Last week, I took off on a journey to Brazil for the World Cup and it was going to be my 6th time in Brazil. On the last day of my trip, I had a 12 hour layover in Rio de Janeiro and I wanted to make the best of it. I was supposed to have a 14 hour layover, but my flight to Rio from Belo Horizonte was delayed for two hours in the morning due to bad weather at Galeao International Airport (GIG).
I always have a set plan in mind whenever I travel and timing is especially crucial during a short layover because 12 hours in Rio is not a whole lot when you factor the terrible traffic getting into the city (and it’s gotten worse with the World Cup). A few days ago I was pondering on how I would store my wheeled backpack carry on, so I booked the cheapest hotel that wasn’t a hostel. The hotel was $43 (taxes included) and it was in a central location in Centro Rio de Janeiro. Hotels were super expensive during the World Cup and I wasn’t even going to stay overnight anyway.
At 10:30am, I took a bus from Rio International Airport for 12 Reais ~ ($5.30 USD) which I asked the driver to drop me off at President Vargas metro station. It was only a ten minute walk to the hotel in Centro Rio from the metro subway station. I’ve been to Centro Rio de Janeiro twice before and it’s always swarming with office workers and locals. The best kilo restaurants are located in Centro where you pay by the weight. I finally got to my hotel at 12:15pm and it was probably the tiniest room I’ve ever seen. It was great for me because it was a secure place to store my bag and it was easy access to a metro station and over 100 buses.
Yesterday was a national holiday in Brazil due to it being the second World Cup match for Team Brazil. Even though it was a holiday, downtown Centro Rio was bustling with merchants selling World Cup merchandise before the game. The farmer’s market was also going on for locals to buy produce. Restaurants were full because people were getting ready to watch the first match of the day between Belgium and Algeria at 1pm. I headed to Carioca metro station at 12:30pm where I met up with a friend for lunch in Ipanema.
After lunch, I took a stroll from Ipanema beach to Copacabana Beach and took pictures along the way. There was a massive police presence in Copacabana due to fact that the FIFA World Cup Fan Fest was located right on Copacabana Beach. Adjacent streets were also closed and I’ve never seen so many tourists in Brazil. Many tourists make Rio de Janeiro their primary destination in Brazil due to its beach scene and the famous Christ the Redeemer statue attraction. While I was walking, I saw many tourists with their iPhones and cameras snapping pictures (including myself).
I was hastily trying to make it to the start of the Brazil v. Mexico game at 4pm because the walk from Ipanema Beach to the end of Copacabana Beach was pretty far. I went to the FIFA Fan Fest last week in Sao Paulo for the Brazil v. Croatia home opener and it was pretty amazing. The Fan Fest in Copacabana Beach was quite different because it wasn’t quarantined. There weren’t any metal detectors like in Sao Paulo. Outside food and drink was also prohibited in the Fan Fest area in Sao Paulo. It was basically a free for all in Copacabana Beach with street vendors selling beverages.
It was quite amazing to see how liberal public alcoholic beverage consumption is in Brazil. You can pretty much drink on the streets and there are no open container laws. Furthermore, anyone can sell alcoholic beverages and be an entrepreneur in Brazil. I saw a little kid selling tequila shots on Copacabana Beach during Fan Fest. People were setting up shop on the sidewalk with liquor bottles and you don’t need an alcohol license.
Fan Fest was underway in Copacabana Beach and the Brazil v. Mexico score was 0-0 at halftime. By then, it was 5pm and I needed to head back to the hotel to grab my belongings and change. My flight was at 10pm and I needed a lot of time to get back to the airport since I was taking public transportation. I caught a bus towards Central station in Centro Rio de Janeiro and got off at the Carioca metro station.
I pulled up my phone to check the score and it was still halftime. It was around 5:20pm and Centro Rio de Janeiro was completely empty. It was quite a stark contrast from the liveliness at noon. I can understand why because it was a national holiday and everyone is at home or at the bar/restaurant watching the game.
I’ve never seen Centro Rio this quiet and there was not one person in sight including cars. I used my iPhone’s GPS to locate the hotel and followed the Google Maps walking path directions. In my walking path, I saw three young Brazilian kids walk towards me. One of the older boys had a green bag in his hand and he revealed a knife. Once I saw the knife, my first reaction was to run away. I started running away from them and my Havaianas flip flops came off due to the uneven cobblestone pavement.
I started screaming for help like a little girl and I still had my iPhone in my left hand. One of the younger kids caught up to me and started to grab my phone from my hand. He knocked me down and the older boy started to come at me with the knife. I was scared to death and I started to plead for them to let me go and not hurt me. The eldest kid who had the knife didn’t have the guts to stab me and take my belongings, so he made a compromise with me.
He started to say in Portuguese, no problem and walked away. He didn’t want me to alert the police and I was in a sigh of relief. I said okay, no problem with hand gestures saying it’s okay and we all walked away in separate directions like nothing ever happened.
I started to continue walking towards my hotel when a passerby noticed what had happened. He asked me if they robbed me and I said, “No, I didn’t get robbed and nothing was taken from me.” I was still shaken from what had happened.
Two weeks ago I shared with you about my experience with giving bribe money to a police officer in Panama City. From both of these first hand experiences, I would never have imagined it happening to me until it does.
Why did this happen to me?
I absolutely fell in love Brazil ever since I obtained a Brazilian VISA two years ago. The Brazilian people are some of the friendliest that I’ve ever met, but there is a huge social-economic problem such as a huge income disparity. You either have money or you don’t.
The three young boys looked like they were from a rough favela in Rio and it’s saddening. I can understand where they’re coming from. They see tourists who have nice watches, phones, clothes and are jealous of them. You can’t really blame them because it’s the way they were grown up and the Brazilian government isn’t doing much to help. I even visited a favela in Rio last year and saw the rough living conditions.
Should I have given up my possessions?
The most common answer is yes of course. Everything happened so fast and it was all done in less than 30 seconds from start to finish. I’m just glad that the outcome was in my favor and I didn’t end up getting stabbed. If someone is going to take something away from me, I am going to try to stop them from doing it. Of course people are going to object with my beliefs, but that’s just the way I am. I don’t give up easily and they’re going to have to kill me to get my stuff.
Could I have prevented this?
Probably, but these three boys were on a mission that early evening. Not only do tourists get mugged, even locals. It just doesn’t happen in Centro Rio and it can happen in Leblon, Ipanema, and Copacabana. It’s also a matter of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Everything happens for a reason.
What I Could’ve Done Differently
I could’ve stayed away from walking the streets with no one around. That was my first mistake. My second mistake was using my iPhone in public (in this case, as a map guidance), but I do that everywhere. Am I going to stop taking pictures? No, I absolutely love taking pictures and my phone is with me everywhere.
I’m not going to stop traveling to Rio de Janeiro or Brazil. It’s a beautiful country and I would love to visit every state in Brazil. I’m not going to stop traveling to Latin America and will take away this lesson as an isolated incident. I still don’t go out after dark wherever I’m traveling, even in the United States. All the bad things happen at night and especially between the early morning hours of 12am – 5am.