PC 11 Reflections of Sāo Conrado

When I first went to Brazil in 2012 I went to meet, and stay with, Celina’s parents, who have lived for forty years in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro called Sāo Conrado. It wasn’t until my second trip that I realised that this is actually pronounced “Sock Ohardo.”; well, something like that! Now my fifth trip has come to an end and I feel compelled to describe this very unique place.

Sāo Conrado is west of Ipanema and Copacabana, and is physically separated from them by a mountain on the east side called Os Dois Irmāos (The Two Brothers) and on the west side by a larger mountain called Pedra da Gavea. To the north the Parque Nacional da Tijuca is a wonderland of trails, steep ravines and the usual flora and fauna. Until the late 1970s the only way to travel into the city was either along a narrow coast road that hugged one of the brothers (!) or through a shanty town called Rocinha. As the government’s house building programme failed to keep pace with the growing need, the people built their own shacks and so these ‘favelas’ grew, higgledy pigeldy, cheek by jowl, but the vehicular traffic through the area ensured public visibility. In 1978 the city engineers tunnelled through the Two Brothers (ouch!) and built a dual carriageway all the way through to Barra on the other side of Pedra da Gavea. Rocinha was bypassed and the only traffic that continued was the one concerning drugs! It became a dangerous place, dangerous for those who lived there and for those from outside. Nowadays the programme to clear the favelas of criminals is having an effect; visit Rocinha on an officially-sanctioned tour and you find a bustling suburb of 90,000 inhabitants, with fast-food outlets, banks, churches and all the normal commercial activity that’s needed to support a large population. They even have their own internal postal service; the government delivers mail to a sorting office and Rocinha does the delivery! It’s not perfect by a long shot and it’s not completely cleared of the insidious drugs, but it’s getting better. Sadly the wealthy residents of Sao Conrado still hang on to their memories of the dangerous times and this distorts their view of the place, blaming it for everything bad; apparently Rocinha in 2014 is very different to that 20 years ago.

From the top of Rocinha, the view across Sāo Conrado is stunning. Ignore the roofs of the favela, these days tiled and painted, in the foreground, and the ground drops away towards the coast, with tall blocks of apartments nestling near the beach and a large golf course split by the main road. And here’s one of the biggest visible sights of contrasting wealth in Brazil. From Rocinha, a poor crowded favela, you not only look at the swimming pools and expensive shopping ‘mall’, but also at one of the most exclusive clubs in the country, the Gavea Golf & Country Club (GGCC aka Gavea). The irony is that some of the people who live in Rocinha work at Gavea; others work in the up-market shops or as domestics in the large houses and apartments that proliferate. Is this a pure example of a symbiotic relationship? I’ve got to know this area well and it’s off the tourist routes, unless they want to launch themselves off Pedra da Gavea on hang gliders or parafoils.

The Gavea Golf Club started in the early 1900s; Celina’s grandfather was one of the founder members and lived in a house overlooking the golf course, so I am amazingly lucky, very privileged, to be able to experience life within the club. I hope I’m not being too hypocritical in saying I really enjoy this but at the same time understand its juxtaposition with Rocinha. This is a very very exclusive club …… but I can tell you …..

During the week it’s the old & bold generation who play golf, assisted by caddies in white uniforms and electric golf carts. Afterwards they sit in wicker chairs, drink Chopp (a light Brazilian beer), smoke cigars under the sun umbrellas and talk about that missed putt, that hole-in-one! In the early evenings and at weekends the younger members practise their swings and putts.  I’m not a golfer but there is nothing so wonderful as the sound of a perfectly hit golf ball, the sound of metal striking the hard case of the little ball; it’s a sound one occasionally hears here! When you’ve completed 9 holes you have to cross a road and through an underpass to the next five. Golf carts are not known for their acceleration and watching them wait for a break in the fast-moving traffic to cross to the underpass is slightly unnerving.

The course is beautiful, mown fairways and manicured ‘greens’, all tended by an army of groundsmen. Eighty foot palm trees stand sentinel across the course; monkeys chatter in the trees; and yet you can look up …… and see Rocinha, ……. and maybe on a Friday hear the fireworks that supposedly celebrate a delivery of drugs. I wonder what members think when they see Rocinha, sitting like a boil on the hillside, needing to be lanced, maybe? Maybe they don’t ‘see’ it, see it for what it is, maybe they’re just inured to the way life is here.

In addition to the golf course, there’s a swimming pool where members swim laps, play with their children, cool off or even take some exercise in an AquaAerobics class. In fact it’s only members who can use the extra facilities, of the gym for instance, but we managed to join the pool exercise class for a couple of months until we were spotted …. and banned! There’s always someone who wants to enforce club rules in a very petty way and Gavea is no exception. Maybe because its exclusivity is so jealously guarded they are needed, but The Toad and her deputy, a retired Head Mistress- type, take their self-appointed role extremely seriously. Woe betide anyone who stretches the rules. I did sneak a haircut in the members-only area and hoped that The Toad was snoozing under an umbrella. In the old-fashioned chair Ferdinand cut my hair well, offering well-thumbed copies of either Playboy or an International Yachting Magazine – I certainly couldn’t afford any of  the yachts and as for what was on offer in the Playboy Magazine ….?

I titled this PC “Reflections of Sāo Conrado” and I am reminded of the old adage “Treat people as you expect to be treated” when I observe people at Gavea. The staff here are unfailingly courteous, whether they are the security detail on the gate, the pool staff or the waiters. Nothing seems too much trouble – I guess being employed at Gavea is considered quite a bonus. No one yells “Sanduiche Natural” or “Biscuito Globo” here by the pool! Santos or Clovis appear as if from nowhere and dispense coffee, drinks, and refreshing food; the Japanese sashimi is to die for. One young pool attendant has an alarm call at 0330 so she can make the commute and be on time. Yet I watch the way some people interact with the staff and I think: “Come the Revolution …….!” And of course the current president of Brazil is an ex-Marxist guerrilla so it’s not such a wild thought!!

If you have young children in Brazil and you can afford it, you have a nanny. In fact the Brazilians I’ve met find it really strange that, for instance, my daughter Jade doesn’t. “How does she cope?” “She has two children and she doesn’t have help?” So at Gavea the nanny, dressed in a white T shirt, white shorts and white Havianas, (the ubiquitous ‘flip flop’) is a common sight.

The real irony of this area of Rio de Janeiro is that it is named after a saint who had a reputation for caring for the poor and disadvantaged. Maybe he shakes his head in disbelief when he walks the fairways of Gavea during the night, and looks up and sees Rocinha, its lights twinkling up the hillside. Edgy, incongruous, this is Sāo Conrado.

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

Note: If you know absolutely nothing about golf, this is my brief explanation …. and I do not know much!!

You have to hit a ridiculously small ball as far as you can towards a distant hole, and try and get the ball into the hole. To make it easy they plant a colourful flag in the hole. Can’t miss huh?  You hit it with a club which is very special, a stick with a weight on the end, and they costs a fortune. There is no correlation between the cost of the club and the distance you can hit a ball. On most ‘holes’ you need to hit the ball more than once. The longest distance anyone anywhere has hit a ball is 515 yards, but normally 250 yards would be considered a good distance. It’s very competitive; the person who puts the ball into the hole with the least number of hits wins. Simple huh?



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