A three hour walk through the favela of Rocinha (the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro)

25 January 2019 

I’m not a huge fan of going on any tour let alone a walking tour but for some strange reason, I signed up for a walking tour of a favela in Rio de Janeiro I found on the Couchsurfing Hangout App

You might wonder ~ why would you bother going on a tour if it’s not your thing?

Honestly, I was just looking for something to do.

I messaged the Whatsapp number advertised on the App to express my interest. Almost immediately after, I received a lengthy response from the host confirming the meeting time and place, how long the tour would take, the “cost” of the tour (donations) and some  other fun details. We were to meet at 10:30 in front of Rocinha Metro Station the next day.

On the day of the tour, I was so close to cancelling (I was unmotivated and running late) but I managed to not be an arsehole and stick to my commitment (thanks for pushing me to come Nino!)

I am SO GLAD I decided to go because I got so much more than I bargained for.

Not only was the tour the best tour I’ve ever been on during my travels, Nino Mason (the guide), shared his inspiring story, educated me and openly showed his work in the favela at Rocinha ‘n’ English. I absolutely loved how educative, ‘current’, relevant, interesting and insightful the tour was. It definitely opened my eyes and taught me a lot about Brazil’s culture, politics and favelas. The things we saw and learnt are things you simply don’t get from just being a normal tourist exploring Copacabana beach, Lapa or some trilha (hike). I was so interested and enjoyed my time so much that not long after, I returned back to help paint the outside of the school with kids from the favela and sit in on one of Nino’s classes.

Before I go into further details about Nino’s story and Rocinha ‘n’ English, I just wanted to say a HUGE thank you to Nino and the organisation for opening the school’s doors and sharing this wonderful experience with me (and the world ~ well, those who are daring enough to come here)

Thank you so much for giving me something that I’ll take from Brazil for the rest of my life. 

What is Rocinha ‘n’ English?

It’s an NGO English school established for the youth in Rocinha (Rio de Janeiro’s largest favela). Without being disrespectful, ingrained in Rocinha’s culture is a prevalent vicious criminal cycle strongly linked to the drug industry in Brazil. Rocinha ‘n’ English’s mission is to start breaking this cycle by providing the local kids with a safe environment where they can have meaningful education, development and socialisation.

Who’s Nino Mason?

You might think that he’s the founder of the Rocinha ‘n’ English but he’s actually just a volunteer who’s come all the way from Italy to help facilitate the project and teach the kids. He chose to volunteer at Rocinha ‘n’ English because it was a project which appealed to him the most. Even though he intended to stay for a short time, he’s still teaching at the school three years later (more on his story later).

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The tour

***DISCLAIMER: the things I’ve written are simply based on the observations I made and the things I was told during the tour. There is no ill or malicious intent in any of the content I’ve written. I apologise in advance if I have written anything offensive or inaccurate and would love to hear your comments if this is the case*** 

***DO NOT EXPECT MANY PHOTOS: I didn’t take many out of respect***

The “quotes” I use and parts of the tour are based on my faded memory so they are not 100% accurate (sorry Nino!)

We all met in front of Rocinha’s metro station where Nino began the tour by first taking me to buy a coffee and then into the school located at the base of the favela (thanks Nino! I was in desperate need of something to wake me up). It was busy and thriving ~ we were at the bottom ‘safer’ part of the favela filled with normal shops, residents and customers. While we walked and talked, Nino started revealing things to us about the favela, the bridge closest to the favela, parts of his story and the struggles Rocinha ‘n’ English faced over the years.

Nino: “I wanted to volunteer and was looking for something which interested me and this opportunity came up. I initially planned to stay here for 6 months, it then that turned into a year and now I’ve been living here for 3 years. The thing is, it’s really hard to find volunteers who are willing to stay here long term. It’s usually people who are traveling who want to stay here for only about a 6-month period and the kids need someone for longer.”

We followed Nino up a steep hill through a small alley. There were wires hanging from above…coming from every direction. It reminded me so much of the roads in Old Delhi ~ crazy, disorganised, organic and cluttered.

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The school was at the end of the alley.

Nino grabbed his keys, opened the door and invited us inside ~ the school was modest and small but was well-kept. The environment was pleasant. The first thing I noticed was one of the rooms at the front which was filled with all these random things.

At first, I thought it was storage for the school because there were a few toys but Nino explained: “this used to be reception but then we didn’t have enough funding so now we just rent the space as storage to an old lady.”

Hearing this made me a little sad because at that moment, I understood how little funding the school was getting.

