Friday, November 25, 2016

Meeting an Old friend (finally) Djing and B-Boys!

Life is about struggles, challenges that test you and make you grow. Today was a day of thanks and being grateful for stories of friendship and memories. These shape what we will be. Life is about connections, collaboration. As humans our interactions are vital on mutual collaboration. With technology, people tend now be less connected and "text" each other now instead of giving face time. Are we losing touch? We need to get back to more human interaction face to face and put down our technology. We need to connect again.

Talking about connection, a few months ago, a friend from my past contacted me. He told me that he was coming to Rio. Phi Pham was a guy I met online on a page called the "Hollerboard". This page was for mostly Dj's and producers. I was a member of the page and met Phi through conversing on the message boards. I cant exactly remember the details but we both started talking about starting a Dj School in Rocinha. I know I always wanted a Dj Project of some sort.  Since 2001 I have always wanted a Dj School. With the culture of Dj'ing and its popularity, it only made sense to start something. Also I often had people in Rocinha asking me to teach them but at the time I either didn't have the time or equipment.

Since 2001, I always had this idea of having a school to teach dj'ing but never really knew how I could do it. I didn't have the space and I didn't have the money. When I returned to Rocinha then ideas started taking shape. I started doing more research online and when I was in San Francisco I was more convinced that this was something I should do. One day while walking down Market Street near the intersection of 4th street, I passed a window in front of a huge building and noticed this girl behind some decks with a guy next to her. I stopped and observed then waited some time and eventually went inside to talk to the guy. He told me that he teaches Dj'ing. I took his card and never forgot that imagery in my head. It was like a confirmation. Now, how was I going to do this?

In 2007 I started working in tourism. I know it could be lucrative if I did things right and offered something different. I think in 2009 was when I was exchanging ideas about the Dj school with Phi. Through the "Hollerboard" we had gathered some others who were interested in joining forces to help us start something. One, was Harry Daley from Canada who planned on visiting Rio in 2010. We were able to save money to buy gear and through 2010 until about 2012 with the awesome help of Rick EchevarriaRyan Goode and Rita Michel, we were able to have equipment brought to us. And in August of 2011, we formally opened our Dj school "Spin Rocinha" and it still exists today.

Phi and I kind of lost contact as he was in New York and I was here in Rocinha. Both having our busy schedules but I did notice that he opened up his own school a few years after me. He started "Building Beats" a similar concept of teaching youth in at risk areas or places where one does not easily have access to a Dj school. I am happy to see that he decided to start his project.

Phi contacted me about a month ago to say that he would be visiting Rio. So we organized a meeting. He and his friend Alexandra wanted to see Rocinha and our Dj school. We met yesterday at the entrance of the Metro Station Sao Conrado/Rocinha which is at the bottom of the favela. I wanted to give them an idea of what we are doing here.

We took a van up to the highest point in Rocinha to an area called Laboriaux where you can see the Sugar Loaf Mountain, Christ Statue and the Beaches of Ipanema and Leblon. I explained a little about the social class separation and unequal distribution of wealth. As we started to walk down the hill, I decided that since Phi likes to Dj Hip Hop music that I would introduce him to a project called Rede Coletiva da Rocinha. Managed by Henrique Saggaz, it's a project for youth and young adults that offers classes of Break Dancing, BallRoom Dancing, Capoeira, Dj'ing with computers, Muay Thai Kick Boxing, Photography and Film Making. I suggest they also include English Classes. Rede Coletiva is also open to other projects that benefit the favela. Phi and Alexandra met some of the students and participants of the B-Boy group and they put on a little demonstration. Phi took photos and is interested in helping to promote a cross culture with New York and Rocinha. Phi happens to live in Brooklyn, the birthplace of Hip Hop and Break Dancing. So we hope to collaborate with some projects soon. Below are some photos of the B-Boys doing their thing!

After the B Boys we continued the visit where I explained how the favela functions.  After sampling some Acai at a little shop we made a visit to the library. Alexandra being a library it was only natural to show her our lbrary. Whiile there Phi and Alexandra had the opportunity to meet with visiting Astronaut Chris Cassidy who was giving a presentation at the library to youth.
They were able to get a photo with him.

 After we stopped off at our Dj School so they could see how far we had come since our first contact!  Here is a photo of them with one of the Olympic torches used in the relay. After grabbing some drinks and some street food and 6 hours later they were tired and had to leave. We will collaborate on some projects and I will be sure to write on the blog what we will be doing in Rocinha with our Brooklyn contacts!

