During a time where society was more worried about black Friday sales and last minute Christmas shopping, I decided to take a trip to the favelas of Brazil with a colleague of mine to experience the Holidays among those that may not be as fortunate to wake up to a tree filled with presents. We made sure to pack our bags with a majority of toys, first aid kits, and clothing to give away.

As we arrived to the Brazilian favela in Vidgial,  the locals seemed very curious, but surprisingly welcoming. looking behind our backs every so often, my colleague and I slowly took the toys and first-aid kits out of our bags. I was suddenly overwhelmed with smiling faces and laughter in the air. I was taken aback with how happy we made the children and parents of that local favela.

Despite the favela’s spectacular views (in my opinion the best in all of Rio de Janeiro) and warming neighbors, before 2011 you likely wouldn’t have entered Vidigal unless you had an insider to escort you. Even then, it would have been risky. Vidigal, like most Brazilian favelas, faced problems from drug trafficking and gangs. Violence was prevalent, especially the farther you went up the hill. Access to public transportation, medical services and good schools were (and still is) limited.

In 2011, the Pacifying Police Units (UPP) began taking over favelas, kicking out the drug lords and establishing a presence in the favelas that was meant to usher in peace and security. All of the favelas are different, but in many ways, the pacification in Vidigal was successful. There is still a strong police presence, though many community residents will say that the police are less respectful than the drug lords who once ruled the neighborhood. Overall I felt extremely safe walking through the favela at all hours of the day. Many taxis drivers won’t go into Vidigal. This is in part due to the steep hills, but it is also due to the remaining reputation that the favela is too dangerous to visit. Luckily, we found a friendly taxi driver that promised to take us. 

Reggaeton music was blaring off in the distance and echoing throughout the city streets. Children were walking home from school along the side of the road with their books in hand. Sunshine peaking through the trees and the slight subtle sound of mothers sweeping off their patios would send the dust into the air making abstract shapes with the sun.

My first impression was that Vidigal was a fun, noisy and lively neighborhood—an impression that would only strengthen. Overall, I felt extremely welcome in the Vidigal community by those who lived there.