It was sunny and 85 degrees Fahrenheit that afternoon in Rio de Janeiro. In the distance, I could see trekkers climbing Sugarloaf Mountain, hang gliders whizzing through the air and kayakers taking advantage of the calm waters and beautiful beaches. So, what was I doing spending the day wandering around one of the most notoriously dangerous places in the country, the favela of Rocinha?
The previous day, I had been hanging out with a local who had told me that she thought it was an interesting and eye-opening experience, and even she had done a favela tour. In Rio, colorful hillside favelas dot the landscape just as much as beaches and mountains. If you want to really get to know the whole personality of Rio de Janeiro, you should consider visiting one — with a tour, of course, as these places can be unsafe to enter alone.
This is what brought me to Rocinha, instead of the beach, on that beautiful day. For those who don’t know what a favela is, it’s basically a slum or shantytown. Rocinha is the biggest favela in Brazil, and one of the largest in the world. While a 2010 census found there to be about 70,000 occupants, many believe there are actually more than 150,000. The favela is so big it is actually considered a neighborhood with its own neighborhood association. While many of the houses do have basic amenities and the town has shopping and cultural opportunities, it is still not somewhere you want to hangout alone. Concrete buildings aren’t made of concrete because it looks nice; they’re made that way because it gives extra protection from bullets over brick homes. At the bottom of the hill, you will find sewage, garbage and crumbling homes due to poor foundation. The smell in the air flips between rotten eggs and sewage to sweet cakes and sizzling meats, as you stumble through narrow alleys and over uneven rock, decaying wood and twisted wires.
Usually, the way a favela works is the people who live in them do not pay taxes. However, since November of 2011, police forces have taken over the streets in an attempt to clean up the area. Now residents do pay taxes and the cable and electric that was once illegally installed in homes is accounted for. Furthermore, police have been able to move gangs that had been wreaking havoc over the favela, although there are still problems with these groups trying to invade. Still, I was surprised that with all the corruption, disease and drug dealings Rocinha is known for, there are facilities like clothing shops, medical facilities, dance schools, art galleries, bakeries and even a daycare center. The favela has a rich culture and many of the residents are friendly, especially the energetic children that dance and smile in the streets.
One reason for the improvement in quality of life is these people who would once beg for money now are being told they must earn it. Whether through baking, painting, dancing, or drumming – as you can see in my video above – many of these people are now working hard to make money. Moreover, a samba school, ballet school, and music school are also in the favela, allowing for youths to become involved in extracurricular activities. At the bottom of the hill, a sports complex offering boxing, martial arts, capoeira, football, volleyball, swimming, surfing and more is offered, free of charge, as long as the family’s children are enrolled in school. The city is planning to also install cable cars and funiculars, to help those who work in the city and children in school get home in an easier and safer way. Events in the favela like marathons, boxing matches, and dance competitions are also giving the area something positive to focus on.
While walking around the favela, it was clear there is a lot of room for improvement. However, it is also obvious there are people living there with a lot of potential who want to do something good with their lives. The area holds a lot of culture- and the best view of Rio in town- it just needs to remove the dirt and grime hiding its beauty. At least 20% of Rio de Janeiro’s population lives in favelas, and most of them are good people who just want to put a roof over their heads. Hopefully, the new favela pacification program can continue to help bring a higher quality of life to these people.