A "favela" is defined as a "slum" neighbourhood in Brazil, but they're often misunderstood to be strictly linked to crime and violence. That's not to say there isn't any, but there's so much more to them than meets the eye. But what does meet the eye looks pretty darn good!
My visit to the favelas gave me the cultural insight of Rio that I was looking for. Sure, the beaches and hikes were amazing, but I wanted to dive into some of Rio's hidden culture. The culture you don't initially think of when Rio de Janeiro comes to mind. And this did just that.
If you're thinking of venturing off into the favelas during your trip, one thing you shouldn't do is venture in on your own. Firstly because there are no streets. Yeah. No streets. There's one or two main drags, but the majority of the favelas are made up of little alleyways and nooks and crannies. And there aren't any maps for favelas either, so if you're out there on your own and you get lost, tough luck bud.
Just to give you an idea of how winding and complicated these neighbourhoods are, here's a bit of background info. A favela is not governed by the state and doesn't have any laws or restrictions when it comes to construction. They're made up of houses built on public land, normally along the hillside of a mountain, by people who can't afford homes in the city. Homes are built on top of homes, crammed up beside each other - anywhere that there's space and that looks decently stable, there's a house. Because favelas aren't governed, there's a lot of crime and violence that happens in these areas. A favela can become "pacified" which basically means the police will go in, catch all the bad guys and enforce order in the area. But to do this, they spend upwards of a year studying the favela and learning where all the little nooks and crannies are to map out the neighbourhood and really get to know their way around.
I'm already terrible with directions on main streets and with my Google Maps app open, I can't even imagine what I would do if I got lost on my own in a favela... So I booked a guided tour. Before I booked the tour, I didn't exactly like the idea of taking a tour through the favelas. Just the idea of big tour companies capitalizing on the poverty of these neighbourhoods turned me off. I also didn't think the locals living in those areas would appreciate a bunch of foreigners invading their stomping grounds to be tourists and take photos. But some girls from my hostel and I stumbled on the perfect tour company, called Favela Tour. A portion of the proceeds from the tour are used to help run a little local school in one of the favelas we visited, where the children are cared for and fed, and where volunteers offer their time to teach them English. The tour takes you through the local school and you get a chance to briefly see the kids in class. You're also taken through markets in the favelas, where you get to meet local artists and to purchase their work. Because these visits support the locals in these neighbourhoods, they welcomed us with smiles and warm greetings.
This is the entrance to the local children's school that is supported by the Favela Tour Company. Translated, the school is called "Little Strawberry".
The little cutie I met at one of the markets we visited during the favela tour. He belonged to a local Samba music artist who sold his CD's to tourists.
The tour took us to two different favelas: Vila Canoas and Rocinha - both pacified favelas. From afar, the favelas are just a gorgeous view, little houses on top of little houses, all brilliant in colour along the hillside of a picturesque mountain. But when you get up close and personal, so much more is revealed. The story behind the construction and architecture, the friendly faces, the daily routines and struggles of its people - none of this culture could be experienced from the outside looking in.
Because there aren't any streets in the favelas, the people who live in these neighbourhoods don't have official addresses they can use for mail. So there are communal mailboxes all over, where large quantities of mail will get deposited into a shared mailbox.
The houses are so crammed in tight next to each other in the favelas that this is what their electrical wires look like. Somehow, electrical fires rarely happen...
Spotted: Inspirational stairs with encouraging words found in a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Among all the uplifting sayings, here are a few: "More love please", "Tomorrow will be a new day", "Try again", Good luck", "Believe you are a winner", "Always fight, never give up".