In my last blog post, I wrote a letter to my just-arrived-in Brazil-self in which I advised a 26-year-old me not to worry too much about being robbed:
Trust me when I say this…you will find São Paulo is not nearly as dangerous for you as you expect it to be.
Famous last words!
Unbeknown to me at the time of posting, I was just a few days away from experiencing the first real threat to my personal safety here in the city….and here’s what happened:
Two Thursday’s ago there was a free party taking place in the centre of the city. My Friday morning schedule was clear so I was looking forward to relaxing with some good music, friends and a beer or two.
OK, I’m lying…I was planning on drinking more than two beers!
I met up with my friends Lucas and João and we took the steps down from the Theatro Municipal to where the party was taking place. We were then approached by two guys asking for money. This happens pretty often here in São Paulo. However this time, when we told them that we didn’t have anything to give them, we were surprised to hear one of them say that we couldn’t pass. Then the smaller of the two guys lunged towards me and tried to put his hand inside my pocket.
I instinctively grabbed his hand and moved it away (stepping back as I did so) thinking ‘the cheeky bastard’. I mean, these guys were pretty small and scruffy looking. They didn’t look very threatening at all.
Then a gun was pulled out.
“Give us your things.”
I am pretty sure that if I was back home reading this right now, the first thing I’d be thinking would be “A gun, Jesus! I’d be throwing my things at him!”
Well bizarrely this wasn’t what was running through my mind at all at this point. What I was thinking was “the little bastards, well, they‘re not getting my phone.”
I’m genuinely baffled that this was my attitude to being threatened with a gun for the first time. Of all the times for me to be thinking like Rambo, this shouldn’t have been one of them! It has taken me some time to work out why I felt like this. This might sound pretty stupid, but the truth is I was expecting more from these guys. I was expecting some strong, intimidating Bond-villain type characters to be the first ones to rob me. Not two small guys with baby faces, baseball caps and scruffy tee-shirts. I have no idea why I thought this, but I did.
They looked like guys who should really have been asking their mothers for the money to buy phones, not threatening us for ours.
So I was stood behind my friends and we began emptying out our pockets. That’s when I thought I’d be able to get away with sliding my phone from my pocket into the back of my underpants. Unfortunately, as I attempted to do this, the guy with the gun saw me and his face instantly morphed into an expression of pure rage.
“Do you want to die?” he screamed at me whilst clutching his gun, “Do you want to die?”
This was one hell of a moment of clarity for me, and I repeated the word “calma” in a soft voice. A voice that I didn’t recognise as my own. A silence followed as I looked from his gun to his face, then back to the gun again, wondering how the next few seconds would play out. I swear to God I have never felt more vulnerable in my life.
“The German has his phone in his ass” he eventually snarled at his friend, “get it out!”
At that his friend walked over to me and I put my hands up in the air to show them I wasn’t about to put up a fight. Then I stood there whilst some kid put his hand inside my underwear to get it out. Like, seriously! You’d have to be pretty desperate for a phone to even consider pulling one out from the back of my underpants.
The guy with the gun then said something I didn’t quite catch, but as he was repeating the word “German” I guessed that whatever he was saying was directed at me (For more on that, here is a post on why I’m considered German here). Moments later he turned his attention back to my friends. By now, Lucas had his backpack open to show the guys he didn’t have anything worth taking and he also handed them his phone.
Then just like that the guys were walking away. And just like that, my friends and I were heading those 20 meters towards the safety of the crowd of people, about to try and piece together what had just happened.
Unbeknown to me at the time, when both of the thieves had their eyes on me, Lucas was able to swing his backpack over to the front of his body, take out his iphone from his pocket and discretely slide it into his underpants. He had an old work phone in his backpack that he was able to offer instead. João wasn’t quite so lucky though, and his iphone was taken.
The reality of what happened has been unfolding inside of me since that night, and I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t been shaken up by it. I’d obviously never had a gun pointed at me whilst being asked if I wanted to die before, and it wasn’t until I thought about it afterwards that I realised how frightening this was. The guy was probably bullshitting, but what if he wasn’t? What if he’d pulled the trigger? What if he’d been on a bad crack trip and out of his mind? And what if we’d simply pushed past them and walked directly to the party, would they have stopped us? What if…? I have replayed this incident about a million times in my mind.
To make matters worse, two days after the incident I was talking to Lucas. “You know what he said when he realised you had your phone in your pants?” he asked me. “He said ‘the German is resisting, maybe we need to shoot his friend here to show him we are being serious!’ Then he nodded over at me.”
And that is when it hit me just how foolish I’d been. No, foolish isn’t the right word, how idiotic. I really don’t think I would have been able to live with myself if they’d shot my friend for my phone…especially when my phone really wasn’t worth a whole lot in the first place.
Why I’m Writing This Post
So here’s the thing; right now I’m feeling a little conflicted about posting this. You see, there have been so many Brazilians here who have relayed truly awful stories to me of situations they’ve experienced when being robbed. In comparison, I got off lightly.
So the reason I am writing this is not to privilege myself and pretend this is something incredibly shocking to happen to me here. What happened to me wasn’t, it could have been MUCH worse. I guess I was lucky. But it is for this exact reason I want to share it, because if I were to be in the unfortunate situation of being robbed again, I’d definitely try to react differently….and hopefully someone out there might benefit from reading what I learnt.
- Just because the thieves don’t look threatening, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take them seriously. This might seem like a fairly obvious thing to say, but I hadn’t thought about it up until the moment of being robbed. I underestimated how my ego would tell me to resist giving my things to these young guys and to try to outsmart the one with a gun. My advice would be don’t, just give your things over.
- I believe the reason I was able to walk straight from the spot we were robbed to a guy selling beer at the party (I have never needed a beer as much as I did at this moment!), was because I wasn’t carrying a wallet. I had just been paid from a student and actually had 150 reais in my back pocket. The thieves walked away with my phone and the 20 reais I offered them from my front pocket because they didn’t see any visible sign of anything else. So my advice to you would be this, if you don’t need to carry a wallet ask yourself if you really want to take it out with you.
- These guys were actually suspicious that my friend Lucas had such an old phone…so I’m sure they wouldn’t buy the idea he didn’t have a phone at all. Everyone in São Paulo has a phone nowadays, and this was the main thing they were demanding. Obviously I’m not suggesting these guys are a reflection of what all thieves want, some may just want cash. So make sure you have some money and a phone with you at all times, and spread your cash around you so that you’re less likely to lose everything all at once.
- Stay calm. The guy with the gun was really pumped up. Had we matched his aggression I can’t even begin to imagine how this scene would have played out for us. However we were relaxed about being robbed and (largely!) cooperative.
- And my biggest piece of advice to someone coming over here is this; Brazil is a country full of surprises. There is a chance that not all of them are going to be pleasant, so be prepared. At the same time though, don’t let this threat consume you. Brazil is an amazing country, just be ready to expect the unexpected.
To read more on crime in São Paulo, check out these two blogs I wrote some time ago. The first gives tips on how to avoid being robbed in the city and the second deals with the reality of life here beyond beyond the headlines.