Yes, I did see City of God, and those are the reactions when I told people I decided to visit a favela (slum) in Rio de Janeiro. Favelas are an integral part of society in Brazil and I’ve always been fascinated with them since watching City of God. I wanted to see life in one of them for myself, mostly to prove to others that the media was over-exaggerating the situation as usual.
Since it’s best not to visit a favela alone, the most important factor in visiting a favela was choosing the right tour. There are several companies that offer tours. I wanted to choose a tour agency that gave back to the community. The last thing I wanted was to be driven around in a safari van with tinted windows, treating the residents like they live in a zoo. For this reason, I chose Favela Adventures, run by a resident of the Rocinha favela, Zezinho. He has several different affordable walking tour packages, including a night at a favela party.
Zezinho was born in Rocinha and grew up there. His father was Brazilian and mother American, and he also spent a lot of time in the US and Canada. He’s a huge hockey fan and we had some great talks about the NHL playoffs during the tour as well. Zezinho’s love for Rocinha is obvious from the moment you meet him. His body is a canvas of tattoos dedicated to the favela. He is also very popular and it seemed we couldn’t walk a few steps without someone calling out his name or stopping to say hello.
Equally important is the fact that Zezinho gives his heart and soul to the community. He runs a DJ school to keep residents on a positive path. Visitors from other countries have brought lots of DJ equipment to his apartment in Rocinha. Students come and practice almost every night.
Zezinho also distributes wristbands to residents in the color of the Brazilian flag that say “Eu Amo Rocinha” (I Love Rocinha). This has been a popular program that has generated a great sense of pride in the community. Favela residents are generally looked down upon as low class citizens, just above the homeless, and don’t like to tell other Brazilians they live in a favela. Zezinho is trying to change that mentality. We watched him pass out several wristbands to smiling residents of Rocinha. For a lot of people, it made their day.
Our tour started at 10am, when Zezinho met me and my friends in front of our apartment in Copacabana. We grabbed a public bus to the top of Rocinha, which sprawls out down a hill. Once at the top of the hill, we stopped and got a quick orientation about favela life. His first sentence stated that we were safe in Rocinha and nobody would bother us there. Favela residents live under very simple but strict unwritten rules that have dire consequences if broken – don’t steal, kill, or rape. He said we would be safer in Rocinha than in Copacabana. I couldn’t have agreed more – I walked around taking pictures with my Nikon D7000 for six hours without an issue.
As he was speaking, I couldn’t get over the spiderwebs of power lines in a tangled mess hanging all over the favela. They were on every corner of every street. I had never seen anything like it.
As motorcycle taxis sped up and down the hill with passengers on the back, we were given a lecture about how the houses are built, and how water tanks are used for taking showers and flushing toilets. The water is bought on a monthly basis to fill the tanks, so conservation is very important. Some homeowners even sell their rooftops to add another level to be built on top. It may look like chaos, but it’s controlled. A qualified architect is always brought in to evaluate construction to make sure it’s done safely.
After walking through some alleys between the houses, we were also shown how mail collection is done. It’s usually the responsibility of a small business owner. In this case, a barber shop nearby had a huge basket of mail in front with hundreds of envelopes addressed to residents.
Zezinho took us down the main road through Rocinha to a spot where we got a panoramic view of the favela, sprawling all the way down to the city below. Rocinha unofficially has over 300,000 residents, and it’s just one of over 900 favelas in Rio.
One thing Zezinho likes about Rocinha is that it’s a city within a city. There’s nothing a resident can’t do without leaving the favela. There are shops of every kind – electronics, pet shops, luxury goods, salons, clothes – you name it. Residents can get bus and airline tickets, and there are a range of restaurants from Brazilian to sushi to Italian. Satellite TV and Internet connectivity are readily available to those who can afford them.
The Brazilian government tried some housing projects in Rocinha. The residents are given a bare room with concrete floors and are able to do whatever they’d like to decorate it. Generally, while a lot of the homes in Rocinha look dilapidated from the outside, many are very nicely decorated inside.
After stopping for lunch, we visited the lower part of the favela which happens to be the poorest area. It was a striking contrast to the “luxury” residences near the top. An open sewer ran next to the street. I couldn’t imaging having to live with the smell every second of the day. The people in this part of Rocinha had it the most difficult, but they were just as friendly and welcoming as everyone else we met along the way.
Crime ultimately came up in conversation. Zezinho didn’t want us to believe that Rocinha was a utopia without crime and drug violence – it happens, but it doesn’t dominate life there as outsiders are led to believe. Several people in the favela think that the drug lords make the favela safer, not the police. In fact, as the police drove by with their guns hanging out their car windows, we could feel the tension in the air. We came to the conclusion that the police presence and their “pacification” programs made the situation worse. He also mentioned that not all favelas are as nice and welcoming as Rocinha. There are some that are true to the reputation in City of God, but the majority are populated by hard-working Brazilians just trying to make it through life.
Our final stop before saying goodbye to Zezinho was at a foot bridge that was built by the Brazilian government. It took nearly BRA$18 million, which is probably five times what it should have cost, due to corruption. That’s money that could have been spent improving the conditions for residents of Rocinha.
On the bridge, we got to see the community swimming pool and were treated to one final panoramic look at Rocinha, with thousands of small homes dominating the landscape from the bottom of the hill all the way to the top.
In conclusion, I can honestly say that visiting Rocinha and seeing favela life firsthand was the most important thing I did while visiting Rio. The beaches, bikinis, football, and amazing scenery are the only things we are force-fed by the media, but the real Rio de Janeiro lies in the favelas.