Rio de Janeiro sells itself on images of white sand beaches with a bright city lights backdrop. The perfect blend of tropical and urban. But, it does not like to talk about how those twinkling city lights are mostly made up of favelas. Favelas, the Brazilian version of ghettos, have a reputation for being dangerous but after a day touring them I came to realize that they are the heart of Rio’s vibrant culture.
The day of my Favela Tour in Rio de Janeiro started out weaving through traffic in an open air jeep. With the wind blowing through my hair we climbed one of the city’s many hills. Our first stop was a lookout point halfway up a hill in the middle of a forest. As we soaked in the beauty of Rio’s skyline, our guide explained that the trees around us are called fava trees. She went on to explain that Rio’s hills were once coffee plantations, but the government closed them all down and the slaves with nowhere to go hid in the nearby fava forests and created their own communities. These illegal communities grew into what are today’s favelas.
At the top of the hill we entered the favela. The first thing I noticed about visiting the favelas in Rio was the art! Giant murals welcome you and tiny pieces of graffiti decorate the otherwise bland houses, teasing your eye the whole journey. My favorite was a row of houses near the middle of the favela that was painted in a brightly striped rainbow. This public art is in celebration of the favela’s clean up and riddance of being ruled by crime lords. Under their previous rule the inhabitants of the favelas were not allowed to paint their houses any colors. This was so that if the cops did come in trying to find the criminals no one could say they were in the “red house” for example.
Each level of the favelas offers a deeper understanding. From above you notice the flat roofs that are adorned with water catchment tanks and satellite dishes. It seems that cable television is a top necessity right up there with water. Our guide told us that even though favelas are illegal and the people have no rights to their land their houses are on people sell the rights to their roofs. That that is why the roofs are all flat so as the favela grows it grows upwards. The tiny streets wove around the community like a labyrinth. Each corner turned offered something new. The favela breathes life. From the outside the houses looked like dirty shacks but glimpses inside showed a different reality. In some we could smell lunch being cooked or see women cleaning the floors. Some houses were inhabited by children playing or dancing to music while other children were in the streets doing chores. All the moments of a normal daily life were evident.
Admittedly, all I really knew of favelas before the tour I learned from movies like City of God. I expected a tactile feeling of danger. Instead I was surprised by the welcoming smiles and the warm greetings of “bom dia” or “good day.” I am so glad that I tore myself away from my beach towel and saw a side of the city that you usually don’t get to see when visiting Rio de Janeiro.
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