Revisiting the Rua Ceara

When I went home to Rio de Janeiro this May to visit my family and friends, my mind was fizzing with a plan to visit the Vila Mimosa once more. I was hoping that I might be able to pay a few of the girls to answer a few questions, and had spent some time thinking about what type of question these should be. Something inside me made me want to steer clear of the glaringly obvious, and avoid asking questions such as ‘How many men do you see every day?’, ‘What’s the dirtiest thing anyone ever asked you to do?’ etc., because my strongest feeling after visiting back in 2004 was that the mechanical performance of the act of prostitution necessarily concealed the people underneath. I feel that by making that sort of enquiry I would just be adding to the car crash voyeurism surrounding anything marginal, whereas I would prefer to get to know more about the people. I am not sure that I ever arrived at the right calibre of questioning but I was more intent on asking things that were completely unrelated to ‘the profession’, such as ‘Who do you admire and why?’, ‘What is your favourite food?’, ‘If you had only one day to live, what would you do?’. It all might seem a bit naive but that is precisely the point.

 

But I knew that there was a lot I could unearth before even going to the Vila, just by asking (men) in general chit-chat. A friend of a friend had recently joined the motorcycling club ‘Abutres'(not dissimilar from the Hell’s Angels although I am sure if any serious biker reads this I will be in hot water!!!!) and was undergoing his initiation, something which seemed to involve submitting himself to enormous amounts of abuse from the other members until he was ‘promoted’ to the next stage of membership. He told me that the club’s meeting place was by the Vila and that very often they would pay girls to come to their parties and strip and some of the members would go ‘the extra mile’. He claims that he never saw a single woman he would pay ten Reais(around GPB 3.50) to have sex with in all the times he ever visited the Vila, but that his friends often related having seen attractive girls in there. He told me he heard that an old acquaintance of his had recently been diagnosed with HIV and that the word on the street was that he had contracted it in the Vila, but that he was convinced this could not be true as all the girls in there used condoms at all times. He said that you could often see the girls disposing of the ‘used goods’ and handing over little packets to incoming customers. Unfortunately I could not spend more time discussing it all with him, because I am certain that there were plenty of details which he would have ommitted in polite company. Like every man I have ever spoken to on the subject, he maintains that he has never and would never pay for sex in the Vila Mimosa, but that it was a fun place to visit and drink the night away(if you are a guy, that is, because all I ever heard about it is that ‘it is no place for a girl like you to be in’).

 

 

My disclosure of my plans to revisit the Vila was met with mixed reactions. My best friend, who accompanied me on the last visit, was as excited as I was, whereas most of the guys I mentioned it to were concerned, incredulous and discouraging. Others gave me the ‘thumbs up’ so long as I made sure I dressed plainly and was accompanied by a good group of tough-looking male friends. My own feelings about the trip kept oscillating between my aforementioned excitement and icy cold feet, but I went ahead with my arrangements anyway. On a Wednesday afternoon I dropped off my Boyf and baby at the airport, with plans of going out with some friends that evening. We were to start at the Vila Mimosa and then move on to Lapa and Baixo Santa Teresa. I hailed a taxi from departures to kill the rest of the day at Posto 9 on Ipanema Beach, when my friend called me and I tried to convince her to come with me. Our conversation got quite agitated, and then I hung up.

The cabby looked at me through the rearview mirror.

‘Are you from Sao Paulo?’

‘No, actually, I’m from Rio.’

‘You seem to lead a very busy life.’

‘I guess…’ (Hmmm… Where is he going with this?)

‘Doing anything fun tonight?’

‘Uhhh yeah, I’m going out with some friends, y’know?’

‘Oh really? Going anywhere nice?’ (Hmmm… I see where he’s going with this…)

‘Yeah, I’m going to Baixo Santa, and Lapa, and I might do a little detour by the Rua Ceara…’

 

It was obvious that he was dying to ask me about this.

He asked me what I wanted to do at the Vila, and I said I was revisiting with the intention of doing some research for writing, and then I asked him if he had any stories he could share about it.

‘That place is Hell on Earth’, he said. ‘To me there are two kinds of whore: The ‘puta da vida'(whore of life) and the ‘puta de sangue’ (whore of blood). The puta ‘da vida’ is a woman who is forced into prostitution because she needs the money to live. As a taxi driver I know many women like this, who sell their bodies in order to feed their children. The puta ‘de sangue’ is in the business mainly because she likes the sex. These two types tend to behave differently, although a puta ‘da vida’ might get hooked on the perversion of the job and become a puta ‘de sangue’. A puta ‘da vida’ might lead more of a double life, behaving one way in the night but going back home to her normality, whereas the puta ‘de sangue’ is what she is.’

Wow‘, I thought, ‘this dude is being pretty direct…

I asked him if he had any suggestions for my research, saying that I wanted to reveal a bit more about the place, seeing as it is contradictorily poised between common knowledge and absolute secrecy, and the enormity of it swamps any trace of individual trajectories. He said that just from spending one night there I would barely scratch the surface, and suggested that a better course of action would be to spend several nights there, try and see if any of the girls stood out in particular, and make my way in more slowly. He warned me that I should never ever go there without male company, as men in there would see me as much of a sex object as the girls, and that I should never take any valuables with me. I asked him about the hostility I felt from the girls when I walked there before, and he told me competition is fierce between them, and they would wonder what the hell a well-presented little middle-class girl like me was doing there, and that they would envy me and I had to tread carefully.

 

He proceeded to tell me that the Vila Mimosa is the penultimate rung of the ladder in the life of a Rio prostitute. It is the place where women go when they have ugly faces or their bodies are no longer up to scratch, when they would no longer be accepted in the more ‘upmarket’ brothels in pretty much any other area in town. He told me that the last rung of the ladder in terms of prostitution zones is the Central do Brasil (or Central Station, for those of you who may have watched Fernando Meirelles movie starring Fernanda Montenegro), where women go when they are completely ‘gone’. In his opinion, the Vila is an interesting place to visit and have a few drinks but no man in his right mind would go there to have sex, that the occasional attractive woman who ended up in there never stayed long, and that he had personally never seen one he would have paid for. In spite of this, he related many friendships and even love coming out of the relationships between the women and their clients.

 

I asked him whether it was true that none of the girls in the Vila were minors, and he laughed. He said that there are girls as young as 12 in the Vila, girls who grew up on the street or who fell on hard times in one way or another. He said the pimps kept the younger looking ones upstairs and charged more for them. Fortunately(can I even call it that in these circumstances?) he confirmed the universal use of condoms. He told me I should write a book about the Vila Mimosa just from stories I could amass from Rio taxi drivers, and I thought that was a really good idea. I might just do that.

Suddenly, we were driving through Leblon, and the conversation changed directions slightly.

‘You know, as a taxi driver and a bouncer in Copacabana night clubs, I know a lot of ‘women of the night’ and I can generally spot one from a big distance. When I saw you hail my taxi I thought you looked like a well-to-do rich girl, but when you opened your mouth to speak…’

 

Cheeky fucker.

 

He dropped me off at Posto 9 and I thanked him for the chat, which was truly interesting and has given me loads more ideas about how to go about furthering my research, and he also highlighted the risks involved in it. Unfortunately, that evening a torrential rainstorm flooded and gridlocked most of Rio and I never made it to the Rua Ceara, so this remains a work in progress. Nevertheless, my curiosity is spiked and I will continue to keep digging at this den of iniquity at the bowels of the city until some more of its secrets are revealed to me.

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