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“Different from what visitors expect”
– by Oberdan Basilio Chagas, Julia Jaroschewski
More and more tourists want to find out what life is like in the Rocinha favela and take tours of the neighbourhood.
Rio is famous for its beaches, the Sugarloaf Mountain and the Christ statue. But more and more tourists also want to get to know the favelas. Many tour operators drive visitors through the favelas in jeeps. Doesn’t that turn the neighbourhoods into a zoo?
My tours are walking tours. I show tourists the favela Rocinha, which is where I live. Rocinha is Brazil’s largest favela. I lead the groups through the narrow streets and all the different parts of the neighbourhood. We visit shops and get a good glimpse of people’s everyday lives. It’s mostly foreigners, rather than Brazilians, who are interested in my walking tours.
What do you want the tourists to learn?
My guests see that the favela is very different from the way it’s depicted in the media. That’s why I host these tours: I want to show tourists that the favelas are not simply synonymous with violence and crime.
Many tourists spend a few hours or at most a day in a favela. Is that enough to really understand the reality of slum life?
Most guests are in the favela for about four to five hours. That’s enough time to get a first impression. Some visitors actually stay for a few days in order to get an idea of what it’s like to live in a favela.
How long have you worked in the tourism industry?
I’ve worked at a hostel in my favela for over three years and have been a tour guide for a little more than six months.
What led you to this job?
My older brother encouraged me. He lives in Australia now. I started learning English and realised that I could make good use of my skills. That’s why I decided to go into the tourism industry. During the World Cup last year, a large number of tourists came to Rio, so I had a lot of work.
Did the World Cup bring more tourists to the favelas than before?
Oh yes, we had an unbelievable amount of tourists in the whole city. Rio always attracts a lot of tourists throughout the year, but the World Cup was something else entirely. Of course it was also an event of great international importance.
Do you think there were actually too many tourists?
There were indeed a lot of tour groups. The largest group I had was 15 people. But I don’t think there were too many tourists. Just the opposite: it was really cool that so many different people from different places came to the favela.
What impact did the World Cup have on the favelas, besides the fact that more people wanted to come and see them?
The tourists gave the local economy a boost. They ate and drank in the favela, which helped the residents to a certain extent.
Few favela residents speak English. Can residents and visitors have some kind of dialogue nonetheless?
Yes, there are often very nice encounters between residents and visitors, and they are interesting for both sides. The residents usually want to know more about the tourists. They want to get to know the foreigners because they come from totally different parts of the world, like Europe, Australia or the USA. For their part, most visitors see a way of life in the favela that is completely different from their own day-to-day life, and they want to learn more about it. They want to know if what they have heard about the neighbourhood is true, what living conditions are like there, and whether it actually is a very dangerous place.
Do favela residents have preconceived notions about the tourists? Do they think that foreigners are rich and have too much money, given that they are willing to pay for a tour of a slum?
No, so far I haven’t encountered any prejudices like that in my favela. The residents understand that tourism is good for the neighbourhood.
A lot of people think that favela tourism treats poverty as a tourist attraction. Other people see it as a way to strengthen local structures. What do you think?
I see no disadvantages, only advantages. Favela residents and tourists both benefit. Foreigners get to know a poor neighbourhood. And residents meet foreigners and have an opportunity to talk with them. That is a totally different experience than just seeing them on TV or reading about them in the newspaper.
Some critics contend that favela tourism is seen as a kind of adventure. They accuse tour participants of paying for the adrenaline rush of visiting an area controlled by criminals.
In my opinion, such criticism is voiced by people who never visit the favelas themselves, who never go to poor areas to see what they are like. That’s one of the reasons why I lead these tours. I want to show people the reality of life in a favela.
What do foreign tourists know about the favelas? Are they afraid to visit them?
Many tourists know that the favela is dangerous. But for the people who really live there, it doesn’t always feel like that. Of course there are sometimes shootouts and clashes between criminals and the police. In spite of all that, the favela is a safe place to live.
Nevertheless, Rio de Janeiro’s favelas are controlled by drug gangs. What are visitors most interested in?
Many people ask if all favelas are like the one in the movie “Cidade de Deus”/“City of God”, which depicts the violent daily life of young people in one of Rio’s slums. Most favela residents are familiar with the movie, but honestly, it has nothing to do with our life in Rocinha. Every favela has its own culture, and they are quite different from each other.
But muggings and shootouts take place in most favelas – these neighbourhoods really aren’t that safe. Can’t it actually be dangerous for foreign tourists to visit?
If they are taking a tour with a local guide who has a good understanding of the people and the place, there really aren’t any risks. We know when and where dangerous situations may flare up, and we can avoid that. My groups and I have never experienced anything out of the ordinary.
What has to happen in order to change Rocinha from a slum to a normal district?
I think that Rocinha should already be considered a normal district. It just doesn’t offer the same basic services that the richer districts of Rio de Janeiro do. For instance, there is no sewer system. And when it comes to safety and the quality of the water supply, Rocinha is still nowhere near the status of the wealthy areas.
What does the future hold for you personally?
I would like to study tourism and travel around the world.
Oberdan Basilio Chagas lives in Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro’s largest favela, where he works as a tour guide.