The view from the veranda at the Maze Inn is one of the finest in Brazil. The hubbub of central Rio de Janeiro stretches from the base of the hill on which the house is perched until the shores of Guanabara Bay. Across the water, dotted with yachts and fishing boats, I can trace the paths of cable cars sliding up and down the iconic granite peak of Sugarloaf Mountain.
Such panoramas are one of the few privileges of living in one of Rio’s favelas – the multitudinous cascades of slum housing that coat the city’s hillsides.
“It’s all due to a Portuguese design fault,” says Bob Nadkarni, English-born owner of the Maze, Brazil’s first favela guesthouse. “They couldn’t be bothered to build up the hills, and the favelas gobbled up all the best views!”
Bob has been in Brazil in various guises since the 70s – as a journalist, a BBC cameraman and a documentary maker – and moved to the favela in the 90s having driven his ill maid home and been gobsmacked by the views.
In 2000 Bob pounced on the then governor of Rio, Anthony Garotinho, at his inaugural international press conference, and presented the plans of an abandoned warehouse behind his house on the favela’s peak, challenging him to station a police squad there.
Forced into action by such a public challenge, the authorities agreed and by the end of the year the police had pushed the drug-runners out, and made the favela one of the safest districts in the city.
Behind us, the Maze is buzzing with activity. Scattered around a multi-level lounge, pinned by large pillars and clad in demolition wood under a large skylight, dozens of people are whizzing to and fro. Inexplicably, the Maze is home to the cast and crew of Hulk 2, the Incredible Hulk. I’m informed that Edward Norton isn’t on set today.
But this is just the latest chapter in the Maze’s extraordinary story.
Even before it was made into a guesthouse in 2005, Bob had a variety of interesting guests turning up, fascinated by tales of an English film-maker living in a Rio favela.
George Martin recorded a chapter of his Rhythm of Life series here, and Alan Parker and Stephen Frears have visited. When film companies heard about a favela where they could “shoot without being shot at”, they started knocking on Bob’s door. Episodes of Brazilian soaps and a Snoop Dogg music video have been filmed on Tavares Bastos’s cobbled streets using the Maze as a base, and now, of course, there’s the Hulk.
But the Maze is mostly a rather unique guesthouse. Eight double rooms above the main lounge area – each with original paintings by Bob – are arranged around asymmetric arches and multicoloured broken tiles. It’s a beautiful, organised chaos that imitates the favela around it.
I ask Bob if this is the beginning of some kind of favela gentrification. “It’s already happening! We have regular live music nights in the lounge, and we get locals coming up who would never have gone anywhere near a favela in the past. We put on jazz bands, bossa and samba nights, and they come, drink R$5 (about £1.30) caipirinhas and walk home safely at 3am. OK, right now we are the only favela that is totally safe, but 200 years ago Hampstead was the most dangerous favela in London.”
The Maze’s temporary role as a film set means that there’s no room for me, but since arriving at my hostel near Copacabana I’d been asked various times whether I had “done” a favela yet. Since entering the international vernacular via films such as Fernando Meirelles’s Oscar-nominated City of God, various companies have been running tours into the slums. Just like Sugarloaf and the Christ Statue, the favela experience is another box to tick when visiting Rio.
“Some of it is voyeuristic,” says Bob. “The tour people take you to designated areas where the locals know you are coming. But you can’t observe anything in that way without changing its behaviour.
“At the Maze Inn it’s safe enough to be on your own . . . spend a week in Tavares Bastos and the locals get used to you, and you can drink with them in the cafes, or maybe play snooker in the bars. And when you want a change you can head down the hill to the bars in Lapa, or jump on the metro to Copacabana and Ipanema.”
We head to a small cafe behind his house where a couple of women and their children sit watching the TV. Then Bob’s phone rings.
It’s a guest booking herself in over Carnival. Dutifully, Bob ambles back to the Maze to confirm the booking. I head down to the base of the favela, past flaking buildings and vested locals who had directed me to “Casa du Bobby” on the way up.
I button my pockets and shove my camera to the bottom of my bag, leaving the only patch of Rio hillside that, thanks to a slightly eccentric Englishman, manages to be safer than the flat land beneath it.
Extracted from The Guardian
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