For me and possibly many of you the word Favela conjures up images of drug wars, poverty and destitution, and before I came to Brazil I envisaged the same.
I researched these so called ‘shanty towns’ before my trip to Rio and was stunned to learn that the police had led a successful pacification campaign in many of the favelas in Rio and that now they were not only drug lord free, but safe for tourists to visit, a mind blowing transformation.
So I decided to visit a favela called Vidigal, for those of you who have seen the immaculate films ‘City of God’ and ‘City of Men’ this is one of the favelas used heavily in the filming process. We arrived at the bottom of Vidigal and of course nature called!! We took a small walk up to a street bar and bought a beer with the sole purpose of using the bathroom. As we arrived at the bar we see two drunk men propping the bar up in good spirits, they smile and begin chatting in Portuguese to us we clearly don’t understand but it doesn’t seem to matter to either of us, the toothless smile said it all. We asked where the bathroom was and he directed us to a door leading from the street and in a tiny hole of a room was a toilet, totally graceless minimalism, welcome to Vidigal, I get back from the toilet to find the aforementioned drunk handing some Brazilian red wine to my friend, he tells us that we don’t leave until we have shared this drink with him, not threatening in the slightest just a man enjoying life with strangers.
We saw many motorbikes going up and down the tiny street and soon realised these were taxis to the top, without a moments’ hesitation we headed down to the taxi rank and each jumped on the back of a bike,and my god what a ride!! We race up these steep inclines and tight bends on a street no bigger than a hard shoulder…. For vehicles going both up and down!! You have no choice but to trust the man in front of you, these guys live like this.
As we ascend we swerve around fruit trucks, dogs and policemen,beep at the slow and listen to the echoes of our engines roaring against the concrete as the width of the streets ebb and flow. Then we arrive at the top, pay the kind men who endangered our lives and embrace what is undoubtedly one of the best views of Rio you can have.
We enjoy a beer at the top at a bar that would breach more building safety regulations than I’d care to consider and digest the fact that we are standing at the peak of a favela… or at least try to. After leaving the bar we wander back down through the street. Children play football in the coolest football court I’ve ever seen, women chat on corners clutching babies,men relax playing pool and cards in little huts that sell beer and of course policemen stand on watch with assault rifles to ensure the peace remains.
What surprised me the most was how self catered this place was, it had everything the residents needed. I decided to get my hair cut on the way down, it needed doing but frankly the story of ‘the time when I got my hair cut in a favela’ was just as necessary, it was no different to any haircut other than the location but it offered enough to make it my best ever haircut, I can’t think of any other particularly remarkable haircuts but this is up there nevertheless.
The sense of community here is outstanding, the majority of these people are off the map as far as the government are concerned, they illegally take electric from the grid, have created their own plumbing network, satellite dishes are everywhere and frankly the quality of construction is mind blowing.
These people work for each other and to me it raises the question of freedom and that the money we all strive for doesn’t always facilitate that freedom. These people might argue that they would love more money but I doubt you could find a price to put on some of the aspects of their life or freedoms.
Trust, I have found is one of the most valuable possessions you can have when travelling, put into the wrong hands and woe be tide you, but if you place it into the hands of the right person then good things will come. Whether that be a drunk man you’ve never met, a man who rides motorbikes up and down the devils highway or a man with a pair of scissors in his hands trust was the only possession which would concern me if it fell into the wrong hands in this favela but never offering it at all would have been far more foolish than keeping it to myself.