- 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.

Story Continues →