Rio is a stark contrast of rich and poor. The shops and restaurants frequented by the wealthy are staffed by the poor from the slums: the favelas. Far from being forgotten areas of the city on the outskirts, these districts sit right next door to some of the wealthiest areas of this vast conurbation. Rich and Poor live on opposite sides of the street on the borders. But there are not many robberies for the moneyed to fear; the favelas are run by gangs and gunmen who do not want the police presence in their favela that such crime would bring: here the police shoot to kill. Indeed, they have a special unit of highly trained men whose missions are usually seek-and-destroy on targets in the upper echelons of these gangs. After seeing City Of God, I wanted witness them for myself.
Apparently it is safe to walk into the favelas from a robbery perspective, but it’s much more likely an unfamiliar face will draw gunfire. Getting your iPod nicked is a minor nuisance; getting your ribs blown through your back by an AK47 burst is a bit of a pain in the arse.
One girl in the hostel recommended a tour, so Frank Spencer and myself booked us on it the next day. The girl said not to wear flip-flops because of the raw sewage running down from the tops of the slums, and to keep your knees in when careening through the tight alleyways and rat-runs; one guy had shattered a kneecap this way. They’d taken scooters up into the hills, and walked down…meeting drug-dealers, lookouts with guns and plenty of locals. Sounded great.
We waited for the transport, and along came a minibus with a haughty Rio-born Swiss woman of about 60. This was going to be fun. The bus filled up with a group of frightfully posh lawyers from London. Listening to them braying, I was beginning to hope we’d get sprayed with gunfire as we entered the favela…and I was going to stick my head of the window to ensure I got hit first.
Swiss Miss read us the rules: no pointing cameras up at rooftops; only take photos when she said it was safe etc etc. We jumped out of the minibus at a side street leading down to a marketplace. I stood and looked around, as a youth walked past with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder. Here, there are no police: they are not allowed into the favelas on the proviso the drug gangs police their districts. These same gangs have been involved in open warfare with their rivals for years; if the police notify the tours that such activity is imminent, the tour is cancelled. The police aren’t necessarily the good guys (as in much of South America) and death-squads have been accused of clearing the city of street-children in the past few decades: orders from the top to make the city more aesthetically pleasing.
Ambling down the market, we turned the corner and walked 50 yards to where I was perturbed to find the minibus waiting for us. Eh? Shepherded to safety after walking down just one street right on the edge? “Is it me, or is this a load of bollocks?” I asked Frank. He just laughed. One of the posh girls turned round to admonish my churlishness “Oh my god, like, what did you expect to see? Do you want to see scary people walking round with machine guns?” she sounded surprised. “Sorry to ruin the jolly little party but yes, that’s exactly what I wanted to see…not plastic fucking FavelaLand™. I’ve had more frightening walks around Hackney on a Sunday night…” She scowled and wrinkled her little blueblood nose. Some people…
The next favela was a “safe” one, where we were free to walk around. It was akin to London Fields as opposed to Hackney; similar shit housing in parts, but the locals weren’t as dangerous. The views were great, but walking down a few back alleys before being taken to the Swiss’s favourite soda shop was not my idea of fun.
We got back to the hostel, and the girl asked me how it had been. I told her nothing like hers; she then told me she’d booked one independently, not through the hostel. Shit. So if you’re going to do a tour, do it through www.bealocal.br as they are supposed to be great. If you book one run by a Swiss stick insect with glasses, fake Delhi Belly and just lose your deposit; you could be down the pub.