A Week in the Life: Volunteering in Rio de Janeiro

A Week in the Life: Volunteering in Rio de Janeiro

This article was written by Holly Ingram, published on 14th November 2013 and has been read 9443 times.

I’m writing this from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where I’ve been working as a volunteer in a favela for the last three months. The organisation I’m volunteering for is Iko Poran and I’m living in a shared house in the Santa Teresa neighbourhood with other volunteers. I study Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies at Newcastle University and wanted to share my year abroad experience so far, so here’s a snippet!

Monday in Rio

AM - Monday is Orientation day for new Iko Poran volunteers, and the start of a new week at project for people who’ve been here for months already, like myself. We all get up around 7.30am and have breakfast together, chatting around our dining room table. Sometimes the Iko Poran coordinators are present too, with news about projects or general gossip about the weekly get together at Bar Gomez (more to come on that note). We’re all gone from the house at around 8.30 (I’m never going to complain about having a 9am lecture at Uni again!) and head off on various bus or metro routes all over Rio. Eventually (some projects are over an hour away) we arrive at different favelas, ready for a day of teaching English, building houses, working with children or community development, depending on the programme we’ve chosen. 

My project in a nutshell
My day begins with a bus journey. This is no ordinary bus journey, though, rather a 40 minute struggle to stay in my seat while travelling on the most aggressively driven public transport vehicle I’ve come across in my 20 years of life so far! However the driver’s ruthlessness allows me to arrive at project in good time each day, and the price of travel is cheap- 2.75 Reais* for every journey wherever you go in Rio (which is the equivalent of 74p).
I work at a project in the Bonsucesso favela, in a small community centre where many kids spend most of their days at the moment, due to the teachers’ strikes here. The morning session begins at around 10am and I can do many things with the children, including teaching English, telling them about England, different activities or games, and sometimes trips to the park nearby. On Mondays they often take me for a little walk around the favela, excitedly pointing out their homes and their relatives as we all walk the little streets, hand in hand.

PM - The lady in charge of the project, Bizuca, makes me lunch at around 12pm. I try to help her with the cooking usually, but my cooking skills leave a lot to be desired. Each day I am served a generous portion of rice, feijao* and some kind of meat. Until I was nineteen I was a vegetarian for my entire life, and I honestly don’t know how I would survive here, were I still one; meat is in everything! I am not sure Brazilians would even understand the concept of vegetarianism.

My volunteer work is helping my Portuguese to come on leaps and bounds. Bizuca speaks no English, and understands that I know some Portuguese which is slowly progressing, but rather than speak especially slowly and clearly for me, she continues to speak very colloquially at around a thousand miles an hour. Sometimes I think she speaks even faster with me than with the Brazilian children... however, if anything, this is only helping me as it is forcing me to really concentrate and make maximum effort each day with my developing knowledge of Portuguese. By the end of the day, she informs me of some crafts/activities ideas she has for the next day, and after a few more hours with the excitable kids, I leave at about 3pm, ready for the...lively...return bus journey.

Tuesday in Rio

AM - Back at project on a Tuesday, the fun continues with the kids who always greet me with several hugs and shouts, before taking my hand and hurriedly pulling me inside the building to join them with whatever they were doing. Recently they have started rehearsing a little play each morning, so I sit and watch them, giving encouragement where I can (although I’m not too sure I understand what exactly the play is about). This Tuesday Beatriz, one of the girls, pushed a script into my hand and pointed at a paragraph of text for me to read aloud. I initially thought they were just politely involving me, but soon realised that I, in fact, now have a part in this particular play. This is slightly worrying. Obviously I am not scared or anything, I’m just...terribly worried that my...amazing...acting skills will overshadow theirs. 

After Bizuca has cooked lunch, a new group of children arrive for the afternoon session and the unpredictable fun and activities continue for a few more hours! Each day at project is nothing like it would be at a daycare centre in England. The community centre is not particularly clean, nor does it offer many facilities, but the important thing for Iko Poran volunteers like me is just to be there for the children and provide them with some activities, fun and affection. Walking around the favela, it’s clear that these children have very little in their lives, and it’s pretty amazing to be able to help them in one way or another.


PM - Returning home, an evening in the house is spent socialising with the other volunteers, of which there are about twenty at one given time. Often we cook together in the communal outdoor kitchen or head to Lapa for the cheap ‘all you can eat’ pizza deal (this includes pizzas “salgadas*” and pizzas “doces*”). Sometimes, we head further up into Santa Teresa for a visit to ‘cake lady’, who is, quite literally, a lady selling chocolate cake on the street. A bit bizarre, but we can’t complain! Later we all head to bed reasonably early, ready for another day of volunteering.

Wednesday in Rio

AM - Occasionally I am able to visit a different volunteer project for a day, and this Wednesday I joined two other volunteers at their sports programme in a nearby favela. Although I spent the morning sat at the side of the sports court watching the football, chatting to some parents in Portuguese and handing out water to the kids, (who have some pretty crazy football tricks!) I spent the afternoon checking out the pretty cool things this favela has to offer. In the majority of favelas I’ve visited, it seems the inhabitants take the most simple things from their surroundings and make more of them, in the most inventive ways.

