Favelas

Trip Start Mar 25, 2007
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Trip End Aug 31, 2007


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Friday, May 25, 2007

Its always useful to talk to other travellers.  Staying at hostels rather than hotels is obviously cheaper but also its good fun to meet other travellers and swap stories and tips.  Sophia, a Swedish girl staying at Mango Tree gave us a recommendation for acomodation in 'Ilha Grande' a small island near Rio (our next destination).  We had also planned to get the 22hr bus ride to the 'Iguazu Falls' but Mike and Trudy (the 2 kiwis) told us that payed only 40 reais (about GBP 10) more for a flight, saving 20hrs of travelling time!  We had been looking into flights to get to Salvador (North east Brazil) with Gol, a budget Brazilian airline but Mike and Trudy told us you couldn't actually book flights with them online if you were't Brazillian. They gave us the name of the travel agent they used who didnt charge commission. Great tips!  

Thursday afternoon, we had booked a favela tour with our hostel.  A favela is basically a slum, an illegal settlement built on squatted land.  The film 'City of God' conjures up the image most people have of Brazil's favelas: Drug lords, gun warefare and high crime.  We were intrigued and the tour was highly recomended.    Brazil has one of the worst distributions of wealth in the world - 20% of Rio's population live in the favelas.  Our guide Cristina was really informative.  Stuart and Kathy were on the tour and we picked up some other English tourists in a nearby hotel.    

In Rio, favelas arose on the hills overlooking the rich neighbourhoods (where else in the world do the poor get great views of the sea?!).  Being on the hills (away from the city), they were in the perfect position to deal drugs on a large scale.  With almost no education or opportunities the career options open to a Brazilians from the favelas are limited to selling on the street, cleaning houses, drug dealing or prostitution.  It was strange to see so many rich houses on the hills but just turn the corner and you're at the entrance of a favela.   The drug lords rule the favelas and establish a strict regime. No one may rob or kill anyone within the favela without facing severe punishment.  Nobody talks to the police and the police themselves have no power. There is police presence at the entrances of the favelas but these serve no real purpose. Im sure they are paid off by the drug lords.  There are two main drug cartels in Rio de Janeiro: commando vermelho (CV) and Amigos de Amigos (ADA). The political origins of these cartels are pretty cloudy but they still periodically conduct wars between each other, invading favelas and taking over the cocaine business there.   Most of the warfare in the favelas though takes place against the police who raid them from time to time.  

First up we went to Rocinha, Brazil's biggest favela. There is a whole hierachy under the drug lord. He provides a lot of employment in the favela. Lookouts, soldiers and sellers all over the place.  Cristina told us the lookout boys let off fireworks when the military police are making a raid and if we were to hear any we had to get straight back into the van.  We also couldn't take any photos around the 'selling points'.  It wasn't quite 'City of God' though and the whole point of the favela tour is to change people's perceptions of favelas and that it is actually a community going about their daily life.  We were suprised when we walked around how self sufficient the favelas were.  They had their own grocery stores, clothes shops, hairdressers, butchers, bakers & take-away joints.  Everything a community needs to function.  The houses themselves were really shanty though.   No planning permission needed so the people just build them wherever they want 'higgledy piggledy'  all over the place, a real mess.   There is electricity but through devious means, 80% of the favela dwellers don't pay for it.    

The favela itself has its own hierachy and the houses nearer the main roads were nicer than the ones right at the back of the hills, where the really poor lived.  We were told these ones were likely to have no electrcity or water pumps.  The organisers of the favela tours had started some community projects and we saw some people selling handicrafts and paintings.  A means of getting them off the street selling drugs.  Everyone seemed to know Cristina and she introduced us to a lot of the kids selling their wares.  (handicrafts that is, not drugs!)    We walked down a main road with grocery stores and food places.  Everything seemed fine but if you looked carefully, you could see people with guns.  It was all very subtle though and you could probably walk down the road olivious to it all.  Inside a shop we were stunned to see a woman being dragged away by 2 men.  We caught sight of her half an hour later and all her hair had been shaved off. Cristina found out what had happened and it turned out the woman had been caught stealing from the shop and keeping in line with favela rules imposed by the drug lord, shaving her hair off was punishment.  

The second favela we went to, Vila Canoas, was much smaller and we walked around the steep and narrow roads.  All the houses were built in such close proximity to each other, whats privacy eh?! Very claustrophobic. We visited the "Para Ti" community school.  This social project is partly financed by the tour.   The kids inside were really cute and they all loved Cristina.  It was her birthday a few days ago so they had made her a birthday card and sang her happy birthday.  Cristina was in tears!    It was a fascinating  insight into the favelas and not at all what we expected it to be like.    

As it was Thursday night and the start of the weekend, all the cariocas were out partying so a few of us got together at the hostel. Sam and I, the English couple Stuart & Kathy, the Irish couple Mark & Jenny and the 2 swedish girls Anna and Sophia.  We started off by drinking caprinhas at the hostel.  By 10.30pm, everyone was starving so we headed to a local 'Churasco kilo'.  This is like an all you can eat buffet but the concept is you weigh your food and pay by weight.   It was good food though and we were all stuffed. 

Afterwards we headed to the district of Lapa, a nightlife area where all the locals go to.  We went to a club called 'Rio Scenarium'.   It was a great atmosphere.  There was live samba music and everyone was dancing.  There were 2 floors and the whole place was bizzarely decorated with old antiques.  We ordered some drinks whilst we watched the locals danced.  Once we had plucked up enough dutch courage we hit the dancefloor and tried to move to the samba beats!  It was all good fun. One girl we saw could wiggle her ass and shake her hips like nobody's business.  How did she do that??  A question that Kathy and Sophia decided to ask the girl herself.  The girl just laughed and proceeded to try and teach us how to move our hips.  Hmm....a few caprinhas more and suddenly we were all the world's best dancers.  Sam was loving the music so we made a note to buy some Brazilian music the following day.
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