WOULD YOU STAY IN ONE OF RIO'S FAVELAS?
We did, and here is what we learnt
When you think of a favela, you probably think of a dangerous, poverty-stricken slum where violent drug gangs run rampant and any and all who dares to cross its boundaries are a fair and inevitable target. At least this is how many seem to be portrayed.
Within Rio de Janeiro, there are just over 1,000 favelas which 30% of the state's population call home. So are these "slums" really homicidal no-go zones or is there more to these excluded communities than meets the eye? Well, we spent 4 days in Moro da Babilonia, a favela upon a steep ridge in the Leme neighbourhood, to find out.
Our host here is Pol, a Belgian national who has been living in Brazil for the last 8 years and, having fully integrated himself, is an influential and well respected member of the local society. Pol is an extraordinarily well-travelled anti-nuclear pacifist and all-round fascinating individual who owns and runs Estrelas da Babilonia, the homely pousada where we laid our hats during our time in Babilonia.
Pol took us on a tour to show us the area and from the get go we felt very relaxed and comfortable in our new surroundings, smiling faces and friendly greetings met us at every turn. As we follow Pol through the narrow walk ways winding up into the hills above Babilonia, he explained how the favelas run. They have their own leadership structure, almost political, where the people elect a mayor to be the voice of the community and represent the people to the external government.
Continuing our ascent, the scenery changes to lush green vegetation and after a further 30 minutes we arrive at the top of the hill. Met by a stunning panoramic view of the Rio skyline and sugar loaf mountain with Corcovado, Christ the redeemer, in the distance we realised just how few outsiders get to experience this. As strange as it may sound to many, we felt right at home in this favela.
Upon first entering Babilonia the first thing we notice asides from the Everest-esque steepness of the streets and never ending flights of steps, is the art. Almost every wall, curb, rooftop, power post and door in sight is adorned with some form of art, colourful tiling or artistic self-expression. Not a single piece has so much of a hint of vandalism or tasteless graffiti but rather messages of hope, peace and positivity. The old adage of "a picture speaks a thousand words" really rings true. Art quite evidently plays a pivotal role in the charisma of this charming neighbourhood aided in no small part by project Babilonia open doors.
The aim of this project is to turn Babilonia into an open air art gallery and to bring beauty and life to the community. So far 15 of Rio's most influential and inspirational artists have made their contribution. In addition to art, project Babilonia open doors also saw the local resident enjoy live music and other events. Such has been the success that there are currently plans being made for further events in the not too distant future.
Perhaps most awe-inspiring of all is the fact that this initiative has been planned, prepared and executed entirely by the local community. But this is not the only one. Vision 2030 for sustainable development is the collective brainchild of the leading figures within both Babilonia and neighbouring favela, Chapeu Mangueira. Launched earlier this year, vision 2030's end goal is to achieve a stand-alone self sustaining economy within the favelas. Some of the key areas which have been identified as necessary to achieving this are education reform, reforestation and renewable energy. Although still very early days, the latter is already gaining some external recognition and media coverage.
In closing, our experience in Moro da Babilonia has been utterly unforgettable. Never before have we experienced such a sense of community spirit in such a vibrant atmosphere and at no point did we feel in anyway unsafe. Next time you are in Rio we strongly urge you to make the effort to visit or even stay in one the favelas as we promise, it will be one of the most eye-opening, memorable experiences of your life. However, we recommend that you do not use an external tour operator. Instead, call or e-mail a hostel, pousada or guesthouse in the favela you wish to visit to find out if they offer a guided tour. If they do, it will be a more authentic and knowledgeable experience and, even better, you contribute to their local economy.
It is very important to clarify that we are not suggesting that you just go marching into any favela at will as there are some which are extremely unsafe for tourists to enter. What we hope this post will achieve is an increase in awareness that, much like regular neighbourhoods, there is an enormous and drastically varying scale of danger on which different favelas fall. Some are as safe and welcoming as any other working or middle class area and a few, such as Babilonia, are even beginning to thrive.