The Portuguese word for knife is faca. Dicionário Aurelio defines the faca as “a cutting instrument, probably the most useful of tools employed by man.” Useful. Man.
In the summer of 2009, I went to Brazil with a strange girl from Indiana. She spoke Spanish and I spoke Portuguese. She loved Disney, she hated produce. I hated her.
“I only picked Brazil because I can’t graduate until I’ve studied abroad, and all the other summer programs conflicted with band camp,” she explained on the airplane.
“Oh,” I said. “I picked Brazil because I’m a Portuguese major.”
Brook and I didn’t have much else to say to each other on the plane or in the airport or in the taxi cab. When we got dropped off on a ritzy avenue in the middle of São Paulo on a cloudy Sunday morning, we looked around, found the building with the right address, and dragged our overpacked suitcases onto the elevator. I was the one who pushed the ringer, and an old woman with giant eyes opened the door.
“Hello, oh! You must be the Americans!”
We were. We returned her greeting in shy Portuguese, and she led us into her high-rise apartment.
This lady was Neuza, our host mom—a very wealthy Brazilian lady. She liked to wear her pajamas and a bathrobe as she shuffled around the house with one hair roller on top of her head to curl her bangs. She was somewhere in her sixties, and although she spoke rather slowly, she tended to ramble and cut people off so that it was difficult to get a word in edgewise. On our second day in her home, I overheard her talking on the telephone to her best friend, Terezinha.
“They’re ANGELS, Terezinha, ANGELS! Yes, the tall one and the shorter one. My God, but they’re so quiet. They hardly make a peep. Unfortunately they don’t speak a lick of Portuguese yet…”
It took her about a week to realize that I was fluent. And that only came about because I caught her in a sleepy moment, late at night when she was watching TV in bed. Her favorite soap opera was on, the one about the star-crossed Indian lovers who were forbidden to speak to each other because they were both betrothed to other people. I tiptoed into the room to politely ask her to restart the internet router. While she fiddled with the box, I began to ask her about the plot of the TV show, smirking at the impassioned South American accents coming out of the mouths of traditionally