Traveling the Depths of Favelas and Soccer in Rio de Janeiro

Guest blogger, Amy Richards, is an author, producer, social entrepreneur, and recent visitor our Favela Tour and visit to Complexo do Alemão in Rio de Janeiro. She is the president of Soapbox, Inc, a lecture agency and the creator of Feminist Camp. Amy has authored several books on contemporary women’s issues, including the best-selling Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism & the Future. She lives in New York City with her family. Here she reflects on her Deep Travel experience in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and puts it in perspective with her greater travel philosophy.

Five days in Rio and my twelve year old son and I managed to cover most of it: a train ride up to Christ the Redeemer, walking atop Sugarloaf Mountain, biking along the famed beaches, quiet walks through Santa Teresa, playing soccer with the locals. But the pique experience was our day spent walking through the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Not that witnessing hardship and marginalization is easy, but those communities are a reality of Rio and if one wants to “experience Rio” – it’s really necessary to see all of Rio.

A child from Mangueira, one of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro
Child from Mangueira in front of a painting of his favorite soccer team, Flamengo. Photo credit: Amy Richards

As a life long traveler who has visited every continent besides Antarctica, I used to spend the bulk of my trips hitting the highlights – the landmarks that define a city or a culture. Inarguably a trip to London would feel incomplete without a glimpse at Big Ben. Can you imagine being in Athens and not visiting the Acropolis? But as I have come to learn, what makes a city is as much its presence as its history.

This realization came to me over a decade ago when my son, then three years old, and I traveled to India and spent the bulk of our trip staying with locals and being introduced to local groups doing good work on the ground. Specifically, we were witnessing sex trafficking and its effects on young girls – children of prostitutes being denied an education; girls as young as 3 being sold into prostitution. We ended our time in India looking at the ancient temples of Rajasthan and hearing about the history of India. While it was a great to see the famed palaces and the reminders of the Raj and British empires, those sites felt so disconnected to how most Indians actually live today. This one trip entirely changed how I traveled: it was no longer enough to see what a country had done without also understanding what it was today.

That same trip was a game-changer in another way as well: including my children and not sheltering them to only the over-developed and otherwise sanitary spots. As my 3 year old and I prepared for that trip to India, I heard a range of resistance from otherwise well-meaning friends: he might get sick, it was too long of a flight, would he even remember it? (Maybe, yes, and I don’t know, but I know that it would be unlikely that I would ever forget being there with him.) I certainly remember having pre-trip nerves, but those were overridden by my continued belief that the best education is a lived one and how lucky I am that I can include my children in such adventures.

A student of the Estrela da Favela Rio de Janeiro
Student of Estrela da Favela with Amy’s son. Photo credit: Amy Richards

Our interest in Rio amped up after we spent hours glued to the TV watching the 2014 World Cup – and hearing reports from our various friends who made that trek. The beautiful images enticed us, as did the idea of being at the epicenter of soccer. The majesty of the mountains that seemed to run right into the ocean and the Christ the Redeemer larger-than-life statue guarding the city most marked this place as distinct. The reports of playing soccer anywhere and everywhere were of particular interest to my soccer-crazed son. Google flights led us to some decently priced flights and Tablet hotels pointed us toward some different hotels.

photo credit: Amy Richards
Maracanã stadim with Corcovado Mountain. Photo credit: Amy Richards

We are an urban family so being in big cities comes naturally to us. The constant buzz of traffic, a public transportation system that can help you navigate the city, the international culinary delights, the endless walking, and the early mornings and late nights — all of this feels like home. Always, a five senses experience. The extremes are another urban reality – the juxtaposition of extreme wealth and extreme poverty—and being exposed to both and understanding them as equal realities – if unequal situations. We also love museums – even if I sometimes have to bribe my kids to get there in exchange for an hour at an amusement park.

In many ways Rio was immediately familiar – it felt a lot like Los Angeles. My early morning run along Flamengo Beach reminded me of running along the Presidio in San Francisco; meandering through Santa Teresa was so similar to Havana and Oaxaca – sleepy, colorful streets with sexy people enjoying art and life. That said, there were things that were so distinctly Brazilian: the landscape, the tiled sidewalks, the open-air restaurants with stand up bars and TV screens, the samba stadiums, the heat, the seemingly relaxed way of life.

Rio was so much less chaotic than I was led to believe – but perhaps that’s because I live in New York City. Even though I didn’t speak a lick of Portuguese, I wasn’t daunted by the subway and other moments where we felt thrust into the local experience, just resigned to navigate it a bit more slowly. I would have liked to have adventured more off the beaten path with food, but I had a picky vegetarian son in tow, so we stuck to spots often recommended by the guidebook or the hotels.

Whenever I have heard someone talk about Brazil, I have heard mention of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro, though admittedly I really had no idea what exactly they were until I got there. I had always assumed just shorthand for Brazilian ghetto or poor neighborhood, similar to the shanty towns in the marginalized fishing communities in the Caribbean or the townships I witnessed around Johannesburg. One of many moments when I have thought, how can you hear so much about something and not fully understand it until you are there?

photo credit: Amy Richards
Photo credit: Amy Richards

Overall, the outside image of a favela is a stymied place — littered with inescapable poverty and marginalized people. Only from the inside can you experience its richness and the truth of its existence. Our tour started at the clean and well run Estrela da Favela where kids were learning and playing. They were eager to welcome us outsiders, but stayed amazingly focused on their work — no doubt that was the doing of the dedicated staff. After spending some time with them, we were a part of the parade-like procession walking them to school — wandering further into the neighborhood. This particular favela, Mangueira, proudly displayed their “colors” (pink and green) and their vaunted position as winners of the esteemed samba Carnival 2016. It was also immediately obvious that their soccer loyalties were with Flamengo — since their colors and logo and jerseys appeared throughout. Open doors and windows revealed some well-stocked and well kept homes. And tiny stores selling basic necessities. As much as we looked like outsiders — we felt welcomed.

Our tour also included a stop at Complexo de Alemão or rather a cable car tour over this cluster of favelas in Rio de Janiero. As an outsider, this seemed immediately fun — an isolated ride over the city (ala Peter Pan), plus a nice respite from the heat and chaos. Each terminus had a one-stop shop for municipal services — library, school, medical clinic. Before we thought it was too great, thankfully we had our guide to help us process: who was this good for, what might have been displaced to make this happen and who would find this helpful? What is good for outsiders isn’t always what is good for the community.

Context Travel and their Rio tours certainly helped make our trip feel all the more complete – it was more like hiring a friend for a few hours to show you their city. And a guide was necessary for navigating the favela. The favela we visited is right next to the Maracanã and so appropriately has prioritized soccer and sport as not only a healthy activity, but also a way to ensure that children, specifically girls, are less vulnerable to trafficking (drugs and sex) – they can see another way of life for them. In preparation for our trip, we managed a small soccer drive and were able to deliver some soccer balls and uniforms and two US Jerseys to decorate their walls with.

Driving to the airport for our night flight back the United States, we passed the densely clustered favelas we had experienced on our first day in Rio; this time speeding by at a distance on the highway. Only 5 days later and already this reality felt so far away. My last glimpse of the city was perhaps the best one to have: a reminder that Rio like any major city is beautiful and complicated and home to such a range of people.