First-person look ~ Visiting favelas (Rio’s slums) for a life-altering experience

By Dian Hasan | October 8, 2009

Favela tour participants with the favela in the background. Rio, Brazil

Favela tour participants with the favela in the background. Rio, Brazil

If you’ve always wondered how compelling direct face-to-face travel experience really is, especially when it deals with uncommon environments, situations and places that are totally foreign to you (I’m aware this may sound like an oxymoron, as it’s so obvious to most people. But I feel it’s important to establish this story’s point) than read the following experience of one traveler who visited Rio’s infamous Rocinha favelas (slums) and came back better educated about the marginalized society, about poverty, and how they struggle with the daily challenges. And in the end, how “normal” the favelas were, with a functioning community, with hopes and dreams, just like the rest of us.

At first the traveler was grappling with negative thoughts of questioning why would anyone want to take a “zoo approach” to take a tour to see people’s poverty. But after some open discussions with fellow-travelers who were interested in taking the favela tour, coupled with web research on which tour company to choose and how tourism benefited favelas, the traveler decided to give it a go.

The tour operator the traveler chose was a real inhabitant of the favela, and that made a big difference. To get an “inside look” on all the nuts and bolts of how favelas function.

Upon returning from the favela tour, the traveler expressed gratitude for being given the opportunity to be educated – albeit only for a brief afternoon – about poverty and how little we all know about this real issue that is facing millions of urban poor around the world.

In short, a life-altering experience. The traveler has expressed wanting to come back and do volunteer work in the favelas in the future (the following original story as appeared in
My favela experience…

First, I was in Brazil for Carnival just to relax and hang out. The idea of going to a favela was not something I thought about. I was not interested in going on some zoo type tour to see poor people. There is enough misery in the world, never mind seeing it up close. I am certainly not a heartless person, but I feel that the invasion of tourists in favelas is kind of strange.

My first question is what does the community get out of this?

So, while at my hostel, I met up with some Europeans that wanted to go to the favelas. I asked them why would they want to go and they responded that all the interesting culture is there. So, I kind was more interested in what they meant by that. I did some research online and found some tour companies, but I did not want to go in, take photos and then leave. I certainly did not want to sit in a Jeep to do a tour. I figured if I was going to go, I wanted to go to a party or see something of interest then just looking at people and poorly built housing. In our hostel there were flyers advertising favela tours too but I wanted more information.

After getting great reviews from some other hostelers, I decided on Zezinho’s tour. The main thing being that he was FROM the favela and could answer all my questions. The other guests that returned from Zezinho’s tour said it was a highlight of their Rio experience and that if anyone were to do a tour, Zezinho was the best guide. They told me Zezinho knows EVERYTHING about favelas and Rocinha. These other tour companies seemed less personal and too “touristy”.

I emailed Zezinho and set up a day. I had two others interested, so three of us met Zezinho at the Post 9 in Ipanema. We proceeded to take vans to the bottom of the favela where we first stopped in the Rocinha Samba School.

All I can say is that I felt like I was visiting a long lost friend. Zezinho is likeable and represents Rocinha like nobody else. This guy is crazy for Rocinha, tattoos and all. He has this passion for his community that you can’t help but feel too. He also knows all the best photo locations in the favela. I got some awesome shots.

We took motorcycle taxis to the top where we had great views of the downtown side and the San Conrado side of the favela. Great photo opportunity. Through our visit we met some of the nicest people, kids and adults alike. From the top our tour took us eventually to the bottom right back from where we started but this was after six hours.

The tour was not rushed at all. The highlights were going to Zezinho’s house and having the neighbours drop by for a beer. I felt like this was a tight knit community where people somehow managed. It was like I knew all of Zezinho’s friends. There was no judgement of us because we were from some far away place, no prejudice.

