Monday, June 8, 2009

The "Otherside" of Rio

So many people travel the world and never see beyond their ocean views and fine dining, club going and street shopping. Especially in a place like Rio de Janeiro, a popular tourist destination despite the incredibly high disparity between rich and poor in the city. I hesitate only a little to say that the beautiful beaches are what beckon millions of tourists to Rio each year, and most of these tourists do not go beyond the areas near the beach, namely Ipanema and Copacabana, probably because of the rumors of dangerous crime associated with the innards of the city.

These rumors prove true, because not far from these high rise beach neighborhoods are the makeshift dwellings called the favelas, where the real people of Rio live, work and play. The shack villages sprawl down the hills, and it said that unlike most cities in the world, the poor people of Rio have the best real estate. It is also said that the poor live rather contently in Rio, besides the obvious struggles and dangers they experience, and some suggest this may be in part due to their gorgeous surroundings.

I was intent on experiencing all of Rio, because afterall a beach is a beach, and there is no need to travel internationally for sand and ocean when there is plenty of that at home. From the moment of arrival, upon seeing the great expanse of the favelas, their colorfully hung laundry, playing children and toiling women, I was hopelessly intrigued. No doubt the life of the poor in Rio has been romanticized in movies and this surely influenced me, but I also have an uncanny desire to be a part of things that I am inherently barred from.

My excitement was crushed one of the first nights of our trip when we were invited to a Baile Funky party in one of Rio's favelas. A Baile Funky party is an all night dance party with Baile Funky music (a type of political rap based on beats from Miami underground hip hop), drinks, drugs and, drug lords. Our group was ready to go, as we rationalized the decision to each other and took off our flashy items, leaving our purses behind and putting small bills in our underwear. But then the mood changed, as someone thought better of ten white kids attending a party where all the most notorious drug lords of Rio would be, what our presence might mean, what it might result in. The group decided not to go, much to my disappointment, and I resolved to find another way (albeit less exciting) into the favelas.

My answer came as a tour of one of the favelas led by a group who gives the proceeds of the commission straight to community programs in the favela. At first I was quite conflicted over this idea, of intruding upon these people to observe them as if they were animals, to experience interest at the sake of their dignity and privacy. But as I spoke to more people, more people advocated for the tour, as it was educational and also beneficial for the people of the favela, and the tour guide even promised that the favela's inhabitants were flattered that white people wanted to see where they live and take pictures of them. So we went.

The particular favela that we went to has the largest population of all the 900+ favelas in Rio (though is not the largest geographically). We entered the favela by riding motorbikes up the winding hill, but once off the main road the favela consisted of a labyrinth maze of stairs and pathways, which is one reason it is so difficult for police to catch criminals once they have entered the favela. Walking down took over an hour, and it was an experience that was simultaneously saddenning and wondrous. The favelas exist as a town within the city of Rio, off limits to the common world, and full of secrets and dangers. The life that lives there lives differently than anywhere else, separate and yet unified under a strange God, in this particular favela, the "king" or top drug lord was only 23, my own age.

The favela was beautiful in its own way; beautiful in its peril, its energy and its isolation.


  1. Do you take your own photos?

  2. Yes I do, except, of course, for the ones I'm in.

  3. I'm a big fan of this post; not just because I was there, but also because I'm happy that you are getting "the word out there" about these frequently over-looked areas. A trip to the favelas is not only an experience that creates a more profound understanding of the city of Rio & its culture, but also a more profound understanding of oneself. Keep up the good blogging!




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Born and raised under the Los Angeles sun and smog. At sixteen spent some time in LA County Juvenile Detention Center, although never really learned her lesson. Moved to Boston for the classic college experience. Spray painted graffiti in the Paris Metro during six month stay in the Marais. Survived an ultra fabulous and frightening internship at Vogue Magazine while living at a nunnery in Hell's Kitchen. Lived a year in Seoul, a city which can only be compared to a Disneyland theme park. Written four hundred sixty-four words of an undisclosed masterpiece novel. Currently pondering her next adventure and also the meaning of her memoirs from an artist's loft in dirty Brooklyn.