IN MY FIRST YEAR IN RIO, I lost so many phones to thieves that it became a standing joke among my friends. Phones were snatched from my hand mid-conversation (lesson learned: don’t use a cell phone on the street in Rio); were inside bags yanked violently from my hand as I strolled along in full daylight; and demanded with menace by youths who shouted after me that they would kill me if I cried for help.
Gradually, I began to feel threatened when I passed spots where I had previously been mugged, and sought to avoid them. Finally bowing to common sense, I started to walk less and take more cabs and buses. I began to take my dog (a not-particularly threatening medium-sized mongrel) with me every time I walked round the corner to the shops. Like most women I know, I carry large bank notes in my bra, not my purse. (Many men carry notes in socks and shoes). Keys are never in my bag, but stashed in hidden pockets — I know from bitter experience that being locked out after a mugging is not fun.
Now, seven years after I arrived in Rio, I no longer joke about being mugged. That joke isn’t funny anymore, if indeed it ever was. Street crime in Rio, already a serious problem when I arrived, has got worse in the last couple of years — becoming not just more frequent, but also more violent. Knife crime has surged.
I’ve become afraid of children and teenagers. The sight of a group of street kids sets my pulse racing. I’ve learned that while walking is risky, taking the bus or grabbing a cab is no guarantee of a safe journey home — groups of youths may storm the bus and rob everybody on board, or the taxi may be held up.
I’ve learned that a city world famous for its beautiful open spaces can feel stiflingly claustrophobic. I’ve learned that, in Rio, the best of times can turn into the worst of times in a split second.
Disadvantaged young people in the favelas are being brought up surrounded by the most appalling levels of violence — enacted both by drug factions and by the police — and, pushed to the peripheries of society, increasing numbers of youths are growing up with little regard for human life.
Seven years ago, I couldn’t tell the difference between the pop of firecrackers and the crack of gunfire. Now, not only can I easily distinguish between the two, but I can distinguish between the sounds of different types of firearm. I’ve grown accustomed to being woken in the night by the rapid ka-ka-ka of machine gun fire, and many an early morning has begun with the deafening whirr of police helicopters circling low overhead.
I’ve learned that the police are sometimes as dangerous as the ‘bandidos’ they are paid to protect us from — planting drugs and demanding money is not uncommon. But I also know that, with my pale skin, I’m safer than many of the people that we foreigners feel so afraid of. I know that if I were a poor black male in Rio, police would need little excuse to open fire on me and frame me as a ‘bandido’.
When I leave Rio and spend time in my hometown — a small village on the outskirts of Manchester, I stiffen with fear when I hear running footsteps behind me, only to feel foolish when a jogger passes me, or a child runs after a ball. The fear is hard to shake off, and friends who have never been to Rio struggle to understand how I can live with this fear.
But the fear is not constant. The moment passes. More often than not, the ‘suspicious-looking’ character passes me with barely a second glance. A family or group of laughing friends rounds the corner. The street is no longer deserted and that surge of fear is forgotten in an instant. And as I go about the city I try to keep a sense of calm — after all, my retired parents have visited me in Rio many times with no problems. As long as I follow my own safety guidelines, I tell myself, I should be OK.
Sipping a caipirinha with friends on my balcony, the rattle of gunfire from the favela that kept me awake the previous night seems a distant memory. Sunbathing on the white sands of Ipanema, I’m more concerned about locating my sun cream than being robbed (although I’m always sure to keep my bag under my head when I lie down). When a toucan touches down in the patch of jungle that constitutes my backyard, when the monkeys that join us for breakfast each day come chattering into view, I fall in love with the city all over again. It’s hard to shake off that infatuation, even when the city’s serious character flaws start to come to the fore. Many visitors — myself included — arrive for a short stay, and find themselves unable to tear themselves away.
In fact, despite our complaints, most of us who have adopted Rio as our city don’t just like it, we love it. We love Rio for its energy. And that is what makes it so hard to leave, even when it gets harder and harder to stay. Family and work commitments tie some of us to Rio, but for others, the city is just impossible to quit.
As crime rates rise in the city and some members of the military police attempt to enforce the word of law by indiscriminately killing impoverished black youth (of several recent killings, an incident in November when police killed five black and mixed-race teenagers as they were driving to get a late-night snack, spraying them with over 50 shots, is among the most shocking), I know I need to take time out from Rio.
But I find that Rio de Janeiro has spoiled me for other, safer cities. As much as I appreciate the feelings of security when I leave, I always miss the buzz and the beauty of Rio. And that’s why I know I’ll keep on going back, fear or no fear.