Monday, November 14, 2016

Tijl Vandamme: "My volunteer Experience in Rocinha"

Tijl who is from Belgium who graduated from University in Engineering. He first contacted me about volunteering and staying in Rocinha back in the beginning of October. This was when we were just starting to get our guesthouse up and running. And Tijl ended up being our first guest.
I enjoy interviewing people from other countries about their impressions of Rocinha. So here goes:

1.) Tijl, why did you first come to Brazil?
I decided on Brazil because I had learned some Portuguese and I really enjoy nature. I enjoy travelling and Brazil is such a big place to explore. The best thing was that I didn't need a visa to come here. 

2.) When you arrived in Brazil, where did you go and what did you do?
I first came to Rio and did all the touristy things but really didn't like the city too much. Towards the end of my stay in Rio, I went on a visit to a favela, Rocinha and something inside me told me that I would return here.
But first I already had made plans to volunteer on a farm in Minas Gerais.
I worked in exchange for room and board. I was helping out with milking cows and gardening type work. I enjoyed my stay there and the people were really nice.

3.) After your volunteer work on the farm, what did you do?
I decided to return to Rio to because I was amazed with the favela and the creativity of the people being able with so little to do so much. After the tour, I knew I wanted to explore more about Rocinha. 

4.) How did you end up returning to Rocinha?
I sent of numerous emails to many volunteering type agencies. I found a blog written by this local guy Zezinho about how he had contacts with projects that I could help. And the best thing being that I wouldn't need to pay. After sending the email to Zezinho, he responded right away and after that we were in regular communications and he set everything up for me. He organized the project I would be working and found me housing in the Rocinha Fighter House. I was met at the bottom of the favela and brought directly to the guest house to get settled and within 2 days I was working as a volunteer. 

5.) What exactly are you doing in Rocinha?
Currently I am teaching English at Garagem das Letras, teaching Drumming at Escola de Musica da Rocinha and I am training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with Rocinha Jiu Jitsu. I also am helping out with the guest house as it's a new place. I am also making so many friends. I think I am falling in love with this place!

6.) What were your first impressions of Rocinha?
At first I noticed the favela is dirty, chaotic, but people were very friendly. 

7.) And now that you have been here for some time?
The people are still friendly :) . I feel very safe here. I am accepted as I am and I don't feel people judge me. The favela, there is a positive vibe and so much creativity in how people live. This place has a community, family feel to it. 

8.) What do you like about Rocinha?
As I said before, the people are really friendly. I like the different views in the community. There are so many opportunities here both for work and just everything people do. Its not a boring place and there's always something going on. People here have so little but make do with what they have and they are not stressed out.

9.) What don't you like about Rocinha?
Parts of the favela can be dirty. There could be better or more pick up of the garbage by the city. There are places with open sewers. Too much heavy guns here both the police and the dealers. Rocinha presents a problem if you are still learning Portuguese because there are different accents. Sometimes I have a difficult time understanding what people are saying. But I know the longer I am here that I will eventually improve and recognize the accents.

10.) What information would you give others thinking about staying or volunteering in Rocinha?
Just do it! Don't believe all the media stereotypes. The biggest problem is conflicts between police and dealers but not the locals. I can walk all hours here without fear. Rocinha is a nice community that will welcome you. I advise people to stay or volunteer at least one month to get a better understanding of favela life. One thing thats kind of surprising is that since I have been here, I have not seen any violence or drug addicts. Outside the favela in places like downtown or Copacabana you regularly can see this. 

11.) Tell us a little about where you are staying?
I am staying in the RFH. Its a pretty big place. Its newly remodelled and is very clean. When you enter the building there's a small entryway into a living room area. Then you go up stairs to the first floor where theres a room with 4 beds, a good size kitchen kitchen and a bathroom. The second floor where I stay has one room with two beds and another private room with a queen size bed. Some of the rooms have mini fridges and air conditioning. 
My room has a bean bag chair so I can sit and read. Theres a mini fridge so I can put my fruit or drinks inside. The floor is newly tiled and its comfortable. The bed and linens are all new. The third floor is a good size rooftop with tables and chairs, stereo system to play music. There's a bathroom with a shower and a BBQ. But the view from the Rooftop is awesome! 

Theres WiFi on 3 floors in the house and it works well.
Right now there's me, a guy from the US, and a Guy from the Netherlands with his girlfriend staying here. So there's 4 of us, plenty of room and everybody is involved in Jiu Jitsu or Volunteering with some project.

I have gotten to know one of my neighbors and I often hang out with him. We watch tv and he helps me with my portuguese. The house is centrally located and close to everything. The jiu jitsu school is about a 5-7 minutes walk from the house. I can get to the beach in about 15 minutes. There's everything in the favela, even places to eat that are open 24hours.  

