The Rio-Recife Blog

Michael Jerome Wolff, Political scientist and photographer: on drugs, crime, and police and other matters of interest in Rio de Janeiro and Recife

The Queen of Lapa

I was reading news of the world’s imminent doom at an internet cafe in Lapa, near downtown Rio de Janeiro, when a giddy young woman sat down next to me and made eyes.  Her name was Drika, and she was not entirely a woman.  Twenty minutes later she was leading me up the dark wooden stairwell of a century-old building on Avenida Mem de Sá to meet the self-proclaimed Queen of Lapa, a transsexual prostitute named Luana Muniz who, in her forty-five years in the business, had helped to revolutionize prostitution in Brazil and abroad.  Luana would be my key of access into Rio’s world-famous travesti community, for at a whim she had the power to open or close all the doors.  Her will was the way, and as I sat on a dilapidated faux leather sofa in her brothel’s lobby waiting for her to meet with me, I pondered how I might win her over. 

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 But my initial exploration into the world of transsexual prostitutes began two weeks earlier.  I had been looking for a new subject matter, anything at all, to pull me away from my usual beat, that tragic magnetism of violent crime and policing.  My soul had grown dark enough on its own, I thought, and now it was time for something lighter.  And then, while on a night stroll through Gloria, just inland from the Guanabara Bay, I found it.  They looked like super women, more curvaceous than J-Lo, more primped than Beyoncé.  They were photoshopped femininity incarnate, and yet they were not women at all.  Then I saw a shiny black SUV pull to the curb and stop.   A glorious blonde walked over to the passenger side door and got in.  The vehicle sped off into the night, leaving a dozen other mega-women waiting for theirs.  This, if not exactly light from heavens, was certainly brighter than more homicides and police brutality.

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Hey cutie, said a voluptuous redhead as I approached a small group standing on the street corner.  Hey, beautiful, I replied, and then went on to nervously explain what I intended to do.  None of the girls in the group were interested in letting me invade their personal or professional lives with my camera and audio recorder, but they kindly led me over to the next block to meet someone who might agree to such a proposal.  Her name was Nicole, a strikingly beautiful blonde with a flirty smile and a devilish wink.  She stood over six feet tall in her go-go boots, and had to bend down to give me the standard Brazilian cheek kiss.  She smelled of Chanel and asked what I wanted.  I want to take pictures of your life.  Is that okay?  Maybe, she smiled, but today I have to work.  Monday?  Monday, but don’t call me before noon.  I need my beauty sleep.

Monday came, and in the afternoon I met Nicole at a bar in Lapa.  I ordered an espresso.  She ordered pineapple lime juice.  I told her she looked lovely in as many ways as I knew how.  She said thanks and blushed in as many colors as her make-up permitted.  Then I asked her the real questions on my mind.  Do you consider yourself a man or a woman? When did you start feminizing your body?  How did you get involved in prostitution?  What does your family think about your sexuality, your profession?  How does society treat you?  What do you do in your free time?  Where do you see yourself in twenty years?  What are your dreams? 

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Yes, by the nature of my questions, you see, I was starting from scratch.  I had yet to dive into the growing literature on transsexual identity and prostitution.  Fortunately, Nicole was patient with me.  Mostly.  Occasionally she would roll her eyes, bored or frustrated by my ignorance, annoyed that I should be treating her like an alien being.  I told her that I’m an alien, too.  She giggled.

To my surprise, she said she was only twenty years old.  She began “transforming” herself three years ago, shortly after she dropped out of high school in Niteroi.  There was a lot of bullying back then, of course, but she left school more out of boredom than anything else.  Bullies will be bullies, after all, and you just have to learn to live with them.  She dealt with it all her life, for even as a small child she felt drawn to the world of little girls, which drew the jeer of her early male companions.  Fortunately, her family always loved her just the way she was.  Her mother and siblings, at least.  She never knew her father, but a lot of people never knew their fathers.

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Nicole cried the first time she rented her body out to a strange man.  It hurt.  The pain awoke a deeper sadness from within.  She longed to run back to her mother’s house and wash off the stigma of her new profession.  But her previous job at the bakery paid less than minimum wage, and she had thousands of dollars of debt to pay for the installation of her magnificent silicon rack.  So she kept at it, and before long she began to enjoy her new career.  It was fun to meet and play with new men each night, and at a rate of thirty-five dollars per half hour of work, the money rolled in.   Soon she could pay off her boobs and afford all the daily cosmetic adjustments that made her feel truly beautiful.  As for the stigma, that was the problem of those who cast judgment, not hers.  

Do you want to walk over to my friend’s tattoo studio and take some photos, I asked?  Maybe, she smiled. 

My camera had an effect on Nicole like a marionette’s strings.  Her frown lifted and her body curved wildly with the slightest tilt of my lens.  Click-click.  Her grace rose to new heights from its momentarily lapse into boredom.  Move this way, no, move that way.  Extend your bum a bit.  Look into the light of the golden sun, you are gorgeous.  I directed her motions.  She directed my imagination.  She was a clay doll coming to life.  She was a princess unto herself. 

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Why don’t we do something different, I said.  I mean, usual, correcting myself, remembering that I wanted to portray the day-to-day life of transsexual prostitutes and not simply take pretty pictures.  Let’s go to the beach.  Do you go to the beach?  Of course I go the beach, stupid, don’t you?  Well, yes, but… I was making assumptions about the limitations imposed by social stigmas again, forgetting that conformity is but a prison within the mind.  But how do you hide your parts?  She laughed.  That’s a secret, I can’t tell you.  Alright then, well, let’s go.  Tomorrow at noon, she said.  Ipanema.  Oh, I delighted myself, the Girl from Ipanema!

In the morning I went to meet Nicole in Gloria, from where we were to take the metro to Ipanema.  She brought a friend with her, an eighteen-year-old travesti named Dani from São Paulo.  Dani was relatively new to the world of gender transformation and prostitution, and the bitter sting of her baptism into that world had yet to eclipse and give way fully to all the glamour and glee.  She had gone with a strange man for the first time only a few months earlier, and the memory of it still burned sour.  It’s better not to recall some things, she said, and then assured me that the job had gotten easier with time.  Unlike Nicole, however, she didn’t really like being a prostitute.  For her it was just about the money, which was far better than what she made as a hair stylist.  Still, she hoped to save as much as possible and get out as quickly as possible, so that she could return to São Paulo to be with her family and open up her own beauty salon. 

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It was a splendidly sunny day at the beach.  Nicole needed to buy a bikini, and Dani wanted some new sandals, so we walked around a bit looking for venders before finally finding a spot at Posto 9.  As soon as we motioned to sit, a pair of beach tenders rushed like the Queen’s servants to get us incliner chairs.   And they peppered Nicole and Dani with compliments on their boobs and butts.  Ay, princess, where’d you get that rump!  Beleza!  Wow, girl, what size are you?!  Thank you, the girls giggled in unison.  image

Nicole and Dani ordered fresh coconuts to sip on.  You don’t drink? I asked them.  Not really, maybe a cocktail from time to time.  What about drugs? No, not really.  So you’re not drug addicts?  Do we look like drug addicts to you? Well, no, but aren’t a lot of the girls addicts?  Some are.  Most?  No, not most.  Oh.  

Before long I stopped asking dumb questions, and opted instead to just hang out like regular ol’ friends.  And from then on our conversations softened.  We spoke about sweet, mundane things.  Like diets and gym workouts.  Like sex.  Like boyfriends and girlfriends.  On that note, neither Nicole or Dani had a boyfriend currently, and they both said their past experiences with men were so bad that they had no interest in starting another relationship anytime soon.  Dani wouldn’t elaborate, but the shiver and twitch of her body as I asked about it said enough.  Nicole complained that her ex-boyfriend was violently jealous, and that she’d rather be alone forever than in bad company.  It’s probably hard to date a prostitute, I defended the ol’ chap.  He’s a prostitute, too, she said.    image

In this way the hours passed, in a euphoric haze, as they tend to do on the beach.  The shadows of seaside condominiums slowly stretched across the sand until a bite of chill provoked a sleepy exodus of the bronzed masses of beachgoers.  To catch the receding remnants of sun, we walked to the water’s edge, and strolled across the wet sands all the way to that great stone outcropping known as the Arpoador.  

As we walked, Dani grabbed my hand in hers.  I almost pulled away, as if I were afraid of something.  Then she wrapped her arm around my waste and rested her head on my shoulders.   I gave in and laid my own arm across her shoulders.  Awww…you guys are getting your love on, Nicole chuckled.  I looked down at Dani.  She felt to me just like a woman.  The way she looked up at me, like a woman.  My assumptions about things unhinged, and for a brief moment I experienced something like romance.  Preposterous, I thought.

But the stares and snide comments of onlookers quickly began to eat at me.  They were constant.  Groups of teenage boys buckled laughing.  Middle-aged couples stared aghast, firing judgment like missiles from their eyes.  A slovenly man with a beer belly stopped us to ask for Dani’s phone number, and her price, without so much as a hello.  I looked at Dani and Nicole for some help, some comprehension.  Does this happen all the time?  Doesn’t it drive you mad?  No, silly, it’s not like they’re throwing stones at us, geez!.  True, I suppose.  But to me it felt like stones, and I went home that night feeling like I had been beaten to a pulp.  

My escapades with Dani and Nicole ended there, because their home lives, which I wanted to document, were controlled by a power greater than themselves.  That is, despite the legal prohibition of any form of sexual exploitation in Brazil—like, say, pimping—street-level prostitution rarely works anywhere without some form of coercive hierarchy.  Call it a mafia.  Call it a labor union. Whatever.  In any case, the girls didn’t have the freedom to invite me over, lest I be a paying customer.  To get access to the real day-to-day lives of travestis in Rio de Janeiro, then, I would need permission from the boss herself, and that’s what brought me to Luana Muniz, the infamous Queen of Lapa.  

