Thursday, August 4, 2011

A very Special Visitor

Berit Ollestad ccontacted me over a year ago to tell me that she had been to the favela before but wanted to return. She and her husband had made some friends here in Rocinha and wanted to return to check up on them and bring some donations to the families. She had contacted me and decided to stay in the favela for about a week. Her stay consisted of visiting her friends and making new ones. I introduced her to Tio Lino's Mundo de Arte (Art School) and to a daycare that needed much help. I think she enjoyed her stay and has already booked her ticket to return in October. I look forwards to seeing her again. Here is a interview that I made with her about Brazil, Rocinha and her work.

- Tell me a little about yourself, Can you tell me your name, where you are from?

My name is Berit Ollestad and I currently live in Morristown, New Jersey and I was born and raised in Seattle,Wa. I met my husband Luis in Seattle while working in the same industry. Luis is originally from Lisbon, Portugal. My husband's career has taken us to Brazil, Miami, Puerto Rico, Chicago and most recently NJ. We have a four year old named Annika and a five year old named Mateo.

I enjoy getting involved in humanitarian efforts on local, national & international levels. My latest project that I take a lot of pride in was coordinating a relief effort for the people of Alabama that were affected by the violent storms (tornadoes) back in April. I managed to get UPS to donate a semi-truck to my town, for us to fill it with supplies such as food, cleaning supplies, diapers, etc. for the victims.

- When did you first come to Brasil?

I first visited Brazil in September of 2002 for a 'house hunting" trip thru my husband's work.

- Why Brasil?

When I first met my husband, I knew he always wanted to experience working abroad. It wasn't 'if' the opportunity presented itself; it was when and where it was going to be. I still remember when he came home and said "they wanted him to accept a 2 year assignment in Brazil". My first thought was "how am I ever going to tell my family that I was moving half way around the world?!?" Back when we moved to Brazil in 2002, the country was really starting to emerge as a 'up and comer' on the world stage. The exchange rate back then was four to one. Now I can hardly believe it, the currencies are almost the same. It has been fun to see Brazil emerge into a strong country that continues to gain more and more of a presence on the world stage.

- When you arrived where did you live?

Like most 'Americans' when I used to think of Brazil, ideas of beautiful people, gorgeous beaches, hot & steamy climate, Carnival and extreme poverty were the first things to enter my mind. I thought the entire country was much like the Northeastern regions and the jungles of the Amazon.

The city we lived in couldn't have been more different. We were living in Curitiba, which is in the South and about an hour away from Sao Paulo by air. Not only was it cold in the winter but many of the people looked just like me. They were fair skinned with light colored hair/eyes etc. Most of the original settlers to this region of Brazil were from Italy, Poland, Germany, etc. Carnival came and went with hardly a mention. But probably the biggest shocker was how the Brazilians living in Curitiba didn't fit the stereotype in the slightest, of the warm, friendly and gregarious nature that I had always associated with the Brazilian people. They were far more reserved and aloof and if I dare say at times could come off as down right rude.

- How did you find out or learn about favelas?

I remember very vividly the first time I ever saw a favela. I was flying into Rio and I saw them on the hillsides. I immediately asked my husband about them and that is when he explained what they were and he told me they were called 'favelas'. I was quite intrigued by the mystery that seemed to surround the favelas. Whenever I would try and ask people living in Brazil to explain to me the details of living in a favela, no one was willing to engage in a conversation with me. It was almost as though no one wanted to acknowledge that they existed. I kept hearing the same thing over and over; that I must NEVER enter a favela, especially God forbid By Myself!! This of course only deepened my curiosity about them. I knew at that moment, it would only be a matter of time before I entered one. But first I had to educate myself a little more before I did.

- Why did you decide to visit a favela?

As I mentioned above the mystique of what a favela was fascinated me and I wanted to see first hand what it was everyone was so fearful of. I spent time volunteering at a creche (pre-school) while I was living in Brazil. I soon discovered that many of the children at this creche lived in the various favelas located on the out-skirts of town. I could hardly believe that oftentimes you would have some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Brazil living side by side with favelas and the country's poorest of the poor.

I have always tried to live my life on the simple premise that "if you treat people how you would like to be treated and exhibit respect, then you can co-exist peacefully with one-another. I guess at some level I wanted to put this 'golden rule' to the test. Some people (actually many people) called me foolish but I really felt in my heart that the people living in the favelas had been given a bad rap and I wanted to go in and hopefully share my experience with my fellow foreign friends and other Brazilians; that you can't always believe everything you hear.

- Which favela did you visit?

I first visited a couple of the 'larger' favelas in Curitiba. Which by comparison to Rocinha, would have been considered a small neighborhood within Rocinha. Luis and I first went together on Easter and passed out the wrapped chocolate eggs to the children. Initially there was definitely skepticism on the part of the locals. But as the day wore on and they realized we were there on a 'good will' mission, the mood lightened. I visited Rocinha for the first time last September. We were going to a friend's birthday party and I had 5 suitcases that I needed to distribute. After asking around we soon found out about Rocinha and it's infamous reputation as being the largest and supposedly the most violent. Based on the fact we could walk to Rocinha from our hotel, it seemed like an obvious choice.

