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Meet The Locals: Deise Nishimura -The Woman Who Fought An Alligator

About two years ago I arrived for English class armed with a talk from As a warm up to the class I asked my student if she’d heard of this website, and I was surprised to hear that not only was she a fan, but that her friend had also given a TED talk. For those of you who don’t know much about the website, being a TED speaker is a big deal as the website offers a platform for a range of inspiring speakers to share their ideas. So naturally, I was curious to learn more about her friend!

This is how I got to hear about Deise’s story.

Deise is a biologist who had been working in the Amazon for nine months before she was attacked by an alligator. I won’t say any more about the incident because a full account of her remarkable story is given in the talk below (This video offers English subtitles):

Naturally, I was delighted when Deise agreed to be interviewed for What About São Paulo. I knew that she could offer us an alternative view on life here in this concrete jungle!.

Let me start by asking, what made you decide to go to the Amazon?

Well, when I was finishing my Master’s degree at Exeter University I knew that the economy wasn’t doing so great in the UK. I knew that finding a job in London in my area was going to be difficult, so when I heard about the internship program in the Amazon it really appealed to me. I have always loved dolphins and whales!

I had an interview for the position in Cambridge and was happy to hear that I’d been accepted onto the program.

What was it like to live in the Amazon?

Amazing! I absolutely loved being in such a remote place. I lived on the reserve of Mamirauá (about 600km from Manaus) where I shared a house with a Spanish girl and our boat driver. To get around by myself I actually learned how to use a boat. So I could use a boat before I could drive a car! At first I’d get lost out on the river when I should have turned left at a tree or something, but I quickly got used to my surroundings. It was a very humbling experience.

And what would you do on an evening?

We’d sing a lot, and if we knew that the next day would be sunny and that our solar panels would generate enough electricity, we’d watch a film on our laptop.


Let’s move onto the incident with the alligator. What a story!

I know, I must have told it over 1,000 times now. But I really don’t mind; especially when I’m at the hospital with other amputees. In my day to day life I find that people tend to be hesitant about asking me about my leg, but in the clinic we’re more comfortable with asking each other questions.

Most of the people I’m in there with have had amputations because of things like diabetes or cancer. I remember I once told someone that the reason I was in there was because I’d been attacked by an alligator. She laughed and said, “Yes, and I often tell people that I was in a shark attack too!”

Then I had to tell her that I REALLY had been attacked by an alligator!

What are the most common questions people ask you about what happened?

They ask if I was by myself, and I was.

They ask me if I passed out, and I didn’t.

They also ask me if I felt any pain at the time, and I didn’t. It took me almost 2 hours to get to the hospital and I think as soon as I got there, that’s when I allowed myself to relax. That’s when I felt the pain. I guess adrenaline played a big part in this.

And how did the TED X Amazonia talk come about?

Actually, I did an interview for Globo (one of the biggest TV networks in Brazil) before this, which led to a few calls from other TV shows. One of these shows offered to take me back to the Amazon, which at the time was my dream. I really wanted to go back so I accepted the invitation.

Then when I arrived at the studio I was asked if I would go on without my prosthetic leg, which I agreed to do. During the televised interview I was surprised when the presenter announced that a company had offered to give me a free prosthetic leg. Well, as soon as she said this everyone in the audience started chanting “she deserves it, she deserves it!”

I was SO embarrassed. I still haven’t watched this interview back and thank God it isn’t on youtube!

The show was recorded on a Wednesday and it was broadcast over the weekend. Before filming I told all my friends that they needed to watch; but after filming I told my friends NOT to watch it!

One of my friends called me after the show went out and said “I’ve just seen the show! You should have seen your face when everyone was chanting!” Looking back I really didn’t know how to respond to this interview, I must have had such a poker face. The thing is, the show wanted people to feel sorry for me but that’s not what I’m about at all. I don’t like to feed the feeling of feeling sorry for myself. I mean, the accident hasn’t changed the things I like doing, it hasn’t changed any of the dreams I had before.

Afterwards I declined the offer of going back to the Amazon with this TV show. I also turned down a lot of other shows too, but then I was invited to do the TED talk. I felt this would give me a great platform to say what I wanted to say about the incident and on my own terms.

How do you even prepare for a TED talk?

Well they gave me some direction, but I guess I already knew what I wanted to say.

And how was this experience?

I remember that there were about 500 people in the audience, but I couldn’t really see anyone because the lights in there were so bright!

Photo Credit: Phillihp Ray from the Worldwide Expats In Brazil Facebook group

An example of how uneven the streets in São Paulo can be.
Photo Credit: Phillihp Ray – Worldwide Expats In Brazil Facebook group

Let me ask you, how do you think your relationship with São Paulo has changed since the accident?

Well the streets can be very difficult for people with a mobility issue like me. You just need to look at the paths to realise what I’m up against! In São Paulo each property is responsible for the part of the street directly in front of their place, so you find that streets here aren’t always very accessible because of the way they have been designed.

I love the Vila Madalena neighbourhood but it would be quite difficult for me to get around there now.

But do you know what? São Paulo isn’t as bad as other cities in Brazil, and I have noticed that things are starting to get better. People here will always help you if you need assistance too.

Where would you recommend someone to stay if they have mobility issues?

Well Avenida Paulista and….erm, Avendia Paulista! I guess if you’re staying on this avenue the metro is very accessible, which makes getting around the city much easier. Also, getting into the metro station is easy because there are escalators and lifts. Having said this, I don’t use the metro much. I tend to use my car to get around.

Finally, what would you say to someone who is thinking of coming over to Brazil but isn’t considering visiting São Paulo?

Don’t come! (Deise then started laughing!). No seriously, do you want me to say something positive about the city?

No, give me your honest opinion!

Well, as someone who loves nature I have to say that I’m not a huge fan of São Paulo. Here people are always in a rush and it’s rare for people to say ‘hi’ to you when you’re in the lift going up to your office in the morning.

But as I mentioned, I do like the Vila Madalena neighbourhood. Actually, São Paulo has some great restaurants and one of my favourites is in this area, it’s a Moroccan restaurant called Tanger (Click here for the website). I’m also a fan of a Vietnamese restaurant in Moema called Miss Saigon (Click here for the website).

So even though I might not be a big fan of the city, it really does have some great restaurants!

Photo Credit for the main photo: Fabio Raphael

Meet Some More Locals by clicking on the names below!

meet1Bruno the street performer              Dilú the candy seller                Drag Queen Penelopy Jean

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