Over the past couple of days, I’ve become keenly aware of something quite profound occurring here in Rio – I feel removed from myself, almost as if I’m dreaming. I should probably clarify that I still feel like myself, in essence. However, being immersed in such a foreign (both literally and figuratively) land has given me a feeling best described of having an outer-mind experience. Matters that I was concerned with at home just days ago seem trivial to me now. The experiences I’ve had here in just a few days since arriving have been quite thought-provoking and filled with some much-needed perspective. My experience yesterday covering fireworks during the opening ceremony only compounded this feeling.
Working with a fixer (a local who assists foreign journalists with logistics), USA Today was connected with local families with homes that would provide optimum views of Maracanã Stadium, where the opening ceremony and fireworks would take place. Myself, along with USA Today videographer Sandy Hooper, photographer Eric Seals, and writer Joshua Peter were provided with a private driver for safe, direct transportation to our locations. I was taken to a favela (a neighborhood – more on that term shortly) on a mountainside for a high, overall view of the city, while the rest of the team continued to a location closer to the stadium. Cue adventure music!
Just around the point where the road began to be swallowed on either side by dense foliage, and just around the time when unidentifiable animals started to dart past the corners of my vision, I glanced forward at the driver’s cell phone screen to see the magenta route line on the GPS disappear – no cell service. I remember thinking it was a good thing that Google Translate worked offline, because in addition to the driver not having any phone reception, he didn’t have any English skills either. Sandy Hooper, opposite me in the back seat and a native Spanish speaker, gave the best navigation assistance she could (despite fighting car sickness from the mountain’s switchback roads), connecting the words that Portuguese and Spanish share. “Ahí… no… no.” Heck, even I understood the no’s.
As the light over the road became soft and blue, and as the entire team became frustrated with our destination deficiency, I began to accept that we’d likely never make it, succumbing to our ultimate fates right there on that mountain. I rolled down the window and slid my face out to take in one last look at the world, my eyes become misty from the fresh, cool airflow. That was it. We were never going to make it, and I was ready to meet my maker. Just like that, there he was! Off in the milky, hazy distance, I saw Christ with outstretched arms ready to take me home. I rubbed my eyes and focused in a bit closer, and realized that I was not dying after all, but rather, seeing Rio’s famous Christ The Redeemer statue for the first time coming through a clearing.
The rest of the team noticed the statue around the same time, and for a moment, the grind of the two-hour-long car ride faded away. The driver, sensing our interest, slowed the car to a crawl so we could take in the scene. In a rare and inexplicable breach of protocol, I didn’t photograph the statue. I simply sat in the quiet car with the others and observed the breathtaking view. As Sandy strung together enough words to tell the driver we were ready to continue, photographer Eric Seals (up in the front seat) took in one last look at the statue and shared, “It’s times like this that make you love being a journalist.”
Indeed, Eric. Those moments continued for me after I was dropped off in the favela of Santa Teresa with my guide Dara, who would serve as my liaison, translator, and assistant for the rest of the evening. Dara, a slender, tall, bespectacled twenty-something, was born and raised in Santa Teresa, and while her petite frame might fool some, this city Guy knew right away that Teresa’s street smarts were on point. “Before we start walking, can you put that away?” Pointing to my Canon 1DX Mark II on my shoulder, she continued, “I don’t want people to see it and wonder what we’re doing.”
This is a good time to touch briefly on the favelas of Rio, and the sets of rules that exist within each. The word favela, according to the dictionary, translates into English as “shanty town”, but I’m not sure the physical definition embodies nearly enough of what these places entail. Favelas can also be just as easily defined a tight-knit community of residents who all know each other. A hierarchy battle often exists in favelas between drug dealers, the police, and sometimes residents, and Santa Teresa is no different.
There is one thing that unifies factions within a favela, however, and that is outsiders. Casually strolling into a favela as an outsider on your own is typically not welcomed, and you will be verbally (or worse, physically) made aware of this fairy quickly. Bringing professional camera gear with long lenses into the mix makes it 10 times worse, as the drug dealers often immediately suspect that you’re a spy. Simply having someone by your side that the community recognizes and trusts, however, gets you a pass into the favela, and that’s where Dara was critical for my fireworks photo mission.
“This way,” Dara motioned, as she began to strut toward a labyrinth of concrete stair cases wedged between houses seemingly piled atop each other on the mountainside. A stray cat eyed me suspiciously as I picked up my heavy photo roller bag and started the ascent. The stairs jogged in every combination of directions possible, and at many points, we passed inches from the doorways of homes that were wide open, brushing against life within. Aromas of dinner – clothes hung – television flickers – music blaring – crying infants – barking dogs – all played against my senses as staccato notes while plodding up the sometimes treacherous path.
The apex of the stairs brought us to a small, cobblestone walk, and beyond that, a home with an aluminum ladder resting against its side. “We are here,” Dara announced, and handed my photo roller bag back to me that she insisted on helping me with halfway up the trek. No sooner than my hand touched the bag, the homeowner began to take it from me in order to carry it up the ladder and onto the roof. Do you remember the kindness and care that I experienced when I first arrived here? It was happening again.
Atop the roof, and in the darkness, Rio de Janeiro twinkled before my eyes as beautiful sea of diamonds, with Maracanã Stadium floating just to the left of center. “This is perfect,” I said aloud, turning in time to see Dara’s hand pop up from the roof line, clutching a bag of snacks she’d brought along for our mission. Dara held her cell phone’s light just over my bag as I began to set up two cameras (one for close, and one for wide) to capture the fireworks in unison. After looking at the images on my laptop and sending a few frames via FTP to my editors at the main press center (using the homeowner’s wifi after my air card wouldn’t connect), I was confident that this location was going to yield some special images.
Just as I was all settled in and ready to shoot, I heard the aluminum ladder clanking against the roofline of the house once again. Curious, Dara and I both turned to see the homeowner surface with a bright, halogen flood light, which he set on the edge of the roof pointing directly at us. Dara and he exchanged a few sentences in Portuguese, and the homeowner retreated. Just as I was about to ask Dara to call the homeowner back to remove the light (at this point I thought he was trying to help us see better), she began to explain that the light served a purpose. The light was there to illuminate us so that the drug dealers in the neighborhood would know that A. We had the homeowner’s permission to be on the roof, and B. So it would be obvious to the drug dealers that we were not there trying to hide and spy on them. Sobering indeed, eh?
Fireworks explode near the beginning of the opening ceremonies.
Intense fireworks atop the stadium reflect off nearby buildings.
Between bursts of fireworks during the ceremony (I had a schedule that told me exactly when they would occur), Dara and I conversed over our snacks about her life growing up in the favela. She shared her dreams of being a travel writer, and that she’d never seen snow. And, though voting for a U.S. presidential candidate isn’t even possible for her, we even discussed our mutual disdain for Donald Trump. I think that’s actually when the surreal nature of the whole experience hit me.
Here I am, more than 5,000 miles from home, sitting on a roof snacking with a new friend before a breathtaking view of Rio. Discussing things I’d never imagined someone who lived so far away would even be familiar with or care about. Oh yeah, I almost forgot: Photographing fireworks at the Summer Olympics! Sometimes I think to pinch myself in these moments to see if I’m dreaming, but I don’t, because I don’t want to wake up.
Guy’s Portuguese Word of the Day is, “Com Licença,” pronounced, “Co-leh-sen-sah,” meaning, “Excuse me,” as in, “Com licença, but do we really need that light up here?” (Yes, you do.)