Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Rio de Janeiro's Best Favela

You know those favela tours that take busloads of weird, binocular-wielding tourists around Rio's slums? I've always 
been clear that they should be avoided. I agree with critics who say that partaking in what amounts to going on a human-safari is disrespectful to those who live in these communities. Nevertheless, I've always been fascinated with favelas. I wanted to get to know them, meet the smiling people who live in them, taste their food and see their views. On a recent trip to Rio, I had an unlikely chance.

I was in the Olympic city to show my parents around, but was stuck to find somewhere good to eat. I posted on Twitter for help. I got a reply from a gringo friend: “Go to Vidigal Favela and look for Bar Lacubaco! It's totally safe, cheap and the food is great,” he assured. I had my doubts. Despite my curiosity with favelas, I was still somewhat afraid to go into one. Not necessarily for my own safety as I'm more than streetwise in Brazil, but my parents stood out as tourists from a mile away. They agreed to go. Having my vlogging camera with me, I would have the whole expedition filmed. 

First problem: getting there. 5 or 6 taxis refused our fare, citing danger. Really, I thought. Really? Perhaps it wasn't the best idea after all. The 7th driver accepted our fare, but what about the things the other reluctance taxi drivers said. Is it really that dangerous, I asked the driver. "Well, it's a favela, isn't it?" he replied. "Things happen, but also, some taxi drivers don't like it because the streets are bet narrow for them to navigate." 

Bar Lacubaco was about half way up Vidigal's main avenue. We got out the taxi, paid our fare and took a few minutes to look around. It was strange, because I'd often passed by the entrance of the favela on the shore side road wondering what it was like inside. Immediately, I had the feeling we'd left Rio and entered into another city entirely. It was buzzing: bars, shops of every description, a bank and a supermarket. Basically, everything a community needs to survive. The streets were full of people walking up and down the steep hill. There were kids going to school, workman building things and fixing overhead wires, and hundreds of motorbike-taxis zooming up and down. The views were spectacular but the ocean was blocked from where we stood.

Bar Lacubaco is a small but colourful restaurant, the walls painted brightly, with loads of pictures of positive reviews it has received from many of Brazil's major news outlets. We all decided to eat the chef’s special for the day: picanha with broccoli rice, beans and fries. This is traditional Brazilian food. Food of the people. It was amazing. Simple, filling (good portions) and tasty. What’s more, it was by far the cheapest meal we’d had during our Rio stay. I can’t recommend the place highly enough. One tip though: If you’re coming for lunch, arrive early. After we arrived, the place packed out quickly, both with locals and tourists. It’s clearly popular and deservedly so.

We spent the afternoon on the nearby Barra beach, but something about Vidigal was bugging us all: we hadn’t seen enough. We decided to go back at sunset, but this time to the top. We learned about a bar/nightclub at the very top of the favela called Bar da Laje. The drive there was an incredible experience, climbing 20 minutes to the heights of the favela through some really interesting places. All those bars and shops at the bottom became more rustic the higher we climbed. To be honest, if you lived in Vidigal you wouldn’t particularly need to leave ever.

Bar da Laje is a hip club at the top of the favela where celebrities hang out. The views were absolutely spectacular. Looking over to the left is Ipanema beach, directly in front is the full view of the Atlantic Ocean. Behind is mountains and rainforest. It was sensational. We drank a few cocktails, admired the view then left.

Outside we met with a local driver who agreed to take us back down the hill. It was dark by now and we didn’t fancy the walk, which I estimate would take about 45 minutes or more. It’s a big place! The guy asked us if we wanted a little tour. We looked at each other, nervously agreed and set off through the middle of the favela by foot. What followed next was an amazing, intimate tour if the favela by someone who has lived there his whole life. His passion for his community shined through his eyes as he told us about his community with pure pride. He explained everything about the place. He took us into his house to show us some the amazing view from his rooftop, introduced us to his awesome neighbours (some of which were also gringos) and family, and showed us some of his favourite bars. We talked about taxi drivers refusing to take us into the favela. The man’s reply was that much of Brazil’s middle-class, including taxi drivers, are prejudice about favelas and those who live there. Indeed, the majority of people who visit favelas are gringos because Brazilians simply don’t like the idea. But, he added, that was slowly changing.

What impressed me most was his story about pacification. The police/government pacification of favelas has been widely criticised and rightly so, but not here, the man told us. The police came to Vidigal in a respectful way, working with the community to make it safer for everyone. Now, he said, anyone can walk through the favela day or night and it’s 100% secure. Before pacification, you couldn’t even drive through the favela without authorization from drug traffickers. Today, Vidigal is a thriving and properly policed, safe favela.

It’s a strong, tight-nit community where people look out for each other and where people are happy to live. In some senses it’s a victim of its own success, because as interest peaked around the World Cup, rumours that David Beckham purchased a house and countless gringos buying properties and businesses, there has been rapid gentrification. But, our driver said, you can’t put a price on the state of Vidigal today. If there’s a model of how pacification should have worked with real community ownership, this is the place to build a citywide model for the rest of Rio.


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