A day in a Favela

Before I begin this blog, for those of you who aren’t Brazilian, never did Geography at school or have never seen Fast and Furious 5… A favela is the South American term for a slum.

Imagine, Slumdog millionaire. But not in India and without Dev Patel.

If you haven’t seen either if these films and are still confused. Google it.

Rocinha is the largest favela in South America. Estimates of its population range from 160,000 to a ridiculous 2 million. Our tour guide, put it closer to he lower end of the estimate. Since he used to live in the favela, I’m inclined to take his opinion.

Based on all my preconceptions of a favela, I prepared for the tour. Drugs, gangs, guns, people with nothing to lose, no police and no money. I removed my cheap plastic watch, wore my cheap Primark flip flops and even took out my sparkly plastic earring. I was not going to take any chances here.

The reality?

I could have worn a Rolex, a real diamond earring, Gucci loafers and a 3 piece Saville Row designer suit.

I wish I’d taken my iPhone as well, I could have checked into a favela with their free wifi.

Our guides, Bruno me Rafael were absolute dons. Having both grown up in the favela, they knew most people we walked past and were happy to joke about all our preconceptions.

He told the couple from HonkKong that they could wear their cameras around the neck like normal, no problem. Also referring to them for he duration as ‘Chinese’ …

We started off in Street 3. There are four main areas of Rocinha;

Street 1 – at the top, the cheapest ‘accommodation’ with the best view

Steet 2 – down from street 1

Obama City – I know right, more on that later.

And street 3 – the most expensive at the bottom of the favela.

This is how the post is addressed. Surprisingly, people in favelas do get post. There are no postboxes, no post men, letter boxes or house numbers though. On each ‘street’, there is alright yellow post van that’s full of letters address to people in that street. You go their, soft through crates of envelopes until you find one with your name on it.

If it looks like a bill, you just leave it there.

Bruno told you you can ask for your post to be picked up at certain businesses around the favela, pointing out that people use businesses as meeting points in he maze of 64,000 alleys, roads and passages. We walked past a whore house with a crate of post sitting outside.

So, to Obama city. The president, prior to a visit to Rio had apparently expressed an interest in seeing a favela. As the biggest and safest, Rocinha took this as that he wanted to visit Rocinha.

So a Dutch guy painted one home bright orange. Trust me this story does make sense.

People in the favela liked this so much, that paint sales went through the roof and soon a whole area of the richer street was an explosion of brightly coloured homes stacked precariously in top of one another. When Obama’s wish reached Rocinha they clubbed together to make a welcome to Rocinha banner and strung it up over the main road into the favela.

True to form. Obama visited a different favela. Nobama City.

As I just mentioned, Rocinha is a safe favela. Sure there are drugs and gangs, but the city inside Rio sits next to the most expensive neighbourhood in the whole continent. It’s where fat Ronaldo lives, we saw his penthouse apartment!

The drug dealers know, that the rich people but the drugs. If the rich people come to buy drugs and get mugged or stabbed they definitely won’t come back and buy more drugs.

Based on this, Bruno pointed out only 2 issues they have in Rocinha.

Motorbikes and dog shit.

I see a 3rd potential issue with building regulations.

There are no taxis in Rocinha, buses yes strangely. Buses that go right down to Copacabana. But not taxis. Only motorbikes. And drivers with no licenses. Hence the problem. There are also no traffics lights. But guys in bright orange jackets who act like traffics lights. It’s not a great system but I’m sure oh get used to it.

Dog shit for sure is an issue. Although I don’t remember seeing all that many dogs…

My 3rd issue, not one that I highlighted to our guides, of building regulations definitely exists.
I was surprised to find out people actually pay rent in a favela. I’m not sure who they pay it too though? But if you want to build a house, you ask someone if you can buy their tool and just build your house on top.

We were constantly told to “pass this area quick, we don’t have insurance if part of the house collapses obtain of you”, very reassuring. Even our own travel insurance doesn’t cover this, we I checked and its actually a clause!

One problem that definitely doesn’t exist if wifi. It’s the law to vote in political elections in Brazil, and with favelas such a big proportion of Rio and another big cities it makes sense for politicians to target them too.

One guy gave Rocinha free wifi. I’m sure they get lots of use out of it with all their smart phones, laptops and tablet computers… Instagramming pics of their breakfast and such.

Unfortunately, political elections take place every 4 years around the same time as the World Cup final. So nobody gives a shit about who wins the election, so long as everybody beats Argentina in the football.

Football is big in favelas. In Rio they have a favela cup, with international football scouts at the final. As the stereotype goes, every favela kid dreams of being a footballer because you don’t need education. Some big names came out of Rocinha. I assume they’re big names because Bruno mentioned them and some people seemed to recognise them.

The other big stereotype of Brazil, carneval also has a big presence in the favela. Each area competes each year to win free beer for the festival by way of a graffiti competition. I’m not sure who judges it, but there was a lot of graffiti. Not crap graffiti like you see next to railways in England. Real graffiti, with stories and meanings.

Carneval does however bring its own problems to Rocinha. Every November the population of the favela experiences a baby boom.

9 months after the orgy that is carneval.

Bruno discovered a sister he didn’t know about when she was 17. Probably a product of such a baby boom.

This phenomenon is not helped by a man we were introduced to by Bruno. Mr Viagra is Rocinha’s pimp daddy. He is currently on the look out for wife No.13 and when we met him, he was chilling, shirtless in small ‘shop’?

He smiled at us, revealing a complete set of old teeth, 12 chunky silver rings in his fingers, one for each wife and a gold chain that any chav would die for. I’ve no idea where he gets Viagra from in a favela, and I want to know even less. Although supposedly açaí (a dark purple Brazilian superfood berry) is natures Viagra and better for you that 12 oranges.

Of course I tried some. Nothing strange to report afterwards…

We also met Rocinha’s resident marathon runner. The people of Rocinha all chip in and pay for his flight to go an run marathons all over the world, representing his favela internationally. He was wearing a Paris Marathon 2012 shirt, apparently he last one he was attended.

Our tour took us all the way down to he bottom end of the favela, where Rocina’s sport centre was located. Yes, a swimming pool, football pitches and even surf lessons on offer to the people of Rocinha.

As much a tourist attraction as a place to live, Rocinha even has a “Welcome to Rocinha” placard at the main entrance with welcome in 5 or 6 different languages.

I did get the feeling this was not a real favela experience, although I’m glad I still have my camera and a heart beat after leaving… It’s very much what I expected, in terms of what it looks like apart from one aspect. There are so many shops.

I thought maybe little food kiosks and places selling bits of wood, electrical wires to illegally tap into the national grid, maybe places selling soap and stuff. But there were fashion stores, 3 national banks where people can get credit cards, hospitals, a school and even a tourist info centre!

I was anxious about taking photos before, I deemed it a bit disrespectful to go into a favela as a British tourist and take photos of poor Brazilians in a slum, but they liked it. They posed and smiled and acted up for the camera, Bruno said hey felt like celebrities when rich westerners come all they way here just to see them and their houses and their city. It was a strange sensation to be in a favela as a white person with a camera and not look out of place.

As much as I would be interested to see a real favela that doesn’t have tourists, I’m happy seeing a mode favela with relatively happy people (at least from an outsiders perspective). I can go home and continue to believe that favelas are fine and safe and not that bad after all.

A really interesting day, with really good guides in a really unique place. I salute you Rocinha.

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