Under a bland, lackluster sky, matchbox houses of the largest favela in Rio pile atop one another. Breathing space remains scarce here, vying to find higher ground on this steep hillside seems to be inversely proportional to the declining value of the Brazilian Real.
The truth of the matter is that most travel guidebooks would want you to avoid this place like the plague while traveling alone. Being our usual selves, we went in anyway, and boy, are we glad we did! Some among us are no stranger to shantytowns, living in developed countries for most of our lives, but even for us this complex and colossal network was nothing we had ever seen before.
It’s not easy to find a parking spot if all you wanted to do was to sneak in and sneak out unnoticed like we intended to. After driving around the blocks a few times and retracing our paths by making a few U-turns (and losing our way in the process) we decided to park under a bridge on the far side of the favela. We then took the footbridge, which let us get a good look at the neighborhood before descending on it, as well as mingling with some of the locals descending the bridge. There could be many valid reasons you decide not to step inside the favela but we’d recommend that even if you don’t, you find your way on to one of the several bridges that link the favela with the rest of Rio. Not only will it give you an awesome panorama of the stacked houses, it is quite safe to absorb the view from this distance.
Once we found our way inside through the maze and into the favela, we looked up in the hopes of finding a vantage point that could give us an unfettered view without obstructions from the nearby buildings. After some blind alleys and about-turns, we found a set of stairs that we thought would take us atop a high perch, but in the end seemed to go up to... well, nowhere. An arduous climb followed, and after ascending about five or six floors, we found ourselves standing face to face with an old woman, and we were brave enough to ask her for directions to the roof – of course, without knowing a single word of Portuguese. She enlightened us, patiently and politely, and without understanding a single word of what she just told us, we were soon back to searching for that rooftop.
Determined as ever, this time we went through what seemed to be living rooms placed inside more living rooms, and then got out through what had to be an attic. There, in front of us, was the fascinating and colorful world of Rocinha. And the sight was truly magnificent!
We didn’t hang out for more than a few minutes on the rooftop, soaking in all the thrill and color of the bustling favela below during that brief time, before groping our way down the same dark and narrow staircase. Just like it has been in a great many developing countries we had visited, it was again meant to be a learning moment for each one of us to see firsthand the challenging abodes that people call home. That day, it was clear to us that home is anywhere the wind blows. To us, it was also one of the more memorable moments of our Brazil visit.