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We sat down in the next classroom while Nino explained different aspects of his role at the school and the realities that the families face in Rocinha. I don’t remember exactly word for word what Nino said but I remember learning that the classes were very small and inexpensive (Rocinha ‘n’ English only charged families a small fee but it wasn’t mandatory to pay if a family genuinely couldn’t afford it).

But the thing he told us which hit me the most was that students couldn’t attend school sometimes because it would be too dangerous for them to come (from violence or weather).

Nino: “Sometimes there’s shootings in the favela so it’s safer for the kids to stay home. But generally the gangs will light up fireworks to notify everyone in advance when there will be a shooting.”

He then went behind his desk to grab a couple of boxes from the top of a cupboard.

Nino: “We finally got funding to buy proper textbooks that the kids can use. It’s taken us three years to get these!”

His eyes lit up and he smiled. You could see the pride and happiness in his face.

At this point, I couldn’t help but stare at Nino in admiration ~ he was a guy who really cared about the children and a guy who’s made a lot of sacrifices and worked VERY hard to be there for them.

I also remember him telling us about taking the kids on an excursion to see Christ the Redeemer. The truth is that many families which live in favelas don’t have enough money to something as simple as going to see a tourist site. It is a luxury which they simply cannot afford (even using public transport to get there is too expensive for these families, let alone the cost of the ticket to see the site).

Quite recently, Rocinha n English received a donation which funded an excursion for the students to see Christ the Redeemer. Not only were students extremely excited… the parents were ecstatic and so proud that their child got the opportunity to see something that they never were able to ~ even the parents asked to join the excursion (unfortunately there wasn’t enough funding).

Once we finished the tour of the school, we stood outside for a moment while Nino explained to us the situation of the gangs in Rocinha. He pointed to a wall in front of the school – there were three different tags; each representing the different gangs marking their territory of the favela (who is the leader of the favela). At different times in the past, three different gangs have been in charge of Rocinha ~ they control the favela and have had bloody wars to fight for the territory to sell drugs. It’s a ‘war hotspot’ and a desired territory because it’s in a lucrative location ~ Rocinha is the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro and is right next to all the richest and touristic areas in the city (Ipanema & Copacobana). 

That’s when one of the main roots of the problems was revealed to me…

“It was first XX which was in charge of Rocinha and then a war broke out between the gangs. It’s almost always the gang and the police which are at war with each other. But the gangs pay the police to go to war to help claim the territory back.”

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The different gangs which have ‘ruled’ Rocinha

It was time to leave the school and see the real Rocinha

First stop – a beautiful viewpoint.

We caught a motor taxi up for 5 reals each (this definitely saved us a lot of time and it’s a nice experience to try if you’re in Brazil).

When we got to the viewpoint, you could see the whole of Rio from where we stood. It was beautiful and peaceful. There were only two other locals hanging around.

Me: “Wow it’s so nice.”

Nino: “Yeah, quite often most of the best viewpoints are from favelas but people don’t often get to see them.”

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He pointed ahead and told us about a private school which you could see from the favela ~ it was the most expensive school in Rio de Janeiro. I can’t remember the cost but it was EXPENSIVE! It looked more like a luxury hotel or apartment condominium than a school to me.

Picture highlighting the private school?

Somehow, we started talking about the divide between the rich and poor in Rio ~ apart from the money problems which exist between the two social classes, they also have many social problems. I’m not sure if this is the main problem but Nino highlighted to us that the rich and poor in Rio de Janeiro generally do not interact with each other because the rich often negatively judge or have prejudice against the poor. You can only imagine what other problems are created from something like this.

Nino: “They don’t interact with each other and stick to their own social groups but what many people don’t realise is that many people living here are just ordinary people living day to day like any other person.”

This was definitely eye-opening for me to hear ~ it saddened me and reminded me of some of the problems we have in Australia with our indigenous population. I wondered ~ could something like this could ever be solved? 

After we finished taking pictures from the viewpoint – Nino gave us three tour options/routes to choose from. I can’t remember what our options were but we all agreed on the tour through the older part of Rocinha ~ the heart of the favela…where you really could see what it was like to live and be in Rocinha.

As we slowly walked down from the top of the hill, we saw and talked about so many different things (it’s hard to know where to start).

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The REAL tour begins

The roads and paths were windy, small and steep. It almost felt like we were in a maze (I’m sure I would have gotten lost if I wasn’t with Nino). Everywhere we walked, we’d see a house or business.