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I asked my good friend, Cole Howard, a fellow photographer, to come with me to meet the Queen.  It would be a nice break from my usual lone wolf method of invading the personal lives of others in foreign lands.  After all, happiness, as one tragic lone wolf once wrote in his final days, is only real when shared.  Misery, on the other hand…well, there’s no need to get into that. 

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It was a Saturday night.  Drika, the travesti I met at the internet cafe, introduced me and Cole to Luana at the top of the dark stairwell of the old brothel, and then ran off to prepare herself for a night’s work.  Hello, Madame Luana, I said, it is such an honor to finally meet you.  Welcome to my house, she replied, adjusting a long sparkly scarf around her head.  Evelyn! she called out to one of the house girls.  Please take these gentlemen to the foyer and offer them some coffee.  Please, gentlemen, make yourselves at home, and I will come speak with you as soon as possible.  She was in the middle of coordinating a porn video in one of the guest rooms.  

Cole and I sat on the torn and faded sofas of the foyer, admiring the room’s bright pink walls and hundreds of framed photographs of yesteryear’s glory.  Most of the pictures were of Luana Muniz herself, portraying her ascent to transsexual stardom in Brazil and Europe.  Although now in her mid to late fifties and far beyond her physical prime, her star had yet to descend, evinced by portraits of her adventures in fab and magnificence at the massive Gay Pride parades in Copacabana of recent years.  She was the contemporary Madame Satã, and she would be the Queen of Lapa until God himself said enough is enough.  

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After fifteen minutes or so, Luana walked into the room and apologized for making us wait.  No problem at all, I assured her.  Then she sat down in her dilapidated throne in the middle of room and got down to business.  What is it that brings you here, she said.  What is your project, explain yourselves.  Since I had invited Cole without giving him any preparation for what we were getting ourselves into, I did most of the talking.  But I didn’t have to talk much, for Luana is like a Marxist politician, spring boarding off any conversation point into a long and poetic diatribe about the nature of things, the course of history, and her important role in the evolution of humankind.  I told her I wanted to know why transsexual culture in Brazil had developed so far beyond what I know of it in my own country, the grand ol’ United States of America.  I wanted to know how it happened, what it meant, and what could be learned from the Brazilian experience in terms of pros and cons for sexual identity liberation worldwide.  To do this, I needed to interview her girls and take lots of pictures.   In the meantime, she told me the story of her life. 

Luana prostituted herself for the first time at the age of nine, in the year of love, 1969, to her next door neighbor.  By the age of twelve she was working the streets of Rio de Janeiro, and her reputation as a local beauty grew exponentially.  At twenty she made her first voyage to Europe, and she and her co-generationals took the continent by surprise. Having capitalized on the discovery of silicon implants in the 1960s, Brazilian travestis enchanted the noblemen of Paris, Madrid, Geneva, and Rome, who drooled over those shapely goddesses newly arrived from some faraway tropical paradise.  They were more feminine than the real street femmes of old, more audacious, more exciting.  image

As Brazil’s economy collapsed in the 1980s, the booming European prostitution market offered an escape from poverty for thousands of young Brazilian transsexuals.  Having been among the first generation in Europe, Luana developed the connections necessary to sneak newcomers into the old continent to work the increasingly lucrative prostitution circuits there.  She arranged their passage, their housing, and their workload, all for a healthy cut of the profits.  Meanwhile, she continued prostituting herself and performing at spectacular drag shows.  Her fortune grew.  So did her wardrobe.  Today she is the proud owner of twelve properties and a collection of fabulous dresses worth more than a hundred thousand dollars. 

The profession had its downsides, however.  She was arrested multiple times in Europe, and even spent time in jail in Italy under charges of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.  She had to contend with the rowdy behavior of many of the young immigrants, too, who in the early years were given to ripping off clients and provoking media scandals.  It took a generation or two for the Brazilian prostitutes to learn to adapt to European culture, she says.  In Europe, prostitution had long been treated more as a legitimate business, with transactions made cleanly and without deceit, unlike like Brazil, where theft and trickery were survival mechanisms. 

imageAlthough prostitution is legal in Brazil, deep social stigma had historically pushed the profession underground, where the imperatives of individual survival created a dog-eat-dog environment bereft of long term rationality.  Transsexual prostitutes became targets of media sensationalism in the wake of regular scandals and deceit, and were subsequently targeted by law enforcement and public ridicule.  Having benefited from a more professionalized mode of conduct in Europe, Luana resolved to organize, socialize, and professionalize prostitution in her home country.  She began this venture in Lapa, her old stomping grounds, and in 2003 she founded the Association of Transsexual and Transgender Prostitutes of Rio de Janeiro (ATTPRJ), a formal legal entity registered with the state.

I didn’t look at the by-laws of the ATTPRJ, but its power and functions are relatively clear.  Any transsexual prostitute working the streets in or near downtown Rio de Janeiro must be a member, and membership costs 50 Reais per week, or about 25 dollars.   The principle benefit of membership is access to clients, but the association—or Luana, specifically—will also intervene selectively in cases of legal or health issues by paying attorney fees, hospital bills, medications, and drug treatment costs, as well as providing food baskets in times of need.  The ATTPRJ even has a social worker, a pleasant travesti in her forties named Cris, who provides support services and professional references to young transsexuals making the transition to a career in prostitution, many of whom come from faraway places like Amazonas or Rio Grande do Norte and have no local family or friends.  Cris teaches them everything from how to practice safe sex to reporting a crime to the police.  image

Luana, of course, has been the president of the ATTPRJ since its inception, and will continue to be so until…well, that wasn’t a subject anyone felt comfortable talking about.  And she wields an exceptional degree of power, not just over the transsexual prostitutes of Lapa, but also in the community itself.   The police and local businessmen all tip their hats to her as she walks by, and she makes it a point to compliment them on their good work.  Local residents also bow to her.  And when someone disrespects her, they pay dearly.  It could be as simple as a nunly scolding or as harsh as a surly pound-down with her notorious wooden club, which she carries in her purse at all times.  She recently made international news after beating a man to a pulp with it for harassing her in front of her brothel.  She also carries a canister of pepper spray tucked into her cleavage, and if all else fails, she knows a bit of Jiu Jitsu.  It is true.  She showed me. 

Perhaps the most important source of her power and influence, however, is the vast reservoir of delicate secrets of which she alone is the guardian.  In this respect, the social  stigma around prostitution, and particularly transsexual prostitution, works in her favor, for there are few among the elite men in any country who would like to publicly admit to their naughtier nighttime adventures.   Police chiefs, judges, city councilmen, a state governor…most of these men have family lives and political reputations that would be seriously damaged if word got out.  And Luana owns that word. 

Why should I let you do this project you are proposing?  She asked.  She assured me that travestis are only interested in money and fame, and I obviously didn’t have any to offer.  Of course, Luana will do almost anything for free if it is for a good cause, like organize a drag show to raise funds for an orphanage or a retirement home, but what good cause did I have to offer?  It’s for the sake of knowledge, I said.  No, that wasn’t enough, so I pushed it further.  I want to teach Americans a lesson or two about the complex nature of human sexuality so that, once and for all, we as a people can overcome our simplistic and often harmful assumptions about the purpose and functions of gender and sex (Pheew! That was a long one!) Brazilian culture, I continued, was far more sexually enlightened than its American counterpart, and that’s a worthwhile matter to explore.

In the end Luana agreed to let me and Cole into her world.  Okay, she said, you can come back Wednesday evening.  I’ll see if I can scrounge up some girls willing to talk to you.  But no promises, eh? You be here at 4:00 pm.  Roger that. 

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Wednesday came, and Cole and I prepared our camera kits.  This was going to be the night of nights.  And it was.  It began with another several hours of conversation with Luana, but she also introduced us to several travestis currently living in her brothel for twenty dollars a night.  The youngest of them were like young people everywhere, timid and reticent, but cute as buttons.  Evelyn sat quietly in her chair, always looking at Luana for approval before answering any of my questions.  Aline, one of Luana’s favorites, opened up a bit more, even while swearing she wouldn’t say anything at all.  Her dream in life was to be forever young, but since that was unlikely, she hoped to have her own beauty salon some day, as a backup.  In the meantime, she was going to continue having fun and making money on the streets of Lapa.  Silvão, the only biological female around, looked the most like a man.  She was the live-in housekeeper, and it was her birthday today, so we all sang her a happy one while Luana sat on her lap and clapped.  But it was Adriana who caught my attention the most.  At forty-two, she was certainly past her physical prime in the world of street-level prostitution, but more interestingly, she was crippled.  A bad car accident eighteen years earlier left her right leg nearly paralyzed, and only in the last few years she has learned to walk again with a crutch.  Soft spoken, reflective, not a trace of bitterness.  She was human struggle overcome.  She was beautiful. 

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 Numerous other girls passed through the foyer on their way to their rooms to get ready for the night, only to come out again transformed into proud high-heeled sex goddesses.  But they all had to follow Luana’s house rules no matter what.  Excuse me, one girl said as she shifted by.  Excuse me and…Luana stopped her in her tracks, dropping a tension bomb that shut everyone up.  Excuse me and good evening, the girl corrected herself.  Very well, you can go now.  Ahhh…Luana would later sigh, many of these girls never learned how to show respect at home, which means I have to teach them.  Respect, naturally, was the number one rule of the house. 

A thought suddenly occurred to me.  Where were all the female prostitutes?  Was there any sense of unity between the travestis and the biologically born femmes who rent out their bodies by the half hour?  Luana kindly explained the situation to me.  No, she said, the women have their world and we have ours.  Some years back there had been a bit of conflict over “misrepresentation”—you know, when females would try to work the same corners as travestis, and create all sorts of confusion among the clients.  But that doesn’t happen anymore, because the nature of female prostitution has changed.  Women no longer work the streets, and instead have gone over to online networking or closed brothels. 

