Ever travel to a brand new world?
True story. It was my first trip to South America. I worked for a little company named Middleby, today a roughly $2 billion sales company that in 1986 was just over $38 million in annual sales. I don’t speak Spanish or Portuguese, and would be relying on my Latin American export representative, Juan Cobo, to guide me through the market. When you flew to Rio de Janeiro back then, American flights departed from either Los Angeles or Miami late at night and arrived at dawn the next morning.
I awoke from a restless sleep as my flight circled around an imposing statue of Christ that I would learn was Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) a 98 ft. tall statue atop Corcovado Mountain, one of the Seven Wonders of the World and a monument to Christianity globally. As I officially entered Brazil through immigration, Juan Cobo was being escorted out of the county. He called out to me, “My visa has expired. They won’t let me in. I’ll see you in Buenos Aires.” Seriously. I was on my own.
After claiming my luggage while a band of sleepy musicians played samba music for tips, I exited customs to a sea of people: family there to greet arriving relatives; cabbies hustling for rides; and panhandlers hoping for any handouts. I visited a currency exchange to trade my valuable American dollars for a rapidly devaluating Brazilian cruzado. I don’t remember her name, but she sweetly smiled and warned me in pigeon English, “hang on to your money.” I should have taken her advice to heart.
After grabbing a cab to the Hotel Caesar Park, I checked in, dropped off my bags and set out to explore Rio. I had just left the lobby when I noticed a scrawny kid toss some dust on my Florsheim shoes. “Shine shoes, Senhor?” He asked.
“Why not?” I replied kindly.
He ran a grimy cloth across my shoe tops a few times and then asked me to pay him the equivalent of $50 USD. His little friends were gathering around. “I know my math,” I replied. I signaled what was a generous amount at the time, $5, and he nodded “yes.” I pulled out my money clip and the kid snatched it from the palm of my hand as fast as a viper strikes its prey. The kid went racing off down the street. What he couldn’t know was that I was a well-conditioned runner and he would be in for a long, dramatic race. I chased him as he darted up toward the favelas in the hills. After a many blocks, I was closing in on him. He threw the money clip high in the air and pushed an elderly woman over, as he made his escape into the crowd. I picked-up my money clip and helped the older woman to her feet. To my surprise, she scolded me. “Don’t feed the street rats. You only encourage them and make the problem worse.”
I spent three days in Rio, fascinated how this breathtaking city of vistas has evolved from the center of power in South America for centuries to a tale of two cities today. The wealthy live in compounds near the beaches. But over one-million impoverished live in shanty town slums known as favelas, which have been ignored for decades except during election times. Instead, the favela hills have been ruled by drug lords since the 1950’s. I was so drawn by this and two later trips, I wrote a musical called “RIO” about my experience.
All began changing in 2008 when Rio de Janeiro was awarded the first Olympics to be hosted by South American country. The government wants to reclaim some of this favela land and reduce the escalating crime that threatens the intense tourism that will occur over the 2016 Summer Olympics. I began thinking, what would a street kid do to protect his younger twin sisters during the upheaval of the reclamation of Rio? In the slums of Rio, thousands of homeless children are forced to make similar choices. When interviewed, here have been some of the questions facing random street kids:
- Am I better off staying with my prostitute mother who is hooked on crack cocaine or live on the streets?
- Will I earn more begging for scraps or stealing from tourists?
- Am I safer joining a drug gang for protection or running the risk of death-by-ambush from vigilante death squads or rival gangs?
- Am I really committing a sin if I murder to protect my own?
In my upcoming book, “Rio—The Street Kid Stargazer”, Sixteen year-old orphan, Lucas Rocha, watches helplessly as a death squad executes his older brother and is now the sole caregiver for his twin six year-old sisters. Should he beg, steal or sell drugs to survive? There is no right in a world of wrong. Sometimes good people do bad things for a greater good. Yet he looks to the heavens from the squalor below, a stargazer who fervently believes his dwindling family will someday live a better life, and he’s hell-bent to see it through.
In the meantime, I encourage you to subscribe to my weekly newsletter about some compelling human interest stories from Rio or possibly even your own home city.
Stay tuned. My book will release this February, 2016.
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