High so­ci­eties

Rio de Janeiro’s moun­tain­side fave­las are putting out the wel­come mat for tourists

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - DOM PHILLIPS THE GUARDIAN

THEY are proud of the bronze Michael Jack­son statue that stands on the edge of a lit­tle square in the Santa Marta favela in Rio de Janeiro.

‘‘It’s the only one in Rio,’’ says Thi­ago Firmino, 32, a DJ, lo­cal res­i­dent and our tour guide. Its arms stretch out to em­brace a dizzy­ing view of Rio, and of the shanty town that tum­bles down the hill­side be­low. On the wall be­hind it is a Michael Jack­son mo­saic.

It was here that di­rec­tor Spike Lee filmed scenes for the video to Jack­son’s 1996 hit They Don’t Care About Us. Rio au­thor­i­ties orig­i­nally op­posed the video be­cause they felt film­ing in a favela would show a neg­a­tive side of the city, which at the time was bid­ding to host the 2004 Olympics.

Nearly two decades later, with both the 2014 World Cup fi­nal and the 2016 Olympics set to be staged here, Rio is no longer quite so ashamed of its fave­las. Of­fi­cially, it has 763 (ac­cord­ing to the 2010 cen­sus), and they are home to al­most 1.4 mil­lion peo­ple, or 22 per cent of the city’s pop­u­la­tion.

Lee’s video plays on a loop in the tourist shop that Thi­ago’s par­ents run on the square, Praca Can­tao. The al­ley­ways in which Jack­son danced seem lit­tle changed but lower down, a square at the foot of the favela has been bright­ened up with a 7000sq m lick of paint.

The Favela Paint­ing art project, cre­ated by Dutch duo Haas&Hahn, with the aim of boost­ing com­mu­nity pride, has seen 34 houses painted in a rain­bow of bright colours.

In 2008, Santa Marta was the first favela in Rio to be ‘‘paci­fied’’ un­der a state pro­gram to ex­pel its drug gangs by in­stalling a po­lice base and ini­ti­at­ing so­cial change projects. Since then, another 34 fave­las have been paci­fied. Santa Marta is held up as the model and has be­come a stop-off for vis­it­ing celebri­ties, such as Madonna and Bey­once.

They come to see the ef­fects of paci­fi­ca­tion: creches, new houses, con­crete steps in­stead of treach­er­ous muddy tracks, and a free tram that glides up at a 45 per cent an­gle to help its 6500 or so res­i­dents get up and down what is essen­tially a 1000m moun­tain cov­ered in rough brick, breeze­block and even wooden houses, just be­low the Christ the Redeemer statue.

In what used to be one of Rio’s most vi­o­lent slums, res­i­dents are turn­ing to tourism. To­day, Thi­ago’s clients are two Dutch tourists, and he has re­cruited stu­dent Pe­dro Mon­teiro to trans­late. The Dutch wan­der wideeyed through the favela. ‘‘I like it very much,’’ says Mirko van Den­deren, a teacher. ‘‘The strange build­ings . . .’’

Both peek into Thi­ago’s house, im­pressed by the con­trast be­tween its rugged raw-brick ex­te­rior, and its neat liv­ing room, fit­ted kitchen and flatscreen tele­vi­sion. ‘ ‘ The ma­jor­ity of houses are cool in­side, all done up,’’ says Thi­ago. ‘‘It de­mys­ti­fies it.’’

Tours such as Thi­ago’s of­fer a glimpse of another side of Brazil­ian life. But tourists should be aware th­ese are tours of places where very poor peo­ple live, which some might find dif­fi­cult. It’s very use­ful to have a guide who lives in the area: they’ll be ac­cepted by lo­cal peo­ple, and are un­likely to gloss over is­sues the favela faces.

Pe­dro points out hand­made signs protest­ing at the forced re­movals of dwellings that perch pre­car­i­ously at the very top of Santa Marta. ‘‘Prop­erty spec­u­la­tion,’’ says Thi­ago.

This used to be one of Rio’s most vi­o­lent slums, and was con­trolled by the Com­mando Ver­melho (Red Com­mand) drug gang. Now, like Thi­ago, res­i­dents of paci­fied fave­las such as this are turn­ing to tourism.

Roberto de Con­ce­icao is car­ry­ing his shop­ping up the hill. He likes the tours and says: ‘‘We meet new peo­ple. Thi­ago is from here.’’ Paulo Roberto is sell­ing mo­bile phone cases, pens and Santa Marta T-shirts de­signed by his 11-year-old son, on a lit­tle stall. ‘‘We are more and more in­volved. I live from this now,’’ he smiles.

The al­ley­ways get nar­rower as we de­scend. Chil­dren in flip-flops push past talk­ing foot­ball. An old woman is car­ried along on a chair. Hu­man­ity teems in the nar­row al­leys. Ev­ery­thing is tiny: a bar­ber shop, an elec­tri­cal prod­ucts stall, a bed­room with three small bunk beds.

‘‘Ev­ery part of the com­mu­nity has a name,’’ says Pe­dro, as he pauses in front of a wall. ‘‘This was called Beirut.’’ The build­ing be­hind which traf­fick­ers used to hide in is now used for box­ing and judo. Out­side the Bar Cheiro Bom (Good Smell Bar) Pe­dro points out bul­let holes in a wall.

‘ ‘ This was says Thi­ago.

‘‘Now there is al­ways a po­lice car and a cam­era.’’ The Dutch visi­tors are taken back up the hill on the tram. ‘‘It feels a bit voyeuris­tic, see­ing how poor the peo­ple are, but it is part of the coun­try,’’ says bank worker Willem van Dur­ren.





Santa Marta slum houses trans­formed by the Favela Paint­ing art project

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