Our man [formally] of Amsterdam

Rio postscript – a streetcar named desire
January 26, 2010, 22:46
Filed under: Brazil, Rio de Janeiro

He looked like your regular beggar, sitting cross-legged on the pavement, maimed or crippled, I thought, as he held out his hand pleading for charity or change. This right on Copacabana’s Ave Atlantica –¬†probably the busiest thoroughfare in Rio – albeit on the quieter side of the street, just off the car parking stretch and in between major hotels, where the street lighting was slightly dim, and only occasional pedestrians would wander, most likely en route to their accommodations, as I was. Six lanes of teeming traffic and a generous median strip separated us from the promenade along the actual beach, with its tatty kiosks, piles of coconuts, bright lights and constant stream of sunburnt humanity in various stages of undress. It had cooled down to a 30 degrees and was very sultry.

Others just in front of me walked right by the beggar, as I was about to, when he ‘miraculously’ got to his feet and grabbed me by the upper arm in a grip that was not normal or acceptable.¬†Caught completely unawares, I instinctively tried to brush his hand away, protesting in English as he muttered something in Portuguese, but he would not let go, and as I tried to back away with his vice grip still attached, he growled; “Give me money,” then produced a reasonably sized knife from the sleeve of his other hand and pointed it at my stomach.

You don’t rehearse or imagine how you might react in these situations, though in a town like Rio, with all its warnings about muggings etc, the prospect is never far from your mind. The reality, mostly, is that these young men born into abject poverty and with very little prospects out of the favela slum, don’t want to cause grievous bodily harm; they just want your cash, and quickly.

I said no. Don’t ask my why. I just said no. It wasn’t a dare or a rehearsed response; it’s just what came out. And with each subsequent refusal of mine his limited English became more aggressive: “See knife,” he said, angling it closer: “Give me money.”

“No money”. And I kept backing away towards the corner where others might be walking, ‘for reasons of security’, and still his grip remained. He was of similar build but probably slightly shorter, very dark skinned with a scar on his cheek, like Omar’s in The Wire. He was bare foot, his head closely shorn, his clothes were soiled and torn, and he was deceptively strong.

The blade looked more like a large steak knife, with a serrated edge. In the darkness it even looked rusty (the things you notice?), and he held it, not pointed out front any more, but ‘upside down’ with the blade running along the underside of his wrist, and so concealing it to some degree from others.

“I have no money,” I repeated, which he seemed to understand because he repeated it too. Truth is I had about $40 cash buried deep in a pocket, which takes 2 hands and a fair bit of fiddling to retrieve at the best of times, let alone when a knife is being pointed at you. And given he had a tight hold on one arm, there was no way I could access the cash anyway. Not that I weighed this up at the time.

He looked away suddenly (at something or someone approaching, I don’t know?), but a flicker of recognition or resignation flashed across his face, and he let go of my arm, hurried to a fence a few metres away, picked up a small plastic sac, and disappeared into the night. The whole episode probably lasted less than 10 seconds.

Shaken, but not stirred, I headed in the opposite direction of my assailant in search of police. No sign of any. Went back to the hotel, but waited for a family to head in the same direction and ‘lurked’ close behind. And for the remaining 36 hours in Rio, I was looking at every man approaching me and seeing if something was hidden in his hand or on his face, and I turned my back constantly, on the lookout for anyone intent on sinister deeds. It was not the ideal way to end my stay.

I even chickened out of my last planned adventure; a desire to ride the only remaining streetcar across the colonial aqueduct through the crumbling, bohemian grandeur of Santa Terasa all the way up winding Rua Joaquim Murtinho to lunch at Largo Dos Guimaraes. (This the area British train robber, Ronnie Biggs, hung out for all those years.) Guidebooks say avoid Santa Teresa on weekends and particularly if alone, but if you do go, stick with a group but be wary of pairs of youths on mopeds. This was Sunday and I was solo. Not the best timing. It’s a poor area, which ironically is probably safer at night when the streets come alive with the sounds and beats of samba.

Now the chances of being accosted are fairly slim at the best of times, given the millions who visit this city. So the odds of being mugged twice in 2 days was unimaginable, right? I came back from a ferry trip across the bay to Niteroi early Sunday morning (my last day), which deposits you in a ‘not very safe’ area anyway. The transport from here was always going to be a taxi with a working meter and an older driver; the ‘brave’ destination was go to the streetcar station at Bonde or take the coward’s option and head back to Copacabana. I opted for the former and asked the driver to slow down as we approached the Bonde station. I wanted to suss out the neighbourhood, to see if there were commuters or tourists providing security in numbers, but people were generally thin on the ground, except for several pairs of youths on mopeds, so I said to the driver: “Copacabana, por favor.”

This is what it had come down to; travelling around in a taxi fearful of getting out unless there were hordes about. Not what travel is for me. But would I recommend Rio as a destination? Absolutely. Just take heed of the precautions, go with a companion possibly (if that’s not too dire) and make sure it’s a weekday you choose to ride that streetcar named desire.