“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.


Favela Hipster

Posted: January 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

“The highest form of ignorance is when you reject something you don’t know anything about.” – Wayne Dyer

I always knew that Favela Paintball would be a controversial issue. Many people reject the idea of bringing paintball guns into a place that had so recently been plagued by armed gangs. Many people believe that we are running around the streets playing paintball without any rules or regulations, imitating the drug wars of previous years. In truth, Off The Track Rio is actually a part of the community. My business partner, Andre Nascimento, grew up in a very dangerous favela in the northern parts of the city and moved to Santa Marta 10 years ago when he married his wife, Angelica. They now live in a one bedroom apartment with their two children. Andre’s passion is paintball and he decided to bring that to his community. Favela Paintball has nothing to do with imitating gang wars or reminding people of the specter of violence that once haunted them. In fact, most of the people who have played at our field have been people from the community, all of whom play at a steep discount. I have never once, in the many conversations I have had with the residents of Santa Marta, heard any whisper of resentment or dissatisfaction with Favela Paintball. The arguments that I have heard against Favela Paintball, that it is disrespectful to residents and that it is culturally insensitive, have actually come from people living outside the favela, many of whom have never visited the favela.

The amount of ignorance (an ignorance that I once held) that I have encountered when discussing the favela has been astounding. The experience of the favela is essential to really knowing what a favela truly is. One must actually go and really feel the favela, its vibrant sounds and pungent smells, in order to understand what these unique places really mean. The reports you hear on the news or the articles you read in papers that describe the favela with words such as shanty town or slum, give the impression that all residents of the favela are miserable and constantly looking to escape. This is simply not true. The ignorance of those who have never visited a favela is understandable due to the fact that knowledge of the favelas is usually disseminated by news agencies, institutions that have an incentive to portray poorer neighborhoods as dangerous and wild. There is a certain type of ignorance, however, that I find inexcusable: willful ignorance.

I was unfortunate enough to experience this ignorance face-to-face yesterday. For the past couple weeks, I have been going to the many hostels here in Rio to invite everyone who works at the hostel to play for free in order to actually experience what we are doing, in hopes that they might pass on their enthusiasm to their guests. Yesterday, I visited a hostel here in Rio. I was explaining to a receptionist, his third day on the job, what we were doing and he was very enthusiastic about the idea. I turned to the receptionist who was training him and asked if he was free this Thursday to come play for free.

He responded with a stern retort in Portuguese: “Honestly, I don’t agree with the idea of playing paintball in a favela. Politically, I don’t find it morally acceptable.”

Always interested in another view-point, I asked, as friendly as possible, “Why don’t you agree with Favela Paintball? I promise you that it is not what you think.”

He angrily replied: “Eu não quero discutir isso mais!” (I do not want to talk about this anymore).

I relented, realizing that my presence was not welcome anymore and went on my way.

After leaving, I could not shake the feeling that somehow I had handled the situation poorly. If only there was some way to show him how what we are doing is not only educational and fun for travelers, but can be positive for the community living there, the people who I assume that he thought he was standing up for by his moral indignation. In reality, there was nothing I could do to change his mind. He had taken the moral high ground and that was it. His mind was an impenetrable steel box. My only hope is that the person he was training will come this thursday for our free game and come back with stories about how awesome Favela Paintball actually is.

Follow us on twitter @offthetrackrio

What happens when you get injured or sick in a favela that has no road access? How can you get immediate medical care if there is no hospital or emergency room in the favela? These questions has been one of the main obstacles facing residents of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas ever since the first migrants starting setting up their shacks on the steep hillsides of this amazing city.

Last week I experienced what is a daily reality for the residents of the favela of Santa Marta when my friend sprained his ankle playing paintball in the favela. My friend, Jay, had been in a motorcycle accident several months prior to the game and as he was running to evade a determined paintball, he tripped and awoke the older wound. He could not walk on the injured leg and I could tell from the look on his face that he needed immediate medical assistance. I quickly sized up our options. The favela of Santa Marta is spread out over a hill with a very steep incline and the favela lacks a road. Our paintball field sits about half way up the entire favela. Everything must be either carried, by hand, up the byzantine alley ways that extend throughout the favela or taken on an excruciatingly slow elevator that runs along the opposite side from where our paintball field is. The elevator was not an option because we would have to go up hill to reach it. Our only option was to put Jay on my back and walk down the stairs all the way to the plaza where we could hail a taxi, which could take him to the hospital. That is what we did. Our walk down the favela provided great entertainment to the people of Santa Marta as they watched one large and blond foreigner attempt to give a piggy back ride to another foreigner. I took Jay to the hospital which was a couple miles away where he received customarily slow treatment from the Brazilian emergency room.

