I decided to spend my last week in Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, the marvelous city. Rio is sandwiched in between long, white sand beaches and dense, green cliffs. Here you’ll find beautiful bodies, plentiful beer, a bustling center, endless nightlife, unbelievable luxury, and a ridiculous amount of street food. I was fortunate enough to experience a little bit of everything during my stay!
I couchsurfed on two couches in the middle class neighborhoods of Botafogo and Flamengo, but I also visited friends in the upper class Barra Grande and in the largest favela or ghetto, Rocinha. I did the touristy things like visit Christ the Redeemer and Copacabana beach, but I also was taken out to places I would never have been able to find without a carioca, a Rio resident. I watched capoeira dancers in the street, listened to old men play chorinho in the park, saw the city from viewpoints few tourists know about and experimented some of the street food.
The first couch I surfed on was in a house without a kitchen, so I was forced to try street food! In Rio you can find one of the following sold from carts on nearly every street: corn on the cob, popcorn, hot dogs, tapioca (a crepe made with manioc flour filled with anything you like), churrasco (Brazilian BBQ: meat kebabs on the grill), coconut water and candy (like coconut with condensed milk and chocolate bon bons filled with cashew paste), not to mention beer as well! Then there are diners, or lanchonettes, where you drink fresh fruit juice and eat pão de queijo, salgados (like empanadas and other fried filled pastries) brigadeiro (chocolate balls made with sweetened condensed milk cooked with cocoa powder). A few days of this food had me craving rice, beans and veggies! Street food is cheap and fun, but you never know where the heck it comes from!
On of the most delicious meals I had in Rio was in Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio. I went to visit my friend from Seattle who had been volunteering and living there for a year. He gave me a tour of his neighborhood, took me to a beautiful viewpoint and introduced me to his friends. It was an incredible contrast from the chic, downtown Rio. It felt crammed with people, chaotic, the streets are super steep and filled with alley ways. The best way to get around is on motorcycle. I have never seen so many motos in my life! When I told Gary I was hungry he escorted me through the alleyways straight to a very nice restaurant on the second floor of a nondescript building. Inside, the place was spic and span; there were two flat screen TVs, colored lighting and the distinct smell of onions sautéing in oil. A kind woman took our order. I asked for the plato feito de peixe, the fish plate. I was served one plate of rice and French fries, a bowl of black beans, a salad, and two large fillets of fish with caper sauce. It was delicious and only cost $10 reais, $6.40 US!
I know everyone has preconceptions of what life is like in a favela. I can’t speak too much about the matter but at least I was able to visit one. Many cariocas I speak to living in the nicer neighborhoods have never been to a favela. Some have never taken a bus or the subway! These cariocas all say that favelas are dangerous and dirty. But in reality, the favelas are actually safer than many of the nicer neighborhoods in Rio. The traficantes have immense power and are highly respected; a lot of the social infrastructures in the favelas are made possible with their money. The traficantes govern in the favelas and keep police out. In fact, I don’t think police have been to Rocinha in years. But the moment there is theft and crime the police will come, so the traficantes make sure it doesn’t happen; people are scared to commit petty crimes.
The government usually doesn’t fund anything in the favelas, not even trash pickup; people have to build and maintain their own neighborhoods from scratch. Now the government is beginning to fund social projects. I visited a colorful housing project that was completed in Rocinha, the residents love it. Another favela has a cable car to take residents to the top of the hill, since all favelas are located on steep slopes this makes it much easier to get around.
The government wants to “clean up” all of the favelas before the 2014 FIFA World Cup that will be held in Brazil. Police have started to enter the favelas. The government is funding a special troop of police to live and work in favelas. They are young cops, without previous experience, who are paid extra to train and work in favelas. It is rumored that sometime before the year’s end Rocinha will also be “cleaned” and receive a troop of police, but the residents doubt it is possible. They say that if the police enter Rocinha there will be an all-out war, as there has been in the past.
Despite the hardships, life goes on in favelas. I was very impressed by the people and the houses I visited in Rocinha. The houses may appear haphazard and messy on the outside, but on the inside they are lovely and clean. My friend had his going away party at his neighbor’s house. In her nice house she has a maid, a washing machine, two TVs, a stereo, a coffee maker, food processor, blender, fridge, stove and oven; you name the gadget and she’s got it. Then there is my couchsurf host from Botafogo who didn’t have a kitchen and my current host in Flamengo who doesn’t have a washing machine!
So about those preconceptions…throw them out the window, or come with none at all. Everyone I spoke to who was visiting Rio I highly recommended to visit a favela, with a local of course. One third of Rio’s population lives in favelas and now-a-days you can find favela tours led by locals. The tours often benefit the neighborhood and the traficantes make sure the tourists get through safe. In general, I avoid organized city tours (tourists can be such animals, easily herded around and conspicuous). I was lucky enough to have friends and couchsurf hosts take me around their marvelous city.
For my last night in Rio I wanted to eat out at a typical, Brazilian restaurant. My couchsurf hosts and I went to Bar do Mineiro in the quiet, old neighborhood of Santa Teresa. This old bar/restaurant is famous for its weekend feijoada, the Brazilian black bean strew made with salted pork. Unfortunately, my last night was a Tuesday; we ended up eating a delicious meal of carne seca with fried manioc and a plate of varied fried empanadas, called pastels. One of the filling was feijoada! Probably made with the left over weekend faijoada, these pastels tasted the best; as the flavors had been given time to soak into the beans. I washed everything down with a caipivodka, some beers, and a shot of ginger cachaςa. Yup, my alcohol tolerance definitely increased in the past week!
I think that excluding bus fares, during this past week in Rio I spent more money than during all of the past months in Brazil! It was worth it and I would stay for longer if I could! The cariocas are a fun-loving group of people that I want to spend more time with. Next time I come to Rio I am bringing my sister. She is the only member of my family who has never been, and I know she would love it!
Everyone loves Rio!