This post was originally from March 11, 2019
On my last day in Brazil I was lucky enough to visit Rio’s largest favela called Rocinha. Rocinha is a shanty town that is sandwiched between two wealthy areas of Rio. It’s on a mountain overlooking the city and it became really well known after the 2002 Oscar winning movie City of God. Although it only occupies less than a square mile of land it’s home to about 75000 people! Houses are tightly packed together and some are stacked on top of each other as tall as 11 stories high. Over the years the homes have evolved from wood and tin to more stable materials like concrete. Basic sanitation is now available to about 80% of the population.
The slum has economic opportunities but its most well known for its drug related violence. There are two gangs that run the favela and for this reason it’s really unsafe to go without a guide. I was hesitant to go because I feel like ethically it’s wrong to go see someone’s life as an ‘attraction’. People were doing this in India and it made me so mad. But after learning more about the favelas, tourism has actually acted as a catalyst for positive development. Even knowing this I questioned my decision to go, but seeing the reaction from the people that live there I am so happy that I went. Clearly our guide was well respected as everyone would greet him and hug him. He took the laws of the favela seriously and only when we were allowed, were we able to take photos. During most of the time there we had to put our cameras away. Why? Because the drug lords were everywhere. Mere teenagers sat at corners with machine guns and AK-47’s. At one point I saw a picture perfect opportunity – brightly coloured chickens pecking around debris. I asked if I could take a photo of this and he said with the most stern tone ‘definitely no – you’ll see why in a few steps’. Just right around the next corner were gang members with their guns displayed proudly across their laps. He also showed us all the bullet holes from previous gang brawls.
Amongst the crime and chaos the people of the favela are a tight knit community. We were taken to a place where artists proudly displayed their work and I was able to buy a piece. Street art is also literally at every corner with positive messages of hope and encouragement. Children still go to school and around the time of the 2016 Olympics various athletes (including Michael Phelps) built a sports centre with a school right near the favela. The centre is free as long as the child is in school. And crazily enough 95% of children in Brazil are in school. Sport is important to Brazilians and so many famous soccer stars grew up right here in the favelas.
Overall we spent about 2 hours in Rocinha. We started at the top of the mountain and meandered all the way to the bottom. I got to play with children a little, listen to a local samba band and buy treats at a bakery. Although the walkways around the favela are narrow, steep and somewhat nonexistent there was order in the chaos. Houses are purposely not numbered in order so that police will never find anyone. Everyone looks out for each other and it was so heartwarming to feel the warmth and welcome from the community.
As soon as we left the favela it was time to pack our stuff and head to the airport. It’s crazy that this adventure has quickly come to an end. Even though I was a hobbling mess for most of the trip it was another great trip. Rio is the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen. Brazil is so incredibly beautiful with its bright colours. And the people are warm and kind.
Not surprising I met some lifelong friends. We shared so many laughs and those memories will stay with me forever. It was sad to say goodbye but hopefully our paths will cross again.
Before I sign off I made note of some random things …
- The toilet situation in Brazil is weird. Many toilet seats are soft and foamy. My grandma used to have one just like it! The toilet paper on the contrary are nothing close to soft and foamy. And get this, you are not supposed to flush the toilet paper. It all goes in the bin!
- There was a big presence of Freemasonry. Symbols and signs were in many places.
- Meat meat meat. A common restaurant was an all you can eat meat house. The waiter would come along with massive slabs of meat (like dim sum) and just cut you off a slab. Pretty much a vegetarian’s nightmare! (I only gagged a few times)
- Oh and a funny story…I was talking to a pharmacist one day. He was giving me pain medication and we had to communicate through Google Translate. He printed off a receipt and placed it in a basket. Then he types ‘take this bitch up to the front to pay’. Hmmmm I think Google Translate failed us!
- And lastly it wasn’t uncommon to see street performers juggling knives, etc at stop lights!
Travel is truly a spectacular gift and I’m so grateful that I have been able to experience another corner of the world. Thank you for following my journey.
I usually only go away once a year but this year is a little different. I already have my next trip planned for September. I will be going to Greece for a couple weeks to work in a Syrian refugee camp. I’m so excited for that experience and I hope you’ll come along for that ride too.