12.) What are the prices like in Rocinha?
As many people know, Rio can be expensive. Rocinha is nice because everything is cheaper in price. So, it is very affordable to live here. I do not come from wealthy family. In Belgium my family is working middle class. So, coming and staying in the favela is where I prefer as outside, I would not be able to afford to live. The guesthouse is very reasonable and affordable for people on a budget.   

13.) Do you have plans to return to Rocinha?
I do. I really like it here and I have made so many friends. I will travel some as I have a friend to visit in Uruguay but after I will return home to Belgium then work and save money to return. I would like to stay for long term next time I come. But when I am here I want to live, work and contribute something to the community.

14.) When you return to Rocinha, what are your plans or goals?
I want to work teaching in some capacity. Maybe work on an oil rig as the pay is excellent but I could save a lot in a short time and live in Rocinha. I want to help with the community center that Zezinho plans to start soon. I want to be able to invest time and money into projects in the favela. 

15.) Anything else you would like to say?
I think I have said enough. I am enjoying this experience and will be back to continue it! I'm just getting started.

Thank you Tijl

To find out more information about staying in Rocinha or Volunteer opportunities,  please contact Zezinho at: 

Tijl in Spin Rocinha Dj School holding one of the Olympic torches used in the relay.

To contact Tijl directly to learn more about his experience you can message him through his Facebook Page at:

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Olympics for whom?

This is a photo, I found online on a facebook page that was offering tickets to buy, sell or trade,  during the games. If you look closely, these tickets are middle level priced tickets going for 260 reais for Athletics, general admission, which basically you arrive got to the section and area designated by the ticket and choose your seat. The price of this ticket that you see on top is approximately 30% of what the average favela dweller earns in a month. So the games we really only accessible for the middle and upper classes.  

It all started as a big question, would the Olympics be a success or would it flop? Everyone in the media was fearful of Zika, terrorism, crime, water pollution. I had clients cancel meetings with me because the feared Brazil and the negative media. I heard stories of athletes cancelling their participation in the Olympics because of their fears.

This was the first time that South America and Brazil has hosted an event of this size other than the World Cup in 2014 and the Military Games in 2013. We all heard then too, problems with getting the stadiums done on time and crimes statistics. Yet somehow, not perfectly, the World Cup came and went with few problems. Brazil somehow pulled it off.

We who live in Rio know the problems that exist here. There has always been corruption, crime and problems with infrastructure. This is nothing new. So nobody in Brazil is surprised with the media’s reaction to when Rio received the games in 2009. Many news channels like Fox (from the US) and other countries mostly had negative things to say as to why Rio wasn’t deserving. Considering Chicago put in a bid for the games but the residents voted a big “no”, I find this ironic.

I have mixed opinions about the games. Brazil needs help in many areas like improving education for the masses. Healthcare is very poor, especially the further you go or from the city center. The people who are most affected by these poor services are those who live in favelas.

I live in Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio with approximately 300,000 people. We who live here experienced a different Olympics. Ours was from watching the tv screen. I knew very few who went to events and those who did were given tickets by volunteers or they were given out by representatives of the games to specific organizations.  Some residents were able to volunteer which gave them access to see some of the games. Towards the end of the games, free tickets were given out to but obscure events like Archery or Equestrian sports but certainly to no Brazilian popular sports like Football, Volleyball, Swimming, Judo or Athletics. Some who got tickets even tried to sell them with little luck.

I was able to go to an event, table tennis because of a friend who invited me. Otherwise, I would not be able to go. Tickets for Olympic events were very expensive. It was nice to be part of this experience but while watching in the stands, I could not help think of those in my favela who would never get to experience this. How many times does an Olympics ever pass through the city you live? Rarely, If ever .

Rio was able to clean the ocean water to acceptable levels for the swimmers, there wasn’t any bomb threats or heavy violent protesting as some expected. It was far from a perfect games but I think on a scale of 1 to 10, I would give Rio a 7. There were problems that I heard from friends, disorganization of people trying to get tickets through “CoSport”, long lines (I guess to be expected), and in the beginning transport to and from events was a little bumpy. There were a few cases of people getting things stolen like a German couple who had just arrived in Rio, went straight to the beach with all their luggage only to have it stolen upon return from a swim. There were other cases of pickpockets and stuff going missing. Not like any other big city problems during an event so large.

The future is now looking at the spending and the city, where do we go from here? Will the government invest in education for everybody or will everything stay the same? How about healthcare? And conditions in my favela, will they improve? Most likely not.  Should Rio have been host to these games? I think not, but I don’t make those decisions. I am just a simple favela dweller who has no power in these decisions. All I can do is still work to help improve my own community from within like most of us have been doing all along. We don’t have high hopes that the system will change much. The only positive note I heard from fellow residents is that Brazil’s football team redeemed themselves against Germany in the final game to win the gold medal. Too bad gold medals don’t, feed, educate or house people in need!

