Thursday, March 28, 2013

How Dangerous Is Sao Paulo? Part Two- Life Beyond The Headlines

Let me start this blog with a confession.

I’m not proud of myself for doing it, and perhaps you’re all going to think badly of me after I've told you…but last week I read the hell out of The Daily Mail online!

After discovering Kelly Brook had gained a tiny bit of weight, and someone from the TV show 'The Only Way Is Geordie' had 'accidentally' flashed a nipple as they went to the opening of an envelope, I stumbled across an article on Steve Redgrave.  For those of you unfamiliar with this guy, he is one of the UK’s most decorated Olympians, having won five gold medals over five consecutive Olympic games, and recently he had been in Rio to attend the Laureus Sports Awards. As he was walking along Ipanema beach one evening, some opportunist thieves approached and attempted to rob him.
Ipanema beach, and the girls are out
on the rob!

To say The Daily Mail is a little bit dramatic is like saying Mother Theresa was a little bit kind, Usain Bolt is a little bit fast, or Nicki Minage is a little bit bad at rapping….this website is VERY dramatic, and so naturally went all out sensationalise this incident.

It reported then that this was an ‘embarrassing blow for Brazilian Olympic officials…keen to promote Rio’s safety record and dispel fears over crime’. As is standard for any article on this website, underneath there were an array of comments from its readers, who were not just criticizing how badly written this article was, but were also expressing some interesting views on the subject of crime in Rio.

‘For Goodness sake, It has been well documented for YEARS that you shouldn't walk about in these places wearing any expensive watches or jewelry’ commented Blondie from Sevenoaks (for those of you reading this from outside the UK, Blondie is not a common name there…nor is this likely to be the opinion of anyone from Debbie Harry’s band).

‘And there is no crime here in London? Come on!’ said someone calling themselves Shaznny (again not a common name, unless you are the lead singer in the band All Saints).

Littered amongst these were, perhaps fairly predictably, some derogatory comments on what people thought about crime in Brazil, like this one from someone called Matey. 

‘I’m not going to this lawless country’. 

Another read 

‘The Rio Olympics are going to be a disaster because of the level of crime. Don't go I repeat. DO. NOT. GO' 

This was written by David Craig, from Bournemouth…who with this low tolerance to crime, I'm guessing is NO relation to Daniel.

For me, this comments section confirmed what I suspected, that people back home clearly have a range of preconceived ideas about how dangerous life is over here. This in turn reminded me of a question I was asked when I was last visiting England. 

I was discussing living in Brazil with a friend, and was surprised when one of my REALLY interesting stories on the state of the Brazilian economy was interrupted by this question:

“Nice, but have you ever seen a shoot out on the streets?”

“A shoot out?” I asked, with a pretty dead pan expression quickly fixing itself on my face, “erm…no, never”. I noticed that he looked quite surprised, disappointed, and even skeptical at my response. But then my experience of living here in is a far cry from the Tarantino esq vision some have of what goes on here.

"Just nipping out to the shop for some milk. I'll be back soon!"
Of course, I’m more than happy for people to think I’m some sort of bad ass adrenalin junkie playing down the fact I’m frequently dodging bullets and fists on my way to the grocery store…but the truth is, this is simply not the case at all (well the part about me dodging bullets and fists isn't, but the part about me being a total bad ass is OBVIOUSLY true!). But not only have I have never seen a shoot out, I've also never seen anyone being robbed and I've seen less than a handful of fights in the two and a half years that I've lived here.

But people have these assumptions of Brazil, and from my own experience of living in the UK, I guess I can understand why. 

Where Do These Preconceived Ideas Come From?

Back home, the only exposure I had of Brazil before coming over here was through news reports, and with the exception of those reporting on carnival celebrations, the majority I remember watching featured crime.

Just another regular day in Brazil...wish you were here!
And outside of news reports, films like City Of God and The Elite Squad will, I'm sure, have played a role in further cementing these ideas. Yes, these films were fantastic in terms of entertainment, but they did more than merely entertain. They held a mirror up to levels of corruption and violence in Rio, whilst giving an international voice to the lives of so many Brazilian’s whose plight may not have otherwise been heard…which of course is fantastic. However this focus on Brazil’s crime and corruption, coupled with these news reports, have probably misled some into believing that this is what life is like here on a daily basis throughout the whole of Brazil. And whilst in some cases this may be the case, my experience of living in Sao Paulo hasn't been like this at all.