Nino: “The thing about favelas is that people have an idea and they choose to do it. If one day they decide I’m going to sell food, they’ll just open their doors to the public and start selling food from their place.”

There were often people sitting out the front of their place, relaxing or perhaps waiting for something or someone. Most of the times that we walked past someone, we’d be welcomed with a “bom dia” (good morning). Other times, we’d bump into one of Nino’s friends. We even bumped into one of Nino’s students during the tour and helped her practice her English.

Some buildings had a lot of open space underneath or around them- I remember there was one particular spot we stopped for a moment. There was a large gap underneath and between two buildings…filled with rubbish.

Nino: “You can see that there’s a lot of rubbish here. Because of the way the government is and the difficulty it is to do things in favelas, there is no rubbish collection here so people just throw the rubbish on the floor and don’t do anything about it.”

As we kept walking, Nino started revealing more about what life is like to live in a favela.

He pointed to a sort of ditch in the ground on the side of the road and told us about the lack of a proper sewerage system in Rocinha.

“Sometimes we don’t have electricity for days and water for weeks due to the weather or government’s inaccurate information and forecasting about the number of inhabitants in Rocinha. For example, I just got back from Italy about a week ago and we only just got water back on Wednesday” (to put things into perspective, Nino had been living without water for a week).

Nino: “When there’s a bad storm, it’s the favelas which get hit the hardest by the weather the most. When it rains, the roads turn into rivers. It’s dangerous and impossible for residents to walk around the favela.”

I couldn’t help but ask: “What do people do in those situations when they don’t have water?”

Nino: “They go to friend’s houses or something”

As we kept walking, there would occasionally be people who were working hard to carry something up the hill.

Nino: “Another issue we have is that it is so difficult to transport heavy things up. You can’t drive a truck up the hill and use a motorbike for everything. You can imagine people carrying heavy things up, it’s very hard. I’ve seen people trying to carry fridges or furniture up and it’s very very difficult.”

We walked down the steep, thin roads for some time, talking, conversing and learning…

At some point when I was talking to Nino, I couldn’t help but wonder at some point: “how does his parents feel about him being here? Especially his mum?” considering how over-protective and anxiously worried my mother gets when I travel to ‘unsafe’ countries (yes I asked!)

Nino: “yes my mum wants me to come home and doesn’t understand why I’m here but I love it.”

I had no idea that the most shocking part of the tour for me was yet to come…

We walked past a shop where there was a kid about probably anywhere between 10-12 years old. He was carrying a gun half the size of him. It was not a toy.

Nino: “You just saw how that kid, about 12 years old was carrying a gun. This is normal here ~ young kids join the gangs and are given guns which people use in the army for wars”

It didn’t stop there.

Shortly after, there were three young boys sitting out the front of some sort of a shop on their phones watching videos. I wasn’t pay close enough attention to notice what they were watching but Nino stopped us to make us notice.

Nino: “You see the boys back there ~ did you notice that they were watching videos about shooting. This is normal for people here. It’s a normal thing for the children to be watching videos about shooting. It’s part of the culture in the favelas…That’s why when I teach my students, I keep trying to find ways to keep them occupied, away from falling into this culture.”

All I could think is WOW

I was shocked.

Being a sheltered Australian kid where guns are banned and drug violence is well hidden (I don’t even know if it really exists in Australia), I’d never seen such a culture in my life with my own eyes.

Me: “Do the kids join the gangs because they get more money?”

Nino: “Actually when you look at how much they earn, they could earn more working a normal job. It’s the social status and all the benefits you get being part of a gang here. When you’re a kid, you see a gang leader who has “everything” ~ a nice phone, nice clothes and jewelry, body guards, etc. and women admire and desire that person. The youth buy into this and aspire to get the same lifestyle. It’s what’s respected in the favela.”

I was so shocked I was speechless….

I didn’t think it was possible for me to get even more shocked until we came across the next thing…

We were close to the bottom of Rocinha ~ we were close to the end of the tour. But before we finished up and left, Nino stopped us again in an open space ~ both colourful and cluttered.

Nino: “This area has never had permanent walls. It always needs to keep getting reconstructed.”

I didn’t understand at first…

Me: “Why would that be?”

Nino: “If you look around at all the walls here, you can see all the bullet holes in the walls. This is from the wars between the police and the gangs.”

I stopped and had a careful look around me. Every single building around me had holes from bullets.

At that moment, I realised how lucky I was to be living in Australia. It certainly made me realise how sheltered I was. Never in my life had I seen holes in a wall from real bullets and a real war.

