So you want to live in a Favela?

In 2010 I had the opportunity to live in a small favela called Ladeira dos Tabajaras – Tabajaras for short – situated in the hills above Copacabana Beach. Living in a favela can certainly be an exciting alternative to the expensive hotels and crowded hostels that will be a fact of life in Rio during the world cup, but it is important to remember that there are some caveats to living there while experiencing Rio in a safe and fun way, while being respectful to your hosts.

Security:

There are between 600 and 1,000 favelas in Rio de Janeiro, but only around 30 of them have UPPs. Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora is a program that the Brazilian government – in conjunction with the Rio de Janeiro state government and Rio’s military police – has begun instituting since 2008 where they have placed permanent police stations in favelas to reduce trafficking and violence.
While the program has promise it is still very much in its infancy. The practical upshot for anyone hoping to live in a favela is that access to ‘safe’ favelas is limited and they are currently in the position of transitioning from being the personal fiefs of various drug lords to being places where personal businesses can cater to a broader customer base than the favela’s residents and whomever the patrão wants to let in. While things have changed in preparation for the World Cup, in 2010 when I lived in Tabajaras I was the object of some initial curiosity from the Polícia Militar that make up the UPP in that favela. Certainly, at the time, the thought of a gringo voluntarily living in a favela without running drugs had not hit the mainstream. 3 or 4 searches later, if not quite addressing their bemusement, at least convinced them I was not, in fact, a drug kingpin.
Living in a favela does offer some advantages as far as security is concerned in Rio in that they are somewhat more tightly knit communities than larger areas like Copacabana and although the guy who might pick your pocket on the beach might now live next door it’s generally accepted that committing crimes inside your favela is an exercise in poor judgment – indeed, when the traficantes were still in charge, it could be punished quite harshly. It’s important to remember however, that these are poor communities and flashing a bunch of cash (a poor idea anywhere in Rio), or adopting an attitude of just “slumming it” won’t be received well. Making a sincere effort to interact with locals, buying food and drinks from their shops, frequenting their cafés and generally fostering the kind of relationships that Brazilians thrive on might not make you part of the family but will at least demonstrate some well received appreciation for the fact that you are vacationing in someone’s community.
A second rule of safety, one that I would encourage anywhere in Rio, is what I would call the “think twice” rule; if you would think twice about doing something in your home town, just don’t do it in Rio. This rule could apply in all honesty to most major cities, especially in south America, but it is important to remember that the majority of Rio is much poorer than the glitz of Ipanema or Gaveá would lead you to believe – looking out the window on the way from the airport into Rio should make that clear. Even if you are living in a favela and have a good rapport with the people in your local community, thieves will travel from distant communities to take advantage of the easy pickings of touristy places like Copacabana, and the level of poverty that some residents find themselves in means that a tourist will always be a tempting target. In conjunction with this, trips exploring Rio, going to Lapa, the main clubbing district, or to the Maracanã for a game will expose you to people from a wide variety of neighborhoods, and the amount of acceptance you have in one area of the city won’t mean much in another.

Money:

One of the best things about living in a favela is how little everything costs. While the Real (BRL) is weak against the Dollar, Pound, or Euro, Rio remains a relatively expensive city, especially for locals in favelas. Ritzier neighborhoods are hosts to a bevy of trendier restaurants and the cost of a basic snack like an açaí can cost as much as R$10 or R$12. In a favela that price will be half that, if not better. The same applies to pretty much everything in a favela, and for someone traveling or living on a budget, most importantly rent. While certainly a large part of the reason that favelas are so cheap is that the living conditions are poor, living in one does mean you’ll be spending somewhere closer to R$400 a month than R$1100 in better neighbourhoods. Prices have certainly gone up and the price of my room in Tabajaras probably is not the same as you’ll pay for a room these days in Rocinha or Vidigal, especially if you are there with a tour group that will be working ahead of time to place you in an apartment with someone that they have a prior relationship with. However, the prices have gone up in Brazil in general in advance of the World Cup, and while living in a favela might not be the bargain it was, it will still save quite a few reais over living in Copacabana, Ipanema, or another trendier neighborhood.

