Anwar Boyce is the kind of guy who likes to jump right in. The type who loves excitement, and craves authenticity. He's always looking for what's next. When he needed a change in his life, he packed his things and— inspired by the film 'City of God'— moved to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, planting himself firmly within their rich culture. Having recently moved back to LA to spearhead a youth-empowerment project called Lyfii, we got a chance to speak with the creative entrepreneur about his experience living and working in Brazil.
ND: You moved to Brazil somewhat on a whim— not a ton of money saved and no real plan. What brought upon this decision and how did you go about making the move happen?
AB: I was basically at a crossroads in my life and I needed to get away and reevaluate my life and what I wanted out of it. For the longest I had an interest in moving to Rio [de Janeiro] to start a community center in the Favelas, and this moment in my life provided me with the perfect opportunity.
ND: hat's awesome. Did you get to open the center?
AB: Unfortunately, no; I was working with different non-profits— my plan was to do a hostel, community center [combination] where there would be some sort of cultural exchange. I just didn't have the funds and had bad luck— lost a lot of equipment. So I worked as a favela tour guide, at a cafe and giving video lessons in the favelas.
ND: Did you experience any culture shock when you first got there? Or were there any instances that challenged your ideas of Brazil?
AB: I was already well acquainted with Brazilian culture by the time I moved there, however you never ceased to be amazed by the difference. One, I was living in the Favelas so the culture there was distinctly different from that outside the Favelas. I found that things were extremely slow [compared to what I'd expected], partly due to the tropical climate. Oh, and I forgot the obvious! The guns & weekly dance were probably my biggest shocks. When I first moved to Rio I stayed in Rocinha, the largest slum in the Americas. It was run by drug dealers, and the internet cafe that I frequented always had around 10 drug dealers carrying AK-47's. That was a bit intimidating, but you get used to it. To add to it there was the weekly street party that blasted Favela Funk for all the neighbors to hear. It was crazy, but what surprised me was that it was more of a spectacle than a dance. Not many people would be dancing. There unwritten rule to be careful with dancing with girls because they could be the girlfriend of a drug dealer. The craziest part was that at 2 am there would be the Prohibited music, which was basically favela funk glorifying the local gang. [At that time] the dj would play the track and the drug dealers would dance in unison into the party throwing up their guns. That was crazy!
ND: Sort of like the fraternities, when they stroll—except they're strolling with guns [laughs]. That's pretty interesting, actually. But wait— you didn't feel unsafe at all?
AB: Though the favelas were laced with drug dealers and [had] a history of violence, I felt relatively safe. I left my doors unlocked, walked down the street with my macbook pro, and was embraced by the community. People knew me as the "gringo" and would go out of their way to welcome me to their homes and invite me out. I felt at home.
ND: It's interesting to me how casually you speak of the drug-dealing. Just wondering if you feel the same about the drug scene in America— or did you only feel safe in Brazil because you were in this sort of alternate, temporary reality?
AB: Well, drug-dealers were a common factor in every day life so you can't help but treat it casually. Here [in the US], drug-dealers aren't remotely part of my day-to-day lifestyle, so I never think about it, really. [There] drug-dealers were my neighbors. I witnessed them playing with their kids, buying their groceries and basically performing everyday rituals like the rest of the people in the community, so it became kind of normative. I knew one of the higher-ups and he went out of his way to help me find a place and make sure I was transitioning fine, so it was definitely a different world. I think, in part, I felt safe because of this, and because I didn't witness any of the dark side of drug dealing. Also, the drug dealers were really strict in enforcing the laws that you don't rob, steal, or kill in the favela, so it really was safe, safer than in other parts of the city.
ND: That's really interesting— that the drug dealers operated from a kind of moral code, and from what you've said, seem to revere and respect their neighborhood.
AB: eah, the drug dealers act as community leaders in some case. If you have issues you go to the drug dealers to handle it— it's kinda weird.
ND: For those who may not know, would you mind explaining what a favela is?
AB: [The Favelas are] communities that were unlawfully created by migrating poor, we would classify them as slums. But in many cases, a lot of the houses were of good quality and the community members were not all poor.
ND: Thanks. So tell us more about where you were living.
AB: The Favela I stayed in was called Vidigal. It's situated between the two richest neighborhoods [in Rio] so it was sort of the elite among the favelas, with the most amazing breathtaking views ever! Every Favela is bursting with energy and music on a regular basis, whether it is the weekly Funk Baile, or many community events that are held. But Vidigal was known for its arts and they would have weekly talent shows and have well-done theatrical performances at the NGO Nos Do Morro. It was a common place to see the actors from [the film] "City of God" walking around because majority of them were part of Nos Do Morro. Overall [it was] an amazing life-enriching experience.
ND: You mentioned having drug dealers for neighbors, but what about your other neighbors? What were your relationships like with them?
AB: My neighbors were overwhelmingly hospitable. They took me in as their adopted son. There were many older women who fought for the opportunity to do my laundry— I wasn't mad at that [laughs]. The local population embraced me as their own, which I loved.
ND: What kind of an impact did the people you met have on your experience?
People make the experience. People are the architects of culture and to experience culture, I feel you must first attach yourself with the locals. It's definitely difficult at times because cultures conflict and sometimes you feel like what you value is not being respected, but at the same time its an amazing experience. I think it was good to be able maneuver through different social classes and see the different perspectives and how they celebrate and live life.
ND: I like what you said about attaching oneself to the locals. ow did you go about doing that?
AB: Being present, I would say, is key. For me, it was accepting the invites for dinner or to going out to local clubs and functions. My neighbors were probably the closest to me, in part, because they operated as my landlord as well. I would cook American meals and introduce them to the internet and show them my family and friends on Facebook and we would converse about the cultural differences between the two cultures.
ND: Why do you think Brazil is such a hot destination right now?
AB: Honestly, I feel like the movie "City of God" [made Brazil a hot topic] and sadly, the Snoop Dogg/Lion video "Beautiful" put Brazil on the radar for many. The country is amazingly beautiful, with a rich history in music and art. There's so much to it, and it is very diverse and Brazilians love to party— who can knock that?
ND: When you brought up the [Beautiful] video, you said "sadly." Why? Do you think it was cheapening or wasn't true to Brazilian culture & experience?
AB: For the most part, the Snoop Dogg video was promoting the beautiful women. That's what sold most of the guys I've talked to when it comes to Brazil. I think Brazil has always had a representation of having beautiful people so the "Beautiful" video was just a further extension of that idea. [I think the video] was amazing because it showed the beautiful landscapes, and sort of gave a feel of what Rio is like, but at the same time I think it's important for Brazil to break away from the image of just being Beautiful. I think the sex tourism that I saw on a regular basis is in direct correlation to that. To answer your question, I think it definitely represented Rio landscape wise, but honestly it promotes the same stereotypes of "big booty" Brazilians that help reduce Brazilians to sex objects.
ND: What surprises do you think would be in store for people who choose to visit?
AB: The first surprise many people will be shocked by is the prices. Brazil is on the "come up" and so are the prices! Honestly, the food is not that great, but the juices are amazing! There are so many different types of juices that I'd never even heard of. I think people should just try to truly immerse themselves in the culture and not stick to the touristy areas. Hook up with people on Couchsurfing or some other website that can connect you with locals. Everyone I know who leaves Brazil, leaves wanting more.
ND: "Wanting more" is the perfect segue into my next question [laughs]. You're back in America now, but you've expressed wanting to move back [to Brazil]. Do you think there was some level of reverse culture shock in this desire? Or was it simply a genuine sense of This is where I belong?
AB: I definitely miss and long to be in Brazil. The first few months was a bit hard to get adjusted because I had this incredibly amazing experience, and then it was time to get back to real life— look for work and plan my future. I missed the beauty of it all and the crazy experiences, so it was tough to get acclimated to a "normal" life. I don't see myself moving [back] to Brazil anytime soon, because I feel with what I want to do in life, it would be better for me to begin situating myself in the states, especially where I already have connections and know how the system works. It is, however, a dream to live the Brazilian life in paradise.
ND You, like a lot of other present-day drifters, have a desire to inspire the younger generation to travel and be globally cognizant. Why is this important to you?
AB: I wish I had travelled at a much younger age because I think it presents you with so much. It'e eye-opening, and makes you truly appreciate diversity and empathize, which are all qualities that are important in your home country. I think oftentimes we can get caught up trying to catch up in life; travel affords you the opportunity to forget all that, to just experience and embrace life.
ND: What's your travel philosophy?
AB: Jump in and get wet. Don't rush and try to see as many places as possible; take time to soak in each destination. Don't judge, but try to understand. Make friends.
Anwar Boyce is the founder of Lyfii, an LA-based project that mentors urban youth, exposing them to and preparing them for a variety of creative careers.