Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Chapter II

I presumed my final month in Rio would just be spent on the beach trying to live cheaply, or in an ideal world be volunteering at a hostel in exchange for free accommodation: hardly worth writing about. I was wrong.

A lone kite flies above the Vidigal favela, held by a boy of about 6 stood on a corrugated steel rooftop. His brothers join him and together they see how much string they can get away with releasing; my eyes follow the kite as it drifts a hundred or so metres away from the initial building and I notice more and more children are doing the same. I suppose there’s little else to do in the favelas; most teenagers and young adults sport pristine six-packs as they walk around, carved into their stomachs after hours and hours of calisthenics on the bars.

Me? I’m on the back of a motorbike having paid someone to take me up to the topmost point of the favela, where the makeshift buildings give way to mountains again. If I thought getting a ‘backie’ off Victor in Quito was sketchy, then this was a new level. I tuck my legs in as tight as I can against the bodywork of the bike to ensure I don’t clip any pedestrians or other motorbikes whilst we weave in and out of dogs and potholes on badly maintained streets that rarely have less than a 15% incline.

A group of teenagers take a break from their press-ups and point us to a stack of loose bricks that snakes in between two rickety houses. The ‘wall’ is about 2 metres high, 10″ wide and weaves in between buildings. An odd start to a trail; it feels like I am disrespectfully trespassing on property owned by people who wouldn’t really want gringos walking over their wall. After a hundred metres, the wall stops and I spot a half dirt, half rock path worn into the mountain. The steep ascent begins, but after only 20 or so minutes, we reach the top. What a view. Christ the Redeemer, Ipanema, Lagoa, Sugarloaf poking out of the horizon… Everything is visible from the Dois Irmaos summit.

Rather than take a motorbike back down, we choose to walk, which results in the realisation that Vidigal isn’t really a favela. It’s been gentrified in the same way that poor areas in London have been; with fair-skinned, wealthy immigrants living in some of the houses that used to be populated by Brazilian’s poorest. There are techno-bars with top spec sound systems, quirky sandwich bars… It feels too safe -in a true favela a group of westerners shouldn’t be able to walk around without intimidation – and with it the illusion has been lost.

A different story in the favela of Rocinha, which lies on the opposite side of the same mountain as Vidigal. Drugs course through the veinlike network of claustrophobic alleyways in the same way that the sewage water and stray dogs do. Minimal gentrification – any that has gone on has been done in a sustainable manner*. Within the first few hours, I see a dozen AK47’s slewn over shoulders of gangsters. “They can smell gringo,” says Pedro – an incredibly generous Brazilian with excellent English – as he walks me up to his parents house for a shower before we go to a bar . I’m not here on one of the organised tours because that doesn’t sit well with me, ogling at poverty amongst a group of westerners, instead I’ve opted to volunteer at a community education centre, Project Favela. The project were desperate for manpower and even keener when they realised that teaching is one of my usual gigs back in England.

*Once I’d moved into CCR2, the community centre where some of the volunteers live, Tom, another (long-term) volunteer who is a teacher in the ‘real world’ as well, and I discuss the irony of our presence in the favelas. We complain that the favela magic of Vidigal has been lost because too many gringos had moved in and diluted it; yet here we were, two of the whitest guys in Rocinha, having moved in with our big rucksacks. Are we diluting it? Are we part of the problem for wanting to experience ‘the true favela’ in all it’s rawness? We decided that because we were actively helping the community, and the children wanted us to help, that it was more sustainable; gringos teaching children English in an attempt to better their adult lives is much more socially-sound than gringos opening up a ‘deep house and techno’ bar in a favela because ‘it’s cool’. Having put our minds to rest, we returned back to our usual topic of the FA Cup.

For the video-gamer and movie-fanatic readers out there, the Call of Duty map ‘Favela’ is based on Rocinha; and was used in Fast 5, part of the Fast and Furious series.

Project Favela is solely run by volunteers, planning and delivering lessons to around 100 children (ranging from 3-15 years old) and 30 adults per day. With most of the volunteers living in the favela, it provides a big boost to the economy as well as forging strong links with the community – I’m stopped almost every time I go to the shops for a fistbump with a child from the school (the parents are equally keen to practice their basic English, “Hello teacher!”) and I would later go to the beach with Jon, one of the more fluent adults from my evening English classes.

It’s bread and butter stuff for me: English – phonetics, basic conversation (made easier knowing what I wanted to learn when practising Spanish), colours, fruits; Maths – number bonds to 10, basic addition and subtraction; Science – thrust, gravity, air resistance; and Art – making a junk-modelled rocket to demonstrate thrust. In the evenings, I team-teach English to adults which is much more of a novelty to me. On Thursday, a huge man called Paulo comes in wanting to practice his English 1:1 for a job interview as a Brazilian Ju-Jitsu coach; specifically how to instruct people into each position. My martial-art knowledge doesn’t go much further than enjoying UFC fightnight once every few months; and we end up grabbling to make each move, stopping to write down the relevant instructions that Paulo can recite in his interview. He was a very humble, personable man; and although he never returned to let me know how he got on, it was a rewarding hour for me nonetheless.


It’s impossible to gauge how many people live in Rocinha; the official statistic is believed to be 100,000 but it’s presumed to be almost triple that. Mindboggling intially (the favela is just shy of 2km²) until you head up to the topmost layer near the peak of the mountain and look down. Buildings are squeezed into each possible space, and every building (made from concrete, Rocinha is the most developed favela in Rio) is at least 4 stories high. When we think about our living quarters – 20 people who live in 3 rooms on just one floor of one building – it soon becomes possible that a third of a million people occupy this hillside slum. The neighbourhood seems alive; even when the motorbikes, honking horns and shouting subsides for a few seconds, the favela seems to hum whilst it’s ticking over. It truly is an enchanting place, and joins Peru’s Uros islands on my list of most bizarre habitations I’ve visited/lived in.

I would advise you against taking a ‘Favela tour’ of Rocinha if you visit Rio; instead shoot Project Favela an email and see if you can help out for a while. You’ll get a much more wholesome, real picture of the favela community than the hostile reception the locals might give you as you wander through like a gaggle of geese behind a tour-leader.

I was advised by a drug dealer not to take photos within the favela – someone probably worth listening to as almost all of them carry AK47’s – so I’ve taken a few photos from the internet to build a picture in your mind of this incredible place. 


I had a week with my family before Iceland, surprised Hannah upon her arrival back from Indonesia and we both had a chance to re-pack our rucksacks for the chill of Iceland. It’s been one heck of a journey and I couldn’t stop staring at the red line that I’ve carved into the American continents, north to south, while I waited at the Rio International Airport. 

If you enjoyed reading this travelogue, please share it around on Facebook/Twitter (I’ve just seen my post from Uruguay has been shared 33 times which has made my day); read through the other posts from my more recent adventures in South America; and make sure to subscribe via email at the bottom of the page so you don’t miss out on the next installments. Thank you!




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