When you arrive at your destination for a tour and get out of a van-bus to see a bare-chested guy pointing a submachine-gun at passers by, you know you’re in an interesting place. Whilst this was the case as we arrived in Rochina, Rios biggest favela by population with around 250,000 residents, we were pretty sure we would be safe.

Our guide was Zezinho, a DJ, educator, favela resident, operator of Favela Adventures, graffiti artist and cat obsessive. A somewhat larger than life character, he was so fiercely proud of Rochina, he had been virtually covered in tattoos of representations of the place, from pictures to graffiti tags, from his neck to his toes. This and his status as a DJ and promoter of favela life led him to being stopped in the street every couple of minutes to cries of “Rochina!”.



Zezinho lives and breathes Rochina, and seems to have made it his mission in life to demonstrate to the world that favela life here deserves respect and is often misrepresented in Brazilian psyche, the media and the world at large. He does not deny that there are issues there. Perhaps the hardest to swallow is the relationship between the people, the reputedly corrupt police and the drug barons who effectively control the favela. Zezinho writes extensively about such issues on his blog Life In Rocina and explains far better than I can:

“Rocinha, like most of Rio’s favelas, is under the control of a criminal faction. The faction that controls Rocinha, as of late 2006, is the ADA (Amigos dos Amigos)…These groups are famous for providing much needed resources such as support for day care, medicine for the sick, and money for the poor. They also have been known to asphalt roads, host huge community parties, and even sponsor other recreational spaces and activities, such as soccer pitches. These groups normally maintain a very high level of control over social behavior, strictly prohibiting street crimes such as rape, muggings, and break-ins within the favela. Even so, Rio’s criminal factions should not be glorified or romanticized as some sort of modern day Robin Hoods. Besides drug trafficking, such organizations in Rio have historically been involved in arms smuggling, bank robberies, kidnapping, and murder.”


He also added that whilst, in an ideal world, police control might be better (as he experienced in his time in the US for example), there is a systemic problem with police training and pay in Rio, making it an impossible task for the police to regain control of favelas. The prevalence of bribery, corruption and – key to it all – the way in which the police and those outside the favelas historically view those inside, compared to the order and progress and feeling of respect and worth seemingly brought by the ‘drugs guys’, makes attitudes towards the traditional authorities highly suspicious. This is further compounded, according to Zezinho, by a mere lip-service investment in the run up to major events such as the 2014 World Cup and the Olympics of 2016. We saw a large community centre standing empty and unused that we were told was completed around 9 months ago. After the builders had left, the authorities had apparently not bothered organising anything to go in there. The problems of the favela persist despite what seems to be a tight and hard working community spirit.

Whilst we saw guns and drug sellers in our short time in the favela, and we were warned not to provoke certain people by taking photos in certain places, we also found the people to be friendly and welcoming. We encountered almost no begging and we felt safe enough to wear jewellery and carry cameras openly. The people were clearly hardworking, the houses small and the streets and alleyways narrow; but this was by no means the violent shanty town that the idea of a favela might conjure.



As we spent our 6 hours wandering around Rochina, we were also introduced to many of the community projects and non-profit organisations set up (often by locals) to help residents. Zezinho, for example, puts his tour guiding profits into a DJ school which he currently runs from his own house (Spin Rochina). You can find out more, and how you might be able to help this project, by visiting our Thanks page. Similarly, we later met a local man who teaches favela kids (many of whom rarely leave Rochina) to surf at a nearby beach. He takes broken boards from some of Rios richer surfers, spends hours repairing them, and uses them to teach the children who earn their places by attending school, getting grades and staying out of trouble. If you were a surfer with plans of volunteering somewhere, I can only imagine that this would be an excellent place to work.



Rio is certainly a multi-facited city. From the favelas such as Rochina, with its dichotomy of friendly, hardworking pride set against large-scale systemic and ethical problems, to the classy beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, where the beautiful (and sometimes not-so-beautiful) people peruse restaurants that make even Londoners baulk at the price. From rubbing shoulders with locals in a Samba club on a sweaty Saturday night in Lapa, to squeezing through other foreigners to gawp up at the highly symbolic Cristo Redentor (below) on a blazing hot afternoon. Rio is well worth a visit, and is not always all it seems.



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