Perhaps travel, like life, is a unique journey towards a banal conclusion. From the airport in Rio de Janiero our taxi drove us to the hotel. For a short period of time we whizzed along a highway that ran parallel to a black polluted canal that was lined by precariously constructed homes. Three-hundred pound black pigs slowly rooted through fetid garbage while children flew kites overhead. The scene reminded me of those Tibetan tapestries that describe the various lives through which one is reborn and in which desire, ignorance and greed are denoted by tusked and bloated demons. The highway disappeared into darkness and plunged into the large rocks that dominate and characterize the city. At the other side I was unceremoniously pushed out into the sunlight. It took my eyes some time to adjust but when they did there was a large placid lagoon surrounded by hotels and apartment buildings. I saw people jogging along the promenade and in the center of the water was a giant improbable Christmas tree. At the hotel the porter took our bags.
The next day I felt like jumping off a cliff. As I waited, I spoke to the woman that drove me to the edge. She had tried to set up an unofficial school in the favela (a pretty word for shanty-town). Many of the children there had never held a book or seen a film and, despite living on a rock almost completely surrounded by water, some had never seen the sea. She started by bringing some of her own books. Soon small hands grabbed her in the dark as 10-12 children watched Tom Cruise leap over explosions in his latest impossible mission. She continued to visit the favela every week. Parents around the school began to clean and paint their houses. She soon spotted children of precocious talent and unique ability among the sea of the eager and enthralled. Then it all came to an end. The school conflicted with the interests of the drug dealers and the corrupt police that rule the favelas. The distribution of cocaine, heroine and protection services requires a constant supply of mules, soldiers and targets. Children are the best candidates for these positions. The school by showing competing alternatives would reduce the size and motivation of this labor pool and raise the political cost of doing business. There were also the long-term effects to consider. Education would lead to organization, a taste for justice, order and progress and one only had to look to other countries to see that this was not only possible but probable. One day, at the end of class, my driver observed that the children were hiding the books. That night she received a message never to return. That was several weeks ago. This week violence tore through the favela.
My body did not want to step into nothing, but I made it. I dropped, saw absence beneath my feet, my heart beat one big thud in my chest, my brain received the information that I was falling and then refused to accept it. It grabbed the rationalization that I was hang-gliding and that we should in a few moments have some lift from the thermal air-streams coming up the mountain. Then the thermals came and lifted the glider. They were strong and I quickly realized that my life was now in the hands of the elemental forces of nature. I was tandem-gliding – my pilot had been doing this for 15 years and had jumped over 10,000 times. This was more normal to him than my daily commute to me – I tried to play it cool. Below me the previously hidden homes of the city’s wealthy were now clearly visible. They looked like earrings from this height, edged with coils of barbed wire and in the center of each was a large blue turquoise jewel, surrounded by languishing bodies, alternately brutish and beautiful.
That night I learned something about empty cans. The favelas are huge and subsections have over the years formed their own samba schools. They prepare religiously throughout the year for the giant competition that we know as Carnival. We decided to attend one of the practice sessions and drove across town, past armed police checkpoints, the largest soccer stadium in the world (though Paul McCartney apparently filled it more than any soccer game) and finally arrived at the Salguero samba school. The streets outside were lined with gangly adolescents and large hunkered down old women yawning behind mounds of slowly cooking linguica. We went inside. To the right, along the length of the hall there was a red and white stage and a band was playing happy music. On the opposite side a motley bunch of variously aged individuals gathered on a balcony with what appeared to be a collection of tins, drums and soda cans. They began to answer the band and it was from that moment everything changed and I began to understand. A beat, that knew me better than I knew myself, began in a biscuit tin and reached down into my shoes, lifting my feet to dance along with everyone else as a single coalescence. Rat-tat tatta tat, rat-a-tat tat, rat-tat tatta tat, rat-a-tat-tat. Just as an aircraft at take-off moves all its passengers as one, these drummers by their ability to pour such passion and sheer joy from such an empty cup, thrust me beyond my personal internal dialogue to a shared transcendence. In that embarkation the intangible became tactile and the physicality of my own body became unknown to me. I felt as if I had found an original consonance and I dissolved into the fat air. I stayed in that bliss for over an hour. As the night drew on, the faces grew tired and the drums went to sleep. Lustful eyes searched out forbidden fruit and muscled shoulders marked the n’est plus ultra. The heavens receded and I was once again aware of myself and others as separate from me – we slipped individually into the night.