The Blog

In Rio It's Safer By Car For Santa

11:01 AM, Dec 25, 2007 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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Last Tuesday (18 December) a Brazilian actor dressed as Santa Claus (known as Papa Noel in Brazilian Portuguese) had a slightly unpleasant incident en route to a large children's party in the Rio de Janeiro favela of Nova Mare. While passing over another favela, Vilo do João, the helicopter that the Rio Santa was flying in came under fire from drug traffickers who thought the chopper was part of a police raid.

The helicopter pilot was able to return to base, but two bullet holes were found in the fuselage of the aircraft. Police spokesmen in Rio state that it is only a matter of luck that no one on board was struck or killed by a stray round.

Favelas exist in almost every city and town in Brazil, but the most famous of them are in and around Rio, which has over 700 of them scattered throughout the city's metropolitan area. Drug trafficking and other criminal gangs remain the center of life in many of the favelas, a Portuguese word that means "slum" or ‘"shanty town," but those English phrases do not quite capture the meaning of the word and its connotations in terms of Brazilian culture and society.

These sprawling and constantly expanding settlements are perhaps Brazil's greatest social problem. Their existence and the plight of the inhabitants has been the subject of such famous films as a Cidade de Deus (City of God) and a documentary called Bus 174, which is named for one of the bus routes that skirts the areas of a favela in Rio.

The favelas themselves are for the most part unauthorised settlements of squatters who bootleg electricity off of the power grid and have no title to the land that their one-on-top-of-the-other brick and corrugated tin homes are built on. The city administration has almost no authority inside of these neighbourhoods, and the Rio police only will make forays into these "danger zones" in large numbers and with near-military force that many times includes--as can be seen from last week's shooting--helicopter gunships.

Their growth has been accelerating over the past ten years. In the 1990s numerous Rio residents of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon migrated to a more distant but chic suburb called Barra de Tijuca located in the Zona Oeste, which is sometimes referred to as "Carioca (a slang word meaning a resident of Rio) California," in order to escape the crime and other problems brought on by the nearby and ever encroaching favelas. Unfortunately for them the favelas have kept up a steady growth in their direction to the point where many of the residents are almost as close to one of these shanty towns as they used to be back in Ipanema.

The issue of how to cope with the favelas goes on and, as one American friend who lives and works in Rio told me one day as we sat at sidewalk café, "it is not going to be solved in our lifetime." There is a semi-happy ending to the helicopter story, however.

Upon his return to the helicopter pad the Brazilian Santa took a car (generally considered to be much more dangerous a method for travelling to a favela than by helicopter) and arrived at the Christmas bash to distribute gifts to the more than 1,000 children and their parents who had been waiting for him. The president of the resident's association described the children as somewhat crestfallen "as they had expected Santa to arrive by helicopter."

If planning a similar event for your Rio Christmas party, it may be safer for Papa Noel to come in an armoured Range Rover. Otherwise you might want to paint your helicopter red and write "Papa Noel On Board" on the underside of the fuselage. In the meantime, Feliz Natal and Feliz Ano Novo to everyone.