The steep hillsides around the city are jammed with
favelas or shantytowns. These masses of seemingly ready-to-topple houses capture my interest and hoping to gain insight into a favelas' inner world, my husband Rick and I join a small tour group to visit Rocinha, one of the largest in Rio de Janeiro.
Fernandi, our guide, has our van driver drop us off on a busy market street across from where we will climb the favela hill in single file through the narrow pathways. "
Rocinha is home to about 103,000 residents, although there is no official count," Fernandi says, "and it is one of over 600 favelas in Rio. Over the years there have been waves of country folks relocating to the city for work and hopes of a better life, and not being able to afford urban housing, they settle in the favelas."
Promising more history later, he advises, "Before we begin, if you have not already heard, favelas are where drug traffickers and organized crime gangs called "militias" rule and if by chance you see someone carrying a gun - please DO NOT attempt to take a photo." He goes on to say that since 2008 law enforcers called UPPs, which is short for Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (Pacifying Police Units) are aimed at stopping the drug traffickers.
For over an hour we follow Fernandi through the maze of dwellings, now mostly concrete, with steps branching off to higher and higher levels...I can't even begin to imagine the long treacherous walk to and from work for the inhabitants, many employed in Rio's big hotels, restaurants, or construction. Some residents greet us as we walk by, kids run past at play, skeletal cats and dogs make quiet, fleeting appearances. Ladies chit-chat from their doorways; a few men sit on steps having a smoke. There is a strong sense of community.
"Most of the favelas do not have proper infrastructure." says Fernandi, "The residents rig up their own water and sewage and electricity." We can vouch for the latter as we walk under wires hanging overhead like a hearty portion of al dente cooked spaghetti. Around some corners are piles of refuse, but not so bad considering that they are not on the city grid for garbage pickup.
Mid-way we stop for tin-can drummers pounding out a catchy beat. Within seconds a boy aged 6 or 7 keeps up with lightening leg movement, and is joined by an even younger girl! Donations are in order.
Further along some ladies have a table stocked with handmade jewelry and trinkets for sale. I am quick to purchase four bracelets of twisted electrical cable - a unique gift with a story for our grandchildren.
A cooling drink or home-made cake or cookie is available from a tiny store. An icy concoction made from acai juice hits the spot.
We are only too happy to stop on a platform jutting out from the cliff for a view of favelas on surrounding hills...and a much needed breather. Fernandi takes this time to tell us the first favelas were built by soldiers who had nowhere to go. "They were promised lots of land after their return from fighting the civil war, the
War of Canudos, 1896-97, but this promise was broken by the corrupt government."
An elderly gent on our tour, who spent most of his life in Rio, pipes up, "And since then and still today the favelas, which exist in most of Brazil's urban centres, display great economic disparity. This should not be so in one of the richest countries in the world for oil, gems, and resources."
"Things are somewhat improved here," Fernandi claims, "they now have a small pharmacy, and a charity run kindergarten, and NGO's run some recreation programs to expose the kids to sports and alternative interests, rather than the slippery slope of the drug trade, but so much more could and should be done. The lack of government investment in essential areas, such as education and sanitation are paramount."
The narrow passages have taken a downward turn, until we reach the opposite side of the hill to where our van awaits us. The hardships and struggles of providing for families are burned in our memories, and we leave with well-wishes for the residents and appreciation for the graciousness shown to us visitors, and for Fernandi's passionate sharing of life inside Rocinha.
Poverty and wealth at a glance - Rocinha Favela
Irene Butler is an award winning writer and author of
"Trekking the Globe with Mostly Gentle Footsteps" on Kindle. Her articles have appeared in national and international publications. She and her husband Rick explore the world for six or more months of every year.