We all stood there in silence for a brief moment…and then continued walking to the very bottom of Rocinha.

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Sadly, it was the end of the tour.

Before we said our goodbyes to each other, Nino invited us to come paint the school with him in the next few days.

I was so happy to get the opportunity that I gladly accepted his invitation.

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The tour group and meeting point

Coming back to paint the school

We were supposed to meet on a Monday (I think) but it was rescheduled to the next day because there was a shooting.

We met at the same place (Rocinha Metro Station) and slowly made our way back to the school.

I had no idea what to expect.

When we arrived at the school, the outside of the school already looked different. It was completely white. The last time I saw the school it was a dark green colour.

There was a local guy already painting the wall and another guy who used to volunteer at the school.

He was the mastermind behind the project. He was the one who drew the outline of the painting in pencil. He was the boss.

After most of the kids arrived to help paint, he gave the kids and everyone else clear instructions on what sort of colours he wanted on the wall.

Away we went!

Now I’m not the most artistic person but doing this event certainly reminded me of how much I enjoy painting. It was such a beautiful, relaxing and therapeutic experience.

I just can’t believe that something I did will be in Rocinha for years…maybe even forever?

But what’s even more exciting is that the kids that attended the school have had this experience where they have left a public mark in the school.

It’s a shame I couldn’t stay that long because I had other commitments but I’m glad I even got a small glimpse of the experience.

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The final product

Sitting in on (half) a class 

The last time I met with Nino to find out more about his story, I had the privilege to sit in on one of his classes (I’m so sorry I had to leave halfway through again Nino ~ unexpected circumstances).

Only 4 students attended this class. We had a good solid hour of conversing back and forth about ourselves….

  • What were our names?
  • How old were we?
  • What did we do on the holidays?

We even made a small exercise where the kids had to ask me questions about how to organise a hike to the Two Brothers Mountains

The kids were so shy but so lovely. The best part was when Nino stepped outside for a moment and the kids told me how much they enjoy coming to class and enjoy Nino being a teacher.

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A bit of Nino’s story

As you already know, Nino came to Brazil because he was interested in the project.

How did he manage to stay for so long?

Long story short ~ he overstayed his visa…intentionally.

After his original time was up, he was close to having to leave due to being a volunteer and not receiving an income but after having a chat with the organisation, they offered him a paid position.

He loved the project so much and did a cost benefit analysis. Previously, the fees for overstaying your visa were very low. At the time Nino did the calculations, he saw overstaying his visa as worth the maximum fee if he was to stay for at least three years.

Plus the law used to be that if you overstayed your tourist visa but received a working visa, the working visa would override the tourist visa so that’s exactly what he organised.

He was trying to figure out a way to avoid paying the fee.

For some reason, immigration officers in Brazil don’t demand the visa fees until you return to Brazil (I’m not sure how true this is. I’ve heard otherwise from someone else).

If you add all these factors together ~ you can see what Nino was doing. He was overstaying his visa until he got the working visa before returning back to Brazil. After three years of being away from his family and friends, he finally returned to Italy this year. He scored the working visa and was expected to avoid paying the fee completely upon his return with his new shiny visa.

Unfortunately, that was not the case. The law had changed.

When he came back, they demanded more than 10 times the price.

Nino protested but the officers were certain he would be going home if he didn’t pay

Nino: “wait wait wait, let’s see if we can sort this out”

He had to contact his friends to transfer money and go to multiple ATMs to gather the funds together.

Four hours later, he did what he needed to do and was allowed to re-enter Brazil.

I couldn’t help but wonder ~ was Nino planning to stay in Brazil forever?

In short ~ he absolutely loves what he does but unfortunately, it’s not sustainable in the long term for his own personal development.

It’s a shame that such a beautiful organisation and cause will lose an asset as valuable as Nino. In the short time I’ve known him ~ I can safely say that I feel that he is the heart of the school and project. You can see his dedication and passion. You can see his love for the project and kids…and you can see how much the kids love him.

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Nino walking through Rocinha

Even though the tour was crazy – the place was so charming. I didn’t feel unsafe at any moment either. I must admit ~ going through Rocinha was and still has been one of my favourite parts of visiting Brazil so far.

I hope you enjoyed the story and learnt a little. If you enjoyed the story and would like to help Nino and Rocinha ‘n’ English please get in contact with them on Facebook or Instagram to make a donation. Anything like household things like cups/stationary for classes will help! At this stage, not many people know about the project so they don’t receive many donations…Most donations are usually made via word of mouth and friends.

Any help is appreciated!

Thank you!

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