The second one was better – in fact, mixed up with some juice, the pork meat, white rice, orange and flour tasted quite delicious. ‘This dish comes from the slaves,’ said my friend Barbara, ‘but the real one uses pig’s feet, tail, ears and tongue.’
As she and I had driven along the coast from Sao Paolo, I’d become increasingly interested in the Portuguese slave trade to Brazil. In Paraty, an elderly painter had pointed out Our Lady of Rosary, a church once used to house slaves; on the enchanting island named Ilhabela, I’d visited Praia da Fome (“Hunger Beach”), where slaves were fed, housed and sold according to their weight.
And now the favelas of Rio, the fabled slums built on vertiginous forested slopes, beckoned.
In the nineteenth century, slaves’ freedom engendered yet another issue: a housing shortage. Cities were flooded with free men; Rio and other Brazilian cities were faced with a huge health problem. Shantytowns, or favelas, sprang up on the only living space available – the hillsides.
‘It’s OK to take pictures here in Vila Canoas, because of the lack of drug dealers,’ said Luis, a guide from Copacabana. He is a younger, more hyperactive version of Bill Bryson. ‘But if you see somebody changing clothes, please don’t photo.’ We witnessed how people live almost in each other’s pockets, privacy a rarity.
Luis explained the self-policing of the favelas, how – paradoxically – police booths have been torn down to make the residents feel safe. ‘But when we get to Rocinha, because of outlaws and armoured people, we can only take pictures of the view,’ he warned. ‘The police are seen as a social border there.’
Our minibus wound its way around the tortuous hairpin bends, the scenery a sea of rubbish bags strewn down the hillsides; motorbikes functioned as taxis, to compensate for the lack of public transport; a mass of telegraph wires looped down as we negotiated a three-point turn on a particularly tight corner. ‘Now we come to the filet mignon of the visit,’ chirruped Luis. ‘This is Rocinha.’
We entered a garage workshop and emerged onto a balcony blessed with a magnificent view of Rio’s favelas. ‘You see the blue and white building down there?’ he asked. ‘It’s a municipal school funded by the drug dealers. They’re keen to educate the kids … and they also use it as a warehouse.’
Lost in a reverie, I looked down on what is one of the most beautiful cities on earth. Yet its beguiling undulations mask a brutal past. Hundreds of thousands of emaciated Africans, their lives merely a commodity to the plantation owners, arrived in squalid ships in Rio de Janeiro.
And it didn’t end all that long ago: Brazil, in 1888, was the last colonial power to abolish slavery..