It’s true what they say. After six months in a foreign country, you begin to feel “at home.” Now, after ten months, Sao Paulo and Brazil feel much more comfortable to us: we’re learning the language, the customs, the idiosyncrasies, and the roads. We are enchanted by Brazil, what we’ve seen of it, and truly enjoy the people. We’re having the time of our lives.
But, despite our efforts to feel more at home here, the truth is that we are still foreigners and, as such, must remain consciously alert to the constant myriad dangers of life here in Sao Paulo. Here, carjacking, kidnapping, street theft, and motoboy-theft are daily occurrences. Of course, drug addiction is likely one of the major motivators.
Just a few days ago, a businessman visiting Sao Paulo was driving at night on a major boulevard two miles from us when he was accosted at a stop light by two young men on foot. Frightened, he tried to drive away and was shot by one of the attackers, killing him and causing his car to cross the median into the oncoming lanes, stopping only when it hit a streetlight.
It can happen that quickly. I know that in another post, I commented on our “James Bond” driving at night, but it’s no joke. Here in the city, you don’t stop at red traffic lights any longer than you must to establish that the coast is clear. Once clear, you take off. And if another car edges too close or motorcycles box you in, you take off immediately. These are instructions given to us by the locals, who often say that we’re just not aware enough of the dangers here.
Jett, an older friend of ours and a native Anglo-Brazilian, now drives an SUV. It’s harder to park than her little Honda sedan was, but it sits her higher on the road, making it more difficult for someone to level a pistol at her from foot or motorcycle. The majority of cars parked in our condo garage are SUVs, some quite large. Safety in size, I guess.
One vital response I must remember is that when our car gets bumped in traffic (as it will someday in a city of 8 million vehicles), I’m not to stop (the police won’t respond unless there is an injury, anyway), but wave to the other driver, indicating that he or she is to follow me to the nearest police station or other public site. If I get out to check my car in traffic, chances are high that my car will be stolen, as a cohort of the offending driver lies in wait for me to leave the car and then hops in and highjacks it. Or, when I go to open my door, they hop in the car and kidnap me, as happened to a young coworker of a friend of ours right outside her office. The kidnappers made her drive to an ATM and withdraw money, only letting her go when there was no more cash to be had.
Restaurant robberies are rife here, as well, as are robberies that occur right outside of banks. You go in to use the ATM, and you’re seen withdrawing money. As you leave, a man calls a partner outside on his cell phone, describing you, and you are accosted a few moments later. It doesn’t matter how careful you are to watch your surroundings; you’ll never know who is lying in wait for you.
Nice as Brazilians are as a people, there are plenty here who want what you have. We rarely leave home with anything that we aren’t willing to lose. We carry expired CA drivers licenses, a debit card with limited amounts of money in the account, and only a little cash. (When I carry my iPhone, for the GPS, I tuck it into my personal bank…as my friend calls it, Titty City National Bank…hoping that it might be overlooked in a robbery.)
A visiting priest (an American who has lived in Brazil for 30 years) mocked some American bishops at Mass recently for telling families in their dioceses not to send their children to World Youth Day in Rio in August. But I’m not sure they should be mocked. Tom and I both wonder about the safety of 500,000 or more foreign youth descending on Rio, and we’re not sure we would have sent our own children to this event. Mock all you want, but I think the bishops were right in warning the families. Adults are at risk in Rio, but certainly teens, still developing that part of the brain that makes wise decisions, are even more so.
These are a few of the stories I’ve heard. We read the newspaper and see more every day. Crime is a fact of life here in Brazil, as it is in any major city anywhere in the world. We understand that. But statistics also indicate that the vast majority of murders here go unsolved, and the police simply can’t protect and serve as they wish, especially with traffic as horrendous as it is. As a result, crime is rampant. This is a fact. A fact stressed by our Brazilian friends.
The moment we forget will be the moment we become victim.