I’ve been there!

Wednesday, September 16, 2021

Santa Marta is Rio’s new tourist spot.

A devoted admirer of Brazil, especially of Rio, city he has been visiting annually for two decades, Briton Andrew Strauss, aged 47, is a different type of tourist. He practices “social tourism”, which means he enjoys taking a closer look not only at the city’s natural beauty, but also, and most importantly, at its people, its culture and its social differences. In Rio, Rocinha used to be his favorite community. But for years Andrew kept the frustration of never being able to visit a place that, until then, was prohibited: “the community with the colorful houses.”

The affective nickname refers to Santa Marta, a slum he would always see at a distance when he came to the city. The Briton’s curiosity only grew bigger after the place was used as a setting for Michael Jackson’s video clip “They don’t care about us”, during the 90’s. Santa Marta was the first experience of the Pacifier Police Division (UPP), which was inaugurated there on December 22nd, 2008, by Rio’s Security Department.

Back in Brazil last August, it was during a conversation with a taxi driver that he found out that the path was finally free for him to go up there.

‘Look, it’s the community with the colorful houses’, said the Briton, looking over the taxi window.

‘Yes, that’s Morro Dona Marta’, answered the taxi driver. ‘It’s peaceful now, police is there day and night, there’s no more traffic’, he added, careful to give all the information he had.

It was all Andrew needed to reorganize his trip. He would be able, at last, to admire the colors that had for so long impressed him. And it was there, at the top of the hill, in front of the UPP building, that the Briton, who was accompanied by his daughter, Brazilian student Vitória Caetana, aged 15, and a French friend, Jana Gromova, that he met, by chance, with a team of the UPP’s website reporters. Carrying a digital camera, Andrew told his story and said he was very much impressed by the beauty of the place’s panoramic view.

“From down there, from Botafogo district, I would stare at this hill, at these little colorful houses and they caught my eye. From down there I also asked people what that cable car was and what its use was. I came up on it, met a few locals and they were really nice. All thanks to that taxi driver who told me that Santa Marta was now pacified”, Andrew says.

According to the Briton, the reason why he wanted to visit the community was so that he could understand how people lived and how they felt about life.

“When we go to tourist spots in the city’s noble areas, we only see one side of the coin. The other, which is the cultural richness of the people who live here, one can only find by coming up the hills and visiting these communities, because culture in these places is very different from culture down there, close to the beaches. I believe it’s very important to feel it, know it, see it and talk to people about it.”

Andrew agrees that witnessing the difficulties faced by the residents of these communities is a cultural shock for tourists coming from first world countries.

“As a foreigner, I see that income distribution here is very poorly done. When my friends from France hear that I’m going to Brazil again they ask me if the capital is beautiful. Only they think the capital is Buenos Aires. When I say I’ve been to Rio, they ask me if I was alright, if I was cautious. They even question me on why I choose to come to such a dangerous place every year. And I tell them it’s not exactly like that. I’ve been coming here for 20 years and I’ve never had problems.”

Andrew, Jana and Vitória also met the UPP’s commander, Priscilla de Oliveira. They asked the Captain many questions about the pacifying process, how the project works, if there is an intention of taking it to other communities. They also benefited from her company and walked around the place.

“Here you have the most beautiful view of Rio de Janeiro”, declared Andrew before saying goodbye.

Little by little, Santa Marta is turning into a reference to foreign visitors. What Andrew is taking back to France with him is not registered in any tourist guide in world. After all, how to describe the feeling experienced by the community’s residents when they regained control over a territory long lost to traffic? How to photograph the true colors of freedom painted on the walls of the community with the colorful houses?