FAVELA IS ONE OF ONLY EIGHT PORTUGUESE words in the Oxford English Dictionary, or so I am told by Marcelo, a tall Brazilian with sun-kissed hair. I am only half-listening to Marcelo's words as the black VW Golf he is driving makes the final turn up the steep hill leading to Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro's largest favela, or slum.
It seems strange, coming from Los Angeles, to be climbing a hill to a ghetto. But here in Rio the rich people live on the flat land, down by the ocean. The hills are left to the poor.
For years working as a reporter, I covered impoverished areas of L.A., seeing firsthand the media distortions of life in our city's most notorious neighborhoods. After reading stories about violence and chaos in Rio's favelas, I wondered if they, too, were being unjustly savaged by the media. Then last winter in Los Angeles I attended a reading of Alma Guillermoprieto, a writer who spent a year living in a favela in order to join a samba school. Guillermoprieto described a totally different kind of place, one where poverty was rampant but where life existed with great humor, a place where traditions prevailed over violence or fear.
Thanks to Marcelo, who has made a business of giving favela tours for the last 10 years, I am about to see the reality for myself.
AS MARCELO TURNS THE ENGINE OFF, I LOOK around for signs of danger. “This is it?” I think, looking at the two-lane street with an incredible view of the bay below. “Funny, the poorest in the city have one of the best views of the place,” Marcelo says.
On the periphery of Rocinha, life seems normal. There are shops and banks, children play soccer in a makeshift field, and women carry plastic bags filled with that day's groceries.
Marcelo launches into his standard speech. This is where the city's poor live. The poor tend to be black, indigenous and from rural areas. They come to the city looking for work. Yes, there are drugs here.
So far, it seems like every other poor neighborhood I've seen in Latin America, a place where people live with as much comfort as their situations permit and do what they need to do to survive. In Venezuela they are called ranchitos; in Colombia, simply barrios.
We head toward a gray, unpainted three-story cement building, walk up a flight of stairs and enter the living room of one of Rocinha's finer homes. The small room is stuffed with a big-screen television, a couch and two love seats. A thin, dark-haired woman appears and speaks with Marcelo. I try and guess her age: Is she a tired-looking 20-year-old or a well-preserved woman approaching midlife? Marcelo says she is young. I meet her two daughters on the roof where they are riding tricycles around a basket of laundry waiting to be hung up.
THE NEXT PART OF OUR FAVELA TOUR IS on foot, along dark streets barely an arm-span across.
“Watch your step,” Marcelo says as we wind up then down a narrow passageway past two- and three-story concrete boxes. I find myself peering into bedrooms without meaning to, overhearing intimate conversations without wanting to, smelling simmering food. Privacy doesn't exist in the favela.
There are makeshift bars along the way, small booths manned by vendors hawking bottles and candy. Most have a refrigerator and a television broadcasting soccer. At one, I smile and try to talk to the man behind the bar, but he is engrossed in the soccer game.
Later, the narrow path we are following spits out onto a crowded plaza. It's market day, Marcelo tells me. The street is filled with vendors selling vegetables, children's clothing, auto parts and kitchenware.
Marcelo points toward a crowd that has gathered around two men singing and playing guitar. He tells me the two men are engaged in a kind of musical contest. One man sings, then the other must respond with a verse of his own that challenges the other to respond.
Marcelo makes it clear, though, that Rocinha, like other favelas, isn't an easy place to live. Drug dealers keep the peace, but they also exact their own brutal form of justice. And while there is the occasional success story — soccer icon Pele came from a favela — a kid born into Rocinha is unlikely to end up down the hill in Rio's more upscale neighborhoods.
Marcelo asks me about Los Angeles, about our slums, about the drive-bys and gang problems he's heard of in the media. He asks if people are really prisoners in their own homes. I tell him things aren't that different from life in a favela. Housing projects, our favelas, are also misunderstood. They can be very grim — grimmer than where I now stand. But they are not places of unremitting horror.
Later, as Marcelo tells me more about the favela, a man standing nearby smiles and nods his head, as if in agreement. I don't think he understands English. But he is clearly glad to see an outsider getting set straight what life in his neighborhood is all about.