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Poor folks don’t seem to get much respect in Rio de Janeiro, but they sure have the best views.
To learn why, and to see those vistas, visitors can sign up for tours of the netherworld of some of the city’s famous – or infamous - shantytowns, called favelas. They can even abandon their fancy digs in the Copacabana Marriott to spend a night or more in a favela bed-and-breakfast.
Such activities might appear to smack of voyeurism, radical chic or worse. Alas municipal bureaucrats complain that favela tours give Rio de Janeiro a bad name. But don’t worry. Reputable tour operators enjoy the support and cooperation of the “favelados” (favela dwellers) themselves. Not only does part of the cash find its way directly or indirectly into the community, but many residents seem to appreciate the opportunity to help dispel negative myths and stereotypes about their neighborhoods and by extension themselves.
Brazil’s favelas have to rank among the most studied and least well understood places on the planet. Of course organized crime plays a major role in many favelas, but “favelado” is not a synonym for “criminoso” (crook) as some well-to-do Brazilians would have it. The unemployment rate in favelas is about a third higher than in the rest of Brazil, and organized crime may well seem like a good career choice for many teenaged and young adult males. But there’s more to favelas than the wanton cruelty and violence of the popular film City of God. Most people who live in favelas commute to regular jobs that they probably hate just like people everywhere else in the world.
When not pigeonholed as crooks, favelados are often romanticized as the true source of “brasilidade” – of Brazilian soul. Again, it is true, for instance, that most samba schools, the groups that take to the avenue in Rio’s world famous Carnival parade, are based in slums. It is also true that they’re administered in a fashion that would put General Motors to shame. They put on a fantastic show. But samba - and more recently rap and funk - do not flow through the veins of all favelados. Not everyone grows up to be a famous soccer star in Europe.
Nor is it true that favelados would leave it all behind if they could. Favela relocation schemes, keen to send people to housing projects, come and go with the ebb and flow of Brazilian politics. The most famous proponent of relocation might have been Carlos Lacerda, governor of Rio de Janeiro state in the early 1960s. The most famous response came in a song called Opinião (Opinion) from Lacerda’s contemporary, samba composer and sometime favela dweller Zé Ketti: “They can arrest me/They can beat me/They can starve me/But I won’t change my mind/Here from the hill/I won’t leave.”
A visit to any large favela that’s been around for a while will reveal a thriving infrastructure of markets, beauty shops, corner bars and motorcycle taxis. Some of the larger ones sport branches of national brand name banks (which unlike branches elsewhere in the city are never held up). Rather than move, generations of favelados have invested in their own families and their own neighborhoods. Favelas may begin as squatter settlements, but over time they sprout condominiums. Believe it or not, there are favela residents who pay rent to favela landlords.
Shantytowns crop up wherever and wherever people are forced to make do with less in urban society. They’ve all had special names: “gececondu” in Turkey, “bidonvilles” in Algeria and perhaps most appropriately “pueblos jovenes” (young towns) in Lima, Peru. The first official recognition of a shantytown in Rio de Janeiro came in the 1920 census, which called attention to a group of several hundred unregistered houses on Providência Hill. Many of the owners were army veterans of a famous offensive called the Canudos campaign. They had returned to Rio after helping to put down an uprising in the distant state of Bahia. Favela Hill was a strategic position in Canudos. That, agree most scholars, explains the name.
Favelas exist throughout Brazil. One of the best windows into favela life, even today, is the published diary from 1955-1960 by Carolina Maria de Jesus from São Paulo. Yet in Rio de Janeiro, maybe because they are perched on the hillsides astride middle class and rich neighborhoods, favelas always seem more present. Elsewhere they might be forgotten on the sub-suburban outskirts. In Rio, they’re part of the urban fabric.
Evidence of all of these contradictory visions can be found on the Favela Tour, run by a company by the same name.
The number of favelas in Rio de Janeiro is estimated at nearly 800. Spread throughout the city, they house about one million people – roughly one-sixth of the city’s population. In its half-day program, Favela Tour visits two starkly different communities in the Zona Sul (the southern district) that includes beach places like Ipanema and Copacabana where most tourists stay.
The first one, Vila Canoas has a population of 2,500. Its often dark, always winding pedestrian paths are reminiscent of the endless staircase concocted by the late Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher. Duck here, twist your neck there. You’re never sure which side is up, but you always seem to end up on top. Vila Canoas emerged decades ago when the nearby Gávea Golf Club began hiring and newbie employees needed a low-rent (or no rent, in this case) place nearby to crash. They’ve remained ever since. The most remarkable thing about Vila Canoas, in a country where public areas are often hopelessly abandoned, is that the pathways – save for the odd dog turd - are surprisingly empty of litter.
The next community on the Favela Tour itinerary is Rocinha. In the 1940s, this space was an automobile racetrack. A decade later people began to move in. By the 1980s, it had already been recognized as Latin America’s largest shantytown. According to the most recent census, 60,000 people live in Rocinha, though most experts believe that low. By way of comparison, Rio’s most densely populated neighborhood, Copacabana is officially home to 160,000. Rocinha is divided between a chaotic core, which we were unable to visit due to security concerns, there having been a recent clash between drug dealers and police, and an outer ring that in many ways resembles any other lower middle class Brazilian neighborhood. Most buildings on the outer ring receive public services, though many businesses and residences tap directly into electricity and cable TV lines in the street to avoid paying.
Free cable with a great view from on high – that might help explain why many favelados would prefer to stay put. But it doesn’t explain how they got there in the first place. Just down the hill from Rocinha, the São Conrado district enjoys the distinction of paying the highest property taxes in the city. So why aren’t those rich folks perched on the hill?
The explanation is rather simple. Back when basic utilities – electricity, running water, etc. – first appeared in Rio de Janeiro, the lowlands were more easily serviced. Faced with a choice between a view and basic utilities, even the relatively privileged opted for the later.
In recent decades, wires and tubes began to extend most everywhere. Around this time, British expatriate journalist and artist Bob Nadkarni had to run an errand in the Tavares Bastos favela on a hill that overlooks Rio’s Guanabara Bay and Sugarloaf mountain. He liked the view. He purchased some land to build a home. Now Nadkarni’s home has been expanded into The Maze, a simple but comfortable bed-and-breakfast that has hosted everyone from rapper Snoop Dogg to a papal emissary.
With those kinds of guests, the views are no longer just for the poor – and, with any luck, respect is no longer just for the rich.
Favela Tour offers a safe and sane window into Rio’s shantytown communities. The bed-and-breakfast The Maze is located in Tavares Bastos, one of Rio’s safer favelas. Indeed the presence of Maze owner and British expatriate Bob Nadkarni and his itinerate foreign guests seems to be helping to scare away the gangs. Any visit to a favela deserves the same precaution as a visit to East LA or the Bronx, and any responsible company will respond honestly and openly to inquiries about safety and security. For a personal account of Brazilian favela life in the 1950s, pick up a copy of the book Child Of The Dark: The Diary Of Carolina Maria De Jesus.
A good locally-produced guidebook for Rio de Janeiro in English is Rio for Partiers. Despite its youthful sounding name, the book offers useful tips for travelers of all ages. It is much more practical and insightful than any of the brand name guidebooks.