There’s this place in Rio de Janeiro that’s full of life. It has happy people, hardworking Brazilians and towers of rainbow homes. However, most people don’t see this side of Rocinha. During my time in Brazil, I was lucky enough to do a Rio Favela Tour with a man who had called Rocinha his home for over 50 years. We’ll call him Miguel.
Getting To Rocinha
It was a muggy, sticky, hot, unbearable day. I hopped into the white van that us eager travelers were to take into the heart of the favela, as my guide started to give us the prequel. The lack of air conditioning made me want to close my eyes and fall back asleep, but Miguel’s excitement kept me alert. After growing up in such a wild place, you tend to have some stories…and some pictures. In fact, my first glimpse of the favela was through Miguel’s phone. He passed it over the back of the leather chair, boasting about his favorite photo of all time, which consisted of a man with a blurred face holding the most ginormous gun I’ve ever laid eyes on. This was a Rio Favela Tour. There was no time for a siesta.
The Best Viewpoint On The Rio Favela Tour
We arrived in Rocinha not even fifteen minutes later, peeling our thighs off of the car seats as we slid out onto the curb one by one. Onlookers must have thought it was some kind of cartoon clown car with the astounding number of people that just kept flowing out of the vehicle. However, Miguel assured us that his people would be more than excited to see us on the Rio Favela Tour and to take as many pictures as we wanted. They are very proud of their neighborhood and never mind a little paparazzi. Well…sometimes they do, but Miguel said he would warn us ahead of time if we were walking through an area where needed to put our phones away.
“Everyone have water? You good? We must stay hydrated out here, you guys. This is very important. Okay, let’s go,” Miguel concluded, with a wave of his hand, gesturing for us to follow him uphill.
There weren’t too many steps- maybe thirty, but the steep climb in the afternoon sun made it feel a lot longer as we stumbled over the crumbling pavement. From the top, we could see the whole city. It looked like a basket of Easter eggs spilled over, the way the pastel houses toppled this way and that along the hillside.
Things We Don’t Pay
“This is the first stop!” Miguel exclaimed with authority, “So, here, there are a few very important things you need to know: We don’t pay electricity. We don’t pay water. We don’t pay property tax,” he said, counting out the achievements on his fingers, “All of this is free for us, okay? Now, if you look here at this house, you can see the water tanks on the roof.”
“This is where our water comes from. All of the buildings have their own. In the summer, you can see little kids climbing up to the roof and jumping in them to play. It’s very cute…and then, here, you see all the cables? That’s our electricity. We all just put our own up depending on what channels we want. I had a good one last year, but someone messed with it, so I had to go back out and fiddle with the cord, then- Ah! Got it. We’re back to the TV. Let’s go!”
I was already starting to see what Miguel was talking about when he said the gift of the gab was what got him into doing Rio favela tours. Most of the citizens in Rocinha actually work down in the city. Miguel used to be a ritzy hotel doorman himself and would take eager guests up to Rocinha for free to show them around. Then, after a while, he noticed there was a real market for it and his Rio favela tour company was born.
Rent In Rocinha
“If there’s no utilities to pay, how much is rent?” someone asked.
I can’t deny, I was wondering this, too. Especially after knowing how expensive rent can get in my home base of Los Angeles.
“Okay, something like this,” Miguel gestured to an apartment building nearby, “Is normally around $600 a month. However, you can rent a one room place for maybe about $50 to $100 a month at some places in here.”
“Yes, one room. So, like, you have your bed, your kitchen and your toilet all in one place,” he explained.
About Those Trash Piles…
I followed Miguel back down the hill, this time with an extra member of the tour. A small, stray Pitbull, with a smile wider than the Copacabana beach happily flopped down the stairs with us, eager to see what kind of snacks we might have to spare.
“Cats. Better than dogs. Why?” Miguel piped up from the front, “Cats are not snitches. They don’t tell the police you have drugs.”
I don’t think the dog enjoyed that joke as much as we did. He accepted defeat and pranced across the street through a sea of motorbikes to lie down in the shade of a cafe.
“Okay, guys! You see this here?”
I followed Miguel’s hand to the right, where another stray was wading through a pile of trash. Flies circled its head, as if it was a video game and you needed to give your pet a bath. Another man crossed the street toward the pile, taking a box of waste from his head and dumping it onto the mound.
“Trash gets picked up from piles like these on the streets twice a day. We have a few of them,” Miguel said confidently, continuing his stride.
The Real Danger Of A Rio Favela Tour
“Now, everyone, I want you to look up at this sign. Tell me what you see,” Miguel challenged us, as we all squinted up at the sign reading 1a IGREJA BATISTA DA ROCINHA.
“It’s a church!”
“It’s the first church!”
“Look closer…” Miguel prodded, “Do you see the holes in the letters? Those are bullet holes. Don’t believe me? Come look at this wall up close. There was a shootout here. Now, we never get scared when there is a shootout. You know why?”
“Why?” someone humored him.