As in my previous blog on crime, I would like to stress that what I am writing is a personal reflection on my time here. I know that there are people living in neighborhoods a lot more dangerous than my own, whose lives are affected by crime in a much more significant way. My intention is not to undermine or to dismiss how prevalent crime is in Brazil for these people; but to point out that my experience of living in Sao Paulo isn't reflected in the worst aspects of life in Brazil shown by the media. 

Perhaps I’m being unintentionally controversial as I write this, but the Sao Paulo I know isn't actually that bad...and I think it's important to point this out, because there will be people coming to the city through work or whatever, worried that it's going to be an absolute hell hole.  

Is The Whole Of Sao Paulo Dangerous?

Where I live in Sao Paulo isn't considered to be a very dangerous area…but with Sao Paulo being one of the largest cities in the world, there are bound to be areas of it safer than others.
Sao Paulo, Brazil

‘Well, of course the whole of the city isn’t dangerous, why are you pointing out the bloody obvious? ’ I can imagine some thinking as they read this. Well, it is worth pointing out because I know there are some who will be surprised to hear that the whole of Sao Paulo isn’t one large den of opportunist thieves and trigger-happy gun owners.

Sure, this seems to go against what I said in my last post, which didn't paint crime in Sao Paulo in a particularly favourable light…but then I guess I have contradictory feelings about the subject of crime in this city. 

On one hand I know it’s a big city, with depravity, crime and poverty; yet on the other, the areas I spend most of my time don’t really feel any less safe than places I've been to in London. 

And we all know London is no safe haven, the riots a few years back certainly highlighted this. I remember being in the north of the UK at the time, watching the rioting unfold through the TV. I (like the majority of the country) was really shocked that people were destroying their own communities.
London, UK

And because I wasn't living in the area affected by the riots, I could dismiss it as ‘a Southern thing. I saw it as something that didn't really affect me because I didn't live down there’.

And similarly, whenever I see crime scenes reported on the news channels here in Sao Paulo, I think “ah, that’s in the centre of the city…well that doesn't really affect me because I don’t live there”. But then I  appreciate that there will be people abroad who care little for the geography of the city; who are more likely to dismiss what crime reports they've seen in a specific area of Sao Paulo as being reflective of life throughout the entire city.
Mexico City, Mexico (Obviously!) I never picture it

I was certainly guilty of thinking like this only a few weeks ago, when my student told me about how much he’d enjoyed his trip to Mexico City. I sat there in a reflective silence for a while, before asking him if he felt safe on holiday there. He turned and gave me a look that seemed to be as surprised by my ignorance as it was condescending. “Andrew”, he began, “Mexico City is a big place, and it’s not all that bad. I wouldn't have gone there on holiday again if it was”.

I couldn't really argue with that!

When Sao Paulo Feels Safer Than Places In The UK

In my last post I went into some depth on the subject of robberies in Sao Paulo, and how to avoid making yourself a walking target. But what I didn't do was point out (and this comment may just blow the minds of those Daily Mail readers who are adamant the city of Sao Paulo is probably similar to a game of Grand Theft Auto) that there is one aspect of life that trumps the UK in terms of personal safety, and this is related to alcohol consumption.

So a couple of weeks ago during carnival I found myself in the midst of a wild street party! Carnival-goers had packed the streets to enjoy the live music, the sunshine and of course, the ice cold beer being sold by vendors on street corners. These parties (known as blocos) are a big part of carnival celebrations throughout the country, and are a whole lot of fun. The parties I went to this year had a surprisingly low police presence for the amount of people lining the streets…and as it turned out, a lot of police weren't needed. With the majority of people at these parties out to dance, sing and enjoy themselves (many sporting outrageous fancy dress costumes) the atmosphere at the party I was at was electric.