And there was good reason for this change.  The big difference between female prostitutes and travesti prostitutes, after all, is not so much the genitalia, rather the simple fact that women typically get married and have children, and travestis do not.  This means that women are more prone to prostitute to support a family, while travestis prostitute to support their dreams of extravagance.   Furthermore, female prostitutes can hide their nocturnal professions easily, and therefore have more to lose in the case that they are discovered working the streets.  Travestis, by contrast, can never hide their professions.  They are publicly treated as prostitutes even when they are not, and so working the streets for them does not create any extra risks of being scorned or shamed, as it would for a single mother just trying to pay for her kids’ schooling. 

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But perhaps the biggest question on my mind was also the most absurd: what is a travesti?  Is he a gay man who wishes to be a woman?  Is she a straight woman born with a male genitalia and physical composition?  My problem, I realized, is that my own deeply engrained notions of human sexuality were limited to a simple binary classification consisting of Man on one extreme and Woman on the other.  Everyone had to be either Adam or Eve.  Man and Woman could, of course, switch roles in myriad ways, but they still had to be Man or Woman at their core.   There was no room for another sex or another gender independent of the old binary. 

Luana and her house girls assured me that travestis were something else altogether.  They were born male and turned into females, but their essence was really neither.  They were, plain and simply, travestis.  A third gender, if you will.  And since the old binary had to be abandoned to really understand the travesti, it also had to be abandoned to understand the client, or human sexual preference in general.  The man who sleeps with a travesti cannot simply be understood as gay, heterosexual, or bisexual, but rather something more along the lines of, say, polyamorous, or just sexual.   Furthermore, gender and sexuality should not be understood simply as hardwired biological fact, but as personal identities and interests that evolve over time in relation to environmental or chemical constraints and stimuli.  Only in this way, I thought, could we explain why the super-feminized travesti of Brazil is so much more prominent a public figure than her counterpart in more sexually conservative countries like the United States.  

But what was it that allowed the Brazilian travesti to evolve to be who she is today, the transsexual Queen of the World?  Was it just Brazilian culture, influenced more heavily by tropical norms of sexuality, that opened the road for new identities to develop?  Or does the answer lie in institutions, like the formal legality of prostitution?  Perhaps it is both.   Miscegenation was never culturally or institutionally condemned in Brazil to the extent it was in the United States, and the Catholic Church of Brazil never successfully squashed the more liberal sexual practices of the native and imported slave populations, even though it tried to.  Of equal importance, I imagine, the legality of prostitution created market incentives for young transsexuals to go to extremes to transform themselves so that they might compete more effectively among the deeply entrenched traditional prostitution circuits.  image

Another strange thought occurred to me as I pondered it all.  As in all countries, popular standards of feminine beauty have changed substantially over the years, with dramatic changes seen particularly in the latter half of the twentieth century.  But curiously, these beauty standards in Brazil have evolved in a very different direction than those elsewhere.  While in North America and Europe we have come to lust over the thigh gap and other manifestations of female skeletalism, Brazilians have drooled over thunder thighs and mega-asses.  If you are willing to take Playboy Magazine as an effective culturometer, just compare the magazine covers of its American and Brazilian versions.  You will see the difference in popular standards of feminine beauty clear as day. 

But why would Brazilian standards of beauty go one way while the rest of the Occidental World, which is generally being emulated everywhere, goes another?  Could it be related to the evolution of the Brazilian travesti and her impact on national culture?  Pumping herself with silicon implants and female growth hormones to compete with her female prostitute counterparts, the travesti went above and beyond.  In the words of Luana, she became more woman than a woman, and in this way secured an elite share of both the prostitution market and of popular attention in general.  Could it be that, in creating herself as a busty full-figured mega-woman with immense popular success nationally and worldwide, she helped pull standards of feminine beauty away from the disastrous trends of the Global North and towards something much more shapely?  If so, did the legality of prostitution save Brazil from the plague of anorexia that has come to haunt our youth here in the United States and elsewhere? 

I could find no answer for these questions, and all the better, because it was getting late at the brothel, and it was time to take some pictures.   Luana invited me and Cole to take a walk out in the streets to meet her working girls.  And there were a lot of them, all done up and ready to paint the town red.   Luana was the key, and she opened the door.  In her company it was all blessed and giddy reception.  She was the boss, and she ruled with iron fist, but also with a delicate and compassionate hand.  Her girls may have feared her, but they loved her as well.  And in the end, I also felt a deep gratitude and admiration for her, not only for inviting me into her life, but also for role she has played throughout her life in advancing the cause of dignity for those who refuse to conform to an archaic and conservative social order.  Kudos to Luana Muniz, the Queen of Lapa.  

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The Tumultuous Turano

More than two years had gone by since I last visited one of Rio de Janeiro’s Pacification Police Units (or UPPs), today a world famous experiment in community police saturation as a means to retake territory long controlled by powerful drug gangs.  Back then, with the exception of a little shoot-out here and there, most of the nearly forty UPPs seemed to be working quite well, at least when compared against the often violent rein of drug traffickers—and the equally violent police operations—of just a few years prior.  Homicides in UPP communities had decreased by some seventy-five percent.  Freedom of movement improved.  Myriad new businesses opened, and state institutions, NGOs and private enterprises that had once retreated before the threat of criminal violence now returned.  But a lot can happen in two years, and so now that I am back in the Marvelous City for a short bit, I thought it might be worthwhile to take another look. 

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 As a matter of luck, I met an upstanding Military Police officer named Ivan at a birthday party in the Botafogo neighborhood of Rio’s wealthy South Zone, and we talked each other’s ears off.  Twenty-seven years old and recently graduated from the police academy, Ivan is now working as a unit commander in a UPP that patrols the North Zone favela complex of Turano, a mountainside slum of some thirty thousand inhabitants, and a former power center of the Comando Vermelho drug gang.  Admirable, I thought to myself.  Intriguing.  And as I usually do when I meet anyone admirable or intriguing, I stuck my nose in Ivan’s business and asked if I could visit his UPP sometime.  He said sure.  I said Tuesday.  

I arrived in the Rio Comprido neighborhood around mid-afternoon, disheveled and sweaty from the bumpy sardine can bus ride.  Finding Turano from there was easy enough, for all one has to do is look up to see endless slum stretching skyward like the Tower of Babel.   A shady road lined with mango trees and two-story middle class homes takes you the rest of the way.  Locating the UPP, of course, was a bit more difficult, but not really.  I found it by asking, and as I might have expected, the first person I encountered interrupted her day’s labor to walk me to the commander’s doorstep. 

There is a strange peacefulness to Rio’s favelas that obscures the poverty and social violence often attributed to these alternative housing projects for the poor.   And being no exception, Turano seemed almost too calm and pleasant.  In fact, I nearly turned around and headed back home after looking around a bit, as I have become once again afraid of ennui and all things humdrum.  I wanted action, adventure, novelty, and it looked as if this was just going to be a boring ol’ walk in the park with some boring ol’ cops.  Ahh…I sighed.  But I’d be a jerk to ditch out at the last minute without notice, and since I hate being a jerk, I walked into the UPP headquarters all a smile and cheer.

Ivan stood from his desk as soon as he saw me enter, and he gave me a big hug.  He introduced me to Captain Luis, the UPP commander, who in fine military style signaled the green light for my request to accompany a patrol through the favela.  Roger that.  Now we just needed to put together a squad of well-armed soldiers, able of body and mind, to trudge up through the favela labyrinth above.  We found them at various checkpoints around the Turano complex as we drove one of the UPP’s five squad cars about.  

Officer Albino, are you up for a walkabout?  Right way, sir! At ease, soldier.  Let’s go.  Fonseca, are you in?  A hundred percent, sir!  At ease.  Get in the car.  Queiroz?  Roger that, sir!  Right on.  We now had a patrol.

Altogether we were six men, including me, well armed and well able.  Albino retrieved a FAL .762 caliber automatic rifle, one of a total of five rifles in the Turano UPP’s possession, and which is shared between one hundred fifty officers.  Ivan, Queiroz, Fonseca, and Rocha were armed with .40 caliber government issued pistols, as well as their own private selection of handguns, usually something nickel-plated and pretty.   As usual, I was armed with my camera.  I was the only one who got to shoot anybody. 

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And I shot a lot, because as soon as we entered the first darkened alleyway, much to my surprise, the adventure began in earnest.  It was no simple walk in the park.  This was more a tactical incursion than a routine patrol.  It was like a video game depicting full-blown urban warfare.  Something out of Homs, Baghdad, Mogadishu…or just Rio de Janeiro, I suppose.  It was exciting. 

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Guns cocked and ready, we galloped up the steep and narrow alley stairs of the favela, rounding corners with barrels pointed, ducking under concrete walls, and sprinting one at a time across open spaces.  Each man provided cover for the next, the rifleman always in the lead and signaling the others to move forward.  I huffed and I puffed, trying my best to keep my camera still enough to catch a good shot.  Sweat beaded off my forehead and into the viewfinder.  image

There were lots of normal-looking people about, too.  Potential enemies, I supposed, look-outs for the drug traffickers, who perhaps had snipers hidden in the rubble of abandoned homes.  But mostly they were just residents going about their daily duties, going to the market or coming home from school.  Old people sat idly on their door steps staring catatonically into the nothing, reacting to nothing.  Others looked on at us in fright, which is what I usually do when nervous looking men with guns run at me.  In the eyes of some I could sense a sort of impotent rage, a seething hate.  This especially in the young men, nearly all of whom were stopped and frisked as we marched by.   Hold your shirt up! Slowly!  Hands against the wall!  Now!  I ain’t got nothing, man!  Then it doesn’t hurt to check, then, does it!

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 I asked Ivan if things in Turano were really so tense, unsure if all this tactical gunplay was really necessary.  Yes, certainly it is.  Well, sort of.  Sometimes, in some places, at least.  You can never let your guard down, you see.  These little bandits from the Comando Vermelho are crazy.  Queiroz here, for example, he took shrapnel from a hand grenade not too long ago.  Albino, there, a bullet missed his hip bone by a matter of inches.  You see, they’re not afraid of us.  They try to ambush us outright.  Ay, gringo, we really should have given you a bullet proof vest.  Better to be safe than sorry.  Oh, I don’t think so, I’d feel a bit silly with a vest on, you know.  Better silly alive than silly dead, gringo.  This is true.  This is always true. image

The truth is that there is still gunfire in Turano every other week or so, and on occasion it is directed more or less at the police.  Although the local drug dealers usually do not shoot to kill—but rather to slow down a pursuit long enough for them to run away and hide—even stray bullets have their way of lodging themselves inside human flesh from time to time.  The police, keenly aware of ballistics and anatomy, therefore remain tense and ready to return fire in any moment. 

