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Rich cultural life exists in Rio’s shantytowns

- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 14, 2007

RIO DE JANEIRO

Most of the massive hillside slums that rise up around Rio's posh Ipanema beach district are places where middle-class Brazilians would never go, but some tourists are shunning the beachfront zones with their pricey hotels and shops to get a taste of the real Brazil, one outsiders rarely see up close.

Gabe Ponce de Leon is one — he came to Rio as a college exchange student in 2001 and lived the high life until he discovered the slums.

Teaching English for pocket money, the Brooklyn native got his introduction to a favela when a student took him home to Rocinha, a place whose very name makes many Brazilians fearful.

"Rocinha looks daunting from the outside, like an impregnable fortress," says Mr. Ponce de Leon, 27. "But inside it's like a hamlet, with kids playing in the streets, and you know all your neighbors."

Mr. Ponce de Leon decided to rent a room in his student's home for $75 a month and immerse himself in the favela life.

"There's a lot of fun there. There are samba groups, funk dances and more bars than any other business. It's a cop-free zone, no lawyers, no bureaucracy, no corporate regulations or commercialism," he says. "But there's also old-fashioned human warmth; people help each other out. For a guy who grew up in Brooklyn, you see this way of life still exists."

Barbara Caroli of Italy caught her favela fever after glimpsing the thousand points of light gleaming each night from the jumbles of hillside houses.

"I felt it was an invitation," says Mrs. Caroli, who quit her job at a real estate agency in Milan, moved to Rocinha, married and opened a preschool. "This is life. There are shootouts, and sometimes you can't sleep because of the gunfire, but you almost never see a body. People don't celebrate death — they commemorate life."

While there is no exact count of how many foreigners live in favelas, Rio's Federation of Favela Associations says the number has risen sharply, from dozens a decade ago to hundreds today, especially from Europe and the United States.

Most got their first taste of favela life on the Jeep and walking tours of shantytowns that began in the 1990s.

More recently, bed-and-breakfasts have opened up in some of the less violent favelas, even advertising in English on the Internet to attract more adventurous travelers.

One service, Favela Receptiva, offers rooms in favela homes, plus airport pickup, free breakfast, bed linen and telephone service.

"Favelas have a negative image of drugs and violence, but visitors find out it can be different," says Marcelo Mendonca, who rents out a room in his house in the Vila Canoas favela. "People love to go to the bakery and the corner bar. They help the local economy."

So far, Mr. Mendonca has hosted guests from England, Australia, Hong Kong and Spain. Some complained that his favela, one of the city's safest, seemed too nice.

Mabel Taravilla, 29, doesn't consider that a problem. She rents a bedroom for $200 a month including breakfast, sharing Mr. Mendonca's house with his wife and their two children.

"It's cheap and peaceful and not linked to the drug wars," says Miss Taravilla, an anthropology student from Acobendas, Spain.

For many years, Rio's 600 favelas occupied a romantic space in the Brazilian imagination, as the birthplace of samba and the carnival groups that draw thousands of upper-class Brazilians to Rio's Sambadrome parade grounds each year.

That changed in the 1980s as heavily armed gangs defended a rising cocaine trade. Today, few middle-class Brazilians have ever visited a favela, and few have any desire to do so.

While some favelas offer spectacular ocean views and a population more accustomed to foreigners and tourists, most lay behind the back of the towering Christ the Reedemer statue, on Rio's low-lying north side, and are brutal, dirty places with homicide rates approaching those of war zones. Stray bullets are a constant hazard, and shops often close on orders from drug bosses.

A cruel form of justice meted out by drug gangs makes Rio's infamous street crime less common in the favelas, where people with a high tolerance for risk are sanguine about flying bullets.

British painter Bob Nadkarni made his move in the 1970s, to the Tavares Bastos favela, at the top of a winding cobblestoned street reminiscent of the colonial era, where the road ends abruptly and a labyrinth of alleys, shops and bare-brick apartments begins.

Mr. Nadkarni discovered the favela when his maid got sick and he had to take her home. One glimpse of the spectacular Sugarloaf mountain view was enough — he decided to build his own home there. Now he rents rooms to visitors and features a monthly jazz night that attracts scores of outsiders, Brazilian and foreign.

Mr. Nadkarni, a burly man of 64, says many Brazilians are unjustifiably afraid of favelas. "They'll even brag about it, and compete to see who is more afraid," he says. "But I couldn't live anywhere else."

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Favela Receptiva: Bed-and-breakfast, phone 55/21-9848-6737 or 55/21-2232-9710. Rates vary. Also offers a service that can arrange rooms in favelas, airport pickup, etc., 55/21-2247-2623.

Walking Tours of Rocinha: go to www.favelatourismworkshop.com; 55/21-7827-3024 or 55/21-9978-2401; $28.

Jeep Tours: Three-hour tour of Rocinha: www.jeeptour.com.br; 55/21-2108-5800 or 55/21-9977-9610; $38.

Jazz Night: Hosted by Bob and Malu Nadkarni, www.jazzrio.com; 55/21-2558-5547. Performances on first and third Fridays of each month; $7.50.