Favela Paintball and its Discontents

Posted: December 24, 2011 in Uncategorized

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.

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