Hanging Tough in Rio’s Favelas

A snapshot from Friday night: Me flying up the the steep, winding streets of Rocinha on a mototaxi, trying not to spill what’s left of my strong to quite strong caipirinha in a huge plastic cup in my left hand, right hand gripping the handle on the back of the moto.  We’re headed up towards blaring baile funk music with bass thumping so hard I can almost feel it against my ear drums.   My friend and his mototaxi roar by us (because what’s the fun in taking mototaxis if you can’t also race on them?), the wind whipping around us, and we come dangerously close to crashing into one another–but these are professionals here.  I don’t pay him 2 reais for nothing.  I am having a grand old time.

The sprawl of Rocinha in the foreground

And all this is happening in Rocinha, the largest favela in South America. If you’ve ever seen photos of Rio, you’ve likely seen hillsides covered in small, squat, box houses slapped together from concrete and brick that appear to spill across the hillside, covering every square inch of its face.  These are favelas, the shantytowns of Brazil, where some 20% of the city’s residents live.  Originally built by poor people who came to the cities from rural areas, the favelas occupy formerly public land (steep hills and the edges of urban centers), and these communities siphon water and electricity from the rest of the city–without paying for it.  But these are communities nonetheless, some of them massive, like Rocinha, which has upwards of 150,000 residents.  They have grocery stores and restaurants and hair dressers and repair shops and–depending on how developed it is–health clinics, and pretty much everything else we have down here in the streets of Copacabana.

Of course, I’m leaving out a large part of what makes the favelas run: drug trafficking.  Most favelas are subject to the de facto control of different drug gangs, and these gangs impose their own system of law and enforcement (enforcement in the form of violence).  The state and the police have no place in the governing of these towns (except for those few favelas that have been successfully taken over by the police), and there are from time to time violent altercations between the police and the drug mafias in the favelas.  To be entirely honest, I’m not sure of all the inner workings of how dangerous these drug gangs are, and how involved they are in most faveladors’ (favela resisdents) lives.  If you’ve ever seen the staggering movie City of God, my guess is that it’s a lot more complicated than I, as an outsider, can know.  Two things I do know: Don’t f*ck with drugs or the guys holding the guns in the favelas.

Guns, you say?  Yes, in the times I’ve been to the favelas, I have danced and drank and hung out among men–some mere teenagers–holding large machine guns.  Though the funny thing is I’ve never once felt unsafe in the favelas.  Most of the favelas surrounding the Zona Sul areas of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon are relatively tranquilo, some offering guided favela tours where tourists can get a look into what exists inside these favelas.  In fact, I have friends who live in the favelas, and life–apart from having to deal with going up and down the steep hills every day–is very tranquilo for them.  And there’s a strong sense of community in the favelas that I love, a jeito (a manner, a way) that is very Brazilian, that you can’t get on the chic streets of Leblon, one of the richest neighborhoods in the city.  Come nighttime, the streets have a certain hum, an energy that is unique to the favelas.  It’s honestly one of my favorite places to hang out in Rio.  The restaurants are filled with people just hanging out, shooting the shit, listening to raucous funk music playing from some guy’s car.  Like in any community, there are tons of hangouts where people chat over cheap beers and cigarettes, people watch, and chill without pretenses.  Lots of daps are given to lots of homeboys in the favelas.  And that’s a lot more my scene than a lifeless bar in Ipanema with dolled up girls and their fancy watch-wearing boyfriends looking bored and sipping overpriced beer.

One of the better reasons to go to the favelas on a weekend night are the baile funk parties.  Favela funk [forgive the cheesyness of the video… it was one of the least offensive ones I could find that was typical funk you’d hear in the favelas], carioca funk, or just funk, is the ass-shaking, bass-pounding, gangsta-style music that became popular in the 90s in Brazil.  Truthfully, the music is horrible, lyrically and musically–akin to the type of music Lil’ Jon makes; the “MCs” are people of mediocre to no talent just yelling repetitive phrases over and over on top of a beat.  BUT, put the music on some huge speakers, set out a bunch of vendors selling cheap alcohol, and add some hundreds of sweaty Brazilians getting down, and you’ve got yourself a party.  On Friday night, after kicking it with some local faveladors at a small mercadinho in Rocinha, and attempting to check out the baile funk party there (though the real party happens on Sunday nights in Rocinha), we decided to make our way over to Vidigal, another favela nearby.  Vidigal’s party is outdoors, a street party where people drink and dance on the sloping street.  And with the twinkling lights of the favela surrounding you above and below, it’s a very cool setting.  Our night ended as the sun was coming up, and we walked the winding streets down to the bottom of the hill.  Of course, the minivan taxi we took on the way home broke down (figures), and we had to get out and walk back along the beach in Leblon.  But then again, it’s not every day you get to enjoy sunrise along the beach after a heady night of drinking and dancing in Rio’s favelas.

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