Mike and I went on a favela tour today. Tours are not something that either of us choose to do on a regular basis. Perhaps a bus tour here or there when we are trying to kill time, but for the most part we do not fit into the target market of most agencies. To be honest, I was not excited for it. I wasn´t afraid like I thought I would be, but worried about the exploitive properties of being guided through an historically poor and reportedly dangerous neighborhood. I think the only reason that I decided to go was that I am always curious about how people live. I know that I could go without passing judgement good or bad about the place.
At 10am, the company picked us up to go to the base of the favela. It only took about 10 minutes to get to the base from our $6000USD per month apartment in Ipanema. We got out of the cab and each person got onto the back of a motorbike driven by one of the locals. Apparently this is a major form of transportation up and down the main road. I think my driver was showing off a little, since I was one of very few women who took the tour and was constantly cutting in front of the other bike guides and taking more chances than the others. It was a road that switchbacked constantly straight up the side of the hill. From the top, we walked down one of the main passages to get to the bottom. On the way, we stopped at an art gallery where some of the local artists had a studio. They taught classes for the local youth and other community projects. Later we stopped at a school for kids in the favela before making our way down to the bottom to be taken back to our apartment.
I don´t want to glorify this experience. Many people choose not to go and I totally understand and respect that. But since I went, I might as well share some of the insight I gained from this time.
Since my main goal in this tour was to promote my own understanding of the situation, I was totally the person who held the group up with tons of questions. I found the guide to be honest, open and he passed no judgement on the people who lived there despite being from one of the nicer areas. I´ll share the questions and answers with you. I think they are interesting.
Q. First question I asked–how does this tour negatively or positively affect the favelas and the people living there?
A. He answered by saying that there were no known downfalls to the tour. It promoted understanding and peace and that the tour agency contributed to relief efforts each week with some of the proceeds. Since the spread of knowledge, many foreigners had started community enhancement programs, like the school we visited, which was started and funded by Italians. He claimed (and I think there was only a little joking in this statement) that many people from Rio think the problem could be solved by bombing the area and starting over with more worthwhile structures and people. Very few people from the lower areas ever venture into the hills in their lifetimes.
Q. I heard that the favelas were run by organized crime, who ruled by exploitation. Is this true?
A. There are three gangs in the city. This particular favela was run by ADA (Amigos do Amigos). Approximately 1.5 Million USD per month are made from drugs each month. Only 2% of that is sold to people within the favelas. Most of it goes to the rich areas of the city. For this reason, the gangs control violence within the favelas, so that those outsiders feel safe enough to come in and buy their drugs. I forgot to ask if they threaten people and for what reason. I might email them that question.
Q. If I were to buy a home here, would I have any problems?
A. People might be suspicious at first. They could be closed off and skeptical, but once they got to know you there would be no problems. (The guide was really nice to everyone and most people would stop and talk to him or shake hands or want to walk with us. I could tell that they were actually familiar with him and that it wasn´t for another reason — good time to bring up, no one ever asked us for money or tried to rip us off).
Q. Do people like living there?
A. Some of them want to get out, but many of them find it a good way to live cheaply and with a strong community, but still be within close proximity to the rich neighborhoods where many of them work. The education rate in the favelas is only around 55%, so I´m sure most people don´t know any other options, but the general feeling was that people were just living their lives, as Mike says, like everyone in the world did 400 years ago (except the favelas use electricity and other modern wonders).
Q. How much does it cost to live there?
A. The people who live in the favelas for the most part don´t pay any taxes. There is one main street that does, they get electricity, running water and some serveces. However, about 40 years ago, people just started building around the main street and have never paid taxes since then. They don´t have running water sometimes, but every 3 hours, the community pipes are turned on and people can go get fresh water. Electricity is pirated from the main lines, making the power poles look like massive spiderwebs of wires. Since they don´t pay taxes, they don´t get public services like police or mail, although when the police enter the problems start. The upper houses, which really resemble the small streets of southern Europe can be as much as R50,000 and the lower ones with the sewage issues as cheap as R3,000 to buy. ($1.75 = R1.00)
Q. What are the main social issues?
A. Education and child birth!!! Each woman has an average of 5 children. So many kids with many different fathers and a low education average leaves a lot of people who will never make it out. Brazil is obviously no different than many other poor and uneducated areas (including ones in our own country) in this respect. I can never get over this topic. If every country in the world put education (including sexual health) as their number one priority, this planet would be able to sustain itself for another 8 million years. Why don´t we ever learn that learning is what builds us up?
I´m sure I am forgetting some, so there might be a part two to this post. The bottom line is that despite what I thought before this experience, the three hours I spent walking through the favela today only helped to increase my belief that people are just living their lives. People want family and friends and community. They want to talk and laugh and communicate just like me. I am grateful that they allowed me to take my tour and learn about them. I´ll never forget it.