There are no noise ordinances in Vidigal. It is not a quiet place. By day, there’s the constant grind of moto-taxis shifting gears and beeping horns at pedestrians with whom they share the favela’s narrow streets. Add to that the noise of hammers & saws, of houses being built. In the part of Vidigal where I stay — a 15-minute walk from the bottom, on a street with ocean views — it seems like every other house is in a state of upward expansion. All available plots in Vidigal are built on already, and with property values skyrocketing there is nowhere to build but up.
At night there is music. On weekends there’s a lot of music, cranked out of open windows and off rooftops all over Vidigal, loud enough to be heard halfway across the neighborhood. On recent nights I’ve seen fireworks launched from multiple roofs at once and enjoyed the sounds of a nearby drum circle. For good measure there are people who drive around bumping tunes from amplifiers strapped to the tops of their cars.
Life here is not easy but it is enthusiastically lived. I’m not the party hound that I once was, and the noise in Vidigal has kept me awake, a little later into the night than I’d prefer — but hey. I used to keep the neighbors awake for sport, practically as a profession. So now I’m the one losing a little sleep. In Rio.
I’ve had worse problems.
If you’re looking for a good cheap spot to shack up in Rio here it is. Easy walk to the beach. Public transit provides 24-hr connections to all over town. There are decent, inexpensive restaurants inside the favela. The streets are well lit. There’s a grocery store, pharmacy, ATMs. This is not the slum your mother warned you about.
The walk to my hostel is 15 minutes straight up a very steep hill. There’s always a moto-taxi to take, for R$2.50 (a little over a buck US), and the ride is a hoot. Most times though I prefer to walk. The hike can seem daunting but really it’s fun. For locals the hill is a different beast. After a long day at work the same walk home would be the furthest thing from fun. And for people who ride them daily I’d guess the thrill is gone from the moto-taxi rides. Plus the R$6 roundtrip per day most favelados must pay to get around inside their favelas amounts to a doubling of commuter costs for Rio’s poorest citizens.
Favelas are difficult places to live.
There is as we speak a sewer-ish smell creeping out from under my closed bathroom door. Maybe it’s a problem with the hostel’s septic, but I suspect a system-wide malady. While walking through Vidigal one does catch a not altogether infrequent whiff of human doo. In Rocinha I have seen an open viaduct of sewer make its way to the beach. Residents of some favelas trudge through raw sewage on a daily basis. Not cool, Rio. Nao é legal. Rio de Janeiro is one of the world’s great metropolises and proper sewage treatment is an underpinning of human civilization. On the bright side, systemic sewage treatment problems are easily solved; a mere matter of public financing. Spend the money, Rio. Treat the sewage.
Meanwhile, open the window a little wider. Let out the septic smell and breath in a few gulps of sea breeze. There’s a rooftop party across the street with a loud dj & people laughing & lighting fireworks & having fun. Another Saturday night in this odd traveler’s paradise.
At no point while walking around Vidigal have I felt the merest inkling of a threat posed crime-wise from any direction. The UPP presence here is minimal and — unlike in other ‘pacified’ favelas, where police brutality is widespread and where their presence has often incited more gang violence than it has quelled – here they seem to mind their own. I have yet to see a cop in a hurry to get somewhere or somebody. Amid all Vidigal’s cacophony I’ve not heard a single police siren. In fact during my week here I have not seen the heavily armed UPP officers do anything besides stand around, maybe send a text, and occasionally stop by the per-kilo buffet for a cheap bite to eat.
There’s good reason for the lackadaisical policing: there is no crime in Vidigal.
This is despite — not because of — the UPP presence. Vidigal was peaceful, if economically impoverished, for decades before the UPP arrived. There was a stretch of months in 2004 when residents were caught in the middle of a bloody turf war between Vidigal’s bandidos and those who controlled neighboring Rocinha. Then loose bullets were a menace to anyone walking innocently down the street. People from neighborhoods near the top of Vidigal often dared not go home, for fear of their lives, and dozens of people were killed. Such is life in favelas.
But once the score between rivaling factions was settled, peace returned to Vidigal. Obviously shootouts between drug gangs possessed of military-grade firepower gravely diminish the quality of local life. But such outbreaks – and they’ve been rare in this favela – are driven by forces far beyond the control of a populace. Thefts, muggings, assaults & the like — things that are under the control of a neighborhood’s inhabitants — are all but unheard of in Vidigal. This assertion is substantiated by longtime residents. Vidigal is free of street crime. Bandidos aside, no one has messed with each other here for seemingly the whole of Vidigal’s existence.
By contrast, I live in a small town in Vermont – with about the same population as Vidigal – where muggings are rare but known to happen. Burglary is common. Armed robberies – of gas stations and even banks — occur frequently, and it is perfectly usual to see a police cruiser scream across town with siren wailing.
Vermont is widely regarded as a peaceful place. Tourists travel there from northeastern American cities for precisely that reason, to enjoy its natural beauty and nonbelligerent vibe. They’re right to do so – I love Vermont for the same reasons.
Vidigal is a reputedly violent shanty-town, somewhere most people who live in Rio will not go for fear of their personal safety – and a place the US State Department recommends entering only in ‘cases of compelling need.’
Yet Vermont, for all its idyllic charm, is far from crime-free, while Vidigal by all accounts is. It is a peaceful place in the midst of a notoriously violent city. This peace deserves to be examined – it qualifies as a genuine phenomenon.