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Jiu Jitsu competitor from Rocinha will run with the torch

This post is to celebrate the Olympics taking place in Rio and the 20th Year Anniversary of Rocinha Jiu Jitsu.

Here is Leandro's story!

Rocinha' Olympic hero wakes up at 6am, take the bus and works until 4pm working on getting the subway/metro ready for the Olympics.After work he becomes a hero to over 60 children in the favela community. Since 1996 Leandro Souza Dos Santos, 31, gives free jiu jitsu lessons were many have been here for years. On August 4th the everyday fighters will be one of Rio's chosen for the torch relay.

"Fighting has changed my life. I lost many friends to violence. Sport can change your view on life. Sport gives Discipline and self control. I am a winner and I am now reaping the rewards. I have my own home have a good job."

Born in a family of 8 brothers, Leandro remember the time when as young boys, sleeping "on top of one another" in a one room house. At the age of 14 he found jiu jitsu and at 16 came his big break. A good friend of his took him to the Gracie Family Academy. 

"I was a fighter who had ability. One the first day, they decided to give me a scholarship. I trained morning, noon and night. I trained there for 3 years and received my black belt." 

Leandro and friends created the Rocinha Jiu Jitsu project 20 years ago to help change the lives of children in the community. We demand that the kids stay in school. Everyone watches out for everyone, helping and once takes account for the performance of his training partners. I feel so proud to represent my community carrying the torch. And be an example for these boys.

Leandro, father of Larissa, 14, Leonardo, 12 and Gabriel, 9 all participate in Jiu Jitsu and are talented. With dad being being a jiu jitsu teacher the kids has full access to being able to train almost everyday. 

"Im not saying this because I'm her dad but, Larissa is a good fighter. They have created a the group "Jiu jitsu girls". My daughter knows how to defend herself."

Leandro says that many of these kids improve in school after joining the jiu jitsu academy. 

He says "By design, its been hundreds of this favela. We work the mind of the children too. They need more attention and love. Sport also teaches the value of discipline. All of the stress is on the mat."

"My parents came from the Northeast with six children and fought a lot. Me and my sister already were born here and didn't cause much trouble. But my brothers say that things became difficult and they would often share bread and a plate of food. My parents fought a lot. Today, myself and two of my brothers and a nephew, are fighters. I lost so many good friends to violence. Fighting really changed the vision of my life. Often, young people go to a lifestyle path that is not legal because they spend too much difficulty. They learn crime is easy money but it does not lead to happiness. In the academy, they find an environment of much attention and affection. Some become fighters, others will work in other areas. Six years ago, I started working on the subway in Leblon.  Before I worked in projects in Rocinha. I managed to buy my house and I am very happy. Now my dream is to make a UFC fight because also fight MMA . Even if it's one fight."

Leandro happy to be chosen to carry the torch for Brazil and Rocinha!

Phoebe stays in Rocinha and volunteers!

Phoebe contacted me months before coming here to volunteer. I showed her a few projects where they could use her help and she made many friends in Rocinha. This is her story.

1.) What is your name? Where are you from? My name is Phoebe, I am from Cambridge in England 

2.) How did you come about visiting Brazil?
I am currently a gap year student, I saved to come travelling this year. Brazil has been my dream destination since I was a child. Mostly for its multiculturalism and dance. Being from England, Brazil stands for all that is exotic and other.

3.) How did you find out about Rocinha? Why did you decide to stay in Rocinha?
I've stayed in ghettos in Africa. I prefer this grassroots living. Historically, these marginalised areas are the main generators of culture and community. I chose to come to a favela to stay close to the insinuating rhythms of real Brazil. 

I did my research of favelas in Rio. Rocinha is the biggest; is fairly visited by tourists; and is where pacification has been fairly effective. So for me it was ‘accessible’. When I wanted to learn more I contacted Zezinho whom I discovered through his online blog and he offered to help me find voluntary projects and recommended me accommodation. 

4.) What kinds of things are you doing in Rocinha?
I found volunteer work with the help of Zezinho who located the places I work and enabled me to meet and communicate with the organisers. I teach contemporary and ballet dance at a local dance studio called ‘Aberte da Espaco’ run by a lovely, talented former-dancer named Yolanda.  And, I teach English with an Italian NGO called ‘il sorriso dei mei bimbi’. It's an open class hosted in a beautifully bohemian book cafe renovated from a garage. 

