When I left for South America, people warned me about it. Specifically, Brazil. Even more specifically Rio de Janeiro. I had to inform them unfortunately it was my first stop. "At least you’re not going alone, right?” was the regular response. To which I awkwardly mumbled to them I was. A myriad of things made me sceptical about choosing it: they were plunged into recession, skyrocketing crime and even the Zika virus. I had fleeting moments of concern, fear and nervousness. That’s why I never would have imagined riding a motorcycle through a local favela overlooking the whole of Rio with a group of strangers. But here I am and I have absolutely no regrets.
How did I get here?
I left Australia on the 4th of July (Independence Day, ironically) to travel the world by myself for twelve months. Naturally, I had reasonable concerns – loneliness, safety and companionship, but my desire to see the world shoved these to the wayside. After thirty hours of travelling I arrived in Centro, Rio de Janeiro; a neighbourhood in which I read many startling reviews ranging from petty theft to armed robbery. I was greeted at the airport by protesting emergency services, wielding the banner “Welcome to Hell.” Wonderful.
Rio was completely broke – recently declaring a state of financial emergency and borrowing money wherever they could to try to pay for the impending Olympics and government expenses. The city seemed dishevelled.
My hostel in Centro was fine, but it seemed the neighbourhood scared off most tourists as I only saw one other patron of the hostel in three days.
My first couple of days I spent insanely cautious – not taking out maps in public or my phone and returning my camera to my bag as soon as I had finished taking pictures. I didn’t want to look like a tourist or like I was lost. Centro was the central business district of Rio and all trading shut down around 5:00pm, turning it into a desolate ghost town. I didn’t dare venture out alone after dark, plus my body clock inhibited me from doing much more than eating and collapsing.
After meeting others in another hostel in Ipanema, my view of Rio started to change. I met locals who were welcoming, helpful and kind. Walking around at night time was fine. I was still cautious but not afraid. There were countless negative stories in Australia regarding how unsafe Rio was leading up to the Olympics, the unfortunate theft of a Paralympian’s bicycle and even the untimely death of a young Australian. But the Rio that I met was so very different. Touristy yet homily. Capitalistic yet affordable. Historic yet modern.
Rio was completely safe and enjoyable, but you had to treat it like any other country in the world – don’t be stupid, be cautious of everyone and the realisation that at the end of the day there’s only so much in your control.
Admittedly I was doing a lot of tourist based activities that didn’t feature the worst of Brazil. The trouble usually emanated from local favelas, or shanty towns, where police and locals have shared a history of violence and crime. These favelas have been described as ‘parallel states’ where the drug lords run the towns and law enforcement rarely enter. Many favelas have been ‘taken back’ by the police and initiatives are run to educate and assist youth.
But the reality is much harsher. In the first four months of 2016, the amount of robberies in Rio increased by 24% and murders increased by 16%. A 17-year old girl was murdered. Gun battles were ‘rife’. The numbers are startling and horrific, but the increased law enforcement was more designed to secure tourists than help the ones who need protection the most: the people in the favelas.
In saying that going to a favela is not probably one of the wisest things to do in Rio de Janeiro given the climate... but it was definitely the most rewarding. The Vidigal favela I eventually ventured into was one that had been pacified by police and was ‘relatively safe’, but not the typical one experienced by tourists. I was taken by one of my friends I had met in Brazil, a local girl from the nearby city of Londrina.
As I rode on the back of a motorcycle up the favela with my new friends, I felt a cocktail of emotions. Fear, adrenaline and nervousness quickly morphed into pity, sorrow and frustration. As I looked around at the children in the streets I foresaw lives of crime and poverty, purely based on a situation out of their control. They were born into that life.
It made me appreciate the things we take for granted, social security, law and order, economic stability and universal healthcare.
But it wasn’t all slum and depression. You could tell by the looks on their faces, there were genuinely happy people there. There was also a quaint beauty about the fevela that grew on me. Despite the crime there was still a real community. It was evident that money doesn’t necessarily buy happiness and that some of these people were content with their lifestyles.
Twisting and turning through the jam packed cobblestone hills of Vidigal, I finally reached the top of the fevela. We then began our hike to the summit of Dois Irmaos, or for the gringos, Two Brothers Mountain. After four kilometres of jungle, rock and the burning reminder of my fitness level, I reached the breathtaking view of Rio from atop the enormous mountain.
It was unadulterated and awe-inspiring. Several tourist attractions throughout Brazil have been bastardised (like Sugarloaf mountain for example) but the purity of the Dois Irmaos was beautiful and humbling. We sat on the slope of the mountain, a few metres away from certain death overlooking the contrasting beauty and depression of the fevela. We breathed in the serenity before our slow decline back to civilisation. Munching on some local Brazilian barbecue and sugarcane juice helped with the exhaustion as I trudged back to my hostel.
I went to bed that night on an uncomfortable bed after taking my cold shower and self-diagnosing myself with what seemed like a growing case of bed bugs. I began the long attempt to sleep over the noise of chaotic snoring echoing throughout my dorm. But I counted my blessings: I was healthy, ate well, had a roof over my head, had the ability to travel and above all, I was alive. I thanked the universe for my gifts and hoped it would be as gracious to the people of Rio de Janeiro – they deserved it.