Food:

Brazilian food is some of the best daily fare that can be found anywhere. Staples like feijão (beans) are hearty without being heavy; cuts of meat are prepared, without fanfare, relying on a modicum of salt and careful grilling to bring out the desired flavour. Feijão, perhaps the most “Brazilian” of Brazilian foods, is cooked with salt, pepper, and an assortment of sausages and cured meats, almost everything is reduced to a satisfying simplicity that hearkens back to a colonial interpretation of its African and European heritage. The dizzying amounts of fruit available can be a little overwhelming and the only real advice is “try them all”. Many Brazilian neighborhoods have small street side cafés where a meal can be ordered and a table pulled up on the sidewalk. At a place like this a plate of steak, fries, rice, and feijão might cost half of what it costs at a more formal restaurant. The portion sizes however are filling and the company is always friendly. Because these places are small and the fare is not the highest class, many tourists turn their nose at eating at a place like this, even if it is more delicious, healthier (ok maybe not by much), and more affordable than going to the McDonalds or into a sit down restaurant for twice the price. These street side kitchens exist in favelas as well and both stopping for a quick lunch on your way to the beach, or a plate or two to share with friends on the way back is an easy affordable and fun way to immerse yourself in the culture of actual Rio vs. tourist Rio.
These street side venues often also double as small bars and many Brazilians of all ages will congregate to drink and eat with friends after work or a day on the beach. The usual MO for doing this is to buy a single large beer from the bar which will be served in its bottle in a refrigerated sleeve. Rio is HOT, especially in the summer, and the colder their beer is the better. It’s not uncommon for the beer to have some ice floating in it, and while this might be the sign of a too cold fridge at home, it’s pretty close to perfect in 40C heat. Accompanying the large bottle will be several small glasses for you and your friends; the beer is shared between you all. What’s the point of buying everyone a pint and then watching them all get hot when sharing means you all get a cold glass when you want it? When you run out it’s easy to get another, and repeat the process, especially if you get some food to share as well, and spend a few hours drinking and talking with people around you. One word of caution: be careful about your water and ice. Drinking water out of a faucet in Rio is a poor decision, and although most places make sure to ask if you want ice in your drink, it makes sense to double check. As quick rule of thumb is that if the ice has a hole in it, it came from a bag and is ok, if it looks like ice out of an ice tray, don’t trust it. There are few things worse than spending your stay in Brazil learning the ins and outs of a Brazilian bathroom. They’re not that exciting.

Transportation:

There are a number of ways to get around Rio on the cheap, if you decide to live in a favela on a hill (that’s most of them in Zona Sul) there are typically young taxi drivers with motorbikes that will spare your legs the walk for a couple of reais, just remember to hold on tight if you are unused to riding on the back of a motorcycle. Probably the most common method of public transportation in Rio is the bus system. The buses range in affordability and comfort, from basic public busses, to air conditioned, to executive expresses with plush seating, AC, and a sense of calm surrounded by the urban chaos. For a tourist on vacation these busses will all seem very affordable less than R$3.00 for a non-AC bus, and the network beats just about every city in terms of accessibility (or would if Brazilian roadways were anywhere near what they need to be to handle their infrastructural load). Taxis are the most expensive and can be a real mistake to take if you get caught in traffic, also not every taxi driver “remembers” to turn on the meter when you get in, and a short hop can end up costing you the taxi driver’s best guess at the fare. They are usually generous, to themselves. Lastly, there is the subway. It is fast, affordable, clean, and about a third the size it needs to be for a city like Rio, regardless of the added influx of tourists for the World Cup. Within its limited range the subway is one of the best ways to travel, but don’t use it as an avenue to go exploring, there are still plenty of spots in Rio you don’t want to see, but that will be more than happy to see you.
As alluded to above, traffic is a real problem and whenever possible you should do your best to avoid it. The only real advice for a situation when there are no alternatives but to go through the traffic is to bring a snack, and your patience, and maybe a book. Walking is a great way to avoid traffic on short journeys and with all the sights and sounds of the city you should be happy to take the chance to stretch your legs, although sitting in an air conditioned bus when its 40C outside is a perfectly legitimate alternative. Just remember that all the ways to get around Rio will have their own particular cost and benefits and a careful judgment of which is which will save you a lot of time, energy, and money.

One more thing:

Staying in a favela, even if it is through an official tour group that specializes in placement within favelas, is different than staying in a hotel. You are being invited into someone’s home and the poor, do-it-yourself construction that favelas are made from and that give them their sense of adventure and charm is someone’s daily existence. Shaky plumbing, poor sanitation, and a marked lack of attention from the government for their needs are very much part of the recent history of the favelas. The UPPs that have allowed businesses to operate in favelas without having to accommodate drug gangs are a new phenomenon, and their history is less than a decade old. Part of what makes staying in a favela so appealing is that you are on the ground floor for a Brazil in transition but that transition is still taking place; most of the endemic problems of favelas have yet to be addressed – lack of economic opportunity, good schooling, social integration, and sanitation. None of these problems left when the traficantes did, they were part of the reason that the gangs came in the first place. Brazilians are in general fabulously good hosts, return the favor and be a good guest as well.

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