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.


  1. I have never been to Sao Paulo or Brazil for that matter, but I for sure would love to one day. I agree with you there is crime in every big city and it can depend on the area.

    1. Thanks for dropping by to comment Freya, and I'm happy to hear negative stories haven't put you off visiting Brazil! I adore this country!

  2. I definitely think there are some places that get a bad rap for being dangerous when in reality they are probably no more dangerous than one's own country.

  3. I would love to go to Brazil and I'm sure most of the claims are exaggerated. The one thing that unnerves me is not being able to discover random neighbourhoods or mountains on my scooter or bike. I guess I was spoiled while I was in Korea.

    1. I hear you, I used to spend hours weaving in and out of streets on my bike when I lived in Japan. But its amazing how quickly you adapt to your surroundings, and I'm constantly finding new things in this city...although this time, unfortunately, it's on foot!

    2. I'm sure I would adapt too and I'm 99% positive I will love living in Brazil. It's the initial step that is the hardest to take. You must have had plenty of people trying to discourage you from going to Brazil.

    3. Yes, I had quite a lot of people doing this. But I'd been here on holiday and fell in love with the place...there was almost no stopping me! Thanks for stopping by to comment!

    4. Thank you for your positive notes on my country ! I hope you continue to enjoy it and explore it. My name is Paulo but I do not have any of the other ways to answer so am doing it anonymous. And please please do not dislike me for what I will say next but I am a Flu supporter in Brasil and (shhhh) an Arsenal fan in the premeire liga

    5. Ha ha! No problem about Arsenal and Flu! I'm glad you like the posts, and of course I will do my best to enjoy all your country has to offer! Do you have Twitter? If so, add me on @abcreelman

  4. Well every country has gangs and some no go areas specially at night. I think the danger in Brazil is around favela's and some low- middle class suburbs where drug trade is going on, that's where gangs usually are mostly around the world, although if you have a bad luck you might face robbery in the middle of the day in any city in the world. If you walk with confidence and don't be flash to draw attention(always try to blend with the local) then you won't have any problem in the world that's what i believe by the way i was born and raised in Pakistan, it is literally more dangerous that brazil(brazil seems 1st world in comparison) but never had any serious trouble since you just go with the flow if you know what i mean :)