Firstly Feliz Ano Novo to you all!
I’ve been a bit quiet lately as you have probably noticed, but that’s only because my travels have taken over. I’m currently by the beach in Brazil enjoying some me time and finally found a moment to sit down, think, relax, and write.
30th December 2016, I set off on a 12 hour flight to Rio de Janeiro and what I knew would be the most challenging yet undoubtedly the best 2 months of my life. I finished my first semester at university in Buenos Aires back in November and am lucky enough to have a 3 month summer holiday until March. I spent one month between London and Istanbul, and now I will be spending the other two travelling around South America…solo.
As I was planning this trip back in Europe, I intended to start in Brazil, travel through Bolivia, cross over to Chile, travel around south Argentina and finally finish in Buenos Aires and the beginning of March to start my second semester. Almost 2 weeks into the trip and all of my spontaneous plans have worked out perfectly so far. I have no idea where I’m going next but you, along with me, will see where I end up!
For the entire journey from London to Rio (arriving at midnight local time), all I could feel was..scared. I couldn’t feel excited yet as my mind was swarmed with questions. How am I going to get to the hostel? What if the taxi driver kidnaps me? What if the owner of the hostel doesn’t come to meet me at our meeting point? What if someone robs me at the airport? What is, what if, what if. Thinking about it now, irrational? Yes. At the time, SUPER rational and normal.
Before I flew out to Brazil I was so eager to come here. I couldn’t wait to escape from everything and start the new year in a new country, with a completely new experience, new friends, and yes very cliché, but a “new me”. But I had heard, watched and read too many stories which made me more and more anxious by the day. “You’re going to LOVE Rio! Just don’t wear any jewellery because they will rob it off of you on the streets”. “Oh i’m so jealous you’re going to Brazil, it’s my favourite place, but stay away from the centre, my friends got held at gunpoint there during the day”. And my favourite so far.. “Welcome to favela, the hostel is great, it’s very safe around here and everyone knows one another, just don’t be shocked when you see the drug dealers with guns outside the front door. They always hang around there. They won’t do anything though, you can even say hi to them!”.
The last anecdote was from Joao, my hostel owner. Just imagine landing into this enormous city with so many fears, doubts and nerves then being told THIS..then, having to squeeze past these drug dealers through the narrow alleys, as he rightly had warned me about, and pretending to act calm. My first hour in Rio and I already wanted to cry with an overload of emotion and book my flight straight back to Europe. “What am I doing here?” “Why did i choose to stay in a favela? You know you shouldn’t go near these places let alone stay in one!”As soon as I walked through the front door of Chapeu do Leme I felt a sense of relief and safety. Now, all I could think about were the next 6 days I would be spending inside this crazy place.
What is a favela?
Favela’s are Brazilian slums and shanty towns found in urban areas across the country. The first favela, Providência in Rio de Janeiro, was founded in 1897 with the abolition of slavery. The favela welcomed over 2 million enslaved Africans. Later, when wealthy inhabitants moved into the cities during the early 19th centuries, the poorer citizens were forced to live out in the far suburbs, mainly upon the hills surrounding the city. This settlement later expanded further up and around the urban areas. With the change of the capital of Brazil, from Brasilia to Rio de Janeiro, the housing crisis caused the locals to stay in the favelas as they couldn’t afford to move into the city. Despite their proximity to the city, sanitation, electricity, or other services were not extended to the favelas. Today, with over 1000 favelas in Rio, an approximate of 24% of the city’s population live in these areas. They are the cheapest places to stay for tourists and foreigners, and undoubtedly have some of the best views due to their locations on the hillsides. Having said this, they are famous for their drug dealers, addicts, criminals and high levels of gang violence. As almost all of the drug lords are imprisoned, they have chosen dealers through out the favelas whom they control from behind the bars.
My personal experience living in a favela – Chapeu Mangueira
As I hinted previously, I was shit scared. I’m not even going to attempt to hide it. I was living in a neighbourhood, Leme, where not even the police want to, or are allowed to enter. Gunshots, people injecting in the streets, teenagers sitting in dark corners with walkie-talkies waiting for their dealers, kids with snot running down their noses and the smell of fried food covered the favela. The morning after my arrival, I decided to act casual and stroll through the narrow paths and down towards Copacabana beach, saying “bon dia” to the locals as I ‘calmly’ passed by. Surprisingly, they all responded and smiled at me. Just like the previous night, I felt a huge sense of relief the second I stepped on the first piece of concrete outside of the favela’s invisible border.
