The pulse of Rio de Janeiro's slums luring foreign guests
RIO DE JANEIRO — It is the first Friday of the month and, as usual, dozens of people are milling about Englishman Bob Nadkardi's house listening to a jazz jam session.
But although this is Rio de Janeiro, there is hardly a Brazilian in sight. The reason is the venue. If this was the ritzy Ipanema area, the place would be filled with well-off Cariocas, as people from the city are called, enjoying sounds that run from beebop to bossa nova.
But Mr. Nadkardi's sprawling, unfinished, labyrinth of a home is set on top of a favela, one of the thousands of shantytowns that dot Brazil's big cities.
To many Brazilians, favelas are dirty, violent, frightening places. But to many foreigners, they are exciting, interesting, and romantic. More and more outsiders are coming from overseas to live, work, and just visit favelas, observers say. In doing so they are highlighting the difference between Brazilians who regard favelas with fear, rejection, and even disgust, and foreigners who embrace them as vibrant crucibles of modern Brazilian culture.
"In Brazil, no one likes favelas, no one thinks they are cool," says Marcelo Armstrong, the owner of a company that runs daily tours to two Rio favelas. "Foreigners are more open. There's a certain romantic appeal to favelas."
Although no figures are available on the number of foreigners living in favelas, Mr. Armstrong says the number is definitely rising and cites his own statistics as evidence. The number of tourists taking his tours has risen from around four per month in 1992, when he started the business, to around 800 per month today. Of those, only a dozen or so are Brazilians, mostly the partners of foreign visitors.
That, Armstrong says, is because middle-class Brazilians have no desire to see or learn how the other half lives. Although about 1-in-5 residents of Rio live in favelas, the communities hold little interest, and a great deal of fear, for the elite and middle class.
And with some justification. Many if not most are controlled by drug gangs armed with powerful weapons that sometimes include grenades, bazookas, and even anti-tank missiles. Much of the daily bloodshed that has made Brazil the second most violent country in the world, according to UNESCO, takes place there. With basic amenities like sanitation, running water, roads, lighting, and policing often absent, few dare venture in.
Yet it is precisely those qualities that attract foreigners, says Hermano Vianna, the author of several books about the relationship between favelas and Brazilian music. Compared with ordinary, and orderly, middle-class lifestyles in Western Europe and the United States, life in a favela is seen as unpredictable, romantic, and very cool.
"People come here to get away from the boredom of their own countries," Mr. Vianna says. "They are looking for cultural authenticity. This is like Disney to them."
Nadkardi would say his house is more Miles Davis than Walt Disney. The charismatic Englishman began building a home here in the Tavares Bastos favela 25 years ago. Although it is still a work in progress – as the bags of cement scattered around prove – it is a local landmark.
Like many favelas, Tavares Bastos is built on a hill, and his home, at the end of a steep, narrow alleyway, has spectacular vistas of the city below. Nadkardi has turned it into a club, art gallery, and bed-and-breakfast, and people are now flocking to get a taste of what he calls "the real Brazil."
"I have enormous numbers of gringos visiting," he says, citing Beatles producer George Martin, Oscar-nominated director Stephen Frears, and rapper Snoop Dogg as past guests. "Gringos don't fear favelas. Brazilians wear their fear like a medal. They cultivate this fear and disgust because it makes them feel better."
Nadkardi believes the current fascination with favelas is the new fad. Once, foreigners were eager to learn about street kids, then transsexuals, and now it is favelas, says the artist, filmmaker, journalist, and entrepreneur.
Others tie the interest to Brazil's recent cultural boom. In the past few years, Brazilian music, fashion, art, and film have gained visibility around the world, and most of it either comes directly from the favelas or focuses on them.
"City of God," for example, the Oscar-nominated film that was a worldwide hit in 2003, was set in a Rio favela of the same name. Funk music, with its aggressive, raplike beat is now common on dance floors in Paris and London. It started in favelas and is still hugely popular there. And some of Brazil's hottest fashion designers take their inspiration from the poor communities.
Another reason is economic. As Brazil's currency, the real, has strengthened and prices have risen, favelas have become alternatives destinations for adventurous new arrivals looking for a cheap place to live.
American Michael Allett admits he was scared when he first moved to Rocinha, one of Rio's biggest favelas, two years ago. His house was surrounded by smoldering garbage, and piles of rubble from half finished construction projects. He frequently crossed paths with drug gangs wielding semiautomatic weapons.
But it was close to where he gave English lessons and the cost of a studio flat was a quarter of what he paid to share a two-bedroom place in the posh Copacabana neighborhood. He now lives in a small apartment with his Brazilian wife.
Like most foreigners living in favelas, he accepts that such advantages come at a price, most notably the lack of security. But despite the gang violence, Mr. Allett and others, say armed men in favelas help ensure safety for those not involved in turf battles.
"I feel more secure here than in Copacabana, where I saw people get mugged three times," says the former stockbroker from California. "If you cause turbulence here it is dealt with heavily. The guys with the guns come and take care of it. People respect each other more here, but the sad thing is that it is enforced by guns."
But most of all, Allett enjoys what all the outsiders say is perhaps the main reason for living there: The feeling they have recaptured a time gone by.
"I go to the plaza and discuss things with people," says Max Eichhorn, a former violinmaker from Germany who has lived in Rocinha since 2000. "I know everyone by name. I go to the bar for a coffee and if I forget my money they say, 'Don't worry, pay me later.' I love the freedom I have here. Living here is like living in Tuscany."