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Beyond the veneer of tourism lies the 'authentic' Brazil Add to ...

Globe and Mail columnists Cathal Kelly and John Doyle watched the Brazil-Mexico game from two very different parts of Rio de Janeiro. Read about John Doyle's experience watching the game at Copacabana beach.

One of the by-products of North American privilege is being free to pursue “authenticity” abroad.

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This occurred to me (again) on Tuesday as I watched the Brazil-Mexico game at a rickety bar in a friendly favela called Asa Branca. We were almost a dozen tourists of varying experience in a place unused to this genus of humanity. As such, we were objects of embarrassing curiosity.

Men wanted to shake our hands. Children wanted to talk to us. Even the stray dogs seemed interested.

People leapt from their seats as we approached, expecting to give them over. You begin to understand how feudalism lasted so long.

We sat there drinking cheap Antarctica beers and trying to pretend that in the end we are all the same, and failed. I am not like these people because I do not want for any material thing. They plainly did.

That is a more insurmountable gap than culture or language.

Earlier, we’d been toured through an adjacent favela, Vila Autodromo, for a couple of hours by a local NGO. That name may ring a bell. Vila Autodromo (Racetrack Town) lies alongside the main Olympic site for Rio 2016, formerly a Formula One circuit.

As the global focus here has shifted to Olympic preparations (shoddy and shockingly behind schedule, from this inexpert perspective), the surrounding community has become a cause célèbre.

Its residents are simultaneously the most and least fortunate of Rio’s poor. The government wants these 350 or so remaining households gone, and has taken extraordinary measures to make them feel unwelcome. In the past few days, they’ve begun tearing up the trees that line the main dirt road, because a tree bespeaks permanence.

They’re being offered a relative fortune (as much as $500,000 per household) to leave. The former fishing village lies along a stinking lagoon that is slated to host Olympic sailing in 2016. In some cases, a resident wanting to take the government offer is told that it will only be given if he/she brings along a neighbour who’s also willing to leave.

Predictably, they’ve begun to turn against each other.

Every time someone decamps, the city rushes in and bulldozes their teetering home. The result of this helter-skelter destruction is a neighbourhood that looks like it’s been bombed.

We sat through nearly three hours of impassioned speeches from the diehards. The audience comprised journalists, aid workers and rich American kids here on internships. Every single one of us was white. Every single one of them wasn’t.

“They can make money, but money doesn’t make them,” said Jane Nascimento of her neighbours. She’s the focal point of local resistance and seemed an awfully nice woman. Despite the invite, I felt like I’d burst into her kitchen and begun asking her for local gossip.

I know what we were supposed to think after watching this display: “Stay strong.”

I know what I was actually thinking: “Take the money and get the hell out of here.”

Afterward, our merry band headed across the highway, past the luxury condos that have begun popping up, to Asa Branca. They love their contrasts here – the super-rich piled on top of the grindingly poor. I have rarely felt so much the intruder.

More and more, this feeling defines sports tourism, since these events now tend to be held in places you would never otherwise choose to visit.

You come here – or South Africa, or Russia, or Ukraine – seeking fun. You have the money to make that happen. God, your money seems inexhaustible here.

You also want that hint of danger, while fully expecting never to come up against the real thing. That’s about as authentic as you’re willing to go.

Brazil points perfectly to this admixture of caution and exoticism. This country is often presented as the world’s only harmonious racial mix. That’s not true, but it makes a nice brochure.

Early on, I asked a local about a point of etiquette. She explained it to me. Then she said, “But don’t worry. You’re white. You can do anything you want.”

That dissonance has been repurposed as a national inheritance.

Rio’s favelas are the backdrop for every high-intensity con-job from Coke, Adidas, Nike or whomever. As anywhere, these neighbourhoods vary wildly in character and appearance.

On your TV, they all seem the same – terraced, crowded, thriving. Like a hobbit village. Spread out and disassociated as we tend to be from each other back home, they speak to a First World ache for community. There are no Brazilian ads that do the same. They know what the favelas are.

When the World Cup went to Argentina in 1978, the ruling junta erected walls on the routes to stadiums so that visitors would not have to see the poor.

I’m beginning to wonder which is worse.

But you’re not thinking about that as you’re watching the game. You are fully focused on Brazil scoring.

Not because you care about the result. But because, idiotically, you want these people you don’t know and have nothing in common with to associate your sudden and ultimately pointless visit with happiness. You might leave them with that much at least.

Follow on Twitter: @cathalkelly

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