We ate lunch at a ‘por kilo’ restaurant, where you literally pay for the weight of the food on your plate from the buffet. The food is simple but good; salad, rice and meats, and the friend I was with tends to pile his plate high with massive amounts of meat on a daily basis...and then gets charged a ridiculous amount for his meal. I suppose playing football all day with enthusiastic Brazilian children of all ages in the Brazilian summer heat must require you to stock up on your protein and carbs at lunchtime.

Next, we saw that the favela had a little market going on, which included a fruit truck literally consisting of an old broken down bus filled with amazing looking fruit. I bought myself the biggest apple I’d ever seen, noticing that the till was placed in the exact spot where the driver of this old bus would have been. When people think of favelas they probably picture the dirty, miserable and poverty stricken shanty towns of which you see so many photographs. This can indeed be the case but more often than not, there is so much more to a favela community than what meets the eye or what is shown by the media; whether that’s a surprisingly amazing food scene, vibrant markets or crazy favela parties, you can’t underestimate the charmingly authentic sense of community and the somewhat exciting way of life that lie beneath the surface of an area like this.

PM - Wednesday evening is usually match night in Rio at Maracanã; what is to be the World Cup 2014 and Olympics 2016 football stadium. I am able to go quite frequently as the tickets aren’t too expensive. For example, this Wednesday I ventured over there on the metro with the majority of my male housemates to see Botafogo vs. Flamengo and we sat in the Botafogo section. The atmosphere was absolutely insane! They may as well not have seats in the stadium as nobody seems to sit down throughout the entire game. Instead, people stand on their seats or congregate in the aisles and chant, many of them holding giant flags and throwing confetti everywhere. Botafogo were losing 3:0 by the start of the second half but the fans never lost their enthusiasm and energy. We left a few minutes before the end as we predicted some trouble after the match. It seemed the majority of Botafogo fans also had this idea and all slowly began to pour out of the stadium when Flamengo were given a penalty and the score rose to 4:0... I remember seeing one girl in tears in the foetal position by the time her team were losing so badly. As much as I enjoy the atmosphere and the game, I could never see myself getting quite so emotional about guys kicking a ball on a pitch… I definitely think I’ll be returning for more matches of the sport for which Brazil is undeniably iconic.


Thursday in Rio

AM - Thursday is back to project for me, the last day of the week for volunteering, usually with more activities with the kids. For example, this week I asked Bizuca whether Halloween is celebrated here. She told me that it isn’t, and so I asked if I could introduce the holiday to them. She seemed pretty excited about this and I spent the evening wandering around the centre of town until I found a touristy shop selling Halloween things. After stocking up on skeleton, pumpkin, ghost, witch and spider-themed decorations and other items, I managed to find a real pumpkin at the supermarket in Lapa and carved it that evening.
So, this Thursday was spent having a Halloween party at project with kids who were now doubly excited because they’d been provided with a large amount of sugary Halloween sweets... I managed to tell them a little bit about Halloween in England/America and they seemed really into it! Afterwards I went home, exhausted from all the hardcore partying.

PM - Thursday nights are my personal favourite. All the volunteers, along with the coordinators and our house manager, Rafael, head over to Bar Gomez in Santa Teresa for the weekly get-together. There, we update the coordinators about our projects and generally have some drinks, a laugh and a bit of fun after a week of project. I’ve had some of my best year abroad memories so far at this very event!

Friday in Rio

AM - Friday is a day off for volunteers and it can be spent relaxing in our large volunteer house, enjoying the sights of Rio, or embarking on a weekend trip away.

4 must-see weekend trip destinations from Rio!

1. Ilha Grande - a beautiful tropical island with amazing beaches, hiking spots, waterfalls, and no cars! Situated around a 3 hour bus journey south of Rio, (and an hour’s ferry ride too!)

2. Paraty - a popular beach town with cobbled streets, boat trips and beach parties (make sure to stay in the beach hostel!)

3. Buzios - an attractive city north of Rio, recognised for its lively nightlife and expensive shopping scene. Known as the holiday destination for Rio’s ‘elite’.

4. Salvador - “Brazil’s capital of happiness” is situated in North-eastern Brazil. You can reach Salvador, a centre for Afro-Brazilian culture, by a short flight or an extremely long bus journey from Rio. Either way, it’s worth it and has probably been my favourite (long) weekend trip. The city is full of multicoloured buildings, African cuisine (Salvador has the largest black population outside of Africa), outdoor parties and constant (constant!!) drumming.

Fun fact; For any fans, Michael Jackson filmed the music video for ‘They don’t care about us’ in the old town of Pelourinho in Salvador, and you can stand in the very place he sang and have your picture taken with a life-size MJ cardboard cut-out! Casual..

A few further afield destinations include Iguazu Falls (from the Brazilian/Argentinean side), and a trip to the Amazon, both of which I am dying to do.

