Dusk falls over Rio, and it's big fight night at a boxing gym in the heart of one of the city's favelas. The referee brings both fighters together. There's no slow start here. One of the fighters, Roberto Custódio, immediately starts to outwork and outmanoeuvre his obdurate opponent. Round after round, he snaps his opponent back with jabs; his wiry body delivers a flurry of left-right combinations. He's a force of nature: as graceful as a butterfly, as stinging as any bee. The final bell rings. His opponent has succumbed to the unavoidable energy of his little tormentor.
There are more than 700 favelas (or shanty towns) in Rio. On the streets outside, kids as young as 14 lean against walls, machine guns swinging round their necks where satchels should be. Tupac plays on a stereo. These boys are working for the drug traffickers who have made Rio's favelas their dominion. The children patrol the streets and work as foot soldiers, lookouts and drug sellers.
The favelas sit cheek by jowl with Rio's bustling centre, blond crescent beaches and tourist attractions. The clichés about Rio all are true. It has an attitude, a vibe, a sense of exuberance and beauty to which few places can aspire. Women in tiny bikinis lounge on sandy white beaches, there's samba in the streets, the austere Christ the Redeemer looms portentously over the city.
In stark contrast, the favelas are a scramble of ramshackle homes, teeming, clustering and clinging improbably to hills. To say Rio is divided is a bit like saying Brazilians play football. It's not so much a tale of two cities, more a tale of two worlds. Originally settlements established by former slaves, the favelas grew on the hopes of struggling migrants drawn to the city in search of work and a better life. Throughout the 20th century, the slums grew from pockets of privation to islands. There was no investment, sanitation or electricity. When the drug bosses took control, in return for the residents' silence, they began to maintain order and keep the streets free of crime, excluding their own. Now the favelas are home to one in three of Rio's six million inhabitants.
Way to go
British Airways flies to Rio de Janeiro from London Heathrow. The British Airways/Iberia merger earlier this year created one of the world's largest airlines and 40 new routes for BA passengers into South America.
Earn up to 34,602 BA Miles when you fly First to Rio as a member of the Executive Club. Or to redeem your BA Miles. For example, you only need 70,000 to fly to Rio (World Traveller return, excluding taxes, fees and surcharges). Visit ba.com.
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