As you read this, I'll be in the middle of our move to Port Alegre, Brazil. We're very much looking forward to this new city.
While we've loved Rio for the beaches, food and view from our hotel, the rest hasn't been so good. The cost, the distance into the city where all the main attractions are and the complete and total sucky internet here make me glad to leave. I'd come back for another visit, but like the other towns we've stayed in, I now know how to make my stay here more enjoyable.
One of the things I'd do differently is volunteer my time. Where you ask? Somewhere I wouldn't have ever thought of doing two months ago.
The Rochina Favela.
I know, I know. If you know what a favela is (if you don't, read up on what it is HERE) you think I'm crazy to do such a thing. After all, don't the news reports say they are dangerous, and if a tourist goes in they will be attacked, robbed, beaten and a myriad of other horrible things?
But, you know me. I'm nothing if not curious. And since our hotel literally sat at the bottom of the biggest favelas in Rio (and Brazil), each time I walked outside and looked up at the thousands of unique homes on the hillside, I wondered if it really could be as horrible as everyone seemed to think.
So, I decided to find out for sure. I did my research and found there were several tours to take you into a favela. All of them touted how safe it would be. Most promised vehicles and enough men (some even with weapons) to keep you protected on your journey.
But I didn't want to travel through the favela like it was a safari and the people of the community were animals to stare at. That just seemed rude. So I continued my searching and discovered a smaller tour run by Zezinho, an actual resident of the favela. His website spoke of a different type of tour where you walked through the favela, exploring the alleys, streets, businesses and homes of the residents.
That seemed much more like what I wanted to do. Really get to know the favela and find out the truth about the area as a whole. I don't like being afraid of anything, and I hoped this tour would show me the reality about this community of 300,000 people.
So, I contacted Zezinho (pictured here) and together with several of my Cirque friends, we girded our loins and traveled into the heart of Rochina.
I have to admit, I expected at least a little of what I'd read about. Horrible housing conditions and poverty, drug dealers on every corner, cops and machine guns in the streets and nasty mean people waiting to rob, rape and kill outsiders.
But that isn't what I saw. While the homes aren't what we may be used to, they are usually clean and as well cared for as possible. They are unique and most aren't the horrible shacks of the news reports, just small cottages or huts without all the frills and decorations a Westerner might think necessary. Some are in better shape than others, but most of them fit together in an interesting and almost artistic way.
We saw no obvious drug dealers or crime while we were there, and in all honesty, I was more afraid of the mean looking cops wandering around with their big guns than the residents. Actually, the people I walked by or were introduced to were some of the nicest I've met since I came to Rio.
Now, before everyone thinks I believe it's all roses and lollipops there, they do have some serious problems. They may lose electricity for days on end or the water supply may suddenly disappear. There are garbage problems and a few open sewers. Schools are overcrowded and children must be bused outside the community to get an education.
There is poverty and the monthly wage earned by a native of Rochina is FAR less than someone who lives out of the area. Rent may be A LOT cheaper there, but since you don't make as much, it balances out. And from what I heard (and researched) the government treats the community like a poor orphaned step-child. They receive little if any money for special programs and what little they have is often taken away at the drop of a hat.
Is it any wonder there is a flourishing drug industry in the favela?
A couple of days before I visited, there was a shootout between drug dealers and the military police. There were deaths and a transformer was shot out in the melee. And yes, that is scary. But most of the residents have a live and let live policy. They look at drugs as another business and while they may not like it as much as the neighborhood pharmacy, those who sell drugs often contribute to the community. I was told that there are more drug sales going on outside the favela in Copagabana or Ipanema beach than in the favela itself. Perhaps all of this is why the drug industry is, in a way, accepted.
But while the news reports may focus mainly on this problem, there is so much more to Rochina. There is compassion and love and those working together for the greater good. Community programs to teach children to succeed. Specific schools so the kids can make something of themselves. Food banks and neighbor helping neighbor. Artists of all kinds. Businesses, restaurants, medical centers. It's a community of people with rules and regulations who want to govern themselves. Who want to live and succeed and enjoy each day to the fullest.
So just how is that any different than any other community or neighborhood in the world?
I learned a lot during my tour, and if I'm ever given the chance to visit Rio again with Cirque, I'll spend less of my time on the beach and at the pool, and more in this vibrant, interesting community. I'll wander the alleys and streets and enjoy the people I meet. I'll volunteer at the program center, the samba school or DJ school. I'll teach English or help out at the vet's office. So many things to do and look forward to.
All in a place I'd never expected to fall in love with.
Until Next Friday when I'll have a quick look at my newest city....Port Alegre!!!!
Hugs to all!