Favelas of Rio de Janeiro cascade down the mountains like rockslides. It was night when we landed. The drive from the airport to our Barra hotel took us past mountain after mountain lit by tumbling masses of white lights. I didn’t know it then, but these were the favelas.
The weather was pretty sketchy those first days in Rio, too cold and wet for the beach. I’d logged 3K words on the novel on each of the first two days so as a reward I signed up for a favela tour.
I was picked up at the hotel by Marcelo, owner of the tour company. He drove me from Barra into Leblon where the mini-bus was waiting. While he drove, we talked. Initially, I talked. A favela is a shanty town and I was extremely uncomfortable with the idea of being a spectator to someone’s poverty. We’d been in South Africa in January and had avoided their Township Tours for the same reason. I asked Marcelo about exploitation. This is what he told me.
When he was much younger Marcelo had worked at a Club Med in Africa. It was, he said, like being in France while you were inside the Club grounds. But he was young and curious and wanted to see what the real Africa was like so, when he had the chance, he headed out into the surrounding community. What he saw were townships or shanty-towns. Not unlike the ones that began to appear on Rio hillsides in the 80’s. When he returned to Rio in 1992 the favelas had exploded across the city – there are almost 1000 today – and Marcelo began organizing tours to educate and support.
There is a certain beauty in this rockslide city
This wasn’t a candy-floss tour. Leo, the tour guide was graphic in his descriptions. Rocinha butts up against the multi-million dollar apartments of Leblon. On the way to our first stop we passed the American School, fortified behind a high wall topped with rolled and spiked barbed wire. Lining the street was a long row of parents’ cars – all bulletproof. As we drove and walked Leo spoke of the country’s sub-standard education and health care. He told us about the endemic corruption. He even named the three main drug gangs that had controlled the favela territories and explained what had happened when the police moved into Rocinha, the largest favela, expelling the drug gangs and putting specially trained police in their place.
The Rocinha favela was the most memorable thing I saw during my stay in Rio. It left a much larger impression on me than either Sugar Loaf Mountain or the massive statue of Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado Mountain. It was chaotic. But it was beautiful too – the colourful stack of houses like building blocks. And right or wrong, I felt safe inside the favela. My camera hung around my neck. My purse hung on my shoulder. No one made a grab for either.
I’m conscious that mentioning safety opens a messy can of worms. But I think I have to. Not mentioning safety has a ostrich-like quality that might hurt someone. The favelas we visited were safe because they were controlled and policed by specially trained favela officers who had two years police training and one year social work. Those police were a visible, armed and flack-jacketed presence all over Rocinha. And we were safe because we were on a supervised tour. Marcelo, the owner of the tour company, had a long history with the favela bringing tourists and their spending money.
When we stopped at the artisan booths inside Rocinha, Leo quite firmly instructed us to visit each booth and speak with each artisan. ‘You don’t need to buy anything,’ he said. ‘But talk to them. Show them some respect.’
The local crafts of Rocinha Favela
But not all favelas are police controlled and safe. And not all tourist trouble happens inside favelas. Rio has its own dangers. Five days after we returned home this was the BBC news story : “A foreign tourist [American] has been raped and robbed on a minibus in Rio de Janeiro.”
I saw these mini-buses. I’d even thought how much friendlier they would be than talking a large city bus or hailing a taxi. This could have been me. This could have been my kids, taking public transport to save money instead of a cab. The couple that were attacked were not walking through a slum area, as the photo above the BBC article suggests. The American woman and her French boyfriend caught that mini-bus in Copacabana, a highly touristic 4km long stretch of crowded, beautiful beach.
I suppose I’m saying, Go. See things. If you do go to Rio don’t just salsa dance, surf and drink Caipirinhas (which are awesome btw). BUT…don’t stick your head in the sand either. Please don’t ever assume that your North American or European standards apply everywhere. Poverty is mean-bad-ugly teacher.
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