“Do you have parties in the UK like this?” my friend asked as we followed the live samba band down the street, alongside the hundreds of other drinkers. 

“Well no, not really” I replied. “British people tend to fight a lot when they’re drunk, which is probably why drinking on the street is illegal there”.

"You're BLOODY joking, aren't you!?!"
He looked back at me like I’d just said something he couldn't quite get his head fact, with the same expression I imagine I pulled when I’d worked out the plot twist at the end of Sixth Sense.

“Really? But why do many people in England fight after beer?”

At that I pretended I couldn't hear him over the music, because I really couldn't answer. I don’t know why a number of British people become aggressive after drinking alcohol. 

Last week I was at a Voodoohop party, right in the centre of the city (an area renowned for being unsafe, particularly at night). Hundreds of people went to the venue to enjoy the party and again I noticed that there was little police presence. Did I feel safe? Absolutely, I didn't see anyone causing trouble or looking for a fight…but it got me asking myself if the same would have been the case had this party been held in one of the ‘bad’ areas of London.

 Voodoohop, Sao Paulo
Maybe I’m being unfair here (and if I am I imagine someone will tell me), but I suspect this party, or even these carnival celebrations without a huge number of police, wouldn't work in the UK.

Of course I’m not saying there are no alcohol related fights over here, because clearly there must be. But I have been in Brazil now for over two years and still haven’t seen many…in fact, I actually feel much safer amongst a crowd of drunk Brazilians than I do a crowd of drunk Brits. 

"I've just read the Lonely Planet guide
 to Ipanema...NOT HAPPY!"

Wrapping This Blog Post Up

So in conclusion, sure Brazil has its problems when it comes to crime and danger, but then…most countries do to some extent.  

If you find yourself visiting Sao Paulo for the first time and are worried about these aspects of life here, my advice to you is...don’t. Follow the advice of a guide, a guide book or those reputable internet forums (so don't take everything you read on sites such as the Daily Mail online as gospel!), and use your common sense. Do this, and you’re likely to be just fine....because with an air of caution and an open mind, you’re hopefully going to find your relationship with danger in this city and also throughout the rest of Brazil isn't going to be a significant one.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

How Dangerous Is Sao Paulo? Part One: Being Robbed

A couple of months ago I took a trip to the city of Florianpolis, and while I was there I was quite keen to check out the night life. On the Saturday night I decided to head to a club in the centre of the city, and knowing the club wasn't too far from a bus stop, I took the bus for 3 reais to get there, instead of forking out 40 for a taxi. About twenty minutes after getting on the bus I was dropped a few blocks away from the nightclub in an area that I was surprised (and also pretty worried) to see was very empty. In the distance I was relieved to see a group of six police men stood around talking, so I wandered over to ask them for directions. As I was about to bust out my cave-man-like Portuguese, I was asked by a young looking policeman if he could help me, in perfect English.
"Seriously, is the club really around here!?!"

“Yes! Erm…can you tell me where this night club is?” I asked, showing him the address I’d scribbled down onto some paper.

“It’s three blocks away, you need to walk straight up here, and it'son your left” he said whilst gesturing up a dimly lit street. I won’t lie to you, I remember thinking that this street would have been PERFECT for the beginning of a horror film. The hustle and bustle of the streets of Sao Paulo around midnight seemed like a million miles away, as I looked up this street, which was definitely a little too dark and a little too deserted for my liking. 

“Erm….is it safe? I won’t get robbed, will I?” I enquired, before taking a second look. To my surprise, when I turned back to look at the policeman I noticed that he was smirking at me.

“Gringo” he said, now with a mocking quality to his voice, “NOWHERE in Brazil is safe! But good luck walking up there!” At that he chuckled to himself before turning back to his colleagues and relaying a translated version of what he’d just said to them. I took this as my queue to leave, and after just a couple of strides into my journey, this group of policemen all let out a knowing, hearty laughs. These laughs rang in my ears for a good minute or so, and with my heart pounding, I power walked those 50 meters up the street. And when I say power walked, I really mean POWER WALKED! I was so relieved to hear the sound of the electronic music thudding beyond the club doors when I’d eventually got to the club.
"Lads, listen to what this guy just asked me about his safety!"

