Nikhitaa-SundarBefore any trip, my parents warn me about pickpockets; it’s their way of reminding me to take extra precautions when traveling in a foreign country. Their fear was particularly heightened when I told them that I would be visiting one of the largest favelas of Rio de Janiero, Brazil, where pickpockets would likely be the least of their concerns. Like most, my parents and I both associated favela communities with high crime rates, low incomes, little to no education, failing relationships, and hopelessness.

My trip to the favela came at the end of a two-week research trip with 23 of my classmates that wasfocused on Brazil’s agriculture. We had started our trip in urban Sao Paulo, weaving in and out of offices sipping on all the cafezinhos we could get our hands on. We then made our way to Mato Grosso, the heart of the country’s agricultural hub, before ending our trip in beautiful Rio. The sights we saw there, from Sugar Loaf Mountain to Christ the Redeemer to the colorful sunrises on Copacabana Beach, left me speechless! I felt as though I had experienced Brazil’s iconic beauty.

And so it was ironic, perhaps, when I left Brazil most impacted by and impressed with not the sights of Rio, but by the sights of Rio’s largest favela.

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When we arrived at the favela, we were met by Andre, a student majoring in Computer Science at the local university. With only my camera and phone in hand, I started following his steps into the community. As I heard Andre talk about his childhood and the history of the favela, I quickly realized that the least of my worries should be pickpockets; we were being told stories of drug deals and gang wars; of fear and safety concerns.

As I walked deeper into the favela, I was met with garbage-lined paths, dangerously tangled electric lines, and the unwelcoming scent of sewage. Countless stray dogs and cats followed us as we dodged dead mice along the paths. Kids looked up at us with wide-eyed expressions. We heard the sounds of babies crying and of store owners calling after us, trying to vie for our attention. We hardly turned around as we walked down the narrow paths along graffiti-covered walls.

“Andre began to tell us different stories…about the older generation of people who fought to free their favela of drugs and gangs, laying the groundwork for the younger generation to build a stronger community.”

When we reached the top of the path, I inhaled deeply. It was hard not to be shaken by the dichotomy between the hustle and bustle of Copacabana Beach and the simplicity of the slum.

Then, Andre began to tell us different stories: stories about the older generation of people who fought to free their favela of drugs and gangs, laying the groundwork for the younger generation to build a stronger community; stories of children and young adults who fought adversity as they tried to get into good schools and universities – adversity that existed simply of where they came from; and stories about people who were determined to grow and improve themselves not to escape the favela, but to be able to give back to and develop the community that had given them so much.

It was in hearing these stories and in looking at the community from a new, higher perspective that caused a shift in what I then saw, heard and felt around me.

First, it was the vibrantly colored stacked houses, which painted a picture of a bright, unified community. Then I noticed all of those people playing a role to strengthen the favela: some ran small stores selling daily household items, while others were picking up their kids from school and sending them to extra-curricular activities within the favela. Old men were walking around carrying sand sacks to help with construction while women were cooking dinner for their families. Kids happily played soccer on rooftops, participated in the community music group or spent time at the local stores. The sights, filled with both hardship and happiness, broke my heart but opened my eyes.

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In a matter of sixty minutes, my definition of the word slum had changed radically. Whereas I had initially thought of favelas as hopeless places filled with fear and poverty, I began to understand them as places filled with passion and community.

“I urge everyone around me to let go of their assumptions, step into communities that are different…and open their eyes to notice the beauty.”

I wasn’t expecting my life to be altered by my short time in Brazil; after all, I was there for a research trip. However, I returned to the United States feeling different, with the images and stories from the favela close to my heart. I was immediately grateful for the expansive amount of resources I have access to, from clean water to a world-class education. More importantly, though, I found myself looking at and talking about others differently, with my experience in the favela as my inspiration for doing so.

Since returning from my trip, I find myself challenging some of the stereotypes in my own community and opening my eyes to the unique stories of the individuals around me. I think twice about people and communities around the world who may be stigmatized, and try to learn more about their histories. And I urge everyone around me to let go of their assumptions, step into communities that are different – communities they may stereotype – and open their eyes to, instead, notice the beauty.

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Nikhitaa Sundar is a recent graduate of the University of Illinois and soon to be healthcare consultant. With the ability to spark a conversation with anyone, she has traveled to 18 countries and lived in 3 to be inspired from those around her! She plans to explore the wonders of the United States as well as those around the world as she begins her career. Follow her future adventures on Instagram at @nikhisundar.