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Frankieboy’s Travel Diary

Saturday, 17 Jan 2009

Location: Brazil

MapSat 17th Jan 2009

I woke up and decided to get breakfast in the hope it would bring me round. I saw Ben and we discussed our different nights spent at Lapa and what a shame it was that we didn’t meet up. Ben was booked to go on the favela tour which was about to leave. The favela tour sounded terrifying but it was something (against my better judgment) that I wanted to witness. After all you can’t go to Rio and not see the favelas. I decided to ‘go for it’.

The minibus came to pick us up and we drove quite a long way to Rocinha, a very dodgy neighbourhood in Rio ‘the wrong side of the track’. We drove past various signs saying 37, 38 degrees centigrade. The sweat was pouring down onto my sunglasses.

We arrived in Rocinha where even the dogs walk in twos. The heat was horrendous. We would have to leave the relative safety of the minibus and begin the tour. Someone had told me that the tour started with a motorbike ride which I was not particularly looking forward to. The tour guide paid a few guys waiting there on motorbikes to take us to the top of the favela. We each got on the back of motorbike. Health and safety? Forget it. No helmets here.

The ride probably only lasted for about 2 minutes but it was probably the longest 2 minutes of my life. The road up the hill was steep and full of chicanes. The guy riding the bike took the hill at a hell of a speed. We were weaving around other motorbikes, cars and lorries. Some of the gaps we went through were so narrow I kept pulling my knees in to avoid hitting anything. Not wanting to put my arms around the guy (it’s a bit gay isn’t it?) I instead held on to the handle behind me which was totally ineffective. Going round corners leaning over I was convinced I was going to fall off. Perhaps the worst part was when the guy decided to overtake and drive on the opposite side and then pull back just before going in front of a lorry. I wanted to just close my eyes. Never mind being shot in the favela, I’d be dead well before.

Arriving at the top of the favela was, as you can imagine, somewhat of a relief. Unfortunately the guy had no idea where to drop me at the top. He dropped me outside a shop where he thought we started the tour. None of the others in the group could be seen anywhere. I thought for one horrible moment he was going to leave me there. Great. There I was in a very hostile favela, looking like a complete tourist, and the others were nowhere to be seen. I’d be walking home in my underpants if I was lucky. I tried to communicate “Where is everybody else?” to the guy and then mercifully I saw someone in the group drive past on the back of a motorbike. “Follow that bike!” I said and to my great relief soon met up with the others.

Being horribly hung over, in an insalubrious part of town I was really regretting not remaining in the comfort and safety provided by my hostel bed. (Actually ‘comfort’ is being rather generous. I don’t miss the rubber mattress and pillow.) Just to get us in the mood, the tour guide then went through a few trivial housekeeping issues such as to not be alarmed if we see guys with pistols, rifles, grenades or home made explosives and to not take photos going in or out of the favela. I remember thinking ‘What the hell am I doing?’ before having a minor panic attack.

The guide told us that there was only really one main entrance and exit to the favela. We were at the top of the favela and were about to go into the favela, then walk down the hill before leaving via the exit at the bottom of the hill. The favela is run by the drug organisation ‘Amigos Dos Amigos’ which has armed lookouts with walkie talkies keeping an eye on who is going in and out of the favela. They need to be on lookout in case the police or a rival gang decide to pay them a visit. Taking photos at these points is therefore strictly prohibited. The only comforting thought was that the tour company (www.bealocal.com) gives 60% of its profit to the local community. It would be unlikely that we would come to any harm (you would hope).

We walked into the favela through the main entrance. I was keeping my head down but did try and see if I could make out who the lookouts were. If they were armed they were certainly concealing their weapons well. Once inside the favela it felt surprisingly calm and quiet. The tour guide having worked there for the past 4 years seemed to know everyone and said hi and chatted about football to the locals. The fact that she was a stunner certainly seemed to oil the wheels.

The social deprivation and squalor was soon apparent. Kids and dogs were playing in the alleyways amongst litter and flowing dirty water. The stench in some places was overpowering. Disease is prevalent such as dengue fever. The houses looked very unsafe, some as if they were about to fall down. Apparently people sell their roof so that it can be built on, which in turn is built on and so on until you end up having a very structurally unsafe building.

We went to an artist’s house to have a look at his paintings (see pics). They were actually very good. Some were a bit unnerving – one for example the Brazilian flag with blood pouring out bullet holes. I was just keen to get the hell out of the favela as quickly as possible. I was afraid I was about to suffer another bout of atrial fibrillation. That would have been very unfortunate. They asked us to sign in the visitor’s book. I remember my right hand literally shaking almost uncontrollably. The view from the balcony was superb though (see pic). I just didn’t feel safe at any moment. I was sure that we were being watched at all times. There were men a couple of houses away on the roof probably keeping a look out for anything untoward.

We left the artist’s place and kept walking down the hill along this alleyway. Litter was strewn everywhere (see pic). When it rains heavily, litter is washed from off the hillside into the alleyways. Not very pleasant. We bumped into the main drug dealer of the favela who seemed fairly pleasant. The guide laughed and joked with him. They all knew her. This felt very reassuring! We might actually survive after all….

The remarkable thing was that the people in the favela, some of the poorest people in the world, all seemed very happy, smiling and joking. We stopped off at a bakery and afterwards a couple of kids played their home made drums (made from old oil cans) and sang for us.

I must say I was incredibly relieved to get back on the mini bus in one piece. An amazing experience but thank god it was over. The guide said that it can go from being peaceful to all out war in a split second. I don’t like the idea of being caught up in a gun battle between drugs gangs or the police.