In that English, middle-class way (not that I really consider myself middle-class; I was brought up in a working-class family, but I guess my poncey job drawing for a living kinda makes me more middle than working these days), it didn’t feel entirely right to be doing what I did earlier today. But I’ve done worse things on this trip; like going to a bullfight, or eating veal and foie gras. Yes, I’m trying to justify the slightly morally-dodgy tourist experience of visiting a favela.
I wouldn’t have even known about this type of tourist trip had I not bumped into Brendan and Mel in Buenos Aires. They gave me the URL of a company called Be A Local that organised tours of Rocinha; a favela that is home to 200,000 people. This, it should be noted, is not the tour operator who did silly stuff.
The guide, Marcio, picked me and a bunch of other young, white Europeans up and we trundled off in the minibus. We were told the plan, and that we shouldn’t take photographs if we saw men with walkie-talkies, machine guns, or hand grenades. Errr, hand grenades!? These people would be drug dealers.
We parked up at the bottom of the hill, where Rocinha begins, then Marcio gave a bunch of moto taxi dudes two reais apiece, and we were off, each of us helmetlessly clinging onto the back of a motorbike going up, up, up, weaving in-between buses and other motorbikes. The road, as you may well be able to imagine, wasn’t in the best condition; so it was the kind of ride where, being a man riding pillion, you occasionally feel your nuts being squished a bit when you hit a pothole or something. It was five minutes or so to the top, and we were there, right in the middle of a bloody favela. And, well, it wasn’t scary in the slightest. Like a dog that can smell fear, the relaxedness of Marcio really rubbed off, and I felt totally at ease there.
That main road into the favela seemed fairly developed. There was a Bob’s fast food place, a post office, banks. A lot of the local people greeted Marcio like seeing a friend, so that kind of eased my worries a touch that we weren’t welcome. But, the 65 reais (about 25 euros) we each paid to take the trip helped fund a daycare centre for children, so we were at least contributing, not just walking around a human zoo. Along the route that we took, we called in at an artist’s studio, stopped to listen to kids playing drums, paused in a shop to buy some food, and were offered bracelets and necklaces along the way.
Virtually all the children along the way smiled or said hello. One lad even high-fived us all as we walked along the narrow alley one-by-one. Now and again, you’d see an adult who seemed less than impressed that we were there, but I’d be pissed off if I had a crate of water on my shoulder and I was having to weave in and out a bunch of Westerners like us.
The alley we walked down had a fair amount of open sewers. There was the odd dude with a walkie-talkie, and blokes here and there smoking marijuana. Plenty of scavenging dogs, hundreds of electricity cables coming from each pylon, and hillsides where it’s impossible to tell if it’s trash covering a hillside or just a hillside of trash. We were told that this was an alley where there are often shootouts between drug dealers and the police.
It would come back now and again: why am I here, taking photographs of how people far less fortunate than me live? Then I’d make eye contact with someone, they’d mime taking a photograph, and then pose. And then it hits you. These people living their lives here have to cope with gun battles on their street all the time. Fuck.
I’m really glad I went on the tour of Rocinha, though. It’s fucked-up that this is tourism, and I’ve criticised myself in my head after writing every one of these sentences, but, sincerely, it’s good for “favela” to not just be a word now. I will never know what it is like to live here, I’m not sure that I want to either, but it was good to see some faces.
Large version of the last photo here.