The problem with all this, of course, is that nobody likes the guy who points a rifle in their face.  And the police, in this fashion making perhaps more enemies than friends, seem to have lost the most important resource for establishing effective security and crime control: the collaboration of the civilian population.  It is evident in the reticence of residents walking by.  It is evident in the lack of civilian reporting of criminal activity.  It is evident like a NATO patrol in Afghanistan.  image

Just as I was pondering all of this, Officer Queiroz spotted a young adolescent with a walkie-talkie, who upon seeing us, took off running.  With that the squad went into hot pursuit, charging weapons forward up the steep alleyway stairs like the hills of Iwo Jima.  A young man and woman with a small child were caught in the mess. Their eyes bugged and their faces cringed as they hugged the wall to let us by.  My own heart raced, too, as I felt something wild was about to happen.  Perhaps a shootout.  Perhaps a simple apprehension of a walkie-talkie.  Something.  Anything.

But nothing.  The boy with the walkie-talkie vanished into thin air, so to speak.  He knew the nooks and the crannies of the favela.  He had the speed of a leopard and the fear of an antelope.  The police, unfamiliar with the terrain and weighted down with guns and ammo and bullet proof vests, had little chance at catching the young look-out.  Even if they had caught him, I thought, the result would have been anti-climatic.   It’s not illegal to carry a walkie-talkie, after all. 

 As we continued on up the favela, the view grew more and more beautiful.  The sun was beginning to set, casting a golden light over us and the neighborhoods below.  The Maracanã stadium, where Germany defeated Argentina in the World Cup finals just two weeks ago, was aglow like a giant sea shell.   The Atlantic Ocean stretched eastward into forever, where ghostly sea liners faded into the horizon. image

Ivan wanted to show me something incredible at the very top of the Morro de Turano.  And it was.  As we approached it, I felt suddenly confused, as if I were no longer sure of where I was.  A magnificent building, shiny and new, towered over the favela heights like a castle in the clouds.  It was an evangelical church, the Congregação Cristã do Brasil.  It was the opulence of God’s Kingdom on Earth.  I looked down at the city below.  I looked back up at the glorious church.   With Capitalism below and God above, I thought, the residents of Turano were sandwiched by false promises of wealth.  image

After a few minutes of rest and a discussion about the barriers to gentrification in Rio’s mountainside slums, we started the journey back down the favela.  It was even more tense than the way up.  A young woman had been following us, reporting our movements to the drug traffickers on Whatsapp.  When she suddenly disappeared, we all felt that something was about to happen.  And then…

BOOM!

A nearby explosion rocked the earth around us.  I thought it was Albino’s rifle, or perhaps a hand grenade.  The men went silent and rushed into positions behind a wall of brick and concrete.  Residents had scattered, and there was no longer a soul walking about.  I braced myself against a wall, camera ready in hand, hoping to capture the dramatic images of battle.  But I was shaking too much.  I rubbed my cheek against the concrete wall.  It felt rough and cool.  I prayed a little bit that no one should get hurt.  I really liked these guys.  image

Fortunately, nothing more happened.  A few minutes into the tension, Ivan whispered to me.  It was only a homemade bomb, he said, one of those used for parties and commemorative events.  No, not a rifle.  Not a grenade.  The bandidos like to ignite those little bombs from time to time just to scare us.  But we are safe, so don’t you worry.  But damn it, gringo, next time you have to wear the vest!

Despite the falseness of the alarm, the explosion had struck a nerve in everyone, and the tension among the men heightened further.  Our patrol no longer seemed like an urban warfare video game, but rather a potential disaster of epic proportions.  Ivan, visibly unnerved, ordered a quick return to the UPP base at the bottom of the favela.  We trotted down.  At a fork in the alleyway, there was a brief argument as to which path went where.  A panic crept to the fore, and sank back down, averted by a quick decision.  Left, right, in the end it didn’t matter, for all ways downward led home, and before long we were back in the peace and calm of the base.  Everyone alive.  Everyone happy.  

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Some of the men wanted to see the photos before I left, so I opened a selection of them on my camera’s display screen.  They were a big hit.  Caramba! We look like BOPE!  BOPE, of course, is Rio de Janeiro’s much celebrated and much loathed SWAT battalion, notorious for killing more bandidos than any other police force in the world.  They are the bad asses, so to speak, which is something almost every young man desires to be, whether he admits it or not.  Will you send them to us?  Most certainly.  After all, I always offer to share my photos with those who appear in them.  It is a matter of principle, you might say.  Still, I can’t help but to reckon, that in these very same images, we are likely to see such different things.   

The Brazilian Favela: A Pithy Diatribe on the Continuity of Things

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The Twentieth Century was so many things, so please forgive my simplicity when I say that, in that highly varied mass of countries that constitute the so-called developing world, it was the Century of the Slum.  

Slums, of course, have been around in some form or another since the dawn of urbanity, but here in Brazil, it was not until well into the early 1900s that the effects of things like agrarian restructuring, the abolition of slavery, and the growth of manufacturing centers had driven the poor and destitute en masse from the countryside and into cities ill-prepared to receive them.  And they came in droves, looking for work, for survival, for adventure, for the pursuit of dreams.  They came looking to trade the dreary social immobility of rural life for a dubious lottery of anonymity in exploding metropolises like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo and Recife.  They came, and having nowhere to rest their weary bones, they began to squat in abandoned lots, on mountainsides, or in swamplands filled in with dirt one bucket at a time.  In Brazil, these squatter settlements have been called favelas, the simple naming of which has had its own peculiar impact on their development. 

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Favelas grew even more rapidly in the post-World War II era, thanks to a collapse in agricultural export markets, a series of droughts in the hinterlands, increased demand for urban labor, and the simple fact that Penicillin saved a buttload of people who in previous eras were destined to quicker demise.   It was during this time that urban landscapes began to change radically in Brazil.  The wealthy built white temples reaching skyward to catch the cooler air hovering above the putrid stench of development below, while the poor huddled in ever-expanding seas of wooden shacks that encircled those temples like floodwaters.  So buildings grew taller, their walls higher, their security tighter.  And when none of that was quite enough to breathe at ease above the rising tides of poverty, the wealthy lobbied their politicians to bring out the bulldozers, and preserve the sanctity of that regime we call private property.   image

But state-led favela removal efforts were rarely effective, and much to the contrary, they were perhaps as responsible for securing the permanence of the favela as a sort of national heritage as any other driver of social organization.  This is because bulldozers—or coercive force, if you will—is like Newton’s third law of motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  That is, attempts by successive governments to forcefully remove entire populations from their homes compelled these populations to unite, organize, and resist.  In doing so, favela communities attracted alliances with disempowered political elites who, in exchange for votes and militancy, were able to threaten the power of precisely those who intended to destroy their homes.  The Catholic Church, the Communists, Liberals, Conservatives.  Everyone was game.  Any elite excluded from power became a defender of the poor, and together they would they would make things right.  Political power would continue to change hands, and the poor would keep their homes in the slums.  

Today some eighty-five percent of Brazil’s population now lives in urban centers, well under the standard for developed countries (95-98 percent), but well over the world average (50 percent).   Since the majority of the county’s rural inhabitants constitute the poorest of the poor, and are still subject to the same social and economic pressures that have led their brethren to the cities in earlier decades, it is to assume that rural-to-urban migration will continue for some time to come.  But does this mean that favelas will continue to grow or sprout in new areas?  image

Probably so, although it certainly does not have to be like this.  There is a general assumption here in Brazil and elsewhere that slums blew up in the developing world because the rapid pace of urbanization in the post-war years simply overwhelmed the state’s capacity to absorb the rural exodus, and the favela was simply a natural and spontaneous overflow channel for the floods of impoverished newcomers.  The problem with this assumption, however, is that the favela model of urbanization already existed long before the largest of the migratory tides came in.  It was, rather, for the embedded economic and political interests associated with favelas that they would continue as the dominant model well past the twentieth century. image

It is not free to live in a favela.  To move to an established favela is, like in almost any other community in the Western world, to submit to a regime of private property.   You save or borrow money to buy a plot of land, and you build, buy, or rent a structure you can call home.   The difference is only that the state is not there to sanction or protect your right of ownership.  This function is instead left to informal authority structures, if they have developed, or otherwise it is left to the winds.  Favelas, then, are simply the black market of private property, and like most black markets, they serve as a lubricant to ease the friction of a normatively biased legal system that contradicts social reality on the ground. 

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The Brazilian constitution, for example, is a glorious monument to the principles of democracy.  It is extraordinarily progressive.  All citizens have a legal right to a whole lot of wonderful things, independently of their class, race, or whatever.  A right to express oneself.  A right to earn a decent living and to have fair housing.  A right to not be exploited.  A right to live, and live in peace.  A million rights to a million lovely things.  But Brazilian society, or at least a large part of it (like any large country, there are many cultures within), is no such paradise of egalitarian values.  Much to the contrary, a slave-era model of social organization, today adapted ineloquently to a “middle class”-driven mode of economic development, continues to be dominant in much of the country.   The problem is that slaves don’t have rights, yet all Brazilians, by law, do. 

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This means that a lot of people, in order to continue being slaves, must live outside the law, which otherwise would be compelled to protect them from things like corruption, theft, exploitation, racism, repression, poverty, and unemployment.   Only outside the law can they continue to have poor healthcare, live in squalor, and attend inadequate schools.  Only outside the law can they remain faithful to a time-tested system of social values that guarantees their destitution today and for many generations to come.   And it is outside the law where we find the favela, an alternative living arrangement for so many millions of people ill-prepared to live as equals among their more privileged countrymen.  Society demands just such a loophole in the framework of a progressive democratic constitution.