- Before coming here what did you know about favelas?

I really didn't know much about them except that they were very similar to what most people would call an urban slum. I always hesitate to use the word 'slum' when I'm talking about the favela, because it has such a negative connotation. Sometimes it can't be avoided though, when I'm trying to explain to others what a favela is. I knew they were heavily influenced by the drug traffickers and I assumed there was a tremendous amount of violence within the favela as well. When I first arrived into Brazil, I was made to believe that if I entered a favela, I may not make it out. But if I was fortunate enough to make it out, I most surely would be robbed of all my belongings.

- Can you explain about your experiences and the work you have done here?

I realized relatively quickly that a little goes a long way down in Brazil. Things that we don't give a second thought about; for example going out and buying for our children shoes or a box of color crayons are oftentimes out of reach for the average individual living in a favela. The prices of these items are so I inflated, it's ridiculous. So what started out by me sharing my experience with people back home in Seattle has grown exponentially. I went from taking one or sometimes two suitcases: to now taking five seventy pound suitcases once or twice a year. The majority of the items which include clothing, shoes, toys, books, toothbrushes,etc. are either donated to me by members of the community or I will go out and purchase items as well. Having a four and five year old doesn't hurt either to garner donations. I've now started involving my children by showing them photos and talking with them about "where and why mommy is taking all this stuff to the kids in Brazil". They will periodically give me toys they no longer play with and tell me "to give them to the kids in Brazil".

- Since visiting here, have you impressions of favelas changed much?

Absolutely!! Instead of being a disconnected community that is full of suffering, like I initially thought, it is quite to the contrary. There is a real sense of community and plenty of laughter to be heard and smiles to be seen. everyone appears to be respectful of one another and their right to go about their daily business.

- What do you like about life in the favela?

Just because someone is at a lower income level, it doesn't necessarily mean that living in a favela is a bad thing. I have met many people that take pride in themselves and their homes. There is a certain level of joy that emulates from the local people. I have always appreciated how the Brazilian people can enjoy the simple pleasures in life. It has been my experience that nowhere in Brazil, more than in a favela will you find people looking at the glass as half full as opposed to half empty.

- What don’t you like about life in the favela?

Unfortunately Brazil seems to still be very much of a "class" society. Oftentimes whatever income level you are born into; you stay in. This also relates to opportunities or lack of opportunities that are available to you I also find it very dis-heartening how many young girls become pregnant, which limits their options even that much more.

- If you had a magic wand and could change anything, what would you change about the favela?

I would love to see equal opportunities for all Brazilians. This would include educational opportunities, proper housing, the influence of the drug trade being a thing of the past and families having more quality time with each-other as opposed to always working just to keep their head above water. This would also include males having a more influential role in their children's lives.

- Has your favela experience been worthwhile?

It has been on so many levels. It has given me a charitable outlet close to my heart to focus my energies on. It also reinforces the notion that just because someone may have limited financial resources, it doesn't mean that they can live a full-filling life.

- What advice would you give someone who wanted to come/visit here?

It's really quite simple, if you go down with a closed mind and you look for all the differences between your life and life in the favela; then you will find them. The only thing this will do is create a separation between you and the Brazilian people. But if you go and make an effort to see all the similarities between the two cultures, there will be too many to count. Now you have opened yourself up to experiencing a very special and unique culture that not many people are as fortunate to experience.

- Will you come back to visit here again?

I can't stay away!! I tell people that going down to Brazil is like my 'soul food'. The warm reception I feel when I return to Brazil from the Brazilian people is priceless to me. Even more so now then when I lived there, Brazil feels like home to me when I'm there.

- Anything else you would like to comment about regarding life here?

The unique experience of 'living' in the favela for a brief moment was something I won't soon forget. In a very short period of time I felt embraced by the community and felt safer than I do in many parts of my own state ie.Newark, Trenton, Camden, etc. Thank You Zezinho for welcoming me into your home for a truly memorable and heart-warming experience.

- Please promote your website, blog and any other projects you would like the public to know about.

I am in the beginning stages of putting together my business 'With Love 4 Brazil'. I am starting to identify local artists down in Brazil that make hand made arts & crafts that they are looking to sell. It is my intent to feature these artists and their crafts on my newly created web-site (by the same name). Then use the proceeds to invest back into some of the projects that I'd like to become more involved in down in Rocinha. If anyone out there has any additional ideas to help me get this venture off the ground, I would welcome your feedback.

If anyone would like to read more about my work I would encourage you to do a search on the Internet by putting in my name and various articles are available to look at. The UPS event really put me on the map, but more importantly it high-lighted my work that I do in Brazil. I have also set up a blog that I hope to spend more time developing. Please take a look and let me know if there are any additional questions that you'd like me to answer. You can find it under Thanks for taking the time to read about my experience in the favelas of Brazil.