It was now New Year’s Eve and everywhere was overflowing with people, the streets and favelas alike. I spent the day with one of my friends from Argentina, M, and her Brazilian friend, B. We hit the beaches in Niterói (a residential area approximately 50 minutes away from the main city of Rio) before getting ready to head back to Chapeu Mangueira for the hostel’s NYE get together. This was going to be a first for both of them as neither had been inside a favela before. As we walked through Copacabana beach, and as midnight drew closer, we finally arrived at the main entrance of the favela where took a motor-taxi up the hill (3 Reals). I was clinging on for dear life. Once we hopped off the bikes, I could sense the fear the girls were feeling inside. B told me she wanted to go home and that I shouldn’t stay here. She offered me to go and stay with her for the week and get out of there as soon as possible. I told her it was safe, that it looks dodgy but no-one will do anything. Just stay calm. As we walked through the steep and dark alleys of this shanty town, we came across 3 suspicious looking policemen with guns pointing behind us. B started crying and panicking. She told me once again that she wants to go home.. NOW. I became so stressed. I had already been in two minds about this place and had finally convinced myself that I felt safe there, but then this happened and I couldn’t help but freak out. I talked B into walking up to the hostel where we headed straight to the terrace and had a few drinks.
As the night got moving, more people were arriving to accompany us up on the terrace with the incredible views of Copacabana. That night, I met a lot of people, almost all who live in this same favela. Mainly all girls, all young and almost all foreign. One girl who I spoke to the most was a Dutch girl. She explained that she was in Rio for her Masters project which she chose to write about Brazilian societies and the strong division that exists between the “locals” and those living inside the favelas. Here, she was living alone in a rented flat and couldn’t promote the area more if she tried. She decided to stay inside the favela to get a true first hand experience of the lives of the locals, and she loved it. Following these conversations, B had now calmed down and thanked me. She thanked me for showing her a side of the city and society which she, as a Brazilian herself, had never seen nor experienced. She continued to express that all her life she had been protected inside this ‘bubble’ and just like the rest of the middle and upper class Brazilian citizens, she held this pre-judgement fixed inside her head; to stay far far away from the favelas and slums. She told me she panicked because she had never seen this side of Rio before..because she didn’t need to. Not just B, but in general, these people have no reason to walk into these favelas, they just get on with their own lives on their own territories. It’s sad. It’s sad that they are all a part of the same nation, that hey live within the same area but the segregation is so strong that it’s quite distressing to see.
As the clock struck midnight, the fireworks went off with a bang, presenting us with an even more spectacular view. It was everything I had imagined Rio to be on New Years Eve and more. After a few minutes of mesmerisation and hypnosis, I gazed into the sky thinking about the amount of pollution that this was actually causing.. no comment, I know. My thoughts, however, were immediately interrupted by gunshots followed by a complete blackout in the favela. Someone was shooting into the sky to celebrate the new year and had managed to aim at the electric control box. We were told it was accidental, but i’m sure it was planned. Maybe something related to drug dealing. Now B’s nerves started to play up again.
I understood her point of view. I still do. I’m assuming that like myself, the majority of you reading this post have also been brought up not to go to the favela equivalent areas of your cities where danger is the first word that comes to mind. At first, I didn’t tell Hatice that I was staying here. I couldn’t. She was more likely to murder me than those tattooed crack addicts. But once I realised that favela means community, that they protect one another inside their own boundaries, and that this was my first example of moving outside of my comfort zone, that’s when I called her and laughed about it. Of course, as a mother, she reacted exactly how I expected her to. She even told me she had already assumed I was staying in a “dodgy area” when I told her about having no electricity for 3 days. Mother’s eh. They always know everything.
There had been many times throughout this stay in which I thought “I need to get out of here now”, but I quickly got rid of this idea. I didn’t want to leave. Yes, I was uncomfortable, but it was irrational as I knew I had nothing to be afraid of, the only thing that I was frightened of was my own mind. The fact that all my life I have been lucky enough to escape any situation as soon as I felt a sense of discomfort. For me, this trip is not only about travelling the world, but also about pushing these boundaries of comfort to see how much I can truly handle. Of course, there needs to be a limit and a balance. We need to understand that some things take time to adjust to and that we can’t always escape from the things which make us feel uneasy. Having said this, there’s also no point in forcing ourselves to stay in places we hate, or doing things which we don’t enjoy just to see “how much we can handle”. This would end up being torturous. I’m here because I want to be here, not because I have to. I chose to come here. I chose to stay in the places I have and will be staying in. I chose to be friends with the people I am no friend’s with. I’m not obliged to do anything nor am I obliged to prove anything to myself or to others. As I said, life is about equilibrium. I am free. If I know that I won’t be able to put up with certain extreme situations, and I have the ability to avoid these, then I will do so. However, this is not how I felt about the favela. Yes, I was uncomfortable at first, but then I became aware of the fact that it’s all in my mind. I knew that this was something I could deal with if I really wanted to. So I put my mind to it and I stayed there for all of the nights which I had originally booked, and i’m so glad that I did.
The days I spent in this favela were..unusual. I learnt a lot about the city, it’s people and myself. By the end of my time living inside the walls of this community, I knew for sure that I felt 100% safer inside the favela than I ever did or would on any of the streets of Rio.