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Of, course, I don’t mean to portray the favela as a place of misery and human suffering.  It is, unto itself, a magnificent feat of human social organization replete with its own set of qualities good and bad.  True, there tends to a be greater degree of instability in that world unshielded by the protective apparatus of the state, but there are also perks.  The privations associated with poverty and close-quarters living, for example, allow for much more sociable modes of human interaction.  Neighborhoods feel more like neighborhoods.  Communities are tighter, collective identities stronger, and the pull towards psychic isolation and social alienation collateral to the growth of the middle class less persistent.  Hence the common assumption that the poor are happier, what with all their smiley faces and all that singing and dancing.

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So what will this next century be for Brazil?  On one hand, social realities have changed dramatically over the last twenty or thirty years.  Thanks, in part, to government programs to reduce abject poverty and reach its protective hand deeper into previously excluded sectors of the population, a lot more people have access to the more basic rights outlined in the constitution.  Economic development has also created numerous new opportunities for social mobility, creating real citizens out of the millions of people that otherwise would continue to live in virtual slavery.  

But the favela, I wager, will continue to exist as the dominant model of urbanization in Brazil for quite some time.   While the progressive democratic constitution denies it, society still needs it.  Indeed, for sometime now, society—rich and poor—has embraced it.  

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The Deep Blue Sea

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I had never been to sea.  I had not even seen the ocean with my own eyes until well into my nineteenth year on this planet.  It has, for this reason, always been to me something of a great and terrifying mystery, an unforgiving immensity of force full from crest to its depths with peril and spook.  But there is a first time for almost everything.  And so here in Recife, in the docklands of the Capabaribe River, I stopped off during an afternoon bike ride to chat with some local fishermen.  I asked.  They said, sure, come along.  It would be eight days out on the high seas.  Could I handle it?  Sure, why not. 

When one approaches an unknown group of men unannounced, there is typically one among them who takes the lead in either receiving or deceiving the newcomer, and the others usually follow suit, whichever way the directed attitude flows.  This man was Rocam, a mousey looking fellow about five feet tall and skinny as they come.  He was my age, thirty-five, but thanks to twenty-five years in the sun and persistent crack and alcohol addictions, he looked to be much older.  His gift to me was immediate and unquestioning reception.  The next day he introduced me to the boss, a plump and kind figure named Biu, who gave me the green light for the boat trip.  We would leave the next morning at sunrise. 

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 I asked what I should bring, food, clothing, or otherwise.  Biu assured me that food had already been stored on the boat, and there would be more fresh fish than I could ever dream to stuff my face with during a lifetime.  They found me a foam mattress to sleep on, and that was it, I would need nothing else.  Following my own good advice, however, I made sure to stop at a pharmacy before departure to buy some sun screen for my pale white skin and some Dramin for what they call sea sickness, just in case.   These extra things turned out to be life saving.  

 At sunrise the next morning I met the rest of the crew.  Claudimir was to be captain and pilot.  He was a beauty of a man.  Also my age, his bulk and muscle made me look puny and helpless beside him, which is how I felt before all of these men, eventually.   His indifference convinced me that he might not like me very much, but later he saved my life, and I no longer cared about whether or not he liked me.  I was thankful for him. 

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 Antonio was what they call the “talheiro,” who is in charge of reeling in the multitudes of plastic web bound wooden cages the men drop into the sea to catch fish and other strange sea creatures.   My first impression was that he was going to be a problem, for my first interaction with him consisted of him opening a can of pure cachaça and smoking a rock of crack rolled tightly into a cigarette.  I have come to distrust crack addicts and alcoholics, always falling back on the old heuristic that says that the drug is stronger than the man.  Indeed, it is, but that doesn’t take the man away completely, and in the following days I would be thanking him for saving my life, too.  

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Ericson was the oldest member of the crew, perhaps in his fifties but fit as a young buck.  He spoke little, and when he did, his voice sounded like that of a small child.  He didn’t drink or smoke or use drugs.  He just fished.  His duty was that of “meio campo,” or mid-fielder, the job of whom is to take the cages from the talheiro, empty the fish in buckets according to their species, and then pass the empty cages back to the “baudeiro,” who stacks them in tightly roped columns ten high and six wide.  The baudeiro was Rocam, chosen for this position for his small stature, light weight, and agility, for his was a job of extraordinary balance in high places.   

 Rocam also smoked one last crack rock wrapped in cigarette paper with a pinch of tobacco just before debarking.  He curled into fetal position as he sucked in the smoke.  Between puffs he told me that he hates himself every time he does this, that he knows it has ruined his life and has broken apart his family, and that despite all of this, the urge to do it again, and do it more and more, will never let him free.  I thought of the tobacco cigarettes in my own pocket.  Despite years of being smoke-free, I had still come back to this nasty habit, and like him, I had come back out of spite for a world turned cold and cruel.  I would quit again soon, but like Rocam, I will always be a smoker, whether I smoke or not.  Such is addiction. 

 As we pulled away from shore, Claudimir suggested I take a Dramin tablet so that I would be ready when we hit the real waves.  I followed his advice, thank God.  As soon as we made it out of the bay of Recife, passing the old city on the way, the real waves did hit us.  And they hit hard.  Claudimir smiled and said, you’re lucky, boy, the sea is calm today!  I looked at him, feeling my brain turning to jell-o, and told him he must be crazy.  He laughed and said it again.  The sea was indeed calm that day, as things go. 

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 Twenty miles out the coastal waters turned from emerald green to a dark navy blue.  Forty miles out there was no longer a trace of shoreline anywhere.  We were in the middle of absolutely nowhere, I thought.  And there was no turning back, no taking a break, no room for anything but a determined effort to get used to this bizarre adventure I had gotten myself into.   If I got sick or hurt, I would have to be sick or hurt for a week.  If I didn’t get along with any of the men, I would have to just deal with it.  If I tried to swim back…let’s just say that I’m not a very strong swimmer.  Not strong like the sea.  Who is?

 That first day was party day.  No work.  It was a cachaça fest to the tune of romantic “brega” (look it up on Youtube, it’s awesome) music at full blast.   The men all drank about three tall cans of pure cane liquor each, all except for Ericson, who seemed to be quite accustomed to ignoring the obscene behavior of his compatriots.   Claudimir drank some, but held it together.  Rocam and Antonio, for their part, scared me with their drunkenness, for their eyes had glazed over like jelly fish, concealing their souls and shielding them from reason.  They pranced around the violently rocking boat like maniacal children on a sugar high, laughing and singing off key, off beat, off kilter.  After a while, Rocam became obsessed with telling me I was his best friend, and that best friends—those few people in life who you can really trust—only come around a handful of times in one’s life.  He kept promising me that I could come live in his house for free, no rent, because I was like a brother to him.  I thought you lived on the boat, I asked.  He does.  He hasn’t been back to his house on land for several months, ever since one of the local drug dealers put out a hit on him for not paying his debts.  Thanks, I told him.  I’d give it some thought.  

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 By the time we arrived on site, out in the middle of nowhere, locatable only by GPS or by traditional nautical calculations that to me are just meaningless words and numbers, the men had tired from their three-hour binge, and fell like logs onto the open deck to sleep.  I slept, too, feeling a rumbling vomit surging in my throat.  And while I slept, the boat kept rocking back and forth, up and down.  It filled me with a sense of terror, if you will, that I would not be able to make it through the week like this.  And yet I had no choice. 

 I had brought three packs of cigarettes, thinking that would be plenty to make it through the week.  But in the haze of their crack highs—what Rocam called  The Agony—the only other two smokers on ship had forgotten to bring their own cigarettes, and so I declared mine public.  By noon the next day all three packs had been smoked away, mostly by Rocam and Antonio, who treat any addiction like a binge.  If the drug is there, they will drink it, snort it, or smoke it non-stop until it is gone.  No matter what.  And when it is gone, well, they manage.  They don’t even seem to suffer, which leads one to think that they might not be so addicted after all.  And yet they will always go back to it as soon as it is available, and the binge begins again. 

 That is why, were it not for their profession, which keeps them out at sea twenty-five days out of each month, they would probably have succumbed to complete destitution, prison, or death long ago.   There are no drug dealers, liquor stores, or money to purchase anything with way out there in the high seas. 

 And that is where they are happiest and most productive.  Onshore they are outcasts, hoodlums, wastes of human capacity, persecuted by the police and laughed at by society.  Out at sea they are well tuned machines working day in and day out like clockwork, casting out cages and reeling them in, cooking, cleaning, eating heartily and sleeping like logs.  Out at sea they are proud men.  On shore they don’t even eat.  They live off of cachaça and hard drugs, and they spend what little money they make in a matter of days. 

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 How much money do they make?  The men are compensated according to the weight of the fish load they bring back.  Each of the crewmen makes about 10 cents (USD) per kilo of fish brought to shore.  Claudimir, the captain, earns about twice that.  A month’s work earns each man an average of one thousand dollars, depending on the catch.   That can easily be spent in two or three days of a crack binge.  The situation is more stable for those who don’t smoke crack, of course.  Claudimir, for example, has been able to buy a home, a motorcycle, and support a wife and three children.  

 All of the men dream of having their own boat one day, for they know full well that they, as paid laborers, get the worst end of the deal.  While one four-man team will bring in an average of fifteen thousand dollars worth of exportable fish each month, their pay collectively constitutes only twenty percent of the gross profits.  After gas, food, taxes, and other expenses are taken into account, the legal owner of the boat pockets about eight thousand by himself, without lifting a finger.   But a boat like this one, the Qualipesca I, a thirty-foot long, fifteen-foot wide beast driven by a six cylinder diesel engine, costs about seventy-five thousand dollars to buy, and banks simply don’t give loans like that to poor people.  And so boat ownership remains a dream.  A pipe dream, as they say.  