Proper infrastructure is incredibly important to a community’s development and prosperity. Most of the people living in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro do not have access to a utility that most of us in the west take for granted. My friend and I are two health young men and we could handle the descent. Imagine if it was instead an old grandmother suffering from a heart attack or stroke. She would have no chance to get the medical assistance that is needed. It was a humbling experience to get a small taste of what it means to live in the favela.

For the past 5 years, Twitter has been a mystery to me. Why would anyone bother to write 140 characters about that chicken sandwich they are devouring or that new set of tongs they got for Christmas? It just didn’t make sense. Now that I have started a business called “Off The Track Rio”, I have been bombarded with advice demanding that I join this mysterious land of tweets and retweets. They say that it is integral to my small business to use twitter to really own my “brand”. Last week, I finally relented and spent hours and hours reading all I could about this new form of social media. After countless articles and conversations with my friends I started to tinker around with Hashtags, Retweets, and other Tomfoolery.

The first thing I decided to do was to search for Off The Track Rio’s most famous activity, Favela Paintball. As the company has only been running for about a month now, I was not expecting to find much. Imagine my surprise when a tweet from @WithDrake appears on my screen with the following characters:

The “Favela paintball” offered here is the most culturally insensitive thing I’ve heard of since “Queen baiting.” http://www.offtrackrio.com/

I am not going to lie and say that I wasn’t a little star struck that someone all the way in far away San Francisco would bother to tweet about what we are doing, even if the content wasn’t exactly positive. After my initial moment of disbelief that someone far away actually knew about Off The Track Rio, I started to ponder the implications of what his tweet really meant.

I am still not quite sure what “Queen Baiting” is, but the rest of the message is a clear statement directed at the moral nature of bringing people from outside the favela to play a game of paintball inside a favela. This moral argument is part of a much larger debate, the debate about the morality of Poverty Tourism.

For the last decade, Upper/Middle class western tourists have been seeking out tours of lower income neighborhoods in developing nations. The vast majority of these tours are done from behind the closed doors of a camouflaged safari jeep. Most of the time the tourists only get out of their jeeps to snap quick photos of the abject poverty surrounding them, buy some trinkets, and then go on their way. These poverty safaris take place all over the world, from the slums of Mumbai/Bombay to the shanty towns of Kenya. Arguably the most famous of these tours happen right here in the favelas of Rio.

Favela Paintball does indeed have the characteristics of Poverty Tourism. We bring tourists, from the asfalto (slang for places outside the favela) to the favela. Most of these people would never dare set foot in a favela on their own and we facilitate this. Yet the similarities with other examples of Poverty Tourism disintegrate after this superficial comparison. Everything we do at Off The Track Rio involves the members of the community. My business partner is a resident of the favela of Santa Marta (where we have the paintball field) and he doesn’t speak a word of English. Every time there is a game, at least 5 people from the community come and watch. Often times, members of the community play paintball against or with the tourists that we bring. Residents of Santa Marta receive a huge discount if they would like to play. We often have Brazilian style BBQ’s at the field where both the tourists and the residents of Santa Marta mingle and laugh (even though they don’t always understand each other’s languages).

The thing I enjoy most out of bringing people to play paintball in Santa Marta is destroying the myths and stereo types about the favela that are so engrained in the minds of the people living in the asfalto and the rest of the World. I have travelled all over the world and never have I encountered such a deeply misunderstood place as the favela. Before coming to Rio, I myself was  under the spell of these stereotypes that portray the favelas as poor, violent and drug filled hell holes that are full of indigenous criminality. Simply, they are not. They are energetic and vibrant communities full of charismatic people who would much rather open the doors of their homes to you than brandish a pistol or take your wallet. No better way to know than to come visit!

For any of you who still think what we are doing at Off The Track Rio is “Culturally Insensitive” please tweet to me at @offthetrackrio with your concerns or comments.

Sunday Morning Invasion

Posted: November 16, 2011 in Uncategorized

Policia Militar where the traficantes used to guard

Last Wednesday, the police set up check points all around Vidigal and Rocinha. After the leadership of the gangs were arrested or escaped, I realized that the only traffickers left were small time managers and street soldiers. The following days were the most tense part of the whole week because I knew that these young men had only three options on Sunday: hide, go to prison, or die. One trafficker came inside the hostel and asked if he could have a shovel so that he could presumably bury something. Helicopters were in the air all night on Wednesday and Thursday nights. The sound of a helicopter is a terrifying thing, all the more so if you are the target. People in these situations act unpredictably.

On Wednesday night, the armed traffickers who are normally outside our door stayed up most of the night drinking and joking loudly. The next day they were gone. After that I never saw another armed trafficker, although I did see a few who were unarmed. Saturday was the most tense of all days because I knew that the traffickers would be getting more and more hopeless and I did not know how they would react to a foreigner staying in their midst. We also heard that traffickers were trying to flee from Rocinha to Vidigal along a trail that leads through the jungle connecting the two favelas. All the traffickers in Vidigal knew exactly where we were. I was worried that they might try and hide in the hostel. Luckily, nothing like this happened.

