Thu, Jul 28, 2011 - Page 18 News List

FEATURE: Following in the footsteps of ‘Wacko Jacko’

AFP, RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL

He may sadly no longer be around to provide a musical backdrop to Saturday’s World Cup draw in Rio de Janeiro, but late “king of pop” Michael Jackson is proving a crowd-puller as tourists flock to see the favela, or shanty town, in the Dona Marta district where he recorded a video 15 years ago.

Since “Wacko Jacko” gyrated around the area, minders on hand just in case, the area has been “pacified” as part of efforts by the Brazilian authorities to stem violence in time for the 2014 World Cup.

“Rio Top Tour” is a project, created by residents themselves, which has brought visitors flocking to Dona Marta with aid from the authorities, who hope that spin-offs from tourism both before and during the World Cup — and also the Olympics in 2016 — will prove a boon.

“I came to see the area Michael Jackson picked out for his video, but I discovered much more. I saw how people live here and how friendly the people are and I am very surprised. I really didn’t know it was a favela,” Belgian tourist Denis Francois said.

Francois was able, by taking the monorail high up to the top of the town, to look over Dona Marta, a maze of narrow and winding streets, and see where Jackson famously recorded his track They Don’t Care About Us.

With the World Cup looming, authorities are keen to show that they do care.

In the same square, Spanish student Senen Hermidia couldn’t resist the urge to strike Jacksonesque poses beside a statue and a mosaic of the former “king of pop.”

“I loved his stuff from when I was very young. I’ve never before been close to anything to do with Michael Jackson or in a place where he was,” Hermidia said.

The Brazilian ministry of tourism is supporting the “Rio Top Tour,” which was created in August last year and employs residents to act as guides, who can pass on their first-hand knowledge of the area and its attractions.

A tour costs about US$15.

Salete Martins, a food vendor in the favela, is able to supplement his usual earnings by working as one of the guides.

“Tourists tell me what they’re interested in and I work out a route. I like serving the visitors as it’s good for business and also for the community,” Martins said. “The more people come and go home with good things about us to say, the better.”

Rio authorities began a “pacification” of favela areas with an eye to “cleaning up” the metropolis for the World Cup and the Olympic Games and increasing the police presence in poor areas, many of which have been in thrall to drug traffickers.

Santa Marta was one of the first favela to benefit from the program in receiving special police units for the purpose.

Twenty other communities had already benefited from a similar beefing up of community police.

Even so, some intrepid tourists did come to Santa Marta before “Rio Top Tour” began to increase visitor numbers, with specialist agencies assigning them guides who were not from the community.

What “Rio Top Tour” has managed to do is draw the locals into the process and many are now benefiting, including Miranda, owner of a little bar that can be seen fleetingly in the Jackson video.

Miranda asked for a loan to expand and diversify into selling shirts imprinted with logos of the favela.

Francois, impressed with what he has seen, duly buys his “been there, got the T-shirt” souvenir.

While Miranda sells her shirts, another local, Leonardo Luis, has set up a stall selling traditional caipirinha drinks just opposite the Jackson statue.

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