So, a typical Friday spent in Rio de Janeiro can include many things. There are undoubtedly many touristy (but essential) sights to see; such as the world-renowned Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado Mountain, a trip up Sugarloaf Mountain for incredible views of Rio de Janeiro, or a walk down to the vibrantly colourful mosaic Selaron Steps in Lapa. Living in Santa Teresa provides endless photo opportunities for us; just going for a walk, you lose count of the brightly coloured wall murals and generally arty things you come across.

PM - When people learn that I live near Newcastle at home in England, they respond with a comment about its crazy nightlife, and I’ve found that living near Lapa, a nearby party neighbourhood, in Rio de Janeiro generates a similar reaction. The night begins down by the Lapa arches at the street stalls, where you can buy anything from a beer, an Acai*, a Caipirinha* to some fried cheese on a stick or a portion of Yakisoba noodles. When we’re done wandering the stalls and socialising with locals in the street (bit of Portuguese practise never goes amiss!), we head to one of many clubs nearby where the Cariocan* antics continue.

On a more serious note, it’s important that nobody walks home alone at the end of the night. Although our area, Santa Teresa, is a wealthy, attractive and quiet neighbourhood, unfortunately this only makes the inhabitants more susceptible to muggings and robberies, meaning that several of us have already been victims of such things while living here. Luckily we’re such a big group so leaving our valuables at home, hiding our money and sticking together as a group usually means we’ll be fine.

Saturday in Rio

AM - Aside from things to see, there are a multitude of things to try on a Saturday in Rio. There is a huge (and I mean huge) market in Lapa on the first Saturday of every month, which sells amazing food, clothing and jewellery. There are many activities to try by the beach, too, such as paddle boarding, climbing, cycling, and even a cable car ride you can take over a favela (the very favela where I work, in fact, but I’m yet to try that).

The following example is definitely an exception, as it is not a weekly activity for me, but it was however an amazing and unforgettable one; last Saturday I went hang gliding! To anyone who is not terrified of heights-you can’t leave Rio without doing this! It was very easy to organise and the instructors came to collect us from our house, and drove us right up the mountain to the hang gliding platform. I admit that the second I saw the sheer drop, off which we were to jump (and then eventually ‘glide’), I had second thoughts about the whole thing. So, the idea is you run along the seven metre platform, arm in arm with your instructor before making a leap of faith off the edge. Oh. My. God. After watching two of my friends go ahead with it, I realised I just wanted to do it and not sit shaking with fear anymore. After jumping, I realised only the first two seconds of hang gliding are actually scary, and you can then enjoy quite a relaxing, silent and tranquil flight over the greenery of the national park. You can then soar over the city, gaze down at the tiny blue squares of outdoor swimming pools on the roofs of countless posh hotels and apartment complexes, before floating down gently onto the beach.


PM - Saturday evenings can be spent out in Lapa too, although on several occasions we have all been invited to favela parties at the favela I visited on Wednesday. These parties are particularly exciting and atmospheric, albeit a bit alien at first. Walking in last saturday, the small community was full of people of all ages, sat inside and outside various bars and socialising. In the centre, a large sports court was filled with young kids running around and playing who looked to be having a great time. I have to admit, when we arrived, everyone – both our group and the people of the favela – were a bit apprehensive and there was initially quite a bit of staring as it’s not every day that a large group of white ‘gringos’ casually rock up at a favela and party with the residents. However, before long we were able to mingle easily with the community, who couldn’t have been friendlier (friendlier than most Brazilian people I’ve met!) and it was clear that everyone in the favela was brought together by the poor surroundings they lived in, but were also welcoming to outsiders.

Sunday in Rio

AM - Sundays belong to the beach (yep, you were probably waiting for a mention of the ‘praias’ here. Our personal favourite place to spend a beach day is Ipanema, which is around a 40 minute journey on the bus. Unfortunately this means tolerating yet another crazy bus journey, but it’s always worth it when we arrive, hire a parasol, lay down our towels and lie down to take in the views (and shake off the stress of the journey there). Not to make anyone too jealous, but yes, the beaches really are as picturesque as they seem.

Later, Sundays can be finished off nicely with a trip to the nearby Ipanema hippy market. This is probably the most colourful market I’ve ever been to, and I think it’s probably possible to do all your souvenir shopping there in one go.

PM - I usually spend Sunday evening Skyping my family or friends, for a taste of home after a long week of Rio activities!

So that’s a week in the life of a Cariocan volunteer like me! (I realise I’m not actually Cariocan, as I have yet to get a flicker of a tan, and probably need to work on my Cariocan Portuguese accent, too, but I’m getting there and don’t really ever want to leave Brazil!) I hope anyone who’ll be here in the future will love it as much as I do!


Reais - Brazilian currency
Feijao - Brazilian black bean dish
Pizzas salgadas - savoury pizza
Pizzas doces - sweet pizza, e.g. Banana and cinnamon flavour (weird, I know)
Açaí - a berry based fruit drink/snack
Caipirinha - extremely strong Brazilian cocktail
Cariocan - describing somebody/something from Rio de Janeiro
Gringo - a new word I’ve learned quickly here, due to being called it on a daily basis by the locals. Meaning white westerner/tourist

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