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.


  1. Loved these articles. I've been a resident of Sao Paulo my whole life and this is pretty accurate. It's pretty rare to find decent descriptions of sao paulo on the internet, but yeah, that's the city, you either love it or you hate it, and between armored cars and very secure residencial apartments (never houses) my family has managed to only be robbed a dozen of times... It's the price of being sucessfull in a town where most people aren't.


  2. This is a really good read for me. Must admit that you are one of the best bloggers I ever saw.Spending a night in Sao Paulo night clubs is really awsome.Thanks for posting this informative article.

  3. Wow...what a good informative post it is ! it enlightens both the light and dark sides of the city and at the same time focuses on the famous nightclubs.I admire the valuable information you offer in it. I will bookmark your blog and I am quite sure they will learn lots of new stuff here than anybody else! thanks for the post.

    Sao Paulo night clubs

  4. Thanks for the good read! Even though dangerous, you make me feel comfortable to know what I'm getting into. My girlfriend and I are going to Sao Paulo for the first time this November!!!

    1. Hey Virak, thanks for stopping by to comment. It's not all that bad here! Are you coming here on holiday or will you be relocating?

    2. Hey man, I'm from Brazil and I live in São Paulo.
      First: Florianópolis is the capital of Paraná, other state of Brazil, not São Paulo. But, ok. =)
      So, I think that your advices are good for everyone that wants to visit my country or some other place too. Security is good, doesn't matter what place you will visit, you need to be safe.
      Well, Brazil is a awsome country to live, but every country have problems. In this case, we looks like everyone.
      Sorry for my bad english.

    3. Hey Felipe, thanks for leaving a comment! Your English is great too.

      I also live in Sao Paulo, so know that Floripa is a little far from us...unfortunately! I loved that place, just not the policemen who enjoyed laughing at me! Ha ha!

  5. Sorry man, I passed wrong information for you. Floripa belongs to Santa Catarina, not Paraná, how I wrote before. But, both states belongs to the south of Brazil. So, who cares? hahah
    The brazilian police aren't prepared, and a lot of people don't like them too. Since 1964 we've had trouble with them. You're not alone. hahahha

  6. Hello and thank you for this post. I am going to stay in Sao paulo for about seven months and frankly at first I was not concerned at all about the safety issues until i started googling deeply about he criminal profilw of thia city, after having seen with my own eyes the abnormal number of homeless people around. It definitely seems unfair and unjust. Nevertheless, im really worried and i could not sleep this night thinking about these issues. Well.. I do not carry my belongings with me anyway and i do not try to dress anyway luxurious but i do look like a foreigner and there's nothing i can do about it.

    1. Hey, I am happy to hear my post has offered you some comfort. Sao Paulo can really sound like hell on earth if you read the wrong posts on it, but the reality can be very different if you are careful. I hope your stay will be a safe one, be sure to send me a message if you have any questions!

  7. Thanks for this blog entry, I am about to take a vacation to Brazil in the near future(probably during april), but have been a bit sceptical. Also I guess the dangers are a bit more now close to the football championship.

    Stay safe :)

  8. I have been to Brazil 2 times and planning another visit soon to see my wife. I want to learn more Portegese and interested where the best place to learn this would be?