I approach voluntary work as a cultural exchange of ideas and experiences towards a greater dissemination of knowledge.

For example, at ‘Aberte da Espaco’, as well as give classes I am also learning Afro-Brazilian and Samba dance which is so central to Brazilian culture. I love being involved with dance because this training stimulates students creatively and challenges them physically which balances and fufills a person spiritually.

And the Garagem provides a space for the convergence of people and ideas, a hub of activity, that puts motion into social development. My English class has a nice diversity of students of all ages and abilities to compose a picture of the community locally and outside of Rocinha.

The ‘give and take’ is the beauty of this interaction so I would stress travellers need not feel obliged to pay to volunteer with projects. I think that tarnishes the ethos.

4.) What kinds of things are you doing in Rocinha?
I found volunteer work with the help of Zezinho who located the places I work and enabled me to meet and communicate with the organisers. I teach contemporary and ballet dance at a local dance studio called ‘Aberte da Espaco’ run by a lovely, talented former-dancer named Yolanda.  And, I teach English with an Italian NGO called ‘il sorriso dei mei bimbi’. It's an open class hosted in a beautifully bohemian book cafe renovated from a garage. 

5.) What do you like about Rocinha?
I would describe Rocinha as an intriguing amalgamation of Alice's wonderland and Batman’s Gotham city. Real and surreal. For a traveller searching for the fantastical Unknown but with a gritty down-to-earthness, lost in major touristic attractions, Rocinha could not better epitomise this.

My experience here I have coined the ‘falling-down-the-rabbit-hole-syndrome’, that is to say, the novelty and strangeness doesn't cease to impress itself upon me. Everyday I am the fresh-eyed Alice, or even the young Miranda exclaiming “Oh brave new world; that has such people in’t”.

The people are warm and abrasive which is my favourite kind. The favela that never sleeps, it also lives and breathes. You don't need to lodge in Copacabana to feel at the centre of it all.

6.) What don't you like about Rocinha? 
There isn't enough of an intellectual culture here which I think there could be with the introduction of more social projects. I'd like to see some that promote arts and stage panel debates and host book clubs etc . A friend of mine is establishing a touring exhibition of his graffiti work in the area which I think is a great idea, though more targeted at tourists. There could be more for locals to engage with.

7.) How has been your overall experience here?
My days in Rocinha flutter by in casual disorder in between chilling on a stoop with neighbours eating acai; drinking in local bars where I recognise faces and mine is too now familiar; liaising on Sao Conrado beach which I prefer to Ipanema and Copacabana for its quiet tranquility; and cooking up a churrasco on a veranda in the hood. That is just the backdrop to my experiences here, yet it stages a very colourful scene. A scene which I feel apart of.

I enjoy the soundscapes: moto engines, funky beats from sound systems, samba whistles, and church bells, and a hum of chatter. The scenery when I'm soaring down Estrada da Gavea on a moto taxi or clambering up the alley of rua 1. All this is charged with a breath of Rocinha's spirit and it invigorates me and it's what I’ll remember and take with me.

8.) What would you change about the favela?
Like many favelas after pacification, Rocinha must take strides for greater infrastructure, particularly its sewage systems.

9.) We know that you are only here for 2 months, do you plan to return to Rocinha someday?
I fully intend to come back. I have made many personal ties here with people and the place and it would be a pleasure to return in the future. I am very interested to conduct academic research here for my anthropology degree and beyond.

10.) What is it that you would like the world to know about the favela?
This may be a ghetto but there is no ghettoisation of the mind. Rocinha does not follow a typical paradigm for poor, less educated communities around the world. Its infrastructure may be underdeveloped but its progressive ideals pertain to the first world.

Here, women will be at the beer as much as men. And work and party equally to their counterpart. Amongst the hyper masculine Brazilian males you will find a thriving LGBT community, transgender people are seamlessly integrated into the community without need for subcultures and fabulous Drags will stride with confidence, no heads turned. And the locals won't be gawking at the new gringo on the block. Generally, there is a sense of exposure and an air of open-mindedness.

Another thing, the entire time here I have felt comfortable walking alone at absolutely any time of day and night. As a female expect a few whistlers and depending on where you go out maybe an arm grabbing but nothing enough to make me personally feel vulnerable or endangered.

To get the most of the favela experience be conscientious and a little bold.
Befriending locals was the best way for me to educate myself and better explore the place. There's no real point plainly stating you can't go somewhere because it's dangerous. To rationalise this claim; a dangerous situation will not arise without provocation. That is to say, a drug trafficker isn't going to pay you much notice unless you really give them a reason to. So just be sensible and respectful but mostly relax, we are all human.