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 By sunrise on the second day the men were already hard at work, packing Styrofoam coolers with ice and preparing the boat to reel in four hundred and fifty cages, a job that would require almost non-stop labor until well into the dark of evening.   Watching them work, I soon realized to my dismay that I could not realistically do anything to help out.  I was still clutching my stomach and holding down fits of vomit, expending what little energy I had on simply preventing myself from falling over as the boat rocked at 45 degree angles in the ocean waves.  Even if I could learn to secure my balance, it would have taken me weeks of practice to perform their duties, which although relatively simple, required a knowledge and dexterity far beyond my natural capabilities.  And to do these jobs safely, ay, that would require months, if not years.   All of the men had numerous scars that spoke of such dangers. 

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 Balance.  I could barely secure myself to take a piss off the side of the deck.  In the afternoon of the third day I figured that out the hard way.  A ten-foot wave smacked into the port bow and sent me arms flailing over the starboard side and into the dark blue water.  Since I had already seen the men dive in and climb aboard again with relative ease, I though it was funny, at first. 

 But water was never my world, especially not ocean water, and the boat suddenly seemed enormous once I was below it.  And I could feel my energy slipping away from me second by second as the current pulled me away.  Just treading water left my arms weak as a sick child’s.  When I was finally able swim my way back to the boat and grab the railing on the starboard side, I no longer had any strength left to lift myself up.  Then another wave crashed over me.  My mouth open and gasping for air, I swallowed a good pint of it.  My hands slipped from the wooden railing, and I fell back into the water.  I realized then, with some panic, that my life was not my own anymore.  So quickly things had changed.  So quickly the sea could swallow me.

 Fortunately, Antonio had seen me fall overboard, and after my failed attempt to climb up again, he tossed me a rope.  I was still too weak to climb up with it, but at least the current wouldn’t carry me away.  At least as long as my aching hands could grasp hold of the rope.  Noticing my panic, Antonio called out to Claudimir, and the two strong men then reeled me in.  I could feel myself sinking.  But they reached down, grabbed hold of my limp wrists, and hoisted all of my one hundred-ninety pounds of flesh and bone out of the water and onto the deck.  I lay there panting like a dog.  Man, you’re heavy, Claudimir said.  Cast iron bones, I told him, like an anchor.  

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 The men retrieved several buckets of fresh water from the cistern and splashed me clean.  My arms were burning from the strain.  My entire back burned, too.  Rocam saw why.  A jelly fish had clamped itself to the back of my shoulder.  He peeled it off and chucked it into the ocean.  The men offered to piss on my back to get rid of the burn, but I declined the good deed.  It was just a small jelly fish, after all.

 As Biu had assured me, food on the boat was plentiful, and it was delicious.  Each morning before sunrise one of the men prepared coffee while I lay sleeping in my bunk, and we drank it down loaded with sugar and accompanied by crackers.  Two hours later the men would break for brunch, usually salted pork or beef with corn based couscous.  By one or two o’clock in the afternoon another meal.  This time something fancy.  Fresh fish, octopus, lobster, or shark, with an abundant base of rise and beans and mandioca powder.  In the evening, fish soup and a cup of coffee.  Then the men would labor well into the night before collapsing to sleep in their bunks or on the floor. 

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 I did almost nothing to help, although I often tried.  But even cleaning dishes was a challenge, for each time I shifted my focus to anything other than maintaining my balance, I fell over.  And yet no one seemed bothered by what felt to me like inexcusable laziness.  Much to the contrary, the men all seemed more than happy to do everything for me.  Cook my food, serve me coffee, clean my dishes.  Everything but shit and piss for me, for those things grown men simply must learn to do on their own, no matter the circumstances.

 But, of course, even that was difficult, particularly in light of my unexpected overboard experience.  Shitting was even more difficult than pissing, however, not so much for the problem of balance—I could secure myself with two hands while I sat my ass over the stern—but for the constant swinging and rocking of the boat in the ocean’s waves.  No matter how much food I stuffed inside my gut, none of it passed through.  My intestines were frozen.  The result: I didn’t shit for four days.  On the fifth day, when I finally did, it was a small triumph, if anything.  From then on I resolved to eat as little as possible, certain as I was that in any moment my entrails would rupture. 

 Meanwhile, the men ate huge bowlfuls of food at each sitting, and they looked at my tiny portions with incomprehension.  You gringos don’t like to eat much, do you?   Oh, I assured them, we like to eat plenty, just look at our obesity statistics sometime, you’ll see.  Ah yes, they nodded their heads.  The obesity of Americans is well known the world over.

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 For me the passing days were an ever increasing tedium.  Although I had grown accustomed to the incessant rocking of the boat, I found little to do but read, sleep, or sit on a water bucket and contemplate.  It was peaceful in its own right, so far away from the distractions of modern life, cellular phones, internet, traffic, walks in the park, freedom of movement.  But I read my only two books in just two days, and I could not brace myself still enough to write down my thoughts in a notebook.  And the spatial confines were limited to just a few square feet as the men worked, stacking cages, casting lines, and sorting fish.   There was, furthermore, a language barrier between us, for fishermen of any nationality speak their own language, have their own codes and references and modes of communication.  Add that to the constant din of a roaring diesel engine and the relentless winds of the high seas, and what became of our conversations was often limited to the most simple of matters.  More coffee? More food?  Who am I rooting for in the World Cup?

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 On the fourth day Brazil defeated Colombia in the World Cup games, which the men had been listening to over AM radio waves.  It was a brief explosion of joy.  Off on the distant horizon, Rocam pointed out to me, were nearly imperceptible flashes of white light.  Hundreds of tiny explosions.  On shore, forty miles away in Recife and Olinda, jubilant crowds of soccer fans were firing rockets into the sky in celebration of the host country’s path towards victory in the world’s second largest sporting event, second only to the Olympics.  Two billion people worldwide, more than twenty percent of the planet’s human population, were tuned in. Just a few days later Brazil would be annihilated by Germany in the semi-finals, but I was to suffer that from the comfort of a fourteenth floor apartment.  

 On the morning of the fifth day a storm rolled in westward over the Atlantic ocean.  The waves hit before the rain.  During the previous evening I awoke numerous times to nightmares as the boat lurched to and fro, straining the binds of the wooden hull, which creaked and groaned in its effort to keep together amid the onslaught.  The men couldn’t sleep either, and so they went out to the deck to drop more lines hooked with chunks of dead fish in hopes to lure larger beasts than those that could fit into the entrapment chambers of their cages.   I laid still in my bunk, shivering under my only blanket, a long-sleeve shirt wrapped around my torso, praying that the hull wouldn’t burst asunder. 

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 Rain came with the winds.  Sweet cool water from the sky.  A natural shower to clean the sea water from our pores.  It was beautiful, but frightening.  I had already become afraid of the dark blue waters around me, but the rain and the visibility it eliminated had heightened this fear many fold.  If I were to fall in the water now, I thought, I really might not make it back aboard for.  Paralyzed, I kept myself tightly braced to my quarters in the middle of the boat, holding my bladder hours longer than I’d rather in order to avoid the dangerous expedition ten feet over to the starboard pisser space. 

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The men, for their part, never stopped working.  They feared nothing.  No wind, no rain, no flashes of lighting, no violent swinging and rocking of the boat.  Nor did they fear any of the vile creatures of the sea that frequently came aboard, trapped in cages or clung from hooks.  Small sharks, poisonous fish, and the most diabolic demon of them all, the “cobra fish”—some sort of eel—which writhed in infernal agony as they clubbed it on the head repeatedly with a long steel pipe. 

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By the time the skies cleared, in the morning of the sixth day, I noticed another small yellow boat rocking on the horizon.  It was the Qualipesca III, one of five boats in the company’s fleet.  Claudimir told me it was heading back to shore that same day.  Could I go with them? I asked.  Already? Claudimir seemed surprised.  But he understood.  The high seas are not easy on newcomers.  He remembered well his own beginnings at the age of thirteen.  He had vomited for eight days straight his first time around.  He didn’t have the luxury of Dramin in those days, of course.  Okay, he said, and he radioed over to the distant boat, and asked them to come pick me up on their way to shore.  It would be just a matter of hours.  

 The news quickly spread to the rest of the men.  Ericson, who rarely spoke at all, said nothing.  Antonio just shook my hand and smiled.  It was Rocam’s reaction, however, that made me feel regretful.  He pleaded with me to stay, that there was still so much adventure to be had.  He told me that I had given him hope that he might be able to break his crack habit, because when he was around me he didn’t feel the urge to smoke.  Sure, he didn’t have any more crack to smoke out at sea anyway, but he still saw me as a friend and as a point of reference for a better life.  And you’re just going to go back and smoke cigarettes if you leave now, he said.  I know, I said.  I don’t know what to do, Rocam, but I think it’s better that I leave now while I can.  I will miss you.  I will miss you, too, friend. 

image But there was one last terrifying step I would have to take in order to return that day.  Because of the intensity of the waves, the boats cannot be positioned side by side, for they would slam into one another and potentially break apart.  That meant that I would have to jump in the water again, and swim some thirty feet over to the other boat, which continued to swing up and down in the ten-foot waves.  Jumping in and swimming was the easy part.  But I feared the other ship would lift up and slam its hull down upon me, crushing my skull.  And I feared that in such big waves I would never be able to pull myself aboard again, that my energy would seep out of my arms in seconds, and that I could be left paralyzed and floating away in the current.  

 When the Qualipesca III approached within its thirty-foot limits, the neighboring crew tossed over a rope, which Antonio used to string up my backpack and zip it over to them.  He yelled out for them to be careful, for I had an expensive camera in the bag. 

 And then, from the cockpit, Claudimir, yelled out to me.  Jump in! Now! Jump!

