RIO DE JANEIRO – In last week’s issue we published a controversial story in our Real Estate section about living in Vidigal, one of Rio’s largest and most visible favelas. Although unlike most favela articles the issue was not painting a negative portrayal, but rather making it sound too nice.
The concern voiced was that it did not appropriately represent the dangers and semi-lawless reality, and specifically warned of the massive publicity consequences for Rio if something terrible happening to a gringo there.
Rio’s favelas are almost iconic across the globe, sensationalized by films like City of God, and a hot topic amongst social and humanitarian workers. There are few more illustrative issues demonstrating Brazil’s past and future challenges, and as an example our story on building walls around the favelas remains our third most read article.
The city is responding, both for it’s long term civil progress and the relatively short term World Cup and Olympic spotlight. Thankfully the UPP “pacification” program seems to be working, and no matter what position one has about favela safety and society, everyone agrees that the scale of poverty is unacceptable in an emerging global power.
There seems to be (at least) two minds on the issue of favelas; the more conservative recognizes the unfortunate circumstances but does not accept the unlawful (untaxed) urban sprawl and certainly does not see redeeming qualities in the blatant drug-gang-run reality.
Another perspective identifies with the inequalities of society and finds comfort in the simple, and low cost, way of life. The fact that more and more gringos are finding there ways to the favelas is a reflection of increased acceptance (by all parties), and the strength of the Brazilian Real against the globally battered U.S. Dollar.
Perhaps there is a third group that is curious and wants to see for itself, and for those people there are many tours available. These range from safari-like poverty-peepers to individual excursions, with a range of costs and security available. Another great way to get involved are the many NGO and Non-Profit organizations operating across the city.
I’ve been in three favelas over the course of six visits in the last seven years, one in the Zona Norte and the others to Vidigal and Rocinha. It took four years (not living in Rio full-time) before finding a friend to take me to their ‘hood, and then last year I had a very good friend that lived in Rocinha.
While there I’ve seen very nice apartments, and very unfortunate living conditions. I’ve seen families and friends enjoying cervejas and samba, and I’ve seen bullet-holed walls and 35 flip-flop-wearing-teenagers with assault riffles. I’ve seen organized vans and buses and hi-jacked electricity and rain-water plumbing systems.
Personally I do not recommend anyone go into a favela neighborhood without a friend that lives there, or as part of an organized NGO or tour activity. Favelas have beautiful people living beautiful lives; families, children, moms, dads, and grandparents, but I would offer the same advice for anyone visiting areas of the Bronx,… and there no one is carrying machine guns on street corners.