His name was Francisco, and he’d always lived in the favelas.
“I was born in Rocinha,” he told Kay in Portuguese, proudly, “but I built this house eighteen years ago.”
The blue-green building sits neatly on a corner of the narrow road that leads up, ever winding, to the very top of Rocinha: Rio de Janeiro’s largest favela. It’s also the one that most tourists visit – whether they’re there on a favela tour, or attempting to tackle it guerrilla style, taking their chances on solo exploration in one of Rio’s poorest neighbourhoods.
I, however, was choosing neither of these options. One of the huge benefits to travel blogging is the global network of fellow bloggers you find yourself in contact with. One such blogger is Kay, of The Kay Days, who’s currently studying for her semester abroad in Rio. And she’d offered to show me around Rocinha for the day.
A place where even native Brazilians are scared to enter.
“It’s really not as dangerous as people say,” she told me, earnestly, as we picked our way gingerly through the piles of trash littering Rocinha’s steep streets. “But there’s an obvious stereotype of the favelas that’s hard to shake.”
Rio’s favelas are where approximately 70,000 of the city’s poorest residents live. The favelas have a reputation for being crime ridden and acutely dangerous, with many places flagged as no-go areas: infamous as the hangouts for criminals and the location of drug deals. And I hate to say it, but I was gripping on pretty tightly to my bag strap as we walked.
But then why were so many people smiling and laughing as they passed us? Why were so many children walking alone through the twisting streets?
There’s a fascinating stereotype battle happening in places like Rocinha. In the news, the crime and drug issues come to the fore. And it’s understandable – clearly favelas have their dangers. But the tourist market has a different mindset: that the favelas are fascinating, vibrant, energetic and filled with a sense of community.
They also have a rather strange ability to make money, as they fit right into a burgeoning trend known as ‘slum tourism’.
Slum tourism: travelling to places you “shouldn’t”
Many backpackers and young travellers passing through Rio have the same idea in mind. Visit a favela, live through the potential danger, and feel like you’ve really got a story to tell afterwards.
Normally, I don’t prescribe to this kind of tourism out of principle. I didn’t take a tour around Mumbai’s giant sprawling slums when in India, and I wasn’t planning on visiting the favelas either. Despite being truly fascinated in the lifestyle of these communities, it’s often difficult to find a tour that doesn’t draw its main selling point from purposely exposing the misfortunes of others.
It’s also partly why I volunteer so much when I travel, as I’m able to get the same kinds of insights by actually interacting with the same communities, rather than simply driving past and taking photos of them.
But walking through Rocinha with Kay was immediately a different experience to the way most foreign visitors venture there. As we were two girls walking by ourselves, we looked a bit less like tourists and were more able to blend in! And as we wandered ever upwards through the narrow, cramped streets, searching out the best views across the favela, Rocinha felt like any number of poorer neighbourhoods I’ve explored when travelling; less like an enclosed bubble of poverty and danger, and more a community within a city.
We ducked under swathes of electrical wiring past groups of young men fixing cars or unloading produce from trucks; kept a watchful eye on the innumerable motor taxis, which zoomed past with no regard for pedestrian safety; and stepped quickly away from sparking metal above our heads, as repairmen on ladders played God.
It was fascinating and exhilarating – but I never once felt like I was in any real danger.
I was lucky that Kay knew her way around Rocinha, though. One often-heard warning that I do have to adhere to is not heading into a Rio favela unless you, or someone you’re with, actually knows the place.
But why does Kay know this favela so well? Because she’s spent the last few months volunteering at an NGO that’s based right in the middle of Rocinha.
Favela based NGOs: positive change in the heart of the poverty
Il Sorriso Dei Miei Bimbi is an Italian NGO who work with the children of Rocinha, helping to improve their education and social awareness, as well as providing them with a safe and interactive learning environment.
It’s also where I was given coconut cookies and a glass of Coke, questioned repeatedly in Portuguese by the various teenagers Kay introduced me to, and treated to an impromptu dance display from said teens, courtesy of music from a mobile phone. The rumours are true; Brazilians do seem to be dancing the entire time.
As we left, Kay and I were joined by Marcella, a fourteen year old girl who was intent on showing us around the favela; first to get some food, then to visit her house, and then onwards to her local church service.
Simple stuff, maybe – if you aren’t in a favela. And with Marcella as our guide, I realised just how varied different people’s experiences of Rocinha can be.
Exploring the real Rocinha
Earlier that day, I’d felt somewhat smug that I wasn’t part of a tour group, and thought we might be blending in – but it was still clear that Kay and I weren’t interacting with anyone we walked past.
Walking around with Marcella, though, was the polar opposite. It took us over forty minutes to reach her nearby house because she continually stopped to say hello to people, to introduce us as her friends, to explain who we were and then to say goodbye again.
And let’s not forget that both Kay and I had to kiss every new friend twice: one on each cheek, as Brazilians are wont to do.
My first impressions were right. There’s a wonderfully strong sense of community in Rocinha – but it’s made more obvious when you’re actually involved in that community. Even a little bit.
For one afternoon, walking with Marcella, we were part of the fabric of Rocinha.
It meant we had the ability to navigate the gloomy, half-lit alleyways that spiderweb their way behind the main favela streets – blindly following a child as she told us that the postman knows every single house in Rocinha.
It meant we could stand with that child’s mother and be invited to dinner, for no other reason than we’d just met her daughter that afternoon. I could listen to her speak Portuguese, then reply to her in Spanish, and watch her mull over what I’d said before she carefully, and slowly, attempted to reply. Giving the language-barriered conversation all the time in the world, just because.
And it meant we were able to walk into the beginning of a church service, wander downstairs to the basement, kiss the cheeks of at least ten grinning Brazilian strangers, and (totally unexpectedly) receive a blessing from their priest.
As his firm hands pressed heavily down onto the top of my head, I knew this was akin to being welcomed into the Rocinha community; belonging, even for a few moments, to a group of people happy to include anyone and everyone.
A new perspective on the favela
I know I may be somewhat biased in my opinions of Rocinha. I spent my week in Rio not doing very much; after two weeks in the jungle I was exhausted and internet-deprived, and so (much as it pains me to say it), a large part of my time was either spent sleeping or abusing my hostel’s wifi connection, while I got some long overdue work done.
As a result, my day in Rocinha favela forms the bulk of my memories of Rio – but it’s something I’m very happy about.
I never expected to visit any of the favelas in Rio – and I honestly never thought I’d experience one in the way I did.
While there’s no doubt it’s a dangerous place, Rocinha and the favelas of Rio certainly have their merits. Despite the clear evidence of drug traffickers and violence, that’s not the only thing the favelas should be known for – because they’re filled with communities that truly care for one another.
And when you actually take some time to get to know the people, it starts becoming obvious why they’re so proud to be from a favela like Rocinha.
Particularly when they have views like this.