Touring a Favela and Other Obnoxious Tourist Activities

The next day, bright and early Aracely, Mark, Derek and I had a favela tour because nothing says stupid fucking tourists like driving into a poverty stricken neighborhood to take pictures to show how poor people are – and then running back to the air conditioned bus which would drive us back to our gigantic apartment. But first, I had to make good on my promise to make breakfast for everyone when they woke up so I got my ass up at 7 and cooked omelets. Domesticated bitch right here.

The tour of Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio ended up being a really enlightening experience. And to make us feel a bit less like jerks for engaging in such an exploitative activity, we learned that half of our payment went to the local daycare center which I guess made me feel a bit less like an asshole. I also expected people to be much more hostile towards us based on the nature of trip into the neighborhood, but most people aside from the children barely gave us a second glance. I thought maybe even being an Asian would get a few odd glances (not as rare as one would think in Brazil – they have the second largest Japanese population in the world) but there was only one person who got stared or glared at the entire time we were in the favela. It was a obese white girl with blonde hair and the kind of cellulite you could see up the mountain in the favela from the neighboring beach. She was also wearing American flag cutoff shorts but spoke with a British accent. Thanks for perpetuating the stereotypes of fat Americans you damn not Yankee. I literally saw people pointing and whispering and since we were in a favela the conversation probably went something like “Where did that fat fuck American possibly find so much food”


Aside from that initial observation, the tour itself was very damn good. The guide gave us a lot of background on the favelas and insight on some of the ongoings. Currently the government is trying to raze some of the favelas especially in light of the upcoming World Cup and Olympic hosting. However, you obviously can’t just displace thousands of people so at least they’re trying to clear them up and get rid of some of the crime – hence why there were more police stationed there than usual. Our guide, also had us note that in an effort to move to communities forward they had built a gorgeous athletic facility at the base of the favela because no one loves sports (umm soccer football anyone?) more than Brazilians – and the only way the kids could gain access to the athletic complex and pool was by attending school.  And children respond well to bribes, and soccer is better for you than candy – ahem teachers that bribed us fat American children with candy to do well in class.

We also were instructed that taking pictures was fine, except of people (oh hey poverty stricken person can I take your picture so I can show my friends back home that I had an “authentic” experience?  Thanks!) and not in areas where there were drug tag graffiti which he also pointed out to us. We were also informed that most of the drugs that passed through the more affluent areas of Rio came from the favelas, with drug dealers specializing in marijuana since the climate is ideal for growing. There were also other drugs available, but as a matter of principle dealers refused to sell crack within their own favela because crack crime is a whole different breed of crazy and dangerous – and after all they are professionals.

I also realized another reason the favela didn’t hate us coming through was because we were probably good for their economy. A guilty conscience of our voyeuristic trip lead us through several merchants resulting in purchases of art by local children, random bracelets made of the telephone wires (which hung low and heavy in narrow sewer like streets), beers, juices, acai with granola, and assorted other shit most people probably wouldn’t have bought on any other day. We also gave money to a group of children who drummed and danced shoeless samba for us, and I pretty evacuated all the cash in my wallet into the collection box at the day care center.

street art at the daycare center

Judging from the appearance of the telephone wires it was no surprise to us when we came to the guide’s usual route and they said people were working on a transformer or something like that and we had to reroute the tour – which the guide had never done before. We ended up having to walk down a muddy “path” which consisted of a few sloppily thrown together concrete slabs on a muddy hill where water and probably sewage dripped down behind the rundown cement houses where garbage was strewn. I was so glad I wore my flip flops.

20 minutes into the walk, a grandmother and two small boys were backed up behind us trying to pass the same way. Us fat and clumsy Westerners were taking too long and the older of the two boys who was no more than 6 started running down trying to pass us while his younger brother tried to keep up. Somehow I had ended up at the back of our group, and all of a sudden I see a little hand reach up at me. Assuming it was the right thing to do I held the little boy’s hand as he tried to hop down the steps, while the grandmother nodded and smiled. Before long, the steps were getting further and further spread apart and I was lifting the boy as he hopped from step to step. Eventually as the steps got increasingly bigger and steeper I said fuck it and ended up carrying the little stinker for 10 minutes, muddy feet and all down the hill onto the ground level street. That kid was damn lucky he was so cute.

Rio 089
kid playing with kites on a rooftop

The tour ended shortly after, and as we exited another cute kid was sitting in his doorway smiling and waving the tour group out of the favela.  As I passed him and heard his cheery voice and saw his smile, I could better hear what he was saying.  “Fuck you!  Fuck you!” he said repeatedly, with an ear to ear grin and a hearty wave.  He was either taught very limited English from video games, or was the only one capable of expressing what my sentiments towards our group would have been had this been my neighborhood.  And on that note we headed back to our apartment to wash what was probably literal shit off our feet and shoes (and my shirt – thank you cute little boy) and then headed to the beach. Rio 090

Overall, the experience at the favela was rather enlightening.  While the tour was depressing in some ways since we saw firsthand the conditions under which actual poverty stricken people live, it didn’t seem to be a pervasive and crippling factor in their daily demeanor.  Based on what we learned it did seem that the government was taking steps to try and improve the conditions, and the people seemed to be taking legitimate steps to better their positions.  And despite the conditions, most people didn’t seem depressed or even angry as we peered through their lives, in fact I probably saw more smiles (even got one of the guys under one of the drug tags to smile at me), heard more music and saw more children happily playing than I have ever seen in any neighborhood in New York.  Ironically, American children are barely allowed to play in the streets of the suburbs anymore because it’s “dangerous.”  And that brings me to the thing that stood out the most from the tour – the number of children running around and how legitimately happy and friendly they all seemed – even the “Fuck you!” kid.   Moral of the story, make the most of what you have and you can still be happy, even if you have little to nothing.  And that’s my sappy lesson for the trip.  You’re welcome.

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