Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Lucy Titterington

Following in the footsteps of Edward Norton as the fugitive Incredible Hulk on the run within a Brazilian favela, I visited the infamous ganglands of Rio de Janeiro.
While it’s hard to imagine Hollywood actors risking their lives to film in drug dens and crime-ridden slums, when I was in South America I heard about a favela where plebs and celebs really do live in harmony.
Arriving in Rio, I instinctively tightened my grasp on everything I was carrying, but no one was interested in the grubby wares of another sweaty backpacker. Even the taxi driver gave me a Portuguese style ‘Shoo!’ when I gave him Bob’s address.
‘No go favela!’ he said flatly as he dumped me back onto the pavement.
After I finally found a driver to literally and metaphorically take me for a ride, I was deposited in the midst of the Tavares Bastos favela like a big white fish out of English waters.
While I flapped around for air in the scorching sun, it was only a matter of seconds before one of the staring locals took pity.
‘Casa du Bobby?’ she asked knowingly.
There was no need to reply with the Portuguese I didn’t know.
Bob is God in Tavares Bastos and Edward Norton’s claims that they couldn’t have done their filming there without him couldn’t be closer to the truth.
London-born Bob Nadkarni came to Brazil in the 70’s as a BBC journalist, cameraman and documentary maker.
In the 80’s, Bob began to build the only brick house at the top of Tavares Bastos. At this time, the sprawling hillside shantytown, which developed on the land of an abandoned farm, had 500 inhabitants and one resident marijuana dealer.
By the mid-80’s, the dealer was dead. An established drug gang from the neighbouring favela Santo Amaro got rid of him to take control. But the Tavares Bastos boys didn’t take any ***. They defended their territory by burying the invaders alive in order to establish a homegrown and armed drug gang.
For years after, Santo Amaro continued to seek revenge and it was only a matter of time before they got it. Witnessing the destruction of his much-loved community, Bob utilised the power of the BBC and began to pressurise the Brazilian government to take action. He devised a masterplan to put the headquarters of the hardcore Special Operations Battalion of the Rio Military Police (the BOPE), slap bang in the middle of Tavares Bastos.
But this was never going to happen overnight.
By the early 90’s, things had got seriously out of control. The teenagers of Santo Amaro were ruling Tavares Bastos with machine guns, and corrupt police officers made weekly visits every Thursday afternoon to collect their cut of the profits.
Bob meant business. ‘I stuck a radio mic on a drug trafficker and filmed this for the BBC’, he told me.
In return, the bent cops broke into his studio to steal his money and broadcasting equipment. Bob had become a true member of Tavares Bastos and he wasn’t going to take any *** either.
‘I went after them and put two in prison, chalking up five bent cops I’ve put behind bars since I’ve been here,’ he boasts.
Next, Bob got to work on the gang of corrupt cops holed up in an abandoned building next to his house which he’d eyed-up for the BOPE HQ. After he presented enough evidence to get them run out of the building, he painted the interior and installed 100 lights to force any dodgy dealings back into hiding. The situation improved, but violent drug shoot-outs continued and the body-count rose even higher.
Bob’s big chance finally came in 2000, when Anthony Garotinho was elected the new State Governor of Rio. Attending his inaugural press conference, Bob publicly proposed the HQ idea to Garotinho in front of journalists from all over the world.
By the end of the year, the HQ was established.
The drug gang fled, leaving a number of farewell death threats for Bob, who confidently sent a reply informing them they would die before him. And they did.
The government put a gun amnesty in place and it was Bob who went from door to door throughout his favela to collect the weapons.
Tavares Bastos is now the only gun and drug-free community in the whole of Brazil. Houses in the favela have tripled in value and Bob’s home, which is now open to the public as a B&B, has become a great source of intrigue.
The middle and upper classes are venturing into uncharted territory by stepping below the breadline to indulge in a spot of ‘poorism’ and experience the real Brazil.
White VW campervans transport locals and Bob’s guests up and down the steep climes of Tavares Bastos. And at the top, in prime position, is Bob’s Maze Inn. His rustic Gaudi-styled pousada is endearingly basic and far from luxurious, but the glassless windows frame a view that can’t be found anywhere else in Rio.
Since Bob cunningly placed adverts in the location sections of film and broadcast magazines, he’s also become a regular host to international production crews. From music videos to blockbuster feature films, the rich and famous are beckoned from LA and beyond to the safe-guarded ‘Bobbywood’ and he ensures that his community are employed in front of and behind the camera. Any money received for the productions goes to the favela’s Dwellers’ Association, which helped to fund the building of BOPE HQ.
But let’s not forget that while Bob is King of his castle, sipping tea with the BOPE Commander, life remains terrifyingly turbulent in the other Rio favelas.
The BOPE are trained in Tavares Bastos for urban warfare in confined and restricted environments. Putting their bad-ass policing into practice in the favelas where crime still prevails, they make the Hulk look like the Jolly Green Giant.
As I slurped one of Bob’s mind-blowing caipirinha’s, in the same scenic spot where Snoop Dogg had his afro fondled in his ‘Beautiful’ music video, I was distracted from the breathtaking landscape of Rio by the sound of the BOPE in training, the sight of a peaceful favela, and the thought of how I wish the $130 million hulking great budget had been spent on telling the story of this amazing location resurrected from true terror.