I’m not sure what I expected from these policemen, but laughing at me as I asked them about my safety definitely wasn't what I imagined would have happened at all! But this does bring me onto one aspect of life, particularly in Sao Paulo, that I’m sure everyone in the city has at least thought about:

Getting Robbed

Before I begin, I think it is worth pointing out that what I write is a both a personal reflection of my own experiences and also the experiences of those around me. Maybe you live here, or have visited, and you can identify with the experiences I describe. Or perhaps you will disagree with what I write partially, or even completely because your time here is, or has been affected by crime in a much more significant way. But I think as every resident of Sao Paulo can agree the threat of crime is very real, particularly the threat of being robbed.  

I hadn't been teaching in Brazil all that long when I was introduced to the reality of being robbed in Sao Paulo, by one of my students. So this student walked into my evening class looking a little shook up, and as she sat down a fellow student asked her if she was OK. At that she began to tell us all how at 7am that morning she’d been walking to the bus stop when a guy came out of nowhere, pulled a gun on her, and demanded she handed over her valuables. As soon as she’d said this I sat there open mouthed, looking around at my students who I thought looked as shocked as I was about hearing this…I was wrong!
"Everybody be cool...this is a robbery!"

“Seven am? Wow! They’re getting up early, aren't they!?!”

It took me a few seconds to process what I’d just heard, and then my forehead crinkled up into a (rather unattractive) ball of confusion. My student was still laughing and I was actually quite surprised at how insensitive he was being. As everyone then started talking about how they’d never heard of thieves striking at this time, I looked around at my students and realised we were not on the same page AT ALL! I was astounded that my student had been robbed in the first place, and there these guys were, surprised at the early hour in which the incident had taken place.

Nowadays I'm hearing stories about people being robbed in the street, in their cars, or on the subway at least on a weekly basis…and this might sound like a harsh thing to say, but I actually feel like I am becoming desensitized to hearing them. I hadn't realised this was the case until a few weeks ago when my friend was robbed on the subway. Someone had gone into his bag and taken out his credit cards and documents when he wasn't looking. He hadn't realized until he’d got to work and found that his backpack had been opened and its important contents removed.

“Well why would you put your stuff in the front pocket of your backpack, that’s just asking for trouble” I said, like an absolute heartless bastard in response to him telling me he'd been robbed. I’m not usually a cold and unsympathetic person, but I guess I've hardened to hearing about this sort of thing. “Yes I know” my friend said, the whole time looking very sorry for himself, not unlike that cat from Shrek.

And writing this now, it's almost like I don't really recognise my earlier attitude to being robbed. I used to be quite uptight and worried about having my valuables taken, and I was constantly looking over my shoulder. before coming to Brazil, I'd read a lot about crime here, so when I first arrived I was overcautious, to the point where I never fully felt relaxed. If I’m being honest, I felt intimidated by the threat of crime. And this feeling stayed with me for a loooooong time.

Fast forward a few years though, and I've become much more relaxed about potentially being robbed. Having heard enough stories from my many students about it, I've accepted that is inevitable that at some point, it will probably happen to me too.

And accepting this was somewhat of a revelation to me, because instead of constantly looking over my shoulder and worrying about it, I have been able to simply get on with living here. Don’t get me wrong, I am still cautious, but my attitude towards it has altered. I guess in a word, I've adapted. Adapting to situations is a huge part of any expats transition, so for me the threat of being robbed isn't something I think of as being such a big deal anymore. It is just there.

Yet whenever I’m sat in a class and hear about how my students were robbed, or whenever I walk past a bank and see armed security guarding the entrance, I’m reminded of how prevalent and also how real this threat really is. 

So what would I do if I was the victim of a robbery myself?

Well I talked with a student about this a few years ago…and I have never forgotten the advice he gave me. “I recently read an article in a magazine about robberie" he said, "where the journalists interviewed thieves who'd killed their victims. They had murdered these people simply because they had refused to hand over their belongings or because they'd put up a fight.

