Eight of us piled into the van, the door held shut with a bungee cord, and we began our ascent up the hill of Vidigal as Brazilian funk music hummed from the radio. We weaved through the narrow streets, past electronic shops, art studios, restaurants, schools, and kids playing soccer on the inclined street. The smell of grilled meat and fried coxinhas entered through the van’s open windows as we whipped around narrow corners like a Formula 1 racer before arriving to the top of the favela. Over the next four hours, with the guidance of local community leadership, we made the gradual descent by foot through the labyrinth of curving alleyways of homes and street art. While technically within the limits of Rio de Janeiro, Vidigal carried its own personal identity, reflecting a creative self-sufficiency balanced precariously on the steep cliffs of the Atlantic Ocean.
As we talked to the locals and listened to their stories, we began to understand the complexity and inequality of Brazilian society. Although one of the most developed favelas in Brazil, Vidigal still lacked services and infrastructure related to health, electricity, and water. Unfortunately, many favelas in the Zona Norte of Rio are even more precarious, isolated, and forgotten. Years of government indifference to these communities created isolated societies, led to the breakdown of security and well-being, and endangered Brazil’s democratic ideals.
And yet, the conversations, the people, and the energy were overwhelmingly hopeful. Despite the deep political and economic crisis, the precarious infrastructure, and the societal stigma, Vidigal was generally a place of high-energy entrepreneurship and ambition. We conversed with NGO leaders engaging communities, teaching English, training Olympic athletes, and we met dozens of people surviving and thriving. Our short time in the community was not enough to learn of its intricacies, but the experience provided one more perspective into the dynamic, diverse nation of Brazil. Without a doubt, the experience in Vidigal, from its inspiring vistas overlooking Ipanema, provided the most complete view into the marvelously complex city of Rio de Janeiro.