“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” ~Confucius
The Favelas of Rio De Janeiro are safe. I have witnessed or heard of countless stories of armed robberies here in Rio De Janeiro. All of them occurred in the established parts of the city, such as Copacabana or Lapa. I have never once witnessed or heard a story of an individual being robbed in a favela. Every time I go out for drinks in Lapa, I hide my money in my shoe and I rarely take out my cell phone. This is not paranoia. Twice, I have been the victim of an attempted robbery. When I return to the favela I take that put that money back in my wallet and I use my phone, carefree. Yet every news article I read portrays the favela as a dangerous place where one must watch their step. Every tourist I overhear describes the favela as a mythical and dangerous no-man’s land. I now understand that these myths are exactly that: myths.
My favorite part about bringing people to play paintball in the favela of Santa Marta is that I don’t need to lecture them in how the favela is safe. They see it for themselves. They experience the safety and warmth of these communities through interacting with the community members who come and watch. Previous perceptions of what these places are like, disappear, only to be replaced by the understanding that comes from doing.
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to host 28 of the new exchange students from my former university, PUC, at our paintball field. For the vast majority of these students, it was their first time stepping into a favela. It is a true perk of my job to see all these young minds developing a perception of a place that is so far from that they receive from the news and even universities. One of the students even wrote this status update on his Facebook:
“Today was incredible!!!!!! We got out of class at 1 and then I ran home to grab my gear and change. I then headed off to the Botafogo metro station to meet my friends and head up there. My friends ended up choosing a new meeting point and went up without me but it was all good, life is good :) I went to Santa Marta (the 1st pacified favela) but had to go up to meet my friends by myself. I walked up the favela by myself and it was really sketch. I asked this group of guys where to go and they each kept giving me different directions and saying how there was better than the other friends. I was sure they were setting me up to get robbed so my eyes were everywhere on my head… I kept walking and got really lost and stopped again to ask for directions and again, got the same type of response. “They are for sure setting me up.” I thought to myself as I walked deeper and deeper into this favela. About 15 min had passed and I found myself at this large netted place with all of my friends yelling, “Broc!” I made it!!!! Favela paintball!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! $R25 to play for unlimited time with 50 paintballs and $R8 for every 50 paintballs after that ($1-$R1.8 so it was really cheap). The place was dope, super low-key but insanely cool! There was a cave and all kinds of great things. I can’t even explain how cool this place was. We are definitely going back to do it again. We left and went back down to Botafogo and had a few beers. I love Brasil.”
Of course the favelas were not always this safe. If you read Michael Wolff’s most recent blog post, http://photowolff.tumblr.com/, you will hear incredible stories of the violence and gang warfare that was endemic to Santa Marta, where our paintball field is located. Luckily, Santa Marta has escaped this past and is now a safe and vibrant community where children can finally walk around without fear of being struck by a stray bullet.