Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Favela tours - yes or no?

the favela sits on the hill to the left
Alongside the beaches and the hills, one of the things that Rio is best known for is its favelas.  They are home to the poor of the city, and account for some twenty percent of the population of Rio; the largest, Rocinha, had an official count of 69,300 at the 2010 census, although the actual population is estimated at around 150,000.  The numbers are so large because they were swelled by an influx of people from the poor parts of Brazil in the 1920-50s, when Rio was enjoying its wealthy heyday.

The favelas have a notorious reputation for being dangerous and crime ridden.  They are little - or not so little - towns within the city, with the larger ones having their own schools, church and other amenities.  Many have for years been regarded as no-go areas for all including the police, controlled instead by the machine gun toting drug gangs.

Over the last year or so, with the hosting of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in mind, the police and military have been raiding the favelas and ousting the drug gangs, to try to push crime away from the city and improve the face of Rio.  The local reaction to this is mixed, and of course while they have arrested some of the drugs gangs, many are just pushed elsewhere rather than actually being stopped.

a closer look at the favela
Much like the townships of South Africa, the favelas have become an integral and infamous part of Rio, and given the dangers of going into them alone, they offer tours of them for tourists.  So the question for us was, should we take a tour?

The obvious answer is yes; they are a major part of Rio and they show you a different side to the city.  As we saw in Bolivia, it can be a humbling and very worthwhile experience to see how little some people have and how lucky we are, and that would certainly be something that we would see in the favelas.

But I am quite uncomfortable at the idea of gawping at someone's home and life.  I would hate it if someone was treating my home and lifestyle as a tourist attraction, so why should I feel I can do that to others just because they are 'different' and poor.  Personally, it seems to me to be rather a rude thing to do.

And the same applies to taking photos there.  The ramshackle nature of the favelas, the way they cling to the hillsides, and the graffiti on some of them make for some good photos, as do some of the criminals with their guns, but I would feel most uncomfortable encroaching on people`s lives by actually taking any of those photos, even if everyone else was.

In any case, what are you really seeing anyway?  These tours do the same thing every time, so what you see becomes almost a performance.  If you're going to a favela then you will probably want to go to one of the more notorious ones, which means the tour probably has to be 'authorised' by the gangs that control it anyway.  They know when the tourists will be there and can ensure that we see what they want us to see - and only that.

Any if I wouldn't choose to tour a poor council estate in the UK, why would I want to do effectively the same thing here? So our view was no, the favela tour was not for us.  I am sure that many of you reading this will think we are wrong to decide that, and that is fair enough.   I think everyone has to decide for themselves where their tourism threshold lies and what they are comfortable with before they feel like their presence is an intrusion.

I expect that my low threshold comes from the fact that I value my own privacy, so it feels wrong to me not to give others the same respect that I expect.  I know that sometimes I will miss seeing something amazing, in the same way that I will miss out on some potentially great photos, but at least I won't feel that I am being hypocritical.

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