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April 27, 2012 | 6 minute read | By Kevin Read

We’re weaving between cars and buses up a narrow, winding road. I’m perched on the back of a speeding bike, trying to keep my knees in, gripping two tiny handles underneath my seat. Though I barely feel it right now, when the journey ends my palms will be red from clutching the only attachment I have to the vehicle and the insane rider I’ve been paired with. Before I began this journey, my guide taught me the Portuguese for “go slowly”. I forgot it.

As two vans converge ahead, my escort sees an opportunity and races through the tiny gap, which closes behind us. We round another sharp turn into the path of an oncoming truck, swerve across the road and bounce clear of the ground as we fly off one of the huge bumps that line this poorly maintained road.  Somehow we stay balanced, and I think I hear laughing from the helmet in front of me.

Fortunately, I can barely see. It’s not reassuring that my own helmet has so many scratches and dents that only parts of the visor are still transparent, but this ride invades all the senses. Bus horns sound constantly as we dive between them and people yell from the dingy shops lining the route. Engines are everywhere, groaning and rattling, and it’s all against a background of our own tiny motor, constantly straining to maintain the absurd speed the driver has decided on. The smell constantly changes from the foul wafts of the sewage running down the hill to the tasty aroma of frying food, then toxic fumes as we chase dirty buses inches behind the exhaust.

We screech to a halt at the top of the hill amidst crowds of people carrying broken pieces of furniture, bags of cans and other seemingly worthless items. My head is spinning and my nose has temporarily shut down, but when my senses return I can take in the maze of alleyways and staircases that lead up and down in every direction. Everything is jumbled, dirty, smelly and chaotic, like the streets and buildings have all been placed at random and with no regard to each other. This is not a normal taxi ride. This is how you arrive in a shanty town.


Most countries have their own name for slums, and in Brazil they are called favelas. They’re usually formed around major cities when the influx of people seeking economic opportunities is so large and rapid that there isn’t enough affordable places to house them. Buildings and streets are improvised together on whatever land is available by whoever knows how to build. In a city as crowded as Rio De Janeiro, this means the hills, the only places not already covered by shops, offices and high-rise apartment buildings. Despite how little spare room there is in Rio, the city has around one thousand favelas. favela-6

We leave the road and enter a narrow alleyway on foot. There isn’t even enough room for a bike between the buildings, and the path drops and turns so frequently it would be impossible to ride anyway, even for my driver. This is Road 1, one of the main routes through Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela, and it’s bustling with people moving in both directions. Huge bundles of cables are pinned to the walls overhead, branching off and disappearing up stairways, down smaller alleys and into windows above. This place is a tiny, crowded, stinking maze.

I pin myself against a wall as a man squeezes by carrying a set of drawers, then again as someone passes with an old tv. There are tiny shop fronts opening onto the street, selling fresh food and cleaning products, and others with broken down electronics and mattresses. The favela isn’t a place of idle, passive unfortunates; the people here are enterprising, hardworking and, mostly, honest. Many of the people you see in the wealthy districts of Rio De Janeiro (waiters, cleaners, small traders) live in the favela. It’s all they can afford. Others, who make their living here, do so through work such as running a small shop or operating a motorbike taxi. On the occasional chance I get to look down to the rooftops down the hill, I see many covered with bags of used drinks cans. They have been collected from the streets to be sold as recycling.


Behind the chaos of the jumbled buildings, Rocinha is organised. There are 3 schools hidden somewhere in this warren of staircases and alleys, as well as a hospital and community centre. Most houses have electricity, and favela-2through some open doors I see televisions and fridges on clean-swept floors. If it isn’t as dangerous and disorganised as you might imagine, it’s also not as depressed and downtrodden. We pass a tiny bar, less than 10 feet deep, with a live samba band somehow arranged inside and the patrons dancing in the narrow street, cheering us as we pass. Further on, I peer over a wall to a game of football going on in small courtyard several levels below; several boys are chasing the ball, scattering the chickens trapped in the yard with them.

Rocinha may not be depressed, but its story, just its existence, is depressing. Besides the poor sanitation, risk of disease and dangerous construction (we passed at least one collapsed house on our route), the 70,000 people living in Rocinha have seen a good deal of violence. Favelas are often run by drug lords who keep order in the community using a complicated political system with frequent shoot-outs and murders. Though the people who live there are relatively untouched by the usual government processes (taxes, business licences), the gangs which control the favelas are as demanding of its residents as a government would be, and not so understanding or stable. As we pass a house on our way down the hill, my guide points out a piece of graffiti reading “ADA”. Amigos Dos Amigos, an organized crime group which until recently controlled a large part of Rocinha, is one of three main groups constantly fighting for control of Rio’s favelas.

favela-4Because of the unusual law in Brazil that an employer is responsible for the cost of an employee’s travel to work, many of Rio’s favela’s are located very close to some of its nicest neighbourhoods. It’s easier to get work if you live closer and can reduce the burden your transport costs would put on an employer, but Brazil is so economically divided that there is very little option for a worker to find alternative accommodation nearby. Living in a favela isn’t the last resort of a dropout, it’s often the only way to take advantage of genuine opportunities for legal work. Too many Brazilians are caught between the contradictions in the economic system which isn’t set up to help them, then the crossfire between the gangs controlling the only viable areas to live.

Ahead of the Football World Cup coming to Brazil in 2014 and the Olympics in Rio De Janeiro in 2016, the authorities are addressing the issue of Brazil’s urban poor neighbourhoods. Rochinha was taken by the police in November 2011 and new projects to help the residents, such as a day care centre and health clinics, have been set up. How long the political pressure to transform Rios favelas will last is uncertain, and the gangs losing control for now will not give up easily, but there seems to be some reason to hope things will improve further. As in Salvador, I emerged from the favela more aware of how much I don’t understand and less sure of whether that hope is justified.


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