Usually, I feel quite strongly that there are right and wrong ways to travel. Sometimes though it becomes more of a murky gray zone and I am not so sure myself. Elephant riding? No! Eating a spider leg? Yes! (at least once). Photographing the tooth seller at the Jemaa El Fna for some change? Yes! Photographing the monkeys next to him? No.
I guess, most decisions of what we do and don’t do on a trip are highly personal and that is quite alright. Responsible tourism is often not clear cut and the issues a country may struggle with are often too complex for the average traveler to grasp. Heck, after seven years in South Africa, I still don’t understand all the implications of post-apartheid life and the socioeconomic injustices people are facing to this day and how to approach them. How is a traveler supposed to?
I battled for a long time with myself whether to visit a favela in Rio de Janeiro. It was something I was very interested in and I felt like I needed to see to get a better, more well-rounded grip on the city. I wasn’t just interested in the glitz and the surfers, I wanted to see more facets of the real Rio.
I had done a few township tours in Cape Town and always felt they gave me a proper glimpse into another person’s life, making me able to understand where they were coming a from a little better. It had never felt zoo-like, but I was lucky enough to have awesome guides who were taking me home, showing me around their hood rather than take me on a tour.
With that positive experience as my reference, I decided to go for it in Rio as well to see a different side. Even though in Rio there are no proper “sides”; favelas are everywhere, next to the richest neighborhoods, often competing for the views as many of them are build on the steep hills overlooking the city and the beaches.
The Urban Dictionary defines a favela as such:
“A Brazilian ghetto, the toughest neighborhoods you would ever want to find yourself in. Makes American ghettos and barrios look tame. Even the police are afraid to enter.
Tourist: Hey, we should go check out those shanty towns, they look interesting.
Brazilian: That’s a favela, you’ll get fucked up, ignorant American.”
I didn’t want to be the ignorant tourist, but I still wanted to check them out and as local sources had told me that many favelas had been pacified to make them safer for habitants and visitors (hello, Worldcup!), I was taking the definition above with a grain of salt.
As I lacked any friends in Brazil who could show me around, I decided to go with Favela Tour after some research. Marcelo Armstrong was first to start Favela Tour way back in the days and seemed to have a good enough reputation i.e. nobody had ever gotten lost, mugged or shot on one of his tours. I hope you can read the irony in my voice as even in hindsight I am not quite sure how I feel about the whole experience. Something still does not sit right with me.
We started the tour as one starts most tours: in a minibus making multiple hotel stops to pick up more or less enthusiastic explorers/tourists. Our first favela was Rocinha, the biggest and oldest favela in Rio. Here my apprehension to be on such a tour got confirmed for the first time. We got out on the side of the road, being told we should stick to a 50m area on the sidewalk where some vendors had set up shop, obviously waiting for people just like us. Besides the stunning views over the city, it was a disappointing stop. Nobody cared to chat to us – not that I blame them – and even the entertaining owner of a cocker spaniel wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap (the dog, not the owner!) was not there to entertain but to make money with his funny dog. Again, I don’t blame him.
I know my words may sound naive, but it almost seemed like I was in a fake favela, in a tourist favela here to exploit me in return and pull on my heart strings, but not giving me the real insight into a different world, something that I truly wanted to see.
We drove on to a deserted house, still in its building phase, to get a ‘good view’ over Rocinha. I saw colorful brick buildings, satellite dishes, and my question of whether this favela was well off only met incredible looks. I had seen worse along the N2 and all around Cape Town, so I considered my question valid. Needless to say, though, the looks shut me up. And I started to wonder – is a favela always a concept of miserable living? Is it not also or rather a neighborhood, a community, a place where people not vegetate but live? I was hoping for answers with this tour and am not sure I got any.
We moved on to Vila Canoas and first visited Para Ti, an after-school program for kids from the neighborhood, brought to life by the Urani family, Italians who has lived in Rio for many years. While the kids were not around for it was a holiday, this seemed a happy place. A safe space of learning and creativity. From here we moved on into the favela itself, an almost three-dimensional maze of houses, alleys, and staircases much like the medina of Fez. We are asked not to take pictures of the inside of people’s homes, many of them leaving doors and windows open. It made me sad that such a warning was necessary. Then again, I too like taking people’s pictures and no, I don’t always ask.
We winded our way up and down through Vila Canoas, shy looks into shops and yes, people’s homes were met with not so curious stares. Here as too, Marcelo’s tours were well known and we were not a novice sight. Vendors greeted friendly and only the bar owner looked slightly upset – nobody was in the mood for a drink. Some may not have cared for a favela Caipirinha though they were the cheapest I had seen in Rio and according to our guide and the sign delicious. For me, it was simply too early in the day.
Again, I felt slightly ashamed for not being more shocked, for not having more pity for the people who lived here. Pity might be too much of a condescending word, but where had my compassion gone? Or is even compassion not an appropriate reaction in a situation like this? I have seen many living conditions like this in Africa and Asia, it just didn’t seem especially horrid to me. Yet I know my own privilege and ignorance. What did I expect to see? Murder, prostitution, drug deals gone wrong, a live showing of “City of God”? Was I actually disappointed that the infamous Brazilian favelas showed me nothing of that kind? Or was I relieved and happy for the people who call this place their home? I really didn’t know anymore and so I was happy to get back into the car with my confusion.
We left how we arrived in our minivan, entertained now by stunning beach views and stories about Brazil’s history. We were to name the most famous black Brazilian and were praised when nobody said Nelson Mandela as apparently some eager Americans had done in the past. Maybe it was the same tourist who made it into the Urban Dictionary with his question. Who can blame him? I certainly couldn’t because I left Rio’s favelas with even more question than I came.
Note: Favela Tour gives part of their proceeds to Para Ti which came to over R$ 80,000 last year. However, as Marcelo told me in a few follow-up email most of the money they make disappears into bureaucracy, government taxes, and inefficiency. While that actually shouldn’t come as a surprise, I now do wonder if that leaves any point of doing such a tour. Can any good ever come out of it, my own curiosity not satisfied and too little left for our hosts?
What are your thoughts on favela/ township tours? Have you done any? Why or why not? And how did you feel afterward? I’d be keen to know more, so please share your experience or thoughts in the comments!