“Don’t Be a Tourist, Be a Local”
This is the slogan for Exotic Tours, a tourism company specializing in tours of Rio’s largest favela: Rocinha. Dressed in shorts, a t-shirt and newly purchased Hawaiianas, thus trying to embrace the all American tourist apparel, we, my good Colombian friend and architect, Maria Fernanda, prepared to embark in our first favela tour. We were picked up in a white jeep at the doors of the hotel Otan- a vegas/casino like hotel in the middle of Copacabana. After paying $65 Reales each (a little over $30 Dollars), the jeep began to move quickly through the Rio traffic, passing through Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon, driving up a mountain to the back of Gavea and highest point of Rocinha. The official walking tour began at the top of the morro, in the backside of Rocinha, where the white jeep left us. The tour guide, a true Rocinha local, began his speech by stating that “the favela is safer than Copabana […] here [in the favela], nobody bothers you”. He then continued to tell us not to worry if we saw people with guns (aka drug dealers), as they wouldn’t bother us- according to him, they are all close friends of his since elementary school (to be honest, my impression is that there is not only friendship involved but obviously some kind of informal monetary agreement between the tour companies and the drug dealers).
Rocinha is located in a privileged location, in a hill at the entrance to the luxurious residences of San Conrado, adjacent to Ipanema and Leblon, thus having quite a bit of visibility in the surrounding city.
The favela began around the 1930s, in what was at the time, the periphery of the city and a forest with close no practical value. In 1940, the favela held around 1000 inhabitants who clustered close to the bottom of the morro along the street Estrada Da Gavea; in 1970 the settlement had grown to 30 000 and had began to spread to form the barrio do biadeiro; in 1977, the favela had 133 000 occupying all “constructible” space in the morro, almost radiating from the initial Gavea street; today, Rocinha holds close to 350 000 inhabitants.
As a quick parenthesis I want to point out that the three larger creeks that were once present in the favela, are now almost completely gone due to the high density and urbanization of the area. Nevertheless, as we witnessed in the last week, they obviously reappear with strong rains and storms…
Back to the tour, I wasn’t sure what to expect and was very curious to see where the guide would take us, expecting him to lead us to various souvenir shops, food shops, and other places where we would be pressured into buying something, as well as restricting the tour to the main, highly transited streets. I was also very curious to see how the residents would react to two very un-tanned girls in small shorts and shirts, clearly tourists, walking around their home- basically thinking of the tour as poverty voyeurism. Somewhat surprisingly, none of these two happened. Apart from stopping in two or three places to buy “favela art”, the tour mainly consisted of walking through the main streets, and some of the alleyways moving down the favela. Regarding people’s reaction, there was only one lady who reacted negatively to our presence, directly telling the guide that we have no business to be walking around in the favela, looking at the “poverty” and taking pictures of them as a form of diversion… to this, the guide responded: “there are closed people who don’t understand that this business is good for the favela, bringing in money and changing people’s views about the place.”
Currently, Rocinha is part of the PAC. From what we heard (but didn’t quite see as it is only beginning the execution phase) there is talk about a public hospital, day care centers, sports facilities, as well as more connecting streets to the main street Gavea.
The favela has 5 public schools (two of which are CIEPs- Centro Integral de Educaçao Publica- part of a policy began in the 1980s by former mayor Leonel Brizola, along with a design by Oscar Niemeyer (all the schools have the same design), 1 medical post, various kindergartens and daycare centers, 3 banks and churches all over the place.
In addition, there is a bus that enters the favela and various ones that can be accessed at the bottom of the morro, thus allowing some level of connection with city. We were also told that in the favela, nobody pays formal taxes (as the houses are illegal) but close to 80% (an estimation of the tour guide) pay for formal services (light, internet, telephone, etc). As the favela has their own water company, the guide stated that they do not pay for water services. The trash is picked up from a couple of specific locations three times/week. As such, big piles of trash spill over the streets, attracting animals, bugs and insects…on top of giving the surrounding area a horrible smell. I am always amazed at the amount of dust and, sometimes, strong smells in the air…
The following video is a little shaky at times since I was filming while going down some pretty steep steps, but at least you will be able to get a feel for an alleyway on the top of Rocinha:
Although formal services do exists in Rocinha, not everyone plays the game. Many of the residents end up profiting from those who have formal service by tapping into the system and “stealing” energy. As such, Rocinha has an immense amount of unregulated cables floating above, and sometimes even draping down close to your head…
From the second street that we crossed, we saw a police force waiting in a corner. There were large armored cars, many police guards with large guns and anti-bullet vests. Naïvely we continued our tour, thinking nothing of it… thinking that this visit might be routine, already being somewhat accustomed to seeing a highly armed police in Rio. Naïve I say because, in reality, police presence in a favela is not a good sign; they are usually looking for a drug dealer and will not stop until they find him (one can easily assume that it is a man and not a woman in these cases). Nevertheless, we did not realize this, and after being instructed not to take photographs of the police force, as well as in other specific places where there is presence of the “narcotrafico” or drug dealers, we continued our walk. Towards the end of the tour, we entered one of the day care centers, which the tour company sponsors. Immediately the people in the day care asked us with surprise: You are walking around the favela, aren’t you scared?” Assuming they were talking about being in an informal settlement, we said that we weren’t, that we had our tour guide, etc. At this point, we heard gunshots, and only then did we realize what those questions were actually referring to- the police presence. Frozen, Maria Fernanda and I looked at each other, then stared at our tour guide asking him to please get us out of the favela as quickly as possible. That day 7 people died in Rocinha- 1 of them from an astray bullet. The control that the drug dealers have in the favela is not a joke- it is truly a different system with very different rules to play by- and by which the residents are automatically subject to if they want to protect their family. In addition to this, the brutality by which the police force acts cannot be ignored and adds to some of the oppression and fear that the great majority-hard working people leading an honest life and highly contribute to the formal economy and formal sector- constantly have to face.