I was in Rio, visiting Brazil for the first time with a group of American friends. Other friends had been to Rio recently and had highly recommended doing a favela tour, so we decided to do one, too.
Oh yeah. I totally did one of those favela tours.
We went through Be a Local, and had a great guide who picked us up in a van and brought us to Sao Conrado. He briefed us as soon we got out, explaining safety precautions and how to handle ourselves (only take pictures when he said it was OK, do not talk to the guys with the guns, etc). Then, we each took mototaxis up to the top of the favela, which was undoubtedly my favorite part of the tour. I chatted with the motorcycle driver, and was terribly pleased with myself when he complimented my Portuguese.
Then we arrived in Rocinha, the largest slum in the Americas.
We made our way from the very top to the very bottom, making our way through the windy, narrow passageways and the steep, trash-lined paths. We visited a little art gallery, where I bought a little painting of the favela, and kids stopped us along the way, trying to sell us homemade jewelery and asking us to take their picture. We passed stores with live chickens and not so live chickens, botecos and mercadinhos, the tangled illegal electrical lines, and the only health clinic that serves the entire community of 100 - 150,000 people.
We only saw a few guys with guns, and were very fortunate we were there on a peaceful day. There were little kids everywhere, and people flying kites from their roofs. Our last stop was a daycare center, partially funded by the tour company, where we played with the kids and took pictures of the stunning view from the roof.
It did seem a little weird to be in the middle of a residential community, but then again, there are tours of super rich communities in the US, like Newport and Beverly Hills. I guess extremes are interesting. I wasn't deeply affected by the visit nor the poverty, since I'd seen even worse poverty before; in fact, I was surprised how developed some of the favela was. And I was mostly struck by the massive size of the slum.
At the end, when I was looking out over the favela, I had a weird, small inkling, like reverse deja vu, that I would be back in that exact place sometime in the future. And I would, in December that year, when I visited the same NGO and decided to spend the next six months applying for fellowships to do a service project in that same favela.
More photos after the jump.