"Bring it on BITCHES!"
As soon as they’d asked for the valuables, this is the moment when these guys felt they had the most power. So to be given a ‘no’, or for someone to resist handing over their things, that’s when the knife had been used or the trigger had been pulled. Andrew, these people often don’t respect their own lives, so it’s too much to ask that they’re going to respect yours. If you get robbed, just hand over your things…valuables can easily be replaced”.

This attitude was quite alien to me at first, ‘but they are MY things…I would want to keep them’ I remember thinking at the time. But very few people have advised me to fight back. It just doesn't seem worth it. I’m pretty sure I wouldn't lose man points over here if I told someone living in the city that I’d handed my belongings over without any resistance. It just seems like the sensible thing to do.  

But then I talked to my Dad about what he needs to do if he is the victim of a robbery when he's over here on vacation. This was another reminder of how much my attitude on the subject has changed since moving here:

“Well I tell you what Andrew, if someone comes up to me and tries to take MY wallet….there’s no way I’d just hand it over. They’d better think twice if they think about robbing me!” As soon as he'd said this I could literally feel the blood draining from my cheeks. “Dad NOOOOO” Remember you’re coming over to Brazil” I responded, despite knowing that my words were clearly falling on deaf ears. “This is Brazil, and the rules are different over here, you NEED to hand over your things!” 

How can you minimize the risk of being robbed in Sao Paulo? 

Well here is a summary of some of what I consider to be, the best pieces of advice I've been given during my time living out here:

"Who, me? Drawing attention to myself!?!"
Tip #1

Don’t walk around with your valuables on display. Despite being the economic heart of the country and with plenty of wealthy individuals around, this wealth is not evenly distributed at all. There are a HUGE number of poor residents in Sao Paulo, so parading around with your expensive laptops, phones and jewelry on display could be seen by some as being disrespectful. My advice would be to either hide these thing away when walking around in public, or better still, leave them at home/in your hotel…at least until you get to know the city better.

Paulista Avenue for example is awash with electronic devices around lunch time, and having them in view of everyone just doesn't mean you are going to be robbed…but generally speaking; it is undoubtedly going to make you more of an obvious target for opportunist thieves. I mean, you wouldn't wear a Lady Gaga meat dress if you were forced into a lion’s den, would you? Exactly, HELL NO! So be discrete.

And the same goes for being in cars/taxis, keep your valuables hidden out of view. A lot of cars here have blacked out windows, so that people can’t see inside. This is because, unfortunately, if you are stuck in traffic there is a risk that someone on a motorbike may stop and demand that you hand your things over. And with you unable to move, they're able to make a quick and easy getaway with your a new meaning to the term 'window shopping'.

 Tip #2

Avoid walking around the centre of the city at night, because you might just find yourself vulnerable to being robbed. This area is notorious for its crack addicts, and certain parts are definitely best to be avoided (as is the case with all major cities worldwide).

"Ok guys, let me introduce you
to this train is called the CPTM!"
Tip #3

Don’t carry large amounts of cash on you, but at the same time, try to make sure you have a little to hand over should you be unfortunate enough to be robbed. If someone wants money from you and you have nothing, you could find yourself in trouble; so aim to have at least 20 reais in your pocket

Tip #4

Finally secure your valuables before getting on crowded trains or metros, because with all of those bodies pressed tightly up against each other, you might not even feel Sao Paulo’s answer to Fagin taking something out of your pocket or bag.

As I have read this blog entry back to myself I guess I’ve made it quite clear that the Sao Paulo I know is no Disneyland...but I hope I've described the ways in which you can go some way to  minimize the risks of making yourself a target.

Of course, there is no sure fire way to avoid being robbed…as is the case anywhere in the world. But being aware of how significant the risk of being robbed is here will hopefully allow you to think accordingly, and have a safe stay here. Don't think too much  about it...because you should be spending more time focusing on other aspects of the city’s fantastic culture, rather than worrying about the threat of crime.

As usual, I've found I've writtena whole lot more on this subject than I'd planned to. So I've split this blog into two blogs....and my next one will go into a bit more detail on the subject of crime in Sao Paulo, challenging the idea that it's as bad as people say it is.