A Taste of Three Continents - November 2005 travel blog

view from Rocinha

what the workers from Rocinha built

external sewage pipes

favela utilities

favela classroom

hard working student

land slide retaining wall

typical major favela street

typical roof top view

Our last day in Rio we spent the morning on a favela (slum) tour. Our guide explained that many of the people who live in favelas are decent, hard working folks, but they don't have enough money to live in regular housing. Around here the desirable land is flat, located on the edges of the beaches. Many of the favela dwellers were brought here to build these desirable condos and hotels, but did not earn a wage that allowed them to rent there. The only land that was available were steep hillsides that belonged either to the government or the Catholic Church. Both organizations looked the other way, as poor people began to squat on their land. The dwellings began as cardboard and tarps, but the government decided that as long as the home was stone or brick, the squatters would be allowed to stay. They worked their way up the steep slopes and have some of the best views in Rio. As the favelas have continued to grow they are sometimes right along side mansions and fancy hotels. As with slums in ghettos in other cities, there is an unsavory element living in the favelas - drug gangs. In the larger favela (130,000 people) our guide was very careful in choosing which streets to take us to and hustled quickly back into the van at one point when his radar told him tht things were getting dicey. We heard popping, but weren't sure if it was gun fire, not being familiar with how gun fire really sounds.

Since there is absolutely no regulation or control as to how the favelas grew, they are a rabbit warren of tiny little lanes where people have run wires and water pipes up the sides of their homes. This is not a place for people with clastrophobia. Ingenuity is the key to survival. Ken noticed that some of the wires spliced together were for the internet and cable TV. There was a bit of a Wild West feeling to the place. The favela even had a bank and our guide told us that when it was robbed, the local folks figured out who committed the crime and were not all that shocked to discover that it was the local militia.

Artisans had some souvenirs for sale, and when you looked closely they were all from recycled materials. A picture painted on an old LP, a bowl made of woven strips of a magazine that had been shellaced, jewlery made out of nuts, beans, shells, for example. Again, ingenutiy is required to make a go of it here.

After a morning of poverty, we spent the afternoon at the jewelry store H. Stern. You might remember that two representatives from this firm spent the entire cruise with us building good will and interest in their product - a very expensive proposition. We used our H. Stern coupon to get a free taxi ride to the H. Stern "factory" for a tour. When we got there we said we had not had lunch yet and they gave us a coupon for a nice restaurant next door. The tour was free and quite illuminating. I had no idea that so many of the world's gems are mined in Brazil. They pan for diamonds like miners in Alaska used to pan for gold. Of course, there was a bit of arm twisting to buy something, but it was easy to resist.

We headed to the airport for a short flight to Sao Paulo and ten hour red eye home. Ken hoped that the plane would be empty and we would have room to stretch out and sleep. The plane was far from full which meant they did not weigh our luggage (whew!), but we ended up cuddled together trying to find a comfortable position.

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