Brazil: Into the Favelas!

Brazil Travel post #4: The Favelas (intro post is here).
Come on, let's explore the winding alleys and hilltop views of the favela together.
Come on, let’s explore the winding alleys and hilltop views of the favela together.

Today, we journey into one of Brazil’s favelas. What exactly is a favela, you ask? At it’s simplest, a slum, but the favelas are so much more than that. 11.4 million people live in one of Brazil’s ramshackle hillside communities. Let’s explore exactly what makes a favela so unique.

The favelas of Rio de Janeiro are world renowned stacks of poverty, drug use, prostitution, and violence. Rivaled only by the slums of Mumbai, you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy than in the favelas of Rio. Or at least that’s how it used to be.

First, some history.

View from Rocinha favela.

Before “favela” became a generic term, it was the name of one particular village. The first favela was formed at the turn of the 20th century, after the War of Canudos, the bloodiest military-on-civilian massacre in Brazil’s history. The soldiers killed nearly every man, woman, and child in a 30,000 person settlement in a military action dubbed a civil war.

When these 20,000 soldiers, many of whom were suffering from what we would today call PTSD returned to Rio, they found no government assistance nor any place to live. They founded the first favela, and it was named after a skin-irritating tree found in the massacre region.

From these inauspicious beginnings, more favelas cropped up as more poor citizens were displaced and found no other option but to band together and fend for themselves.

Rocinha is the largest favela in Rio.
Rocinha is the largest favela in Rio.

If your choices in MURDERED lead you to work with Agent Danly, and his subsequent investigation leads him into the favelas, it’s a prospect so dangerous that he’s hesitant to allow you to accompany him.

“Listen, you’re doing great, but I’m not sure you should stay with me. I aim to get to the bottom of this, even if that means coming head-to-head with the drug cartels in the favelas. You can’t even imagine what it’s like in there—gangsters dance in the clubs while shooting AK-47s in the air. Even the kids are armed and they won’t hesitate to shoot you if they think it’s worth a laugh. I can’t put your life in jeopardy like that…”

So if these place are so dangerous, why were we crazy enough to visit?

Pacification

In preparation for 2014’s World Cup and this summer’s 2016 Olympics, Brazil has made a considerable crackdown on crime, and this includes “pacification” of the favelas. Pacification is a hostile take-over of the slums in a military operation. Elite special forces are sent in to take out any violent resistance, and then a permanent police force is left to keep the region free of drugs and firearms. In fact, once a favela has been pacified, the Brazilian flag is placed on a high building top — to show that the government has conquered this foreign territory within its own borders.

So while I was expecting this:

What we got was this:

A favela musician and his "manager." The man spoke perfect English and includes favela children on his albums.
A favela musician and his “manager.” The man spoke perfect English and includes favela children on his albums.
A vibrant city market attracting customers from all over, much like a farmer's market in the states.
A vibrant city market attracting customers from all over, much like a farmer’s market in the US.
Might want to cook your meats well-done, just to be safe.
Might want to cook your meats well-done, just to be safe.
"Jackfruit" is common, but has a love-it-or-hate-it taste.
“Jackfruit” is common, but has a love-it-or-hate-it taste.
Pet fish?
Pet fish?
Fresh fruits, spices, everything.
Fresh fruits, spices, everything.

Rocinha is one of Rio’s older pacified favelas, having been pacified in 2011, and our visit was full of unexpected experiences. The people who live there can range up to middle class, our guide informed us, and in addition to pacification, the city government has helped the community receive clean water, free electricity, even wi-fi.

We were a bit wary of a visit, not because we thought we’d be unsafe, but because we didn’t want to offend or exploit people or go on some sort of voyeur tour.

The visit was anything but. Our guide is a well-known figure in the community and the tour company gives back a portion of every ticket, totaling to tens of thousands of dollars donated thus far. There were smiling faces waiting to greet him by name, and we were even given a trip to see the schools they support.

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Stepping into another world.
Our guide, Alfredo, in the school.
Our guide, Alfredo, in the school.
Even English classes provided.
Even English classes are provided.
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Feliz Natal (Merry Christmas!).
Who knew the kids were fans of the zombie genre? (heh)
Who knew the kids were fans of the zombie genre? (heh)
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The locals take pride in the unique look of their communities.
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We did!

In addition to the portion of our tour price donated, we bought jewelry made by the students, music and paintings made by locals, and even the “best caipirinha in Rio” at an alley shop.

If you ever get the opportunity, I’d highly recommend a visit to the favelas. Just make sure the one you go to has been pacified, use a reputable guide, and don’t go at night. Just because improvements are made, doesn’t mean those elements that gave the favelas their reputation are gone completely.

That’s it for today. Up next? I don’t know about you, but I’m getting hungry. Let’s check out Brazil’s food and drink!


Thanks for reading! Did you enjoy your trip into the favelas?

Feel free to comment below, and don’t forget to share and subscribe!

 

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Come with me, Vamos o Brasil!

I’m back from spending the holidays with my wife in Brazil! As promised, I’m going to tell you all about it.

The trip was split into two parts. First, we took a riverboat deep into the Amazon jungle. The Amazon river itself is far too settled for a true rainforest experience, with industry and cities crowding her mighty banks. Instead, we went on the adjoining Rio Negro, living on the boat for a week. During this time we took day excursions into the jungle on foot and explored the islands, inlets, and archipelagos with smaller watercraft.

The Tucano! Our home on the river.
The Tucano! Our home on the river.

It was a magical, crazy experience that included fishing for (and eating!) piranha, seeing our guide “charm” an enormous, bird-eating tarantula bigger than my hand out of its burrow,  watching giant river otter chase a large caiman alligator onto land, and much, much more.  I’ll blog about these stories (with pictures!) day-by-day as we go along.

For the second half, we journeyed to Rio de Janeiro, a vibrant city home to more than 12 million people, and the setting for the vast majority of the events featured in MURDERED. Here we saw the sights, ate like locals, strolled the beaches — and found adventure as well.

One of Rio's many "favela" slums. Yep, we went here.
One of Rio’s many “favela” slums that dot the hillsides. Yep, we went here.

Each day, I’m going to share with you pictures and stories from the trip, as well as highlight those experiences that you can live for yourself in MURDERED.

I’m not going to present all the photos and stories chronologically, lest I risk turning this into a family vacation slideshow. Instead, I’m going to share my experiences in Brazil by subject. I’ll show the people, the places, graffiti, food, the jungle, and more. Because my book begins in Rio and moves out to the jungle, so will this blog. Each day will be something new.

How many days? I’m not sure yet, but I hope you’ll join me in reliving this truly epic journey.

Click to continue to the first topic: Brazil: Resort, Hostel, Palace, Guestroom


Thanks for reading! What parts of Brazil are you most excited to see? Have you ever been? Requests for stories or anecdotes on travel?

Feel free to comment below, and don’t forget to share and subscribe!