“Don’t be a Gringo” The largest favela in Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro

Located in Rio’s South Zone between the districts of São Conrado and Gávea, Rocinha is the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In nothing more than a shantytown, I spent the morning with a group from BeALocal.com wandering around one of the most notoriously dangerous places in Brazil.

A favela in Brazil is what would also be known as the slums or ghetto areas in other parts of the world, typically an area of the city that the Government would prefer that you didn’t see. Why? Because (in Rochinha’s case) with a population of over 69,000 people and around 25,000 vertically built homes, it is a representation of failings.

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People are struggling to make ends meet and suffer with generations of their family living in the same vicious circle. Homes are little more than a shack, and whilst some have the basic amenities, it’s clear that the very foundations are crumbling and it’s generally unsafe. Drugs and gun crime are a part of life here; the rest of the city doesn’t want to associate with it.

After spending some days in Rio, I had noticed people from the favelas collecting aluminium cans from around the city. I hadn’t really understood why until I visited Rochinha. It turns out that by collecting 1kg aluminum (equivalent to 65 beer cans) residents earn a minimal sum of 3 reis (equivalent to £1.00 or $1.50).

This is exactly what bought me to want to visit Rochinha. It was an optional part of a booking that was made via Green Toad Bus, one that I immediately wanted to experience.

Despite being the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro, there are no road names due to the sheer volume that exists throughout the maze that is Rochinha. Amidst the concrete homes there’s a mix of sewage, rotting food and ‘roads’ known only by number. Yet, at the same time, there exists a stark contrast of cleanliness as you step into a bakery, the pride and joy of one woman trying to make ends meet. Similarly, there is a daycare centre where staff and volunteers work tirelessly to provide a safe environment for the children of the favela to learn, develop and grow.

Tips for visiting Rocinha favela:

  • Always visit as part of a tour – it simply isn’t safe to do so alone
  • Do not take photos of people. Stick to buildings only
  • Wear little jewellery and leave the expensive goods (camera etc.) at home. I used a camera phone for all photos in and around the favela. Your guide will let you know when you can or cannot take photos – pay attention
  • Don’t give money to residents of the favela, it draws attention to you and could create unnecessary tension
  • Drug gangs still operate, don’t be ignorant to this. They don’t like publicity (or Journalists), bear this in mind when taking any photos

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Homes in the favela’s are built from concrete; walls made of brick are shattered or riddled with bullet holes as is this one.

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The Government are trying to establish more control of who enters and leaves favelas by naming main roads and increasing street camera and police presence. This is very much a work in progress with the aim for things to be improved in time for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.

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A daycare centre in Rochinha favela has been established, funded largely by tourist tours. This creates a safe and secure environment for children to break away from the routine of life in the favela.

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Many people try to make an honest living in the favela by creating jewellery from cables and wires around the favela or by supplying baked goods for sale.

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Electricity meters are being installed in the favelas in an attempt to legalise the use of supplies. This remains a work in progress for the city.

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The divide between Rio and the favelas is clear, sky scrapers and five star hotels line the coast and popular avenues, whilst the favela begins literally metres away from these very locations.

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Despite the shortcomings of living in a favela, it boasts a spirit of community. Neighbours look after each other with pleasantries as they pass each other by, children laugh and smile as they dance to entertain passers by. Clearly the sense of pride overwhelms the living circumstances and people are happy to have the ability to work for their money. Their culture is important to them and they never tire of trying to be good and improve their quality of life.

The videos below are all my own which were filmed during the favela tour.

Have you visited a favela or other such areas that have really made you question social inequality?

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