Slumming in Rio
Travel Stories: Slum tourism is on the rise. But are the guided tours educational or exploitive? Rob Verger joined one in Rio de Janeiro's impoverished favelas to find out.
06.23.08 | 3:15 PM ET
Creeping through traffic in the heart of Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro’s largest slum, our van hesitated beside piles of trash cooking in the sun. I watched a man pick through it. The air was thick with the smells of exhaust and garbage.
As we inched forward, our guide Alfredo told us about the last police operation against the drug gang here a week earlier. There was a shoot-out. Someone threw a grenade. “About six policemen came,” he said, with a slight Brazilian accent, over the microphone in the van, “and one of them ended up being killed.” The tour he was leading that day didn’t visit Rocinha. “Occasionally, we cannot come here,” he added. “It’s too dangerous.”
But today, apparently, was safe enough. I was there, in the van, as a tourist. I had signed up to take a tour of two of Rio’s favelas, part of the controversial travel phenomenon known as slum tourism.
About 20 percent of Rio’s population lives in favelas, and there are about 750 of these slums in this city of six million people. Each one is a distinct community where the overwhelming majority of residents are trying to live their lives: working, going to school, starting families. The favelas are virtually off-limits for all but those who live there or have business there—in some cases, the drug gang in charge decides who enters, and in others, it’s just not safe to wander around—but if you want to visit, you can sign up with one of Rio’s half-a-dozen or so favela tourism companies, which operate with the permission of the communities they visit. The one I used, Favela Tour, charged $39.
In the weeks before, I had talked to several friends, both Brazilian and not, about favela tourism. Most were uneasy with the idea. How excited can one be about a tour that essentially shows relatively wealthy people where poorer people live? I felt uneasy, too, but I sympathized with both sides of the debate. On one hand, it seemed like the worst kind of voyeurism. On the other, I thought the tour might offer some insight into a part of Brazilian society I knew little about. So, with mixed feelings, I signed up.
On a gray morning, Alfredo met me in the lobby of my hotel in Copacabana. I hopped in the van, joining a driver and three couples: one from the U.K., one from Portugal, a third from Italy.
“I have great news for you,” Alfredo said as we motored off. “There are no robberies in favelas. Not at all. Any kind of trouble-making is avoided by the drug dealers.”
As our van bounced down the road towards Rocinha, he continued: “Who is in charge of the security? Well, here in the city we have the police in charge, and the government is pretty much present. In favelas it’s different. Although we see the police presence there, who is really in charge are the drug dealers. They’re the ones controlling the community, although in a way, things are starting to change.”
Alfredo has been leading favela trips for about eight years. The company, Favela Tour, was founded by Brazilian Marcelo Armstrong, who later told me he got the idea while working for Club Med in Senegal, when he began taking guests beyond the resort’s boundaries to hang out with locals.
Slum tourism isn’t new. In the 19th century, touring a New York City slum known as the Five Points (the setting for the movie “Gangs of New York”) was popular. Tyler Anbinder writes in his book, “Five Points”: “Touring Five Points became an international attraction, drawing such notables as Charles Dickens, a Russian grand duke, Davy Crockett, and Abraham Lincoln. ... Indeed, the American concept of ‘slumming’ was probably invented there.” Whether or not slum tourism began there, it has taken off around the world in recent years, from Chicago to India to Kenya. In 1992, it arrived in Rio. By all accounts, it has been growing there ever since.
Approaching Rocinha, we climbed the curving streets at the settlement’s edge, then pulled over to take a look at the view of beachfront Rio. There, under cloudy skies, orderly and linear hotels and apartment buildings clustered in the flatlands near the still water of the harbor, and behind them rose dark green, rounded hills.
We bumped up the winding paved roads, past homes packed together in a Picasso-like jumble of angles and lines, until we stopped at an apartment building at the hill’s crest. Hopping out, we climbed a flight of stairs and emerged on a flat rooftop to take in the scene. About 56,000 people live in Rocinha—although that number might be much higher. It’s a city within a city, spilling down and following the contours of the hillsides over more than half a square mile. Our view was striking: red bricks and concrete houses, sheet-metal roofs, blue water-storage tanks, clusters of trees, the steep gray and brown rain-soaked rocks of the mountainside.
Another tour group from the same company joined us on the rooftop, and there we all were, like tourists anywhere. Click. Click. Click. It felt familiar: looking out over a vista, taking pictures. Except, of course, we were photographing a slum. Alfredo spoke over the sound of car engines, horns beeping and a rooster’s crow, telling us that children flying kites used to be a common sight in the favelas. It was “a way to communicate with drug dealers,” he said. “Now they don’t need to rely on kites anymore, because they have cell phones, radios and firecrackers. Firecrackers are used as the first warning signal. People hear the noise, they know something’s going on. Then they use radios or cell phones so they are ready for any kind of situation.”
It’s hard to exaggerate the level of violence found in Rio, much of which is focused in and around the favelas. The Economist has reported that over a recent six-year period, Rio averaged one murder every three and a half hours. And according to the 2005 documentary Favela Rising, the favelas have been statistically more dangerous for minors than Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Both the police and the drug gangs—essentially rival armies with a fragile balance of power—are known for brutal tactics.
