Into the madness of the Rio favelas

Travel Writer: Tara Povey discovers the real Rio in a massive, colourful and dangerous favela

 The favela had welcomed me with open arms. Photograph: Yasuyoshi chiba/AFP/Getty Images

The favela had welcomed me with open arms. Photograph: Yasuyoshi chiba/AFP/Getty Images

 

Rio de Janeiro is no stranger to fame. This year it has particularly dominated the headlines. From the Olympics to Zika, the world has a lot to say about Rio. But I want to show you a different side of the city. Forget what you’ve read, this is the real Rio.

I stepped out of the taxi into the thick heat of the night. I was at the foot of a massive, colourful and potentially dangerous favela. A chill ran down my spine, or was it just a trickle of sweat? Either way, I was terrified, thrilled and absolutely roasting.

If I had paused to think, I would have hopped back in the taxi and forgotten about the party I was hoping to find. However, I had just finished college and was craving adventure. I wanted to lose myself, and the favelas of Rio seemed like as good a place as any – though that could have ended up much more literal than I would have liked.

The favela was a brightly coloured construction site. The homes had no windows, no doors. There was no privacy. Determined to find the party, I weaved my way into the cement maze.

By midnight, the heat was relentless. I was standing in the middle of one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in Brazil, completely lost, dripping sweat and absolutely exhilarated. Who was I? I didn’t recognise myself.

I needed to ask for directions. What would the people be like? I chose a house. A man laughed and led me through his home, out to more stairs. I thanked him in broken Portuguese and continued my ascent. Next, I stopped at a family barbecue. A large woman with an even bigger smile welcomed me in. She fed me and walked me up the remaining stairs to the party. I had arrived.

What had I been so worried about? The favela had welcomed me with open arms.

I spotted two armed police officers. I was simultaneously relieved and alarmed. As I approached the party the officers signalled for me to come to them. Did they want a bribe? No, they wanted their photo taken with me. One for the album!

The party was in a small cement room with a bar in the corner, the kind of bar that made you want to drink out of something that you could inspect the seal on. I was the only tourist there. The locals taught me to samba.

There was a small balcony at the back of the room. The best view in the city. The lights of Rio rolled out before me and off into the distance before vanishing into the sea. I had the world at my feet and it only taken me 9,200km and a hike through the favelas to realise it.

I was so far from home. I was not me, but I was more myself than I had ever been.

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