Before coming to Rio I was warned not to wear jewelry, to carry nothing on me, and be prepared to be robbed. From Youtube videos, to friend’s accounts, and even warnings on the US embassy site, everything pointed to danger. The last story I heard before boarding the plane was from a friend who heard from a friend that someone had gotten picked up from the airport and robbed by the cab driver. Nothing seemed safe.

Finally in Brazil
Finally in Brazil! :)

I arrived in Rio on New Year's eve at 8:45pm- madness. I decided to go with a cab because Uber wasn’t working on my phone. I nervously paid the airport kiosk, got my ticket, handed it to the driver, and prayed I was not being taken advantage of. I was delightfully surprised when the cab driver joked with me in Spanish and Portuguese and minimal but understandable English, and my worries subsided. “This is going to be ok” I thought.

As we drove through a sea of partygoers dressed in white and heading to the beach, I felt privileged to have the VIP perspective from inside the moving tour bus. The atmosphere changed as soon as we passed the Sheraton leaving Leblon. The buildings were more creatively built and everything was constructed upwards on the side of the steep hillside- this was the Favela! The crowd here was loud, young and dressed loudly- color, heels, glitter, nothing like what I expected when warned not to wear jewelry on the streets for fear it might get jacked.

As we began our ascent to the Favela Experience, a man rushed our cab and from his gestures I inferred we were not going any further. My greatest fear realized- being dropped off in the Favela alone. I was a sitting duck for sure as everyone around me was preparing to party and the tall white woman with her suitcase ready to be exploited. The cab driver apologized and guided me to a line where others waited for the omnibuses. Due to the holiday, they had closed the streets and were only allowing the local traffic.

As I stood in line, dripping with sweat from heat and nervousness I debated pulling out my phone for fear it may get taken. The vibrations kept coming from my pocket so I checked, and to my extreme joy, Adam, the director of the Favela Experience was checking to see where I was so he could give me a lift, on his motorcycle, up the hill. I looked at my fat suitcase and wondered how this would happen but at this point anything was possible.

Minutes later I was on the back of a motorcycle, suitcase creatively in tow, being whisked up seemingly endless switchbacks to our destination- the Favela Experience hostel.

Favela Experience (FavEx) promotes tourism in the favelas through innovation and inclusion in homestays, hostels, tours and classes. They give tourists an opportunity to get a bigger bang for their buck, by putting their dollars to work directly into the local economy, while generating a meaningful experience for all guests within these taboo neighborhoods. Favela Experience exists to breakdown stereotypes (like the ones plaguing my brain), of international guests and the residents of the community, by learning from one another through immersion. Guests at the hostel live in the favela, interact with the community, and can attend tours, classes and workshops from local artisans- experiences you could never find on a website (there aren’t many websites of favela locations), or in a travel guide.

View from the top of Vidigal favela - Ipanema beach on the background
View from the top of Vidigal favela - Ipanema beach on the background

My experience was well underway. After a 10-minute pit stop to drop my bags and grab some water and snacks I was back on the bike with Adam, Daniel and Rodrigo, all directors at FavEx. We wove through the winding crowded streets, music, dancing and festas all around us. Everyone was having a party. In a dark alley we parked the motobikes and began the hike to the top of Dois Irmãos where we proceeded to watch Rio explode in fireworks below. The summit of Dois Irmãos was spotted with groups of people also wanting to see the show. Unlike the US, everyone talked to everyone, there were no isolated cliques. Even as an American with little Portuguese I was asked to join a group singing Lady Gaga songs and dancing.

By 2:30am dense clouds coated my skin with cool rain and I was ready for a bed. Daniel gave me a ride back on his moto before heading to a beach party. I wandered to the top of the FavEx hostel building and nestled into a hammock.

Watching the first 2017 sunrise at FAVEX terrace
Watching the first 2017 sunrise at FAVEX terrace

At 6 am I woke up to the sunrise over the ocean at my feet. An Argentine couple returning from the parties also came up to catch a glimpse of the stunning view and we shared stories of our New Year's adventures. I also met Mauro from Uruguay who took me to the local beach and showed me where to find amazing local graffiti. Again I found myself hesitant to trust the people around me by leaving my stuff on the beach as we swam, but Mauro assured me that this was extremely safe and everyone watches over everyone’s belongings because of the strong sense of community.

Amazing local graffiti in Vidigal
Amazing local graffiti in Vidigal

This has been the theme of my experience in Vidigal Favela. My second day in I was given a map of off the beaten path destinations that tourists other wise are missing out on and tasked to explore them solo, on foot and by moto taxi. I again was nervous to start this journey, but by the end of the day felt more confident in greeting passersbys with my growing Portuguese, used my phone in public while walking to navigate without apprehension, and in general felt empowered. From discovering an adult playground, to an ecological park made from recycled trash, this was all tucked away in different passageways and trails in Vidigal. My entire journey I did not experience catcalling or ever feel threatened. Quite the opposite- laughter, joy, conversations amongst everyone- COMMUNITY!

My first 48 hours in Vidigal serves as a microcosm for  the magic Rio offers. Sustainable socially conscious tourism is an ideal way to explore while making an impact on your perception of the world, and the world at large.

I challenge you in the New Year to break free from the mental limitations that hold you back from your adventure.

Boa viagem!

- Emily Farthing is an American from Oregon, a Senior at the University of Oregon studying Religious Studies, and minoring in Public Policy Planning and Management. and has a great deal of passion for creating positive social change in the world. She is currently partaking in an internship at Favela Experience for the next two months.