Back in the van, we motored on to another favela, Vila Canoas, which was quiet and tiny compared to Rocinha. We stopped at a community school largely financed by the tour company and administered by an N.G.O. in the favela. The school was perched on the hillside and was partially open to the tropical air. In a computer lab, a few boys played video games; in two classrooms, children were walking around, or studying, or working on crafts. We were led up to a rooftop store, where we were encouraged to buy crafts to support the school—magnets in the shape of a Brazilian flag, or the butt of a bikini-clad woman—and as we left, another tour filtered into the school. I bought a flag magnet, then walked downstairs and waited for the rest of the group. Beside me a group of boys and their teacher played ping-pong, and nearby three girls laughed and played jump rope.
I had felt slightly uncomfortable all morning, but in the school that feeling deepened, and for the moment, I wanted out. I was happy that the tour company supported the school, and it seemed like a positive place. But how would it feel to be a child attending that school, watching groups of tourists filtering through, buying souvenirs? I don’t know. All I know is that I felt uncomfortable, and perhaps it was because I’m a teacher, and I think that something singular happens in a classroom, and tourists shouldn’t be a part of it.
We left the school and walked down intimate alleys between buildings and shops and under sagging power lines. We came across two seesaws, and beside them, on a wall, a mosaic of a butterfly created by shards of multicolored tiles. This stop was intended to be, I think, a reminder that all is not terrible in the favelas, and our guide’s tone all day had been realism tinged with optimism. Earlier, Alfredo had said, “In the favelas we’re going to visit, they have seen thousands of tourists. They like the opportunity to have you there so they can show you that they don’t live in miserable, dangerous conditions. They have problems. They are poor, but they are not miserable. Also your presence changes the stereotype of people that usually go to favelas to buy drugs, so in other words, you are welcome.” Whether you believe that or not, all the tour can show is a brief, selective glimpse into places that are feared and romanticized and otherwise off-limits.
It’s easy to feel repelled by the idea of favela tourism. Not long ago I talked to a Brazilian friend from Rio who used to work with a social project in Rocinha, and she told me she thought the tours were offensive. A large part of me agrees. I wish the tour companies weren’t for-profit operations. (Favela Tour donates to the school we visited out of the profits it earns.) I think they should use local guides, and be conducted on foot as much as possible. But if I could snap my fingers and make favela tourism disappear, would I? No. And as uncomfortable as I was at times on the tour—an unease that stemmed not from what I was seeing but from the manner in which I was seeing it—do I regret going? No. I believe that it’s better to see more of the world than less of it. I don’t mean that in a voyeuristic sense. I mean that if these tours, which are superficial and brief, allow some visitors to better appreciate Brazil’s baffling complexity and inequality just a tiny bit better, so be it.
In the taxi back to my hotel, I looked out the window as we cruised past Leblon, past Ipanema, past bright blue tube-shaped waves crashing on the beaches. In Copacabana, I paid and got out. I walked alongside three school children talking and laughing their way down the sidewalk. Intricate patterns of black and white tiles lined the way. I walked past three guys carrying surfboards, headed towards the beach. I was a foreigner in Brazil, but I felt more at home the closer I got to the hotel. It had become a beautiful day in Rio.
I had thought that my time in the favelas was over, but it wasn’t. The next day I tagged along with some American law students who were in Brazil as part of a class studying race and affirmative action. They had arranged to spend the day visiting and learning about a group called AfroReggae, an N.G.O. and band based in the favelas. Locals involved in the group agree to forsake drugs and alcohol to focus instead on learning music, dance and celebrating Afro-Brazilian culture. AfroReggae works, as its mission statement reads, towards “social inclusion and social justice.” The project was the subject of the documentary “Favela Rising.”
We visited a favela called Vigário Geral, where AfroReggae was born, and a place with a long history of violence.
At the entrance stood a few men, one with what looked like a submachine gun. They removed a board filled with nails from our path and covered a gap in the road to allow the van to pass. We eased by a few more young men with walkie-talkies and handguns.
Beyond, the streets were nearly empty. Quiet, sunlit, hot. We ambled down the streets, and I heard the staccato pop, pop, pop of firecrackers in the distance. I asked our guide from AfroReggae if that meant trouble.
“Sometimes they just light them for fun,” she said.
Later, we visited a building where a dozen teenage girls were practicing the drums. We sat on a concrete stage as they drummed, danced, sang—it was one of the most amazing performances I have seen. The music bounced off the walls and tile floor, filling the concrete room, while on the tracks just outside the window a train silently cruised by.
When it was over, the drummers invited us to join them. Our guide had stepped out, so none of us could communicate precisely. But it didn’t matter. Two girls placed a strap around my neck, which they hooked onto a large cylindrical wooden drum that hung to below my knees. One of the girls showed me how to bang a simple three-part beat, and I tried to mimic her: Bam bah bam. Bam bah bam. Bam bah bam. Soon, we were all playing together: the American students and me doing the best we could, the girls and their instructor leading.
We played three songs that way, and when we finished, we stepped outside into the sunlight. I felt elated. And I know why. Travel is best when you interact with others. When you learn from those you’re visiting. When you stand beside someone in her home, even if that home is a violent one, and you put away your camera, and you forget about having any sort of agenda, and you realize you are essentially ignorant, and the world opens a little.
A moment later a guy on a bicycle glided by, and out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of the bright silver tip of the gun hanging from a strap around his neck. Then he disappeared behind a building.