A Day in the Life of a Favela: Tourist Edition
Brazil is a stunning nation known for white-wash beaches, soccer, and gorgeous and vivacious people. However, there is one element in Brazilian society that tends to be overlooked the media and the world. This feature is the favela, or slum: small communities located outside larger cities, characterized by the poorer people in society who reside in homes built closely together. I had the opportunity to visit Paraísopolis, a favela in São Paulo, Brazil during the summer of 2015. This blog post discusses the perceived way of life for people living in favelas according to most Brazilians and foreigners, contrasted by my personal experience after visiting the community of Paraísopolis. I conclude by analyzing my thought process upon returning home and acquiring more knowledge about favela tourism.
I traveled to the favela with a group of international Rotaractors. Rotaract Club is an organization that desires to better the community through acts of service. Our group was welcomed and lead by a woman who worked at one of the NGOs in the favela. One of the first things she told us was that the favela residents appreciated when foreigners toured their community because it often changed negative stereotypes associated with the slums. Furthermore, our guide explained that the residents preferred to call their neighborhood a ‘community,’ rather than a favela. The word community had a more positive connotation. When our group first walked into the boundary of the community, I distinctly remember a group of men yelling at us and banging on the railing of their balcony. I was a little nervous, but I found relief in the reassuring words of our guide — they wanted us to tour their home.
Upon hearing the buzzword ‘slum,’ the majority of people throughout the world would automatically assume that the residents did not work and lived in extreme poverty. I will admit that I naively fell into this category before shortly witnessing what life was like in the slum, through the eyes of a visitor, of course. I was surprised during the tour to learn that many of the people had jobs and a steady income. Our guide explained to us that many of the residents set their alarms at 6 in the morning, or earlier, just like the majority of the working class throughout the rest of the world. However, their jobs usually consisted of construction work for men or housecleaning services for women. The favela residents could not afford expensive São Paulo housing; therefore, they were stuck living in the slum. It was relieving to know that not all of the members of the community were living in “extreme” poverty, but that the poverty statistics are relative; they vary person to person and place to place.
Danger is also relative in the favela. I have a Brazilian friend that told me she would never go into a favela because it was too perigroso. She sincerely believed that if she entered into one she would be shot with a gun. Now, to clarify, our guide claimed that Paraísopolis is one of the safest favelas in all of Brazil. Besides experiencing a bit of culture shock, I did not feel the favela was overtly threatening during my visit. I do believe there are other dangers within the community, but that topic is beyond the subject matter of this blog post. Life seemed to carry on just like any other part of the city would; the residents seemed friendly and there were bustling restaurants, hair salons, and other successful businesses throughout the community. In an effort to further understand everyday life in the favela, the group I was with ate lunch at a local restaurant. I never felt unwelcomed there. In fact, I was genuinely taken aback by the normalcy of the situation. The media always made the slums appear disgusting and menacing, but I was pleasantly surprised to see other people calmly enjoying a meal during what appeared to be their lunch break from work. After we ate, we waited for the vans to come and pick us up.
I am truly glad I was able to have the experience touring a favela. I can honestly say it influenced me to genuinely reflect on my preconceived notions of what life was like in slums around the world. After my trip to Brazil, I took a course called Understanding the Global Community during my sophomore year of college. In this course we learned about the harmful effects of favela tourism. At first, I did not understand why they were considered harmful because I had learned so much during my experience. After giving the idea some thought, I realized that was precisely the problem — only I had learned during my visit to the favela. The residents of the favela remained unchanged. When foreigners came and took pictures or videos of their everyday life, they were viewed as a spectacle. Moreover, I learned that the residents do not benefit from the tourism, considering many of the NGOs keep the profits from the tours. I realized that the guides are able to say anything they wish to the groups because the groups do not know any better. The majority of the tourists do not speak Portuguese. They cannot communicate directly with the residents. The experience relies solely on what is explained secondhand; therefore, much of the information may not be entirely valid. Although favela tourism is considered harmful, I still believe that I was able to gain valuable insight, which changed my personal opinion of the communities.