Oil leftover as a final "screw you" to the police

The hostel sits on one of the highest points in all of Vidigal. From there we were able to see everything that happened on Saturday night. At around 2:30 am, the traffickers started putting up road blocks in the middle of the road. The road blocks mostly consisted of flimsy materials, but were set up in somewhat strategic points. There was one road block that consisted of a line of trash about one meter high. Another one that consisted of old mattresses and motorcycles. The traffickers also put an old white volkswagon van at a very strategic point located just beyond where the street lamp light was able to penetrate. This street lamp located at the main Boca De Fumo about half way up the favela. While watching the traffickers drive up and down the favela placing objects on the road, it seemed extremely likely that the traffickers would put up some sort of fight. They also spilled oil on two difficult turns on the main road, one at the bottom and one at the top. At one point the tanks were not able to go any farther and they had to turn back.

At around 3:50 AM, we received a text from a contact in Leblon that said the police were on the way with tanks. At 4:00 AM, the tanks showed up and started driving up the main road in the favela. From out location we could see one tank driving up and two Armored Personell Carriers, surrounded on all sides by Polica Militar. We were able to hear the loud grinding of the tanks, as they crushed the flimsy road blocks. Upon reaching the Volkswagon, I was convinced that the traffickers would start some sort of fight. Luckily, the tank rolled over the volkswagon without encountering resistance. As the sun slowly peaked its head over distant Niteroi, the Policia Militar established complete military control over the entire favela.

Volkswagon crushed by tank

Probably around 5:30-6:00 AM, two helicopters arrived in Vidigal. We could see several groups of soldiers interviewing residents of the favela and slowly making there way up the favela. The helicopters started making fly overs directly above the hostel. We were on the balcony taking pictures of all that was happening and the helicopters noticed us. They started to do fly overs within 10 meters of the hostel and we stayed put. At one point they made a flyover and we could see their guns pointed directly at us. I had not been afraid at any point during the night, except for at this point. The sound and presence of a helicopter can be terrifying. We found out later that the Policia Militar had no idea that there was a hostel at the top of Vidigal. Due to its incredible view point, they thought it was possibly a drug distribution point. It seems that the police did a poor job of reconnaissance. The hostel has been well documented in Brazilian press and has links all over the internet. Everyone in the favela knows that there is a hostel there.

Helicopter aiming guns at us

Seeing the police ascend the unplanned community, I knew that we were going to be interviewed shortly by large and intimidating men with guns. I decided that I would take a small nap until this happened and told someone to wake me up if the police knocked on the door. I fell quickly asleep and was awakened, not by my colleagues, but by a large Policia Militar soldier with a gun who entered into my room. Startled, I gave him a customary Brazilian thumbs up and asked “Tudo bom?”. He did not reply, but answered with a thumbs up and then left. I got up and followed him down to the main part of the hostel. There were about 5 other soldiers inside, searching the hostel. Soon about two more came in with drug dogs and searched the rest of the hostel. The behavior of the police was friendly and cordial. I never felt under threat at this point.

After the police left, we decided to walk down the main road of the favela to see the remnants of what we had seen throughout the night. As we descended we saw residents of the favela outside staring curiously at the police, as well as ourselves. We saw police with dogs searching everything for hidden drugs or money. Brazilian reporters, who had stayed at the bottom of the favela were walking up and gave us a short interview. My friend, Michael Wolfe, had been in touch with the reporters the previous night and they were fascinated that foreigners decided to stay at the top of the favela.

Dogs trying to find drugs and cash

On our way down, helicopters continued to fly above, reminding me of the fearful interactions just hours before. A tank had rolled over a resident’s car and mother of the resident approached us, thinking we were press, and demanded that the state do something about the destroyed private property. We directed her to a camera crew who were now just walking up from the bottom, where they had been the previous night. The mother tried to get her son to talk to them, but he refused and quickly rushed away. This is a telling story because it shows the hesitance that the residents have with sharing anything with the press or police. He was probably afraid of what might happen after the government gives up and the drug dealers return. The mood in the favela was of tense acceptance of the new order of things. Moto taxis were still not running and most of the businesses were closed. We headed off to Rocinha to check on how the situation was going on there and it was a similar feeling.

Fake traficante gun

Here is an article in Portuguese written about my time in Vidigal. Follow me on twitter @offthetrackrio and facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ottrio for more updates as well.
Americano relata momento da ocupação de favela

por LusaHoje

A operação policial na favela do Vidigal meteu artilharia pesada
A operação policial na favela do Vidigal meteu artilharia pesada / Fotografia © REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

O estudante norte-americano Stewart Alsop, a estudar no Brasil, relatou hoje os momentos de apreensão vividos durante a ocupação da favela do Vidigal, onde escolheu viver por opção própria.