I felt like a baby on my first outing to a public swimming pool.  Everyone yelling for me to jump in, knowing full well I was not really in so much danger, and yet I felt that my life was about to end.  But there was no time for hesitation, for the two boats could only maintain their position in these high waves for a matter of minutes at most.  And so I jumped.  And I swam.  The two yellow monsters buoying like mighty gods above me.  I heard yelling from all sides.  Grab the rope! Grab the rope!  I didn’t see the rope, though.  It was black and hidden under the water.   So with all my effort I swam to the starboard side of the neighboring boat until I found where the rope pierced the water’s surface.  I grabbed it with two hands, and the men reeled me in.  And then, the part I feared most, the pulling my one hundred and ninety pounds of flesh and bone up the side and over the railing.  I sucked in one last breath of fresh air, and lurched upward, grabbing the wooden railing with both hands.

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 There was a moment in which I felt my strength begin to vanish again.  It was the halfway point, and if I were alone, I would not have made it.  But before I could worry further, four dark hands reached down, grabbed me under the armpits and by the wrists, and hoisted me quickly up and over onto the deck.  When I stood up, there were cheers all around.  Rocam, Antonio, and Claudimir all swung their arms in the air and hooted like Brazil had won another round in the World Cup games.  The men who had hoisted me up also cheered.  And then they sat me down in the middle of the deck, and without letting me lift a finger, brought several buckets of mineral water and dumped them over me from head to toe, cleansing me of the salt of the sea.  

 The four-man crew of my new boat, my ticket back to solid ground, was the spit and image of the old crew.  Such good hearted souls.  So simple, so humble, so giving of themselves, asking nothing in return.  Francisco, Ragiane, Chico, and Eduardo.  Their faces aged beyond their years by decades under the tropical sun.  Their teeth the rotten remains of what they once were.  Their bodies, dark, sinewy, and strong, human physical capacity at its purest.  Ragiane cooked up two octopi in a beaten metal pot on a tiny stovetop in the boat’s cabin while the other men continued to reel in and cast out cages.  Francisco, the captain, told me of his twenty-five years at sea.  It’s the only life I can imagine for myself, he said. 

image Chewing up and swallowing rubbery chunks of octopus, Eduardo asked if I had a special lady waiting for me on land, perhaps some beautiful Brazilian girl I might have met.  He said the octopus would make her a satisfied woman, and all the men laughed.  Why’s that?  I asked.  Boom boom! They said, laughing.  It makes a man strong!  Ah, right, I replied.  But no, there is no one, I told them.

 I asked if they had any special ladies waiting for them.  No, they didn’t have anyone, either, except for Francisco, who has been married for twenty years.  Everyone else had children, but had long been separated.  The cheating bitches, they spit.  But that is the life of a deep sea fisherman.  When you spend twenty-five days of each month out at sea, it is hard to keep a woman satisfied.  Frustration turns to fits of jealousy, and jealousy corrodes the initial magic that marked the early months or years of sweet passion.  Distrust consumes every interaction, and the sea once again becomes a refuge from the inevitable conflict and pain of life on land.  Love disintegrates, families are broken, and a new generation of young boys and girls grow up without their fathers, who now belong to the sea and only to the sea.  Such is life.

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 The waters calmed again as soon as we exited the open sea and entered into the reef shielded bay area of Recife.   Passing by Francisco Brennand’s giant phallus sculpture to our left, and the old port of Recife on our right, I felt a strange delight, as if I were returning home to a long lost friend.  Hordes of tourists looked on at us from the plaza of Marco Zero, waving their hands as our big yellow boat chugged slowly by.  It was a magical homecoming. 

 Fifteen minutes later Eduardo and Ragiane were roping in the boat at a small dock in Brasilia Teimosa, a slum founded by fishermen nearly seventy years ago.  When I set foot on the dock, I nearly fell over.  The deck was stable, but I was no longer.  In fact, I could feel and see the earth everywhere wobble and rock under my feet for a full two days before my senses came to. 

 After saying thanks and goodbye to the men, I walked the twenty yards or so up the plank of the dock, but just as I reached the street, Francisco called out to me.  You didn’t take any fish!  No, I hadn’t thought about it.  Come back! Okay, I came back down to the boat.  Eduardo had stuffed a three-kilogram bag full of a variety of freshly caught and iced fish, and he handed it to me.  This will make for a good party, he smiled.  I was delighted.  Indeed, it would make for an excellent party. 

 And it did make for an excellent party, or so I was told by Ismael, the doorman who works the nightshift at the condominium where I have been living, thanks to the generous hospitality of old friends.  I gave the entire bag of fish to him, for there was no room left in the storage freezers in my friends’ apartment.  Abundance ruled the day, at least for some.   For many millions of others, well, their’s is the Kingdom of Heaven, as they say. 

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1) Luana and her baby girl after 24 hours of labor; 2) Maria Vitoria dos Santos Silva, 18 hours old; 3) Sisters on any day; 4) A sub-pastor at the Universal Church blesses Luana during a cult service; 5) Old photographs linger in the ghosted home where Edivan was shot dead just weeks before; 6) Edivan’s resting place for the next two years, after which his remains will be cremated, and this space lent to another soul.  (photos by Michael Wolff)

Luana

                                                                          Born

 Luana looked as if she had been tumble dried after her twenty-four hours of labor.  Her hair a ragged black mop and her eyelids fluttering out of sync, utter exhaustion flattened her frail body to her bed in the maternity ward.  Six other fatigued women raised disinterested eyes when I walked through the door, but Luana’s faint smile to me was one of profound alleviation and delicate triumph.  My own smile was merely the external flare of an intense electrical current pulsating from head to toe: the impulsive, convulsive joy of fatherhood, temporary and at once measured, for I am not the nor a father.  I only said I was to get past security. 

 And as no one seemed to doubt my claim to fatherhood when I first stared through the incubator window at the little light-skinned baby, I lived this lie for two days, constantly jolted by a bizarre sensation akin to sense of pride and purpose.  A pleasant, if fleeting, illusion.

 Maria Vitoria was born at 4:16 p.m. on July 10, 2012.  Her real father, 16-year old Edivan de Freitas Alves, was killed two and a half weeks earlier (see previous posts).   

 In his stead, Edivan’s diabetic father struggled into the ward on his peg leg to insist on naming the child Edivania, but his middle-aged bitterness was no match for Luana’s adolescent stubbornness.  During labor Luana had made a promise to God to name the baby after the Virgin if all went well.  “Edivania is an ugly name, anyway,” she grumbled at the severe man before her.  After unsuccessfully attempting to force a mother-daughter pose for a photograph, he grunted angrily and left the ward without saying goodbye. 

 “He’s an asshole,” she spit as the door closed.  “He used to beat Edivan all the time, and now he thinks this baby is his.” 

 A few minutes later Maria Vitoria started to cry, as babies do, and Luana lifted its tiny head to her breast, just as natural as the rain that fell lazily outside the ward window.  Something then happened.  Something changed.  A light hit her, went through her, radiated from her and flushed back out into the world and unto me.  She smiled to the sky.  My shutter clicked.  Something greater than light was captured.

 I am human. I am moved by the meaning we invent for symbols and stories to shelter so that these may in turn distract us from the despair of emptiness. I photographed your husband in his mortal pose, and felt my soul eclipse into death. I now photograph your smile over the child he left you, and my soul shutters speedily back to life. I invent this meaning and feel it. Luana, I am human.

                                                                    Family of Femmes

Back at her home in Santo Amaro favela, twelve women spanning four generations await Luana’s arrival with a surprise: neighbors and friends all chipped in to buy a magnificently pink crib set, aglitter with all the adornments a newborn’s family could dream of. 

Life goes on.

 There are no men left in the Dos Santos family.  Zuleide and Maria are great grandmothers in their mid-40s.  One husband died of liver failure, the other shot dead in his home.  Their daughters Patricia and Isabel are both in their early thirties, and each have several children, ranging in age from little Marisa of two years to Luana who will turn sixteen this October.   One of Patricia’s ex-husbands pays a pension that supports most of the family, while Bolsa Familia covers the rest.  Isabel, Luana’s mother, lost two of her husbands to violence.  Luana’s father was murdered when she was five years old. Branca, her 13-year old sister, lost her father shortly after she was born.  The other three fathers of Isabel’s children have legitimate families to feed, and so chose not to be bothered with more fatherly tasks.

 While it is genetically rare to produce all female offspring, the lack of fathers and father figures is normal in Recife’s favelas.  A recent survey indicated that 73% of households in the city’s favelas are headed by women. 

 The Dos Santos women had lived in two adjacent homes in Santo Amaro favela until the night Luana’s fiancé Edivan was shot to death in the front corridor of one.  Since then they huddle together in the two bedrooms of the second house, sleeping on mattresses leaned to the walls during the day to make space.  Luana refuses to step foot in the other house, and meanwhile the Dos Santos are looking for a renter for both.  They want to escape the memories.  “It does no good to remember,” they recite again and again the recipe for muddling through. 

 School is out, and the days are spent in and around their home watching novelas, painting finger nails, cooking, cleaning, waiting, receiving visitors, chatting endless nothings, entertaining pipe dreams, and acquiescing to much lesser fates.  There is spunk and perk in the skip and jump of little girls, and there is fire and flare in the loins of pubescent teens.  Mothers dream of being thin and desirable again to men, and grandmothers in bikini tops smile the grin of those who know they never lost it.  Day in, day out.  Time drags the willing and the unwilling alike across the fields of aging, and lends no ear to their giggles and cries.  Necessity mettles with dreams and doings, diverting paths and forcing others to repeat themselves.  A 13-year old brings in cash from a man of sixty suffering from impotence.  A 15-year old widow declares her love for an American man whose frigid hands she warmed in hers during a theatrical cult of the Universal Church.  Tragedy and joy weave constantly in and out of the monotonous fabric of existence.  These are not the infernal pits of les miserables, nor is it the carefree paradise of poverty.  It is only the maddening complexity of humanness.

                                                           A Delicate Balance

Today I hoped to interview Edivan’s parents in their home, but I was advised not to go there.  Rumors were spreading in the neighborhood that Luana had already found a new man, a wealthy white American who might marry her and take her away from poverty forever.  Edivan’s father let it be known that he had no love for this pompous foreigner, and nothing good in these bloodstained alleys awaited the man if he were to stick around. 

