Kilometer Six

We pull up to excited squeals as we drive into Kilometer 6. The smell of garbage comes in through the windows while Mark chats with two curly headed little kids clinging to the side of the truck. Soon there are kids jumping in the truck bed, running to catch a ride into the favela. The smell gets worse as we drive up and over the winding dirt roads to stop in front of the row of cement houses. By now the crowd has grown, little kids piling up around the truck, older men and women running, just as eager to get food.

The bowls are filled with white rice and brown beans and topped with farofa (their equivalent of parmesan cheese … the more the better). The hands grabbing and poking press against us and Mark can’t hold them back. We stop scooping until everyone stands in a line. They know the drill, they know they need to get in a line, but they’re afraid of being last and missing out on something to eat.

Satisfied, they sit eating, scraping at the remains of their lunch with plastic spoons. Some come back for seconds, some thirds. A little boy with big cheeks and dark eyes waits in line for his grandmother and doesn’t take food for himself. Another little boy, about four, runs over to a tree to use the bathroom. He pulls down his threadbare underwear without privacy or anything to clean himself with. Later, that same little boy has his fingers in his mouth.

Stephanie wanders over to take pictures of the donkeys and horses tied up by the “bathroom;” a pit of dirt surrounded by wooden poles and chicken wire. These homes have no running water, no toilets, no electricity. The ground is a mess of dirt and garbage that spreads throughout the favela.

Lori bandages a little girl’s finger and a barefoot man points at his feet. His toenails are thick and black. Patti asks if he has shoes and he nods and tells us that he walks a lot. Barefoot. A woman waits in line for Lori and her first aid kit. She has a baby on her hip. She smiles at us and holds the babies feet out for us to see. Little black spots dot the toes and we wonder if it’s bichos or bruises. Lori does what she can with band-aids and Tylenol.

Luiz, one of the guys from the street stop in Ponta Negra, walks with us to hand out calendars. He leads us to a house three rows back where Lori visits a man whose shoulders and arms are scarred from his motorcycle fall. While she takes care of him, we wander ahead with Luiz and the calendars. He knocks on the first open door. A man lays on the cement floor inside, lounging in the shade. He stands up to take the calendar. “Tudo Bom. Um calendaria. La palavra de Deus.” He smiles and gladly accepts. We follow the straight row of houses, slipping calendars under closed doors.

A woman with dark hair sits nursing her baby. Her bare feet trail in the dirt beneath her plastic chair. Her eyes look tired and she barely smiles as I walk up and pass a calendar to the woman beside her.

We come back a week later and again the kids come running. I put the window down and a little boy struggles to hold onto the truck because his hands are full. He grips the handle on the inside of the door and I offer to hold his box. It’s empty. He stands in the middle of the street everyday with that box. It’s decorated red, “Feliz Natal” written on the side. He can’t be more than five. His thin fingers are clinging to that door handle and I’m holding his box wondering how someone so young already has to beg to survive. I look down at the box again, wishing I had something to put in it, glad that we have sandwiches and juice and the Word to give him. When the truck stops under the tree he jumps down and forgets. He forgets to grab the box that he begs with. Forgets for a minute that he has to go back to that busy intersection when he’s done eating. I stare at the door after he’s gone, looking at the place where his fingers were wrapped around the handle. Those tiny fingers that, at least for a little while, have let go of an empty box.