“Os polícias desconfiaram do local onde estou, pensaram que era uma boca de fumo. Vieram aqui durante a operação com armas e com os cachorros [treinados para encontrar drogas] e revistaram tudo”, contou o estudante à Lusa.

“Não ter dormido nas últimas 48 horas faz com que os últimos eventos se misturem. Parecem lembranças distantes de eventos vividos por outra pessoa”, relata o estudante norte-americano no blog criado para transmitir ao mundo, em inglês, os passos da operação policial que ocupou hoje de manhã a maior favela do Rio de Janeiro.

Em entrevista à Lusa, o estudante contou que helicópteros da polícia sobrevoaram bem de perto o albergue onde ele e outros estrangeiros estão hospedados, o que aumentou a situação de incerteza durante a operação, que terminou sem que qualquer disparo.

“Esse foi o momento mais emocionante para mim. Pensar que esta situação [a presença de polícias fortemente armados e de ter a casa revistada], para os moradores daqui, era uma situação com a qual estavam acostumados”, declarou.

Apesar da operação ter decorrido sem violência, Stewart Alsop relembra que até ao final não se podia ter certeza de que seria assim, o que gerou forte apreensão entre todos.



Life Goes On

Posted: November 13, 2011 in Uncategorized

Not having slept since the night before, the last 48 hours blend seamlessly together. All the events which have transpired, seem like distant memories lived by someone else. The long eery calm before the storm. The terrifying chopping sound that accompanies a helicopters charge coinciding with the forward move of tanks below, all visible from our perch way above the favela. The far away clanck of traficantes placing metal objects on the road as a last ditch effort to peeve the tanks. The horrible spectre that for some stupid reason the traficantes might fight. The comforting realization that the traficantes would give up and not fire a shot. The adrenaline packed moment when a helicopter does a fly by our location scoping there gun sights on us because they believe our hostel is a Boca de Fumo (Drug dispension point). The heavy silence of Military Police entering the hostel with drug dogs and scouring the entire premises. The most affecting of all of these memories, the quick realization that life will, out of necessity, go on as close to normal as possible for the majority of the residents here.

Walking down the main road of the favela that I have been living in and seeing the familiar street that is now littered with debris from the night before. Instead of traficantes everywhere with guns, there are black clad military police patrolling the areas with large motorbikes and trucks. Yet despite this massive change in the chain of power, the residents pour into the streets. They talk with their neighbors in a subdued manner, which irrepressibly bubbles into good natured joking and laughing. We are greeted everywhere as normally as any other day, with the now familiar “Bom Dia” and a charismatic smile, interlaced with the occasional drunken lecture on how we come from Germany (everyone thinks that blond people come from Germany).

The police, both for symbolic and strategic value, have placed their forces in exactly the same positions as those that the traficantes guarded. The people, out of necessity, quickly seem to accept this new order, but with a begrudging air. Except for the abandoned cars placed in the road, now crushed by the tracks of tanks, it would be hard to tell this Sunday morning apart from any other Sunday morning. It seems difficult to fathom, but it seems that for many of the residents here this new arrangement will be little more than a mild inconvenience for them, as they return to the jobs they have and the lives they lead. What I hope to observe and relate over the next couple of weeks, as the actual process of establishing the Brazilian state plays out,  is whether this is in fact the truth.

Despite the convincing “peace” that has been imposed upon the community, one experience in particular hints that the truth of things is once again more complicated than what meets the eyes. Walking down the road, my friend Miguel and I see a car that has been rolled over by a tank the previous night, leaving it utterly destroyed. An older woman, thinking we are the press, comes to us and explains that it is her sons and that the state will need to repay him for it. As we point her in the way of the real press, she tries to convince her son to start speaking to the film crew about what happened. The son backs away quickly from the entire situation. He refuses to talk to the press.

From what I can tell, this reaction is a common one between outsiders (the press and the police) and the residents of the community. The press, who have painted such a bleak and violent picture of their community over the years, seem to the residents as voices for society they do not belong to. The police are seen as corrupt and violent. The residents, who have so long lived in a type of political system more similar to a 19th century Chinese warlord than a 21st century democracy, expect that the government that has ignored them for so long will quickly lose patience and forget them again. After this they expect the drug traffickers to return and punish anyone who might have collaborated with the press and police. Our conversations with the residents confirm these sentiments. It will take a long and persistent campaign on the side of the government to convince these people that they are a positive force and intend on staying.

My internet is still to slow to post pictures or video, but they will be on the way soon. If you would like to see more photos please check out my friend, Michael’s, blog: http://photowolff.tumblr.com/