On a cold morning in February of 2004, I woke up at my mother’s house with a feeling of dread and excitement. The summer before I had traveled with a large group of people from my university, as well as several others, to Brazil for a double trip: a four week tour around the country with stops in the Centerwest cities in Brasilia, Goiana, and Pirenopolis. This part of the country is the dream vacation of any outdoorsman or tourist. All of it has as its backdrop some of the most amazing landscapes I’ve ever had the pleasure to come across. At moments during hikes I recall telling my colleagues that I was ready for a dinosaur to come running out of the hilly forests just beyond us. I knew the land wasn’t pristine -much of it has been used for farming and herd grazing for generations – but it looked as if it had not been touched for millennia.
The second leg of our tour took us to the state of Rio de Janeiro. Here we stayed with host families for a just over week. While in Goais, several of us had visited the Federal University there to get a feel for it; a few of us had already signed up for the chance to become foreign exchange students beginning the following winter. When we got to Rio, we did the same thing with the Federal University there. In reality, we didn’t need to take the tour of the school. Within the first day, those of us who were planning to come back to study knew we wanted to be in the middle of this amazing city. It was densely packed in, there were buses and taxis darting about, and you could get just about anywhere walking.
My excitement in the morning was based on my excitement of spending a year in Brazil, meeting new people, having new experiences, and falling in love with Rio. My dread was travelling on my own across the equator for several hours, changing planes in Sao Paulo, and then finding my way to my new apartment. I packed a bunch of books in my backpack, threw my luggage into my mom’s station wagon (I would plunge it into a concrete median going about seventy miles an hour a few years later), and headed off to the airport.
The months leading up to this day had been exhilarating and exciting to say the least, but the amount of work I had to put into getting my student visa had frustrated me beyond measure. Because I was applying to be a foreign exchange student in the post 9/11 era, the US government had made it fairly difficult for just about anyone to come into the country. People from an assortment of countries had to fill out forms, pay fees for visas, and some had to get background checks. As a result of the US doing this to Brazilians, the Brazilian government did it to us.
I had to send off my application and my passport three separate times for approval. I had to prove I was going to be an exchange student. I had to prove I had enough money in my account to sustain myself for a year. I had to prove that I’d had a yellow fever vaccination. I had to prove that I’d already purchased the plane tickets. And every document I sent had to be notarized. I sent off my passport every time, irrationally fearing that it would get lost in the mail. Of course it never did. I finally got approval roughly a month before I was set to leave.
In the late morning I flew to Miami, then later that night I flew to Sao Paolo. That whole leg of the trip was rather uneventful. I watched a movie or two; I read a book. I tried to rest, but I was a little too excited to actually fall asleep. I may have dozed a time or two, but for the most part all I did was think about getting to Rio. My stay in Sao Paolo was very brief; it only lasted for about an hour and a half. I was able to buy a cup of coffee and then make my way back over to my gate where I waited for board the last leg of the flight, which lasted a little less than an hour.
On the flight, all of the terrifying things that could happen continuously ran in a loop in my mind. I had watched Cidade de Deus when it first came out on DVD and saw myself accidentally running across the wrong people and getting shot or stabbed. This idea is so insanely far fetched when looking back, but sometimes a person’s brain goes irrational as fear of the unknown takes over. What scared me most as I was getting ready to land was being robbed. I had heard dozens of stories from my Anthropology professors, my Portuguese professors, host families from the summer before, and other students who had studied abroad in Rio. Gangs would use little kids as lookouts and scouts. They would go up to people and demand cash, and the person could oblige or run the risk of getting shot as they walk away. I heard this story from several different people who had experience living in Brazil.
One specific story stuck in my mind on the trip. A fellow exchange student, Chris, had moved down to Rio the year prior and became a major contact for me. We would email back and forth and he would fill me in on what I could expect, who I needed to get in touch with once I got there, which professors were easy going and which ones were a bit rougher. He had especially helped me assuage my fears in the final week or two. He had also been one of the people telling me how important it was to be about my wits whenever I was on the streets.
Chris had created a system for himself while living in Brazil. He went to classes, he hung out with friends he had made, and he always went to dinner at the same spot right across the street from his apartment. In the first few months, he had been wary of most everything that crossed his path. After getting settle in and figuring out how to get around, he began to settle down and realized that Rio was no more dangerous than any other global city. If you looked like you knew where you were going, most people left you alone. The major targets are those who look like they are from out of town. The secret is, look like you belong. The fact that Brazil has an incredible amount of ethnic diversity, just like the US, makes this quite a bit easier.
One evening at the end of a day as normal as any other, Chris went home, dropped off his gear from the day, and headed back down to get something from the little shop on the corner. As he headed out of the front door of his building, a homeless man came up to him and began asking for some money. Chris’ initial reaction was to ignore him. Like me, Chris had been told to do this repeatedly by many of his teachers and fellow students in Brazil. It’s generally an aspect of Rio’s culture: ignoring beggars.
As he walked down the street to the crosswalk, the man continued to follow, asking for a little change. Chris began to worry a bit because the man’s behavior seemed just a little bit off; he thought that he was perhaps drunk, but was concerned that maybe he had a mental illness and could potentially lash out. As he came to the edge of the street, he realized that a young teenage girl was eyeing him and had begun to walk toward him. He tried not to make eye contact, but he had already noticed that she was pregnant, or at least that she looked to be so. She was tiny in comparison to her protruding belly, which gave him the impression that she was even younger than he had initially assumed.
As she came closer, she reached out her hand and touched his arm gently. He expected for her to ask for something, some change or some food. Instead, she pulled herself in close, touching her legs and large belly to his side and began to proposition him. He was immediately mortified and tried to get away, fearing that pushing her away would make her fall and hurt either her or the baby she was carrying. As he flailed about trying to eject himself from her grip, she grasped his manhood. He let out a loud, “Hey!” and grabbed her wrist, pulling it away from himself. She called out loudly, “Ow! You’re hurting me!” in response to which he immediately let go. She yelled a few choice epithets in his direction as she scampered away.
In the midst of all this, the homeless man stuck by his side, yelling back at the girl to leave this poor gringo alone. He then turned back to Chris and began to explain how terrible this city had become, what with pregnant children walking the streets accosting decent people.
The irony was not lost on Chris.
Chris began to walk across the street as the light changed; the man followed, continuing to discuss the social ills of the city, demanding that someone must do something. As they walked up to the shop, the man realized their destination and began tapping Chris on the shoulder.
“Hey, will you buy me a Coke?”
At this point, he was worn down by having been accosted by a pregnant teenage prostitute and having listened to the man go on incessantly, first pleading for a dollar, and then discussing how to fix the city’s many issues. “Sure. Whatever.” Overjoyed, the man began telling the people behind the counter. They handed him a soda and quickly asked him to go away.
As he looked at the board to decide what he would get for dinner, the man behind the counter offered some advice. “You have to ignore those people. He’ll be back tomorrow to get you to buy him some food. Watch.”
Chris knew the clerk relatively well; he had been coming here consistently for long enough that they were on a first name basis. Instead of explaining the whole ordeal, Chris simply said, “You’re right. I’ll do that next time.” He ordered and then reached into his pocket to get his wallet.
It was gone.
This story stuck with me for the first several months I was living in Rio. I was waiting for something like this to happen to me. It never did.
But my ordeal with the passport proved to be nearly as harrowing.