Editor’s note: Sixteen Penn State journalism students spent their spring break in Rio de Janeiro, as part of the international reporting class offered by the College of Communications and directed by Tony Barbieri, Foster professor of writing and editing.
Their stories, photos and videos, on topics ranging from politics to music, are being distributed by McClatchy Newspapers to newspapers across the country, and will appear in the Centre Daily Times each Monday this summer.
RIO DE JANEIRO — High atop the peaks that surround Rio de Janeiro, rust-hued rooftops and balconies jut out at all angles. Canopies of electrical wire tangled with clotheslines hang above kids playing pickup soccer in sandals. On narrow, graffiti-lined streets, pedestrians compete for the right-of-way with motorcycle taxis that zip through traffic over roller coaster roadways. On some corners, a wrong step could send you tumbling into an open canal filled with floating garbage.
A far cry from the famous Christ the Redeemer statue or the luxury Copacabana hotel, these crowded slum communities — called favelas — on the hillsides of Rio are becoming unlikely stops for visitors who are looking to get a glimpse of life beyond the bars and beaches in Brazil’s tourist hotspot.
Foreign tourists — and increasingly Brazilians themselves — are flocking wide-eyed to Rio’s favelas to spend a night at a bed and breakfast, sample local cuisine, take graffiti workshops or play paint-ball. In some cases, visitors are settling in into these neighborhoods for weeks at a time at venues such as Casa Alto Vidigal, a favela home-turned- hostel that lures crowds with its bar and rooftop deck overlooking the city.
Most of the tourists come for just a few hours, long enough to see what it’s like to live in places that have reputations for crowding, crippling poverty and clashes between drug gangs and police.
Home to millions of Rio’s poorest residents, the favelas have long been viewed as off-limits even to Brazilians. Made infamous by films such as “City of God” and “Elite Squad,” the mere mention of them sometimes provokes looks of apprehension and dread.
Those who call them home beg to differ.
“Rocinha is a normal place, an interesting place, an average place,” said 22-year-old Erik Martins of Rio’s largest favela, where he lives and works part time as a tour guide.
Until last year, drug gangs largely controlled Rocinha. But last November, authorities in Rio wrested control of the community through a process dubbed “pacification,” which has been under way for several years in other favelas across the city.
Now hulking military police vehicles are parked on Rocinha curbs and men in bulletproof vests are scattered across street corners, weapons slung across their chests.
Martins — who spends much of his time working as a health aide, nursing neighbors with tuberculosis and other ailments — said he couldn’t blame people for coming into favelas expecting to find danger or misery, but he hopes that by the time they leave they find common ground instead.
“We have a story,” said 25- year-old Davila Pontes, who lives in Rocinha. “There are those who want to know us, but others who just want to pay and come and go out.”
She thinks tourism could serve as one tool to end the stereotypes that often are projected onto communities such as hers. But she worries about the kind of tourism that offers only a surface-level view of Rocinha, instead of promoting interaction between tourists and residents.
“Rocinha doesn’t need to change,” Pontes said. “What must change is the relationship between the community and the tourists.”