Into the favela

Trip Start Sep 17, 2007
Trip End Oct 08, 2008

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Saturday, December 1, 2007

A favela (shantytown) tour is slightly controversial.  Detractors say that it turns these places into a human zoo, even a voyeuristic experience.  Supporters, on the other hand, say that you can't really understand a place like Rio until you visit the favela.  Erin and I split on this issue.  I wanted to see the favela while Erin did not.  So I decided to go alone.  Later, Erin was talking to the hostel owner who had been converted.  She explained that at first she had refused to sell the tours from the hostel.  But they had talked her into taking the tour herself, and she had come to see the value of experiences like this. 

We were picked up from the hostel by our sunny, talkative guide, and zipped across the city to "the other side."  She then informed us that the favela was on a hill and we were going to take motorcycle taxis up to the top, then walk down.  We walked around the corner to find several eager drivers ready to take us for a ride.  She advised the girls to hold on to the guy's waist, as this would invariably cause them to slow down, give you a lengthy history about the favela, and take forever to get to the top.  She warned the guys that holding on was inadvisable, as this would cause them to speed up and swerve in an attempt to get rid of us.  Comforting.

So I jumped on the back of a bike, tried to prevent myself from wrapping my body around the driver, and tried to smile as we hurtled upwards in a zigzag through the traffic.  It was definitely dangerous but also quite exhilarating.  I was the first up the hill and climbed out in the middle of the notorious favela, pretending I did this everyday.  THe others soon joined me with varying expressions of excitement and alarm. 

Our guide gave us a little information here about the favela.  We were standing on the original road around which the "town" had been developed.  This place was called Rocinah and was the largest favela in South America, with over 350,000 people.  We were in the downtown area.  People paid a version of taxes to the municipal building, and there was even a post office.  You see, favela residents are essentially squattors.  They don't own the land they have their houses on.  None of the 350,000 people have a legal basis for the land they live on.  It's an illegal city.  Perhaps the best expression of this was when our guide showed us the huge nest of wires where people stole cable TV off a telephone pole.  She also said that we could take pictures of pretty much everything, just not the enforcers with guns.  Just then a teenager with an AK47 crossed the street in front of us.  He was apparently the equivalent of a policeman, and his purpose was to prevent unrest.  Rules are harsh here, but inside the favela is in fact safer than outside.  Stealing is not permitted, period.  A girl caught stealing inside the favela had her hand chopped off. 

The term favela actually comes from the name of a specific neighborhood that sprung up in the city center which was later applied to all shantytowns.  You can literally build a house anywhere you want, but the problem is that space is limited here.  Rocinah is actually sandwiched between two richer neighborhoods of Rio.  Due to lack of space many people rent rooms for 150-400Rs ($80-$230) a month.  This is difficult while many make around 400-500Rs a month to begin with.  A lot of people are now selling the roof of their house for up to 2000Rs.  The buyers will build another floor on top, then sell the new roof in turn.  This obviously creates unstable structures.  We could see this as we started to walk downhill.  The result is a warren of several levels, and sometimes the path goes under or even through peoples' houses. 

Rocinah is known for its graffiti and there are paintings everywhere labelled "RG," Rocinah graffiti.  We stopped at a workshop where we had the chance to buy some framed works of graffiti.  Some of them were pretty amazing. 
Many people in the favela are employed to be doormen, maintenance workers, etc, in the rich neighborhoods to either side.  Surprisingly, employers actually seek out people from Rocinah because they are close and concentrated.  Employers must pay for transportation to and from work, and it is therefore relatively cheap to grab a busload from Rocinah.  There are three schools in the favela but many go to public schools in the city.  Wearing their uniform, schoolkids get free public transportation anywhere in the city.  The parents also get a monthly check if their kids attend school.  

The locals were friendly and our guide was obviously accepted in the area as well.  She got into a lively argument about the benefits of the various local futbol teams.  There were a lot of adults hanging out in the streets, and several would shake everyone's hand as we walked by.  We stopped for a concert performed by three children with homemade instruments and they sang a song for us.  We also saw a boy selling bracelets made of telephone wire and made a stop at a bakery selling delicious donuts.  One boy took a liking to one of the girls in our group and asked her how much she wanted for her camera so he could give it back to her as a wedding present.

Not many people in the favela do drugs but most sell them.  You can buy a gram of cocaine for around $5 in the favela and sell it for $30 in the city.  The only time that the favela is really dangerous is when a rival gang tries to take it over.  Generally it is pretty calm.  Rocinah is controlled by a drug gang known as ADA, Amigos de amigos (friends of friends).  The top ten men of ADA carry - get this - golden guns, and maintain their number at 10 regardless.  That's right folks, they carry golden guns.  The peacekeepers are below this level.  There is also a net of young members placed around the favela as guards.  They use homemade firecrackers as a warning.  There are several different signals.  When firecrackers go off all over the favela it means they are burying an important person. 

We finished the tour at the market at the bottom of the hill.  Our guide refused to tell us where the drugs were sold and advised us not to take pictures.  We didn't visit the school because it was Saturday but we did get to play around with a big group of kids.  60% of our tour cost goes towards the day care center which they have been funding since the beginning.  The center looks after kids so the parents can go to work. 

I'm sure that the favela could be turned into a human zoo but it definitely wasn't.  In fact, it felt like we went to debunk all of the myths about this place, learn something about the way thousands of people live, and spend a couple dollars on the people who need it most.  Everyone was friendly, and acted as if we were guests and not invaders.  It was a well-run and sensitive tour.  I don't even think "tour" is the right word.  We spent a morning in the favela and met some people.  And I learned a lot.
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