I can honestly say visiting the Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. It might sound like a traveling wanker’s cliché, but witnessing such levels of precariousness is a real shock to the system coming from the granted comfort of the Western bubble. I spent most of the visit in shock, stunned into silence.
I took a tour organised by a company called Be a Local. Our guide Patrick is a respected figure around the community, and has been in the job for years. He knew pretty much everyone in the favela, and would stop and say hi to all. The kids love him.
The favelas are made up of countless rows of tiny, cheaply assembled ‘houses’ – some more like huts – crammed into the confined space of steep uphill alleyways. It’s what give the neighborhoods an unusual pyramid look from distance. Most have water and electricity, the lucky ones internet.
Ravaged by disease, police corruption and local drug dealing gang fights, they are an unimaginably tough place to survive. We walked past dozens of houses riddled by the gun shots of local rivalries, as well as a couple or hardmen casually enjoying a drink with their huge machine guns nearby. That was different.
The tour was a little uncomfortable at times, as local understandably try to sell stuff whenever they spot a few gringo tourists. As an outsider you feel observed and followed at all time, and you are. You wouldn’t last long without a familiar face to accompany you.
The favelas are a striking symbol of Brazil’s unevenly paced economic development. They’re also a reminder of the undelivered promises of the 2014 World Cup, a tournament which saw indecent investment into temporary infrastructures and pointless stadiums whilst the poorest lack the most basic resources.
But there are reasons to be hopeful. People like Patrick make a big difference in the community, as does money collected from tourism. We visited a daycare center partially funded by these invitatives, and met some of the local kids.
This experience was touching, sad and overwhelming. While a trip to Rio isn’t complete without a few trips to the beach, cocktail overdoses and a close inspection of all the main sights, I would definitely recommend taking the time to visit one of these neighborhoods.
It might change your outlook on life. I know it did mine.