One of the most fascinating cities within our travels has been Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Within the two weeks that we ventured around the city, we found ourselves looking up at the mountainside upon the Favelas (Brazilian slums). It became apparent that the city was split into two populations; the rich and the poor. Rio de Janeiro is so often placed on the front covers of travel magazines as the most beautiful city in the world, however, a majority of the city’s population lives in extreme poverty. The Portuguese-styled cobble stoned sidewalks along the Copacabana beach highlights that ‘tourism-beauty’ Rio de Janeiro has to offer but we often found ourselves on the outskirts of the favelas wanting more. The favelas vibrated with their own life, culture and beauty.
As an outsider, the favelas are dangerous. When we arrived to our hostel, we continued to hear night after night about stories of tourists being robbed and threatened. Favelas are often operated by underground gangs and for the general public are quite dangerous to just wander about. I remember sitting down at the hostel one night with a group of backpackers and we watched the movie ‘City of God’ which is a film based on the history of how favela gangs came to exist. If you have yet to watch this film, be sure to check it out (It is on Netflix!). The film is in Portuguese, but you can watch it with English subtitles. After watching the movie, Thomas and I became more intrigued and fortunately we found an opportunity to check out the favelas with a community-based tour where the cost per person goes directly back into supporting public childcare and youth groups within the favelas.
The next morning after breakfast a tour van arrived to pick us up. Before leaving Canada, Thomas and I packed up some small hand-outs, including some pencils, pins, and stickers that showcased the Canadian flag. We brought them on the tour with the intent to leave it behind at the childcare centre that the tour supports.
When we reached the base of the largest favela in Rio and gazed up the mountainside upon the thousands of shacks that made up Rochina, my body filled with excitement. The Rochina Favela is one of the most developed favelas. It is estimated that between 150,000-300,000 individuals live here. The tour guide explained that in order to get to the top, we would need to take motorcycle taxis. As the guide paid a dozen drivers to take our small group up the hill, I noticed that he was only providing a half-payment to each driver to ensure that all participants would get to the top safety. As I climbed onto the back of the motorcycle taxi, I looked over at Thomas, sitting upon the motorcycle straddling the back of some Brazilian man. Thomas smiled and gave me the thumbs up without any hesitation. My driver explained that it was ok for me to hold onto him in his broken English. When I responded back in Portuguese, he explained in Portuguese that “my husband better hold onto the railing because we don’t like men holding onto us”.
Beforehand the guide had explained that there is still homophobia with male taxis and for men not to hold onto them as they may tell you to get off. Men are required to hold onto the bottom of the seat. After hearing it for myself, I was not impressed and stated back to my driver that I would be ok. With no helmets in sight, my inner self began to pray for a safe ride….
With a quick kick back, my taxi was off like a rocket!!! I screamed “OH MEU DEUS!!! (OH MY GOD) and without hesitation I grabbed the stranger for dear life. The driver laughed at me and I swear he purposely drove faster up the hill... The whole experience was a major blur. I felt the sides of cars and people graze my legs. At one point I vividly remember seeing Thomas’ on that back of his motorcycle; both of us having the facial expressions that we were going to die! Quick flashes of cars, motorcycles, people, and metal shack buildings caused my eyes to water. I was unable to focus on what was happening. With only room for one vehicle to get by, the motorcycles would play ‘chicken’ with other drivers coming the opposite way and continue to drive until the other moved out of the way! It was very frightening….and after what felt like a lifelong ride...we reached the top…barely in one piece.
Thomas’ ride had reached the top first and as I slowly got off the motorcycle still with tears in my eyes, I thanked whoever was watching over us. The ground felt so good beneath my feet. Thomas hugged me and had that ‘what the f*** just happened’ kind of laugh. The tour guide was the last to arrive and he paid the second portion to each individual driver. When we were able to take the focus off the journey we had just experienced and take a look around, we realized we were in the middle of the slum jungle.
Walking down the small streets… which were really man made paths… it was obvious that the favelas were a maze that only locals could understand. We ensured to stay close to the group while we passed people holding guns by doorways. At some points we could see the guide pay men off for safe access to the street.
Kids followed along…excited to talk us; the gringos.
After asking the guide if it was appropriate for us to hand out stuff, Thomas began to open our small backpack that had all the goodies we brought for the kids. And as soon as Thomas grabbed the pack of pencils and handed it to one child no more than 4 years old… the child screamed with excitement “UM LÁPIS!!!!!” (A PENCIL!!!)
Thomas and I were swarmed by children!!!
With concerned faces from children not knowing if they would get a pencil...they grabbed our bodies asking over and over if they could have one. I continued to say in Portuguese to stay calm...stay calm, everyone will get something, but the thrity-ish children all yelled with excitement. Two other tourists who were with us were swarmed and began to worry as the children yelled for pencils!!!! They began to take money out and give it to the children, however, the guide yelled “NO!” and told the kids who received the financial gain to give it back. In that moment, I realized the real rapport this individual (the guide) had in this community as the kids listened and gave it back. I handed two pencils to the kids to ensure they would leave happy. The other tourists were given a lecture from the guide to never to give children money anywhere in the world as it causes them to become beggers instead of contributers to the society. Fortunately, in the end, we did have enough pencils...
Continuing on, we had time to visit local shops and purchase a variety of tasty treats. My favourite part was when two youth were drumming in the streets for fun. They were so talented! We gave them a small token of our appreciation and I stated to them that they should continue performing. When we reached the childcare centre, we were able to get a better understanding on the importance of the establishment and meet some of the volunteers and workers. The centre provided several different programs for all ages and was a safe place for at-risk youth. Because I am a youth worker, my heart melted that the volunteers made a safe space for street entrenched youth. One volunteer, who was a single mother, stated to me that there is a high need for safe-nights for youth. It was a great in-sight to the individual needs within this community and I forever have held that conversation in my heart.
Taking a few moments standing in this man-made jungle, we sought out to gain a dose of the lives of the everyday brazilian. We feel we found a piece of the real Rio. The one often forgetten by visitors. The favelas are filled with that spark of unique beauty and instead of turning a blind eye on this community, we encountered amazing locals...with amazing talent. We do not recommend visiting the favelas on your own as there are many dangers and people do get robbed. But if you have an opportunity to check out the favelas through a community supported tour that contributes to social development be sure to do it! Sure...you may find yourself holding onto dear life wanting to experience it but trust me, its worth it.