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Destination Favelas
Américas / November-December 2000

By Larry Luxner

Visiting Rio? Perhaps you've already seen Copacabana, Corcovado, the Carmen Miranda Museum and maybe even Carnival. Now how about touring the slums?

It may seem voyeuristic at first, but an increasing number of foreigners, curious about the crowded hillside shantytowns overlooking Rio de Janeiro, are doing just that. Some travel agencies have begun to add the favelas -- as they're known in Portuguese -- to their already crammed itineraries. Yet most tourists, and even many residents, are barely aware of their existence.

"Rio has close to 605 favelas, and 20% of the city's population lives in them," says Marcelo Armstrong, a favela expert who has been leading tours to the slums for eight years. "But the favelas are the only places in Rio that even the people of Rio don't know. They're not interested in the favelas. Even if they were, they're afraid to go."

They need not be. It's true that drug-related murders committed in the favelas often grab TV or newspaper headlines, but Armstrong says that shouldn't give tourists cause for concern.

"Despite their bad reputation, nobody gets robbed," insists the 32-year-old tour operator. "That's because laws are enforced not by the police, but by the drug dealers, who don't want any trouble."

While all major Brazilian cities have favelas, they're most noticeable in Rio, and Rocinha -- with a population of 160,000 -- is by far the biggest favela in the country.

Armstrong's morning tour begins precisely at 9 a.m., as he takes his wide-eyed charges in a minibus through the streets of Rio, past the luxurious, five-star Hotel Inter-Continental on São Conrado beach, and then up a winding mountain road that leads into the maze of concrete houses, storefronts, tangled utility lines and little alleys that is Rocinha.

The average wage here, he says, is R$370 (US$200) a month, compared to well over R$8,000 (US$4,300) a month in nearby São Conrado. Yet the poverty is not as grinding as one might expect. Children play in the streets, supermarkets do a thriving business, satellite dishes are a fairly common sight here, and earlier this year, the familiar golden arches of McDonald's went up in Rocinha -- the first multinational fast-food chain to locate in a favela anywhere in Brazil.

"Favelas are poor places, but the people do not live miserably. The government is doing positive things for the residents," he said, estimating that Rio de Janeiro's municipal government -- along with the Inter-American Development Bank -- is spending $550 million to improve living conditions in the city's poorest favelas. "Rio has many social problems, but we are not Burundi or Ethiopia."

As he negotiates his minibus through the confusing, often unnamed streets of Rocinha, Armstrong -- who speaks fluent English, Spanish, French and Italian in addition to his native Portuguese -- insists on only one rule: no taking pictures of favela residents without their permission. You don't want to photograph a drug dealer by mistake, he warns.

"Drug dealers want to keep this atmosphere of safety," he says. "If the tourists feel safe, so will clients looking for drugs."

Jose Gomes, owner of the 33-year-old Pani Picação Riveira mini-market, says his was the first business in Rocinha. He appears to welcome both tourists and traffickers.

"Tourism is good. We value it," he says. "The drug dealers are also our friends. They don't bother anyone. On the contrary, we feel protected by them."

While Rocinha is big enough to be a mid-sized city in its own right, most of Rio's favelas are typically much smaller, with populations of between 500 and 2,500 people.

One of them is Vila Canoas, whose 2,500 inhabitants, thanks to government initiatives, now have a sewage system, garbage collection boxes, paved streets, day-care centers and emergency clinics. They also have a community school funded by the private Paratí Foundation as well as money collected from Armstrong's favela tours (he charges R$42, or US$23, per person).

About 120 boys and girls, aged 5 to 16, attend the Escola Paratí, where they learn to make souvenirs and handicrafts that will later be sold to tourists. "Whenever they sell something,, half goes to the kids, half to finance the school," says Armstrong.

Not from the Escola Paratí is the popular Bar Luciano, a local buteco owned by Antonio Luciano Vieira, who has put up signs welcoming tourists in a dozen languages including Japanese, Korean, Swedish and Hebrew.

Last stop on the favela tour is Companhia dos Sabores -- a bakery run by Ronaldo Gomes da Silva, the richest man in Vila Canoas.

"Unlike other people with money in the favelas," says Armstrong, "he didn't make his money from drugs, crime or soccer, but from apple strudel."

Da Silva's bakery gives away free samples to the tourists, who by this time are more aware of what life is like "on the other side" of Rio.

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