Slum Golf

What lies beyond the manicured grass and stately buildings of Porto Alegre’s most exclusive country club? A slum village where the only jobs available are in service to wealthy golfers, a place where kids prefer golf to soccer. A landscape where old shipping containers converted into houses, open sewage ditches, rocky terrain, and impressive amounts of garbage are the fairway for their own golf course.

The path is narrow and winding. In some places it is not even a meter wide, a dirt track covered with candy wrappers, popcorn bags and plastic cups. Mounting the hill under the noontime sun we start to glimpse old shipping containers converted into houses, leap over open sewage ditches, dodge innumerable stray dogs. Children dance to the favela funk that permeates the tiny street, officially named Frei Caneca Avenue. Here, where containers are houses and a humble back alley is called an avenue, there is another contradiction that deserves special attention: the elitist sport of golf is the most popular among its residents.
Arriving in the slum, the golfers are easy to spot. Founded over 20 years ago in the exclusive neighborhood of Boa Vista, in the city of Porto Alegre, Vila Caddie (or Caddie Village) is the home of most of the workers of the Porto Alegre Country Club, located only a few meters from the favela.“Almost everyone here works as a caddie there”, says one of the elderly ladies who sit by the slum’s entrance drinking mate tea. Caddies are those in charge of holding and carrying clubs for golfers. It is an arduous task, says Alex Muniz, the first caddie we’ve interviewed. “I work an average of four hours a day almost every day lifting heavy clubs.” The rewards for this job is not the best: they make between 30 and 50 reais a day (roughly 15-25 dollars). The figures vary depending on the golfer you assist: caddies are not official Country Club employees, and they earn only tips. Their earnings are enough for them to feed their families. Even then, money only comes if the weather cooperates. On rainy days, when the club is practically empty, only a few lucky people get jobs.
The most interesting reward is given to them on Mondays. That is the day when the lush green grass on one of the noblest clubs in Porto Alegre is not used by its rich members, but by the caddies. The clubs, mostly borrowed from golfers from the Country Club, are not just carried by them on this day; they finally get to use them to play. And one of the most prominent players is Douglas Pacheco. While we interviewed Alex, we could see Douglas coming down a hill carrying two clubs and a small ball, a very common site in that neighborhood. Alex warns us: “That guy you see over there is one of the best players here.” And the awards he’s won are the testimony of that: he’s won over 300 reais (roughly 150 dollars) on a tournament in Brasília, and 1,000 reais (roughly 500 dollars) on another tournament in São Paulo. Both trips were sponsored by the Country Club. The awards are the consequence of years of playing golf both on the Country Club lawn and on the field they have in the village.
Right in the middle of the wall that separates the village from an adjacent lot, through a hole one can see a very irregular plot of land, filled with rocks and an impressive amount of garbage. The lot is the complete opposite of the perfect Country Club lawn, but it seems fit enough for people to play there. The oldest residents of the village consider the lot inappropriate and don’t play there anymore. Experience has made them fearful of body injuries. One never knows when a club might hit a rock in the middle of the field. Unaware of the dangers, children from the ages of 5 to 16, obviously enamored of the sport, jump the wall into the lot every day to play for a while. One of those teenagers, Alen “Pitbull” showed us his skills, and to us it seemed inevitable that, even inside a village of golfers, soccer would rear its face.
With his club, Alen plays keepie-uppie without ever dropping the ball. Other kids seem to know how to perform the same trick. More than that, Bruno, another teenage golfer, explains the differences between the clubs held by each of the boys. Bruno puts on gloves, places the tee in the grass, holds his clubs like a professional and, in an almost perfect swing, rotates over his own feet (he was wearing Havaianas flip-flops), throwing the ball at a distance. The small object flies over ditches covered with water and vegetation, sailing over horses that are grazing placidly, having finished their morning’s work. The ball lands a few meters away from a stick with a red towel tied on top of it, signaling that the hole is near. In a straight line, other boys repeat the same play, but with short swings and inside an imaginary green.
Swinging their clubs into the air, the group of about ten boys walks across the empty lot. Another small group composed of four boys arrives at the lot just in time to watch Renan play. The 5 year old boy has a pacifier hanging from a piece of string around his neck. He grabs the club he was leaning over and gets ready for a potent swing which, in a matter of seconds, propelled the ball far away. Most of the boys playing golf on that hot morning after school and before lunch time started out like Renan. The oldest of them, 16 year old Odair, says he’s been playing for quite a long time. When he is old enough he intends on following his father’s footsteps. He wishes to become a caddie: “The money is good, right?” Meanwhile, they simply play, using their clubs as weapons capable of shooting the small balls in every direction possible. It doesn’t really matter where the balls will end up, as new balls seem to sprout infinitely from the pockets of the boys’ coats. In actuality, those balls were gifts from the Country Club’s players, and they are easily found scattered around the streets that surround the village (those balls found on the floor are probably the fruit of imprecise swings from the Country Club’s players). The balls are so plentiful that some kids even turn them into key chains. Lost balls can also be dangerous: Alex Muniz recalls the many times the roof of his home – located right behind one of the Club’s holes – was hit by them.
It is lunch time, and the mothers start calling their boys in. We leave the rocky grass and walk over wooden boards that comprise the only pathway that connects the lot with the village by land – the other way to get from one place to the other is by air, jumping the wall. We see the boys get into their homes, and soon enough we’re back on FreiCaneca Avenue. We keep going, still impressed with what we had just seen. In a short while, the scenes we’ve witnessed will be no more. The Caddie Village is growing, and the City’s Urban Planning Department plans on transferring it to a different location. Meanwhile, balls still fly over ditches and horses.

Gabriel Rizzo Hoewell Translated from Portuguese by International Boulevard