After finally agreeing to do a tour, we booked one with our hostel and the next day were picked up by a van and dropped outside the Rocinha favela, the largest one in town and, as they say, one of the most dangerous. Our guide was a fantastic guy who used to be in the military but was now spending his life “the real way, with the real people… I love the people who live here and if I can help out even just by spreading the word that these places are not nearly as bad as they are made to seem, this is what I will do”.
Instructions before getting inside the favela
“Now, you must remember you are gringos and you are with me, which means this is the safest place in Rio you could find yourselves in for the next few hours. Whatever you see and hear, just remember this one thing: nobody in this place will as much as touch a hair on your head. They are very familiar with gringos coming and they very much enjoy having you here. They want you to see the reality of the place they live in. They are proud of it and want to share it with you.”
“One of the most important things to remember is you are free to take pictures everywhere except for some specific places I will be pointing out on the way. Many of the guys here are hiding from the police and can’t afford to have pictures of themselves appearing on your Facebook profile, ok? That being said, not to worry. Even if by mistake you take a photo of some of the drugs or drug dealers, they are very nice about asking you to delete them. They might have a gun in their hand when they walk towards you, but they will smile and ask you to delete that photo, then they will walk away”.
“Hopefully none of you will get lost here, so please stay close to me at all times. It has happened before that people from the tour have disappeared and I found them later having beer with the locals. Please have patience until the end of the tours, after that you’re free to do whatever you wish. In case you do get lost, don’t worry at all. Just ask anyone and everyone will help you… even the guy holding an AK47 will point you politely in the right direction.”
Taking the “local taxi” up the hill
Then he told us we’d get to the top of the hill with the local taxi and then walk back down from there. So we walked towards the “local taxies place” and were met by at least 15 young men on awesome looking motorcycles. It looked like a great bikes commercial. The guide said “See you up there!”, and while I was still trying to make sense of the situation, this young man walked towards us, looked at me, pointed his finger at me and said “You! With me!” I looked around and everyone seemed to be as surprised as I was (I didn’t catch the guide’s look, he must have been the only relaxed one among us) and I obeyed. Not that I had a choice, I thought. It reminded me of the desert in India, where that was the exactly the way the desert men chose us to ride their camels.
I got on the bike behind the handsome and commanding Brazilian and tried ignoring the little shade of doubt about this whole situation, doubt coming of course from the previous image I had of the favelas. “Surely this must be safe” I kept telling myself. The guy instructed me to lock my arms around his waist and then stepped on the pedal. I’d been on quite a few insane bike rides in my life, but none went faster than this one up a hill and with traffic around it too. At least 4 times I thought that was the end, I saw death in the face, and then I found myself gasping for air after realising we had just avoided another vehicle by millimeters.
My guy was talking to me, asking me my name, where I was from, if I was married… I kept trying to focus on the conversation rather than the death ride I had unknowingly signed up for, but it was not an easy thing to do at all. I could tell my driver loved adrenaline and I kept telling myself that he was so skillful, surely it would be impossible for him to get into an accident. I did hint a couple of times that we could go slower if he wanted to, there was no problem with that, but he just laughed it off as if “why on earth would we do that??”. So I then resolved to letting him do his job, while I did the next thing that seemed appropriate at the time: pray I’d get off that two-wheeler alive!
I had been the first one picked up from the group so there was no one in front of us, and that added to my uncertainty of where we were actually going. I dared not look behind as I’d get dizzy from the speed even looking left and right, so I just patiently waited to reach the destination. Not that there was much choice about that either.
“Here we are” he said after a few minutes, “we have reached our destination”. When I got off the bike my legs were shaking like autumn leaves, but I was oh so grateful I still had my body in one piece. Just as I regained my breath I saw another bike arriving, and Boca got off that one looking pretty much as shaken as I was. The rest of them followed and soon our group was complete again. I said good-bye to my guy and he made sure to give me one last of his charming smiles before he stepped on that “scary-for-me, full-of-adrenaline-for-him” pedal again.
The time spent in the favela
We spent the next few hours walking around the favela, interacting with some of the locals, having local cakes, visiting an art gallery with beautiful albeit a bit expensive paintings and then a nursery built by an international NGO. On the way we also attended a mini concert by 3 teenagers who were using instruments from recycled materials. I felt such a strong connection with them, and that was when the idea of volunteering there first cornered in my mind.
Another guy we crossed path with was a dude carrying his marijuana plant in a little pot. He transported it with so much care and seemed so proud of it… he even let us take a photo of it. It was a bit surreal but yet much milder than the sights we were told we could have come across (machine guns, white powders etc etc).
“Brazilians are happy people, that’s just how we are”
As we were walking down the street I was surprised at how many of the people we met were smiling, laughing, listening to music, singing out loud and going about their day pretty relaxed, appearing to not really bother whether we were there or not. We then climbed up a building at the top of the hill and spent a while admiring the view from there, both of the beach far away and of the houses and people going about their lives just below us. I couldn’t help but notice how nothing in their behavior was changed: even though they could not see us, they were acting the exact same way they were when we were passing by them and they knew we were watching: smiling, laughing, listening to music, singing out loud and relaxedly going about their day.
I asked our guide about it and his answer was: “You must understand something. Brazilians are happy people, that’s our nature, that’s how we are. Out there in the city, with lots of money, and over here in the favelas, with whatever you can see.” He pointed out they don’t focus on what they don’t have, but on how they can make the best with what they do have. And they do it, every day at a time. “The people here in the favela will look at you and say oh, poor girl… look at you, you’re so white… there’s no sun where you come from, huh? And they’ll feel sad for you.” The people there care more about a sunny day than about a diamond ring or a fancy car … they take each day at a time and welcome it with a smile, looking forward to what it will bring. And they are happy. Which is not something that can be said about most people in the “developed world”.
I then had a few pictures in my mind that made me think. If you had to choose between having the most expensive champagne on the huge terrace of your condominium, overlooking the ocean, watching the gorgeous sunset, alone, versus a can of the cheapest beer in front of a small TV, watching a game with a bunch of close friends who you know would do anything for you… what would you choose?
It reminded me of how during some of my worst periods, financially speaking, I’d pass by fancy restaurants and dream of the time I’d be able to afford a dinner there … and then, when I later had the opportunity to be taken there by people who had more money they could spend, but whose company I did not enjoy, the idea of going there with them filled me up with disgust at the idea of “betrayal” against myself, my values, my soul. I’ve never appreciated the $3 dinners with my close friends more than after having that realisation.
Happiness then, as I see it, is not directly proportional with the amount of stuff you have, but simply with the attitude you have.
By the time we finished the tour, all three of us had had thoughts on wanting to find an opportunity to volunteer in the favela. When we shared the thoughts with each other we weren’t surprised at the similarities. We knew it was something that came from our heart.
Unfortunately, as you know by now from previous posts, our desire to help out did not materialize this time, and even though we have already left Rio, we are open to what the future has to offer. Meeting people from the favela later and also going there on a different occasion (to celebrate samba together with the people who love it most) has reinforced our belief that these are such great people who need all the support in the world, while at the same time have so much to offer to the same world.
I don’t know the story you’ve read or been told about the favelas… but going out there to see them with your own eyes is a favor you want to do to yourself. And to them. It’s a total perspective change… and it’s a beautiful one!
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