I felt like I got a history lesson about favelas and Rocinha. Some information I found interesting was how the houses were built, garbage pickups, recycling, how the residents gain access to water and electricity, and how they feel about existing (or being treated badly) on the margins of carioca society. Favelas, to the average Brazilian are “no go” zones.

I was told by many Brazilians before my tour that I would probably get raped or robbed. I constantly heard, “Why would you want to go THERE?” “Favelas are dirty, the people are stupid and “those” people do nothing in society.” So much prejudice against the hillside dwellers. Yes, we saw some guys with guns, but never felt threatened. I never once heard a favela resident say anything negative about people who live outside of favelas. Strange eh?

We accessed areas that other tours do not go according to Zezinho. I believe him because on some parts of the neighbourhood we saw other visitors, but other areas none. Some of the places he took us were a school, day care, radio station Brisa, TvRoc (cable tv), catholic church, real estate office (yes they have two in Rocinha), the residents association (local favela government), Lan House, Trapia restaurant (awesome food), three different roof views at his friend’s homes, various becos or alley ways that you could easily get lost without a guide, Tio Lino’s Art school non profit, Casa da Paz community house, Rocinha 1 Fitness, and so much more. I took photos of almost everything. Every place we went, everybody knew Zezinho and treated us like his best friends.

After the tour was over, I was sad because I wanted to hang out there longer and see more of everyday life. It’s also sad in that Zezinho talked of the prejudice that he suffers because of where he is from. He made it very clear that at some point, he wants his own tour company with guides from the favela. He told me “I want people to get to “KNOW Rocinha”. Well, I am not sure if I “know” Rocinha but I probably know more now than the average tourist who has visited. The tour was well worth the time and money and this guy needs to advertise because his service is very different from other favela tour companies. I would not call my experience a “tour”, it was more like a day-long visit.

The reason I know this is because other hostelers went with Jeep tours and told us “average” stories of their favela experience. And they felt that their three hours was not enough to really see the place.

I felt like I will forever remember my experience of Rocinha and Zezinho. His dream is to open a community centre where he can have all the talented people of Rocinha teach their art form, anything from Capoeira to ju jitsu and of course his DJ school. I hope he earns enough to buy his building. He and this other guy we met “Rambo da Rocinha” are Rocinha originals.

So, now how do I feel about favela tours? Well, I think favelas are intriguing places and I would love to go back someday to volunteer. Maybe Zezinho can have me volunteer at his community centre. I think the experience you will have on a favela tour really depends on the GUIDE. Zezinho lives and breathes Rocinha. He really is trying to make a difference in his community. I think his passion for his favela certainly rubbed off on us!

At the end of the tour, Zezinho made us an offer that if during our stay we wanted to come back for a visit, samba show or baile funk, that he would escort us as friends (no money exchanged).

Two of us went back the following Sunday to a funk party that was “off the hook”! lots of fun… With all the bad things the news says, we only experienced good things in Rocinha but we are not stupid, we know favelas do have police invasions and can be very dangerous places.

Since taking a visit to Rocinha, I have decided to help Zezinho design a website, organize and help run his own tour company. I believe so much in the positive activities that he is doing for his community.

If you decide to visit Rocinha with Zezinho, please tell him, I sent you.

Source: I’ve Been There Blog

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2 Responses to First-person look ~ Visiting favelas (Rio’s slums) for a life-altering experience

  1. ciska says:

    Nice article…

    I went to Rocinha back in ’99. My first impression was, hey…this is great…:). They had clean running water, neat and organized homes, happy faces everywhere. Compared to some slums in Jakarta (or Mumbai) Rocinha was like a 4 star hotel. Not to mentioned they got one of the best views of Rio. Would love to go back there one day….

    • endangerededen says:

      Hi Cis, sorry for not getting back to you sooner. I was in Jkt for 2 wks to attend my dad’s 75th B’day. Was really surprised that Jkt (and the country) seem to be booming. There’s life and economic activity everywhere! ciao for now. love, d

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