Favela Tours in Rio de Janeiro: A Gaggle of Nervous Gringos
While I was aware that this was just an example of Mario's - fairly dry - sense of humour, as I weaved through the traffic at speed, desperately trying to decipher every blurred image that I raced past, his words interrupted my adrenaline rush.
Eventually confident that I had mastered the art of maintaining a firm grip upon the shoulders of my chauffeur, while still appearing nonchalant about my method of transportation, I managed to relax, have a look around and actually consider what it was that I was doing: getting a backie on a motorbike through the streets Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro’s largest and most notorious favela.
Minutes earlier, 16 nervous tourists had clambered out of the ‘BeaLocal’ tour bus and stood face to face with a group of young, muscular, mostly shirtless, all helmetless, men on motorbikes.
These were our taxi drivers, waiting to escort us to the entrance of the favela which sat approximately three miles up the hill. While I’m certain we could have reached this point in the bus, motorbikes were considered much more fun.
Our enthusiastic tour guide Mario explained the do’s and don’ts of the day. The most important of these being: do not under any circumstances take photos of the ‘drug lords’.
We’d know who these overlords were because Mario would give us a subtle but definite hand signal. And they’d be the ones sporting gun belts.
But, as we shuffled single-file through tiny alleyways, past curious and perhaps faintly amused onlookers, I began to wonder who was actually on display; the favela citizens going about their everyday lives, or the gaggle of nervous gringos cautiously shifting through them?
We continued to wind through narrow streets, populated by what felt like hundreds of noticeably good-looking children running through us. While some seemed wholly oblivious of our presence, others posed and clicked invisible cameras at us, requesting that they could be today’s models. Evidently, our presence was no surprise to them.
He strolled through confidently but unassumingly, supplying names for faces, and explaining their role: shop keeper, childminder or drug dealer, all of whom gave an obliging ‘Hola’ and eyed us with little more than faint curiosity.
Encompassing us were hundreds of painted colored squares crammed next to one another, a huge cluster of homes with children, dogs and washing lines filling any tiny gaps that remain between them.
Feeling incredibly small and totally enveloped by this huge community, there is the sense that the buildings have rapidly bred and spread themselves across any available space.
Sprawling over the hillside, Rocinha looms intimidatingly over the much wealthier, and much smaller, beach resorts below.
Booming in size throughout the 1950s, the slum is now the largest in Rio de Janeiro, with a population estimated at approximately 150,000 to 200,000, all of whom fit into an area of about 200 acres (0.86km²).
Whilst other favelas have come under the control of the militia, Rochina remains removed from the standard laws of society and drug culture dominates the mechanics of the community.
In a demonstration of the genuine attempts to gain a clean-cut living, Mario introduced us to a young artist named Marco. A seemingly shy man, he sat unimposingly in the corner of the room while we all trawled through his and his friends’ impressive handiwork, which ranged from the decorative to the disturbing.
Using newspaper clippings to create a collage of favela life, photographs of young bullet-ridden boys suggested that Mario was, perhaps understandably, keeping hidden from us the tales that more readily lent themselves to Rocinha’s notoriety.
While children nonchalantly splashed their way through, I again felt the burn of amused eyes as the gringos preciously tiptoed from tiny ledge to narrow wall in their attempt to avoid dipping their flip-flopped feet into the brown river.
Expecting a string of very cute, but broken English, the stream of fluency that both boys displayed as they showed us their handiwork suggested that these children, no older than 10, were serious about their careers.
Sitting opposite them were very proud fathers and friends, who watched while we all cooed over the pint-sized tradesmen, and walked away with our handmade souvenirs.
Having reached the end of the tour, Mario got serious. Drugs had been the elephant in the room for the entire morning; touched upon frequently but no one daring to ask, ‘So, how much is this place actually like City of God?’
['City of God' is a 2002 movie, set in the 1970s,about another favela in Rio DeJaneiro.]
Unsurprisingly, equating gang authority with success, power and wealth, many young children aspire towards the same outcome. Continually toying with death, either caught in the crossfire of a brutal police raids, or killed by an oppositional gang member, death rates are high and many of those involved are fortunate to reach the age of 30.
From the gallery, to the bakery, and particularly for the two small boys at the end, we facilitated efforts to convey that outside of the favela, a world of tourists existed, and they had money to spend. Perhaps as a means by which to ease my own sense of guilt, perhaps because of the earnestness with which Mario expressed this claim, I wholly believed him.
There will always be some who refuse to go on a favela tour, and I understand their reasons. However, I feel that the people's ideas of a ‘tourist attraction’ will of course always differ.
In this case the people of Rocinha evoke immense interest because of their status as an abstracted community, rather than their poverty. Walking among this self-contained society with its own rules was like being allowed, if only for a few hours, a glimpse into a secret world untouched by commonplace regulations.
While our marching line of white middle-class westerners was far from invisible among the streets of Rocinha, their world didn’t stop because we were there. The hubbub carried on and this fiercely proud community tolerated our curiosity with a friendly acceptance.
The ‘Bealocal’ company offer guided tours of Rocinha for 65 Brazilian reals (approx. £23 per person). They also offer tours of Maracana football stadium and group excursions to favela parties. See bealocal.com for more details.
The writer travelled to Rio de Janeiro with TAM airlines who offer return flights from £666 (tam.com.br ) Rio de Janeiro is also served by budget airline company TAP Portugal (flytap.com).
The writer stayed in budget party-hostel ‘Stone of a Beach’ in Copacabana which offers beds from £11 pppn for an 18 bed dormitory, to £22 pppn for a double room.
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