Trained guides narrate the story of Rios favelas. On one recent tour, as the van full of tourists neared the edge of Rocinha, guide Leopoldo Chaves said that crossing into this part of town from a more affluent neighborhood was like traveling from Canada to Ghana. In the favela, he pointed out bullet holes on a nearby wall.
The three-hour excursion included stops at a craft fair, a terrace with a panoramic view of the citys coastline and a nearby school thats partially funded by revenue from the tours.
Tourists got an up-close look at police cruisers inching slowly through the main streets and an up-close smell of the mountains of plastic trash bags that pile up on street corners. It was a bustling portrait of daily life: people riding bicycles, pushing wheelbarrows, carrying groceries and toting backpacks en route to school. When the tour veered down back alleys past a row of open doorways, visitors were within earshot of kitchen conversations and could peer into the living rooms of Rocinha residents from only a few yards away.
Armstrongs Favela Tour promotes itself as informative and surprising, not voyeuristic, and patrons such as Nigel Parker seem to agree.
I was a bit interested when we went in and it was obviously very cramped, and everybodys sitting on top of each other, said Parker, who lives in Sydney but is originally from England. He said hed been to such places in Sicily and Naples, Italy, and didnt really see that same kind of stuff.
Theres another model found in the tours developed by Renato Zezinho da Silva, the 49-year-old son of a Brazilian father and American mother, who was born in Rocinha. Today he runs an independent tour company called Favela Adventures, which is operated by Rocinha residents and uses part of its profits to fund Spin Rocinha, a DJ school that offers free classes to local youth.
Zezinho, who has ROCINHA tattooed across his limbs in graffiti-style ink, also arranges individualized experiences such as martial arts or surfing classes, Portuguese lessons or a night at a party.
I dont receive the 18-year-old backpacker who wants to come and see guns, drugs and dead bodies, he said. He scoffs at the thought of jeep tours, scripts delivered by non-favellanos and visitors more interested in gawking at the living conditions than getting to know the street vendors or sitting down at a restaurant.
When you see a group of people riding in a van, its offensive, he said. He added that he also has strict rules against taking pictures of favela residents without permission, saying, People are not animals.
Instead, he shows visitors the best places to eat rotisserie chicken or to sample a beverage made with Brazils native acai berry, and points out where he buys his shoes, shirts and cat litter.
There are things you cant hide, and I just think you need to tell it like it is, Zezinho said. Im tired of people thinking I live in a (slum).