There is the Leblon, Ipanema and Copacabana side of Rio – the side where all the tourists and wealthier locals go to eat fine foods, relax on the beautiful beaches, play volleyball, drink, shop and, for the most part, remain safe and then there is the real Rio. It is just as important, if not more so, to visit the favelas (meaning “little farms”) in Rio also commonly referred to as shanty town i.e. the urbanized slum. Of course, tourists must not go to the favelas without a local chaperone and even when you do go with a chaperone you do not really see the true part of the favela – just a little scratch on the surface – but it should be visited nonetheless. I took a tour with Alfredo to see Rocinha la Favela – the largest favela in all of Brazil with a population approximated at 100,000 people living pretty much on top of each other. My hope was to learn something new and to do something I promised my niece and nephew I would do for them when I was home last which I will explain later.
Prior to five years ago I probably would not have been able to even peek in the favela much less enter one without risking a bullet but I was informed that it was safer now as the Bope (special police tactical battalions) came in about 5 years ago to clean up the favelas with the use of armored cars, brutal tactics and more powerful weapons and equipment than traditional civilian law enforcement. The Bope were trained in urban warfare as well as fighting in confined spaces like those in the favelas. The UPP (Unidad de Policia) were also sent in after the more savage Bope cleaned out the favelas a bit to assist in the pacification of these areas and to implement social welfare policies hence the reason it was safer to visit but note I said “safer” not safe. Think civil war on the streets (the few actual streets there are in the favelas), gangs and drug dealers, crime at its worst (murder, rape, theft) and now imagine children as young as 7 years old high on drugs carrying machine guns and shooting you just because they know no difference. Now, you have a tiny glimpse of life in a favela. I learned the reason children were used is because Brazilian law protects children from harsh penalties for such crimes as these but it begs the question – which came first the chicken or the egg? Did reducing the penalty for minors who committed outright murder encourage the drug dealers to use children or did using children who don’t know what they are doing cause Brazilian leaders to reduce the penalties for minors? Either way, the favela is considered the most dangerous place I have visited to date. You are just as likely to get shot in the head as you are to be offered some gum or a souvenir to purchase while in a favela…at least that was the way it was a mere five years ago. Luckily for me, I only heard one gunshot while in Rio which I’m told is evidence that change for the good is on the horizon.
Having said all that, none of this is surprising given the illiteracy rates, the 40% tax rate (which is not money that generally goes back into the health, education and well being of the people due to corruption), the requirements to get documented and the associated fees at 18 years of age, and the typical salary of the people which is the equivalent of $300 USD per month. Brazil has made strides though, as aforementioned, over the last five years. The residents of Rocinha have better infrastructure than before, live in concrete housing which they built themselves, have recently obtained cable TV and utilities (most of these services are actually stolen though hence the exorbitant number of wires tied together throughout the favela), some healthcare facilities, a tennis court which Djokovic himself attended the grand opening of and even a fitness center or two. They have not, however, remedied the sewage problem which was supposed to be rectified back in 2014 I’m told. But the government and/or donations from the people are benefitting the situation with the public schools. The purpose, other than education and reduction of illiteracy rates, is to give young children a place to go when parents are working so they don’t end up murderers or being murdered. In fact, I was blessed to visit a very special school in the favela that housed children from the ages of 5 to 7. As aforementioned, it was a request from my niece and nephew (Aiden and Izzy) who are about the same age. The request was that instead of buying them presents on this leg of my trip they would rather me give the money I was going to spend on them to children who had real needs – perhaps children who didn’t have what they needed for school or children that had never received a Christmas present before from Santa Claus – their words not mine. As such, I honored their wishes and deposited a sizeable amount of cash with Angelica (appropriately named) at the school in Rocinha on behalf of Izzy and Aiden.
You have to give it to the Brazilians though because when they seek change in government they let the politicians know in a way like no other. In 1998, Macaco Tião won the mayoral election in Rio by a landslide. The problem was that the new mayor of Rio was none other than a monkey domiciled at the Rio zoo. While I believe the Brazilians certainly made their point in that election, I do hope the Americans didn’t just do the same thing!
That’s all for now. With love, a little joke and a whole lot of gratitude for my own blessings from Rocinha la Favela.