I stood in the filthy alleyway, balancing on a pair of rocks as the mixture of water and filth ran over the dirt ground like a stream. Some men stared, I felt their gaze as we passed through Rocinha favela in Rio De Janeiro. We were intruders in their territory, tourists poking our noses where they didn’t belong. We kept trekking through the twisting alleys, narrow enough that I could hold my arms out and push myself off the walls, trying not to fall into the sewage that now stained my faded Converse shoes. A group of three young teenage boys positioned themselves in the street on the top of a hill slightly above us. One of the boys had a machine gun strapped over his bare chest. They leaned over a railing and their eyes followed us as we walked by in a tight little group.
The favelas are slums that are built high on the sides of the mountains, little houses piled on top of each other, one mudslide away from being swept into the ocean. The dangers are real. Stray bullets, shoot outs, police raids. After a few twists and turns deeper into the labyrinth, we nearly collided with a shirtless man stumbling with fresh bruises on his body and blood dripping down his face as if he had just been hit. I avoided eye contact as tattooed men appeared in the open doorways of the concrete shacks, their guns shoved into the waistband of their jeans. After a brief moment of panic, our guide hustled us out of sight and further into the entanglement of passageways. He told us that we had just passed a gang of drug dealers who had beaten the bloodstained man.
Whenever I tell this story, people always seem to have the same reaction: If it is so dangerous, why did you go there? I was spending three weeks travelling through Brazil and I wanted to see what life in Rio was really like, apart from the touristy sites of Christ the Redeemer and Copacabana Beach. But beyond that, I wanted an adventure. I did my research beforehand and found a company that offered favela tours with trusted local guides.
When I travel, I want intensity, passion, even a little danger. I want a vacation from my regular life. I’m not that person who goes bungee jumping and sky diving, but travelling gives me the opportunity to take more risks and get out of my comfort zone. I want to explore the unknown and try new things.
It’s said that the greatest rewards come from the greatest risks. As shocking as the favela visit was, it gave me a deeper insight into Brazilian culture. Yes, there were scary moments but it wasn’t a negative experience. We visited a bakery where we met a hard-working local family and tasted delicious buttery chocolate and coconut cakes. An artist welcomed us into one of the favela homes, with a stunning rooftop view of the candy-colored boxy houses dotting the hillside like a mountain of gumdrops. The sweeping ocean sparkled at base of the mountains for miles, I felt like a tropical bird floating high above Rio.
As I travel more, I find myself doing things that are more extreme with each journey. Sometimes there is a cultural significance, like seeing the realities of the favelas, but sometimes it is more about taking a chance and doing something daring that I never thought I’d do, like jumping off a cliff on that same trip to Brazil.
I spent part of my stay in a small colonial town called Paraty, where I took a boat ride with some people I met there. The boat sailed through the beautiful teal ocean for an hour or two before stopping in a little alcove where the captain asked if anyone wanted to go cliff diving. I never imagined I would ever do this but I also never had the opportunity before so I said, “Why not?” I leapt off the boat and swam to a rocky landing, where I pulled myself out of the water and into the jungle. I followed the captain of the ship and two friends as we climbed in our bikinis up into the trees. It wasn’t an easy climb to get to the top, I had to pull myself up by the tree branches, getting plenty of scrapes and scratches along the way. Monkeys stopped to stare, perching themselves on the branches as I climbed above them. When I finally emerged at the top of the cliff, I tiptoed to the edge and looked down at the ocean below. My friends immediately dove in, their screams echoing behind them. I stood barefoot in the dirt, staring down. I’ve never felt as vulnerable as I did standing alone at the top of that cliff with no clothes, no shoes and no other choice but to take the leap.
I stood there for an excruciating amount of time until I finally built up the courage to throw myself off the cliff. I saw the sky above me, the dark water below me and I lost my breath as I plummeted over the edge. I wondered, “Am I going to make it? Or is this what it feels like to die?” I splashed through the force field of water hard. I flipped over onto my back and floated weightlessly in the ocean, looking up at the jungle-lined edges of the cliff. I was happy and carefree, my heart full of adrenaline and my mind at peace.
Life can be messy and difficult, the world can be a dangerous place and there can be risks found in anything. Yes, I could have been robbed or shot in the favela in Rocinha. Yes, I could have bashed my head open or drowned while jumping off the cliff in Paraty. Traveling brings me excitement and inspiration. Taking risks allows me to form a bond with the places I visit and gives me memorable moments. I enjoy looking back on my trips and saying, “I can’t believe I did that” because it means I opened myself up to the unknown. I will choose the adventure of taking chances over the safe and predictable every time.