Day 94: Favela Tour

Thur. 15th November 2012

Looking down from the top of the favelaHaving said our final goodbyes to everyone yesterday, it was just the two of us at the breakfast table. We’d better get used to the experience as we don’t have any more group tours booked. We’re on our own until we meet Myf in Melbourne in February next year.

After yesterday’s city tour, our next priority was to go on the Favela tour and see a little of one of the favelas that Rio is known for. Looking on Trip Advisor, the reviews for the tour are at the polar extremes – some folk seem to love it and others seem to have hated the experience. Only one way to find out which category we will be in!

One of the other things that we’ll have to get used to now we’re on our own is being at the mercy of local tour operators and their flexible timings. We had a thirty minute wait for the minibus to arrive at our hotel – Danielle, the guide, blamed some of the others for being late at their pickup. Sure enough, when we got in the minibus it was a real international group – Italians, Germans, Argentines, Singaporeans. Fortunately, everyone spoke English – so that was one thing we could cope with!

Free electricity!Our tour was to the Rocinha Favela, with 300,000 inhabitants it is the biggest, but by no means the only favela in Rio (or Brazil). There are some 300 favelas just in Rio and over 11m people live in favelas in Brazil. We were surprised to learn that the term favela isn’t Portuguese for slum or shanty town, but actually is the name for the type of tree that used to cover the hillside before they were cleared to make way for the people.

A  maze of narrow alleywaysThe favela is built on the hillside, right next to one of the richest districts of Rio. As there is only a single road that takes you to the top of the favela, everyone has to go past some very large houses on the way to view the homes of some of the poorest inhabitants of the city. We are dropped off in a busy, noisy street at the top of the favela and then head down an alleyway. Once inside the favela, there are no roads just narrow alleyways festooned with cables and pipes.

Kids learning to be carnival dancersOur first stop is in art workshop that is run to support the local kids. From the roof, we get a good view out over the favela and we get our first view of the ramshackle, haphazard buildings that wind their way down the hill to a sports complex, funded by the government, at the bottom. Whilst we wait for another group to finish on the roof so that we can go up, Danielle talks about the drug lords who control the favelas and the police attempts to control and pacify them – particularly ahead of the World Cup and then Olympics. She is very sceptical as to whether the police are having a positive impact, this leads on to a wider discussion. Some of the others seem to be far too interested in how the drug gangs work and what could be done about them.

Planning permission - you're having a giraffe!At last, we move on and start working our way down through the favela. Danielle explains that there is no central planning here – people just build where there is available land. Now that there is no more clear land, people sell their rooftop and a someone else will build a ‘house’ on top (and then a third person will build on top of that and so on). We certainly saw 4 storey houses built higgledy piggledy. Having built a house, you splice into the nearest mains electricity and water (and cable TV). Hence all of the wires and pipes running above and alongside the alleyway.

Bring me a crab cocktail and make it snappy?As we work our way down and through the favela, the alleyway gets narrower and the smell gets stronger – the sewer seems to run beneath us sometimes and beside us (and open) at others. Danielle points out a couple of places where there has been a mudslide and to other houses where the pillars holding up the house are disintegrating. Halfway down we stop at a shop that doubles as a bakery. As it is lunchtime, we buy a snack – I go for the ham and cheese stuffed bread that seems to be a local favourite. We also get the chance to try the local firewater, cachaça – they have one-upped the Mexicans and their worms in the tequilla. Here they have a crab and a piece of sugar cane in the bottle. It would have been rude to say no to a sample and at least you couldn’t taste the crab!

Footbridge in the shape of the logo for Rio's CarnivalAll in all, we were glad to have done the tour. However, despite the terrible housing and conditions that we would run a million miles away from, we didn’t get the impression that people were really poor (as in African slums). All the people we saw were dressed in clean(ish) clothes and looked reasonably well fed. Danielle talked about how the children all go to school (getting free transport outside of the favela). When we asked about life expectancy, Danielle said it was the same as the rest of Rio – around 70.

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