“Because we are not involved. If they want someone, they’ll get them, but if you’re not involved, then no worries. However, there is one thing we get scared about: The bullets hitting the cables. If a bullet hits our cable, the electricity will go out. We have power outages all the time, sometimes lasting 5 days. It’s the worst in the summer when you can’t escape the heat. Oh, look who’s here!” Miguel said, distracted, as he reached over the deck of a nearby home and pulled a toddler onto his hip.
The Children Of Rocinha
“Olá,” a woman’s voice came from inside, as she stepped out and gave us a smile, before getting back to house chores.
“This is my favorite girl. She loves me. I don’t have children, so she’s the closest I’ve got. Look, I love her. So cute,” he said, before placing the toddler back inside the gate.
As we continued down the cobblestone path, she watched us go with big eyes sticking through the slits of the fence. She wasn’t the only child around, though. At least five kids aged maybe four to eight were running around in the alley and Miguel took his turn saying hello to each and every one of them. He introduced us to another small boy, who had been taking jujitsu classes. I was reminded of an advertisement I spotted earlier in the tour: Free jujitsu for children on Tuesdays, with lunch included.
“Women and children are completely protected in Rocinha. If you ever mess with them, you are going to have a big problem. We have cops here. We’ve always had cops, many of which are on the payroll. However, no one calls the cops. We call our boys and we go take care of the problem together. Let me tell you this: I would rather be tortured by the military than any of the men in this neighborhood. It’s bad. I used to be best friends with the old big boss. We were childhood friends from the beginning, but I had to keep it a complete secret. It’s not safe to be the boss’s best man because people will always know who to hurt if they can’t get to him.”
“He’s not the boss anymore?”
“No, long time ago. Our neighborhood is so big we actually have two big bosses now that control everything…”
Finding The Love Tunnel
“Okay! Now, I am going to take you to the love tunnel. This is the coolest place in the neighborhood because it is partially underground. We will be able to get out of the heat.”
“Is there a reason it’s called the love tunnel?”
“Exactly,” Miguel replied, winking, before suddenly stopping in his tracks and huddling us in, “Okay, everyone needs to put their phones away now. I will tell you when you can take them back out, but you need to put them away now. If you look up ahead, you will see there is a guy on the left and a guy on the right watching. No pictures allowed here, there are men watching.”
I shoved my phone in my purse and continued following Miguel, taking a glance to both my right and my left. I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. There are so many people always wondering the street or pausing to chat or sipping a beer; it was hard to tell which eyes were the serious ones.
Entering The Love Tunnel: Rio Favela Tour
We arrived at quite literally, a hole in the wall. Miguel went first through the graffitied walls, leading us down a set of stairs and between a thin alleyway. From first glance, it’s hard to even tell that this was an entrance. I literally thought it was someone’s home when we walked by earlier. Now inside, it was still hard to believe that this was a walk way. Miguel’s favorite animals darted this way and that, letting out a complimentary, “Meow,” if we looked at them the right way.
All of the sudden, I let out a scream and jumped in the air. Miguel turned around, with a concerned look on his face, as I glanced over sheepishly.
“Sorry. Cockroach,” I explained, not used to dodging these creatures with my sneakers and during daylight, of all times. This is normally the telling point of you-have-a-major-cockroach-infestation, as these little men are supposed to be nocturnal.
Every once in a while the path would open up and reveal a spiderweb of pathways. I was beginning to realize this was less of a tunnel and more of a labyrinth. And since addresses don’t exist in Rocinha, I was also wondering how anyone would find a friend’s home if they lived in here. Miguel told us that he gets all of his packages delivered to a friend at the gas station.
Addressing Rio de Janeiro
“This is why you need good friends in here. I get all of my packages delivered there, sometimes without telling him…but, you don’t want to make him mad. You make him mad, you lose your connection, you have no where to receive mail. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
As we reached what seemed to be a never-ending tunnel, Miguel addressed us once more.
“Okay guys, we are entering another area where no photos are allowed. So, put your phones away here. We are going to stop at my friend’s restaurant. There, you can grab more water or a beer if you’d like, okay?”
Nothing sounded better than a cold beer at this moment. We had been trudging through the heat for a few hours now and I simply could not wait. As the group stopped up ahead, I stood up on my tippy toes to see what was going on. Miguel was speaking with two big men, camped out in lawn chairs on the street side with massive assault rifles resting on their laps in broad daylight. It was hard to hear what they were saying, but it looked serious. I stood there impatiently, waiting to see what the outcome of this conversation would be, when the man turned around and offered his fist. I bumped it, getting his approval, then continued on down to grab a beer.
The End of The Rio Favela Tour
“Any more questions?” Miguel prodded, eager to keep talking.
“What’s the worst part about living here?”
“The worst part…maybe…the noise. It’s very loud here, especially at night. It can be hard to sleep when your neighbors are always throwing parties and they have that BOOM, BOOM, BOOOOOM, music shaking the floors,” he said, with thought, then added, “Or the power outages. That can be hard.”
Despite this answer, Miguel assured us that he would never so much as dream of changing his address, even though he technically doesn’t even have one. The people of Rocinha are just like any other people. They work hard, have families and are some of the proudest Brazilians I have ever met. If you ever end up in Rio de Janeiro, I challenge you to take a stroll outside of the touristic beaches and take a tour through the real Brazil. You won’t regret it.