It’s my second stay in Rio and it seems only know that I am starting to understand it. Before, the favelas had always been a dark area, small clusters of activity existing on the landscape around the centre. Their height above the city, their lack of roads and non-presence on any maps making them easy to dismiss. Their bad reputation also playing a big factor. But it’d be foolish to dismiss them. Over the past week I have been to 2 favelas. Favela Tavares Basto is one of the safest places in Rio. No gangsters. No guns. No smoking on the street. A deal has been struck with the Police and they maintain the status quo. I imagine this is where the older cops come to see out their years on the force. At the top of the favela is a club, my reason for going. It’s a jazz club (another sign that this isn’t your average favela; no booty beats here!).
This venue has become quite famous for being featured in the video for Snoop Dogg – Beautiful. It’s naming as a favela surely something of a misnomer. There are as many middle-class people in this neighbourhood as poor.
Yesterday I went to Tabajaras with some friends. Another favela, this time with some of the normal problems that favelas face. Guns are drugs are quite prevalant. Walking through the streets can be quite intimidating, there are huge concrete walls surrounding many of the paths with houses overlooking you in all directions. But visiting with people who know the area makes all the difference. Everyone they see on the street knows their name and stops to chat. It takes about an hour to get to the house we’re trying to reach. Without distraction it would take 15 minutes to walk to this favela from my hostel in the centre of Copacabana, yet they couldn’t be further apart. On entering the favela I felt a lot safer. Copacabana is rife with homeless, people trying to sell you drugs and generally people eyeing you up for a lot longer than is really necessary. It’s a haven for tourists and so muggings happen all the time. The favela feels different, it is a home for a lot of people and isn’t just a place to fleece a few tourists.
That said, my plan to roam around the favelas on my own is still a long way off. I know no way near enough to ever realise that. However, my interest has been piqued. It seems like they get a bad name. All tourists stick to the main spots; Copacabana, Ipanema, the street parties in Lapa, and quite a few of them end up getting mugged. This is partly due to them being drunk and speaking English, wearing too much jewellery, carrying unnecessary cards and money and also a heavy dose of bad luck. The reputation of Rio as dangerous will always remain as tourists will keep on coming and keep on getting mugged in these very same places. As the people doing the muggings come from the favelas it is these barrios that seem to get the brunt of this reputation.
The only time people go into the favelas is through the organised tours or because they are doing some volunteering. The real nature of the favelas is generally hidden from the majority of the people. The shame that the Government feel towards them is remarkable. They take every opportunity to cover up their existence. When Michael Jackson was planning to film a video in Santa Marta, the Government did what they could to cancel it. They presumed that filming inside a favela would give Rio a bad name. It didn’t matter that the video was planning to show the favela as the vibrant community that it is or that the inhabitants were overcome with excitement at the fact that MJ was coming to their neighbourhood, they were just unhappy that it wasn’t going to be set on Ipanema beach or one of their other chosen tourist spots. Recently, they’ve been talking about building walls around some of the favelas to stop them from encroaching on some of the rainforest in the area, in what is surely just another method of trying to hide them from view.
Sometime this week I am hoping to visit Rocinha, a favela in the West of the city. It’s an extremely safe area, and is generally regarded as a great example of building a community.