 I felt a strange tension in the air.  People in the streets had stopped making eye contact.  Clouds shifted restlessly as if trying to speak something out of breath. It would not matter that I am innocent.  Cultures were clashing.  Reason is a luxury, and luxury is scarce.  In an instant I packed my rucksack and departed. 

 Twenty minutes later an old digger kindly walks me towards the shady far north end of the Santo Amaro cemetery to Block A/23 C-05, where a sand placard washed half away by the rain exposes illegible scribblings of Edivan’s name, his date of birth, and his date of death.   And then we are left alone again.

I did not know him while he was alive. 

My lens descends over the boy as I adjust my shutter speed and flash bulb. He looks calm.  Asleep.  Click.  Morgue workers politely ask me if they can remove the body.  Women and children wailing outside, I nod. The gray bag swallows him so quickly.   

I only knew him as my brother.  That is the reason for everything I have done in all my life.  

1) The stepfather and brother of Bibita wait for forensics specialists to examine and remove his 3-day old corpse.  ”He never listened to his mother,” they lament.  2) It rained for nearly 24 hours on July 1-2, 2012.  3) Fireman assist morgue workers in the removal of a 250-pound corpse from a flooded river.  Several news crews had driven the hundred miles to film the event, as in this case, the victim was a upper middle class physician with political ties. (photos by Michael Wolff).

The 24-hour Hangover

If the weekend is murder’s drunken orgy, Sunday is its hangover.  At 8:00 a.m. a brief birth of sun glistens on a caravan of media trucks speeding off from the homicide department towards downtown, where a group of churchgoers stumbled upon a body dumped roadside the night before.  Meanwhile, everything is closed but the Houses of God, and it is hard to find a cup of coffee.  An hour later another corpse is found dumped on the north side, as cold as the tropics will allow, and the sun is gone for twenty-four more hours.  The sky falls like lazy anger.  The Earth is one massive puddle waiting to be splashed. 

 Brunch at Leide’s Restaurant has a discount for cops, and so the tables are soon packed with uniforms of various colors representing the various specialty units of the Military and Civil Police.  GATI was created to combat a surge in carjackings that haunted the mid-1990s.  CIOE was formed to rescue kidnap victims back when ransom was all the rage.  CIPC, the canine unit, still sniffs for anything smelling of weed or explosives, and CORE guards hospitalized prisoners while waiting for something more exciting to happen.  But violent crime in Recife is not like war.  It is, rather, an attritional conflict threatening no more and no less than the general health and happiness of a society, and exciting operations tantamount to the boyish urban combat of Rio de Janeiro are rare.  And so a lot of guns sit together to each lunch over conversations about other things, like sports and salaries.  Conversations transcend unit, rank, and unlike Rio, even police institution. 

 At 2:00 p.m. a call comes in.  The body of 21-year old male was found floating in drainage ditch outside the town of Chã de Alegria.  After a dubious trek through the flooded muddy roads of a sugar cane countryside, and a temporary breakdown, the VK Gol squad car rolls into a grassy valley where a group of people wait blank-faced under variously colored umbrellas.  Morgue workers wait with them, standing in the light rain, mud splattering their white rubber boots.  Someone had roped the cadaver’s legs and dragged it onto the grass just out of smell reach on this windless day. 

 “Bibita” was last seen leaving a São Pedro party in town on Thursday night.  His brother, straining to be what they call a man, says with nascent tears that the boy had no enemies…per se…but he was just like his father, who died of liver failure a few years back.  Bibita was a cachaça drinker, and when liquored up, he rarely made any friends. 

“He never listened to his mother,” his stepfather laments over his corpse, which, covered in gold and green flies, is bloated to twice its normal size and grotesquely deformed. 

 Forensics specialists arrive after a half hour, and determine that death was caused by a blunt object smashed against the victim’s cranium.  Outside of Recife, in the impoverished countryside, the percentage of firearm-related homicides diminishes substantially.  Here it is sticks, stones, and machetes.

 Learning of three more homicides in the area over the last month, I ask a detective why people here in these beautiful green hills are killing each other?  “Lack of education.  Lack of prospects,” he says, looking disheartened for the first time since brunch. 

Bibita was one of fourteen siblings, none of whom finished high school or had any hope of doing so.  They were all agricultural laborers, the socially immobilized legacy of slavery.  Where human dignity is so precarious, the symbolic bases of one’s manhood become extremely fragile, and actions in defense of these bases therefore become dangerously extreme.  Bibita may have done no more than offend someone at the Sao Pedro party.  This is good for the homicide department, as they fully expect the mystery to unravel itself quickly as the culprits go about informing the world that their dignity as men may have been bruised, but was certainly not broken.  If the process is slow, however, a serious danger arises.  The Brazilian northeast is land of family feuds, and whoever killed Bibita is now the enemy of thirteen brothers and sisters.  So much for these picturesque green hills, sweet land of sugar. 

 Two hours later the chief of the civil police personally calls the homicide department, whose operational jurisdiction is restricted to the metropolitan area of Recife and nearby towns, and makes a special request to cover a high-profile murder near the town of Palmares, one hundred miles away.  The body of a physician, the son of a state legislator and brother of a city councilman, was found in his underwear in a river bed after having been tossed from a bridge some thirty feet high.  Whispers spread rumors that the victim was gay, and automatic conjecture points to young male hooker bandits as culprits.  A steady rain holds for hours as we wait for fireman and morgue workers to assist in the complicated removal of the 250-pound corpse, which having been dead for nearly two days, is smelling of rot.  As the men lift the massive thing, fresh blood leaks from numerous perforations scattered across its torso and back. 

 The physician had been knifed to death in his own bedroom, wrapped in a blanket, transported out of town, and tossed off the bridge along with a bottle of whiskey, Coca-cola, two drinking glasses, and the 20-inch knife used to kill him.  The killer(s) then attempted to clean the crime scene, but ask any forensics specialist, and they will say this is a near impossible task when blood is involved.  In this case, signs of blood and physical struggle remain on the walls after being scrubbed with detergent.  All doubt dies when the bed is removed, and underneath, a drying puddle of blood. 

 It is 7:00 a.m. and sky alight when we arrive again at the homicide department.  The rain has finally stopped, and Recife is half under water.  Because it is now Monday, the vender is outside again, and I slam two cups of coffee and a cold chicken coxinha.  I have slept less than three hours in the last forty-eight.  Fighting exhaustion with caffeine and deep fried smooshings of thickly breaded shredded chicken clump, just to stoke courage enough to drive my motorcycle back home, I begin to understand the growth and form of policemen bellies.   

Post script:

Death.  So much senseless death.  Someone asked me today if I thought it would ever get better.  I said, yes, and I believed it when the words slipped off my tongue and fell into the dead space between us, ill-retrievable and demanding an explanation that I do not yet have.  It is merely a belief like that which so many have in such things as God or Luck.  Inexplicable and pointless to defend, a softer light it is to wake up to and rise to the forever mumbling callings of life.

                                                               Death and Life

1) 15-year old Luana is due to give birth to a baby girl next weekend.  The child will be named Edivania Vitoria, in honor of her 16-year old father, Edivan, who was shot dead last Saturday night (see previous posts).  In the wake of his murder, and on the eve of her motherhood, Luana grasps tightly to memories of her beloved.  “They were the most loving couple I’ve seen,” Luana’s mother cries.   2)  Luana poses with her family in front of their home.  The young girl on the left, seven-year old Priscila, witnessed Edivan’s murder.  One of the three bullets discharged lightly grazed her right arm on its way to its target.  Luana’s mother, Isabel, says she feels so grateful that her little girl was not killed.  She has already lost two husbands to gunfire, including Luana’s father. 

 Post Script: 

Convinced by a good friend that a murder retained little meaning if left just at that, I decided to pursue the story of a family in the aftermath of tragedy, well aware that my exploitative intrusion at this most delicate time might not be well received.  I felt, too, that if I were to be stoned by a crowd of revolted loved ones, I probably deserved it. 

 But as things turned out, Luana’s family took me into their home with the warmest of arms.  All of these women (and only women), from grandchildren to grandmothers, sat in a circle with me to talk about Edivan, his short but blessed life, and the fateful night of his departure.  He worked as a mechanic in the mornings, earning $50 Reais ($25 USD) per week.  He studied in the afternoons, and spent the evenings with Luana, kissing her big round belly and promising to love her forever.  And then came the night of Sao Joao, the night of gleeful festivities across all of northeastern Brazil, and so many dreams came crashing down. 

 Yet the faith and emotional strength of people at times completely defies me, as well as the magic carried in a simple camera.  Tears suddenly turned to laughter as I passed my camera to one of Luana’s little sisters, who started snapping pictures of everyone, provoking one and all to run and change clothes, put on jewelry and makeup, and pose in a most proper and goofy fashion.  Luana’s mother uttered, “God must have sent you to bring us a little joy today.”  Shaken to my core, I responded sincerely, “I was afraid you might stone me.”   

 Some twenty minutes later this precarious laughter collapsed as quickly as it had risen.  A team of detectives from the homicide department had shown up, like me, unannounced.  They came to take Luana and her little sisters in to record their testimonies as witnesses to murder.  That was my cue to move on, too, but not without an invitation to photograph the birth of baby Edivania Vitoria, whose life means far more than she will be capable of understanding for a long long time.  

                                                                  Too Much Violence

1)  A road builder on a temporary contract far from home attempted to protect himself from the gunmen who cornered him.  At point blank range, the barrel’s discharge burned his skin and its projectiles easily pierced his hand.  No one in the area knew the man.  2) A sixteen-year old boy lost his life for no good reason in the favela of Santo Amaro.  3) The boy’s little sister cries as police question her wailing mother.  4) Police inspect the remains of the lone road builder for whom no one cried.  5) A female swat officer comforts a local resident after a a murder took place in front of her home.  6)   My thoughts go out to the men and women of the homicide department of Recife, who are paid a mere $50 USD for each 24-hour crime scene shift.  And of course, to the family and loved ones of all those whose lives are so tragically cut short by criminal violence. (photos by Michael Wolff)