I wrote this short story about our my first time visiting a favela Santa Marta in Rio. The story is mostly true… but I should point out parts of it are slightly embellished (it is a story after all!).
I’m not sure about this. “I assure you it’s completely safe.”
I know, but… “The guide lives here, its fine.”
I know, but I’m just. Not. Sure.
I had arrived at one of the most famous favelas in Rio. Standing outside at the petrol station meeting point we couldn’t have been a more obvious group of tourists.
Most of us with backpacks, all of us with cameras ready to be educated on the realities of living in Santa Marta. Before taking our first steps, a few words of warning from Tiago: do NOT photograph the locals. The rule isn’t out of the ordinary. But it was the first time I had ever heard it being spoken out loud. Sternly.
As we followed obediently through the narrow alleys a young girl pointed to my camera, excitedly speaking in Portuguese. Using the universal sign language of pointing from it to her I asked if she wanted her picture taken, she instantly snapped back a firm, ‘nao’.
It made me nervous. All of a sudden I was conscious of every click, I analysed every frame and thought twice when I looked through my lens. I felt guilty. Here I was taking pictures of their homes, their lives, commending them for making the most of what they had. How must they feel having us nod at their innovative ways of plumbing; applauding their abilities to channel electricity and satellites without external help. A third of Rio’s populations still live in favelas, even those with privileges and education choose to remain here.
“This isn’t a good place to live, it’s a great place to live” a passing elder announced as she carried her shopping up the steep steps. “Eu vou sair quando eu morrer,” (I’ll leave when I die) she proclaimed proudly as she shuffled out of sight. I couldn’t quite understand why.
As a break from the heat, Tiago invited us into his place for homemade caipirinhas. A home that looked like any other bachelor pad. Xbox, 50 inch plasma and some large obnoxious looking speakers. I followed him up the narrow steps to the roof where he stood proudly at the edge, arm outstretched to draw attention to the makeshift terrace. I tentatively walked over, the Samba beats from a neighbour echoed around me, helping to drown any thoughts of the corrugated iron and recycled brick collapsing underneath my feet.
As I lifted my gaze it all fell into place. There it was. Sprawled out in its splendour the city of Rio de Janeiro lay at my feet. The Atlantic shimmered in the distance. Mountains covered in lush greens amongst the cityscape. Christ, stood tall, embracing everything and everyone.
I steadied myself on the balcony, heart rapidly beating in wanderlust envy. The doubts, worries and guilt that had built up in my mind, simply disappeared. I smiled quietly as I realised that all this time, these Cariocas were instead looking at me, knowing that it was them, that truly had it all.