This is my last blog post on my two week journey to Rio de Janeiro. It was certainly quite the experience. If you didn’t catch it, the reason Will van der Linde and I went down there was to produce a video for Favela Experience, a new business started by UVA Alum Elliot Rosenberg. He offers home stays and apartment rentals in a few of the favelas in Rio, providing a more genuine Brazilian experience. With World Cup 2014 less than a year away, our video is going to show what it’s really like to live in the favelas and encourage those interested to stay with Elliot. However, the video will be released with Favela Experience’s crowdfunding campaign and we are still a month out. In the meantime, read what it was like and enjoy the pictures!
A summary of sorts
My recent trip to Rio de Janeiro was one that came with a lot of lessons. Rio is such an interesting city and my perspective coming from Charlottesville, a small quaint college town that you could describe as comfy, progressive, and posh. Charlottesville is tiny in comparison boasting about 40,000 residents in the city. It’s cozy in the sense that crime is low, life is at a comfortable country pace with a good amount of stimulating activity. Not to mention we are still located in the south region of the US and you cannot help but notice the lines separating races that still is so prevalent even in the social scene.
Rio is a humungous convergence of people and culture with about 6.32 million people! You have to understand the dynamic of Brazil to more appreciate the demographic influences. Brazil is a country that takes up more space than the continental US. It has been invaded and conquered by several different parts of the world, including the Chinese, Spanish, French, Muslims, and now American consumerist culture. The architecture alone in Rio tells a story of many different cultural and religious influences. Coming from the US, the ‘melting pot’ of countries, we definitely have more cultural diversity in the sense of represented nationalities, but Rio has a much more racially heterogenous appearance. That is not to say that there still aren’t racial factors in the workings of society, just that when casually observing the demographic at pretty much any time, you would find a very mixed group. It’s not in the normal black, white, Asian, and Mexican that I’m used to hearing. Obviously this is because of the different racial demographics and Brazil’s unique cultural history of indigenous people being invaded by Europeans and East Asians. Nonetheless I found the fact that in any situation you could be standing in a group of Brazilians that are white, black, brown, and anything in between and I was left with saying they are all Brazilian. Maybe this is my ignorance is speaking on Brazilian racial politics, but I didn’t go to Rio to study racial demographics and this is just an observation from living in Rocinha.
Staying in a favela?!
After seeing the Favela Experience firsthand, people have asked me my thoughts?
I couldn’t agree with Elliot Rosenberg, founder of Favela Experience, more when it comes to his perspective on staying in Rio. Rio is a large cluster#&$!. Where you stay is going to directly determine your overall experience of the city, the people, etc. I have always found hostels to be nice when there is no where else to affordably stay. In Rio if you are looking to hang out with other tourist from a similar or parallel demographics and do activities catered toward tourists, drink at a tourist bar that plays American rock music, and maybe even hook up with fellow drunkards, the hostel is the place for you. If you want a more immersive cultural experience or a genuine perspective of the city and meet Brazilians not caught in the tourist net, staying in a favela is the best idea.
It’s like the untouched frontier for foreigners to explore life in Rio for real people.
The favelas have really only been accessible for a few years. Yes some hardcore explorers still ventured into the favelas when the drug gangs controlled them, but not many. I was struck with how some of the people in the favela treated me as if they had never really interacted with an American. Well the truth is that they really haven’t. With the prevalent mindset in tourism that the favelas are dangerous most decide to visit the favelas as part of an organized tour where they either walk on a few of the main streets like sheep or on a cattle bus. Many of these tours sensationalize the danger for excitement. I understand the viability of these excursions as you see these kind of bus tours in all major cities. In other cities these buses are convenient to see all the grandiose architecture and historical spots, but in Rio you can’t really get a feel for a favela by walking through it let alone riding on a bus. This perspective would confirm whatever presumptions you come with and not allow for a genuine light of the community. There are some walking tours that fight this conception and attempt to show tourists the real life of those in the favelas (i.e favelatour.org), but these tours are vastly outnumbered by ‘cattle tours’ which I find more useful to learn to behave like a sheep than learning about the historical, cultural import or experiences of native peoples.
I only visited 2 of the 600 or so favelas. I stayed in Rocinha and travelled to Vidigal one night. All of my experience of the ‘favelas’ concerns really just Rocinha. When I say favelas, this is a general outlook specifically about Rocinha and should not be treated as a description of all favelas, as each of these unique communities is vastly different from the next.
I want to stress the unexplored aspect of Rocinha. It’s not a remote place in the world but it does have many hidden gems and things you would say are unknown to most travelers. I think this is a unique opportunity for travelers seeking a more authentic journey. To forge their own path in the hectic maze, go where they want, and discover what they find. This is not the case for most places I visit. With lonely planet guide at your finger tips, you know exactly what to do and don’t, and surprisingly it’s pretty accurate. Lonely planet nor do any other guides that I saw give a guide of Rocinha. The common expression after telling a middle to upper class Brazilian or fellow tourist that we were staying in Rocinha was either shock or disbelief. “Why would you want to go there? They don’t even have a McDonalds!”
The truth is that the favela is not for everyone. Many people prefer the pampered and amenity filled life of 5-star accommodations. They travel to third world nations to take advantage of the relative cheapness of luxury. I believe there is a changing tide. Many of us would rather travel to experience the different perspective, not to see the regurgitated expanse of wealth and consumer culture which I find troubling. The haves and have nots are definitely not new and we even enjoy seeing how both have lived, say if you travel to see the palace at Versailles. But I think we can mostly agree that we don’t travel to another hemisphere to go see all the same businesses and corporate influence that we already have near home. So not only do I recommend staying with Favela Experience, but it might be one of the only ways to really experience Brazilian culture. I’m sure saying at a closed-gate 5-star hotel and venturing to the beach is nice, but it won’t provide a cultural experience nor give any insight into what life is like for most Brazilians.
We experienced so much goodness in the Rocinha and even more generally in Rio. There were many ‘pseudo ambassadors’ of Rio that cared about the impression we, Americans with a camera, had about their beautiful city. From people on the metro to a police officer at the Maracana stadium, people were helpful, curious, and interested that we were attempting to show Rocinha in a real light. To be honest, other than the federal police which carry weapons you would have no idea of any sort of drug or gang activity. I never felt threatened or in danger in the favela. Maybe we can thank the police for this experience as tourist, but many locals share their discontent with the pacification. In their perspective, the drug gangs didn’t bother them, they actually provided for the community. The government replaces this network but lags behind in any real significant infrastructure. They sent the tanks and they’ve got the guns, but where are the schools, the basic sanitation, the jobs that were promised with this change in control? Now with the pacification and increasing tourism, the prices have already increased for locals. The thought of the Olympics in Rio may sound nice for foreigners and soccer fans, but for many living in Rio, this is just a huge distraction as the government prepares with expensive projects that improves the overall aesthetic pleasure but doesn’t take care for the people who pay higher taxes than even US citizens. It’s very controversial and the future is uncertain. I don’t discourage anyone from coming for the World Cup or Olympics, but if you are going to travel to someone else’s home, why not do it in a way that supports the local community and doesn’t add to the disturbance. Favela Experience gives literally almost all the proceeds they make to the local host families. This is not some foreign corporation or adding to the already wealthy few who own and control most. I genuinely support Elliot and his venture and cannot wait to show-off the video I was able to produce for him. Until then, enjoy my ‘Best of Rio’ photo album below.
Click on any picture to scroll ~