The past 10 weeks of my move to Brazil have been filled with making new friends, lazy days on the beach,
trying to speak Portuguese speaking Portunhol and just plain prancing around in my rose colored glasses.
Everyone warned me it’d be dangerous.
Students of mine have told me I wouldn’t be officially “welcomed” to the city unless I was mugged.
Within days of my arrival I began to hear the ugly stories.
Once a girl came to my Portuguese class with only the clothes on her back explaining she’d been pushed on the ground to have her bag taken right off her shoulder.
These stories of course did frighten me, but I chose not to live in fear. I reasoned with myself that if I held my head high and took extra precaution it would never happen to me.
In the last few weeks I’ve become comfortable. So comfortable I’d even take out my iPhone to answer a whatsapp every now and again.
I know the streets well around my neighborhood, Ipanema, one I’ve been told is of the most upscale neighborhoods in the city.
Of course I did always feel a lingering threat on my security. I mean who doesn’t in a city with a population of 6 million?
It wasn’t until last night that I actually cracked.
Let me lay the scene. It’s 8 PM on Sunday night and I’m walking down my treelined, residential street to catch a bus to the top of a favela where there was going to be a reggae concert that overlooks the ocean and ipanema beach.
I’m only about one minute away from my front door when a young Brazilian girl walking a chihuahua turns to me with huge eyes and says in Portuguese, “That guy just took my phone!” pointing towards the corner that was only about ten steps away.
I understood her, yet asked if she spoke English and immediately she launched into fluent American accented English explaining that she was simply returning home from walking her dog and a boy on a bike had just come up to her with a knife and so gently disclosed that she should give him her phone or either be stabbed in the throat.
Horrified I looked around trying to see if the boy was still there. A group of harmless looking people passed us there on the sidewalk and another came walking the other way. Everything was so calm and like any normal Sunday evening that it was hard to even believe her.
Finally after awkwardly trying to comfort this stranger she started to excuse herself to go home. Nervously I watched how other people were walking up and down the street as if everything was perfectly okay. “The boy must have left,” I thought. “That girl just got really unlucky.”
I knew if I just rounded the corner I’d be right on Farme de Amoedo, a popular street (famous for being the gay friendly street) loaded with bars and restaurants. Cautiously I began to walk towards my destination and I practically ran into another young Brazilian girl with wide eyes muttering something about being robbed. Mouth agape, I pointed down the street to the first girl and said she was as well.
The girl turned to me and said, “That’s my sister!”
My eyebrows still twisted up into a shocked face I watched as the girls regrouped and swapped stories. The same happened to both. Boy on a bike, slice your throat threat and a cell phone handed over.
At this point my heart began to race and I pondered running home and locking the door. After speaking with the girls for a bit they assured me he’d be gone by now. Another harmless looking pair of neighbors passed and I rode their heels until I assumed I had safely made it to the busy part of the street.
The irony is that I then boarded a bus to a favela! A shantytown where many of these criminals live. Somehow I was able to absorb the fear and nearly forgot about what had just happened. Excited to listen to reggae music and dance with my friends I didn’t give it another thought after briefly telling them the story as if it were somebody else’s gossip.
I drank and danced and had a pretty good time with my expat friends before deciding to call it a night and head home. The time was about 11:30 PM. Just as I was considering taxi or bus, a bus pulled up practically where I was standing. I knew the route well. I’d be in Ipanema in 15 minutes and let’s be real, I won’t have enough money to take a cab to my doorstep every single night of my life.
And so I took the bus which dropped me off
miles a couple blocks from my house. It was in this moment I realized how terrified I actually was. I shoved my iphone down my bra and began the five minute walk home in sheer fear that any moment someone was going to pull up beside me and threaten to cut me open.
I made it home without incident and the fear subsided as I changed into pajamas ready to forget all the fear and misery that just consumed me during that walk.
But then I received a message from a friend.
I started typing out what happened going over all the details from the two sisters to the walk home from the bus stop.
As stupid as this sounds, I went to send him a sad face emoticon and just then real tears began to roll down my cheeks and I was full on sobbing in just a second.
Of course he couldn’t see my actual tears or know just how bad of a state I was in, but my messages definitely left him worried.
I’d finally cracked.
After what totals to be about four years of living abroad I’d finally cried not over a foreign fling gone sour or having to leave a place I love. I cried because I was afraid to live where I was living. I cried because I felt unsafe steps away from my doorstep. I cried because I was scared.
Today is already a new day and I know that eventually I’ll have to go to work and walk the same street around the exact same time the girls were robbed yesterday.
I feel slightly ridiculous writing this because it wasn’t even me who was robbed. I’ve lived in many other cities where this exact same thing has happened to actual friends (not strangers), sometimes even with a gun in place of a knife. For some reason the fact that it was on MY street and seconds before I passed made it all the realer. I very much understand that this could’ve happened in Santiago, Paris or Madrid. Should I fear Rio more because it seems to happen more frequently? Fear it more because it happened at my doorstep?
Am I still scared? Yes. Maybe I’ll always have a bit of fear lingering. I’d like to think it helps me stay alert and cautious. Keep my bag close to my body and my eyes off the ground observing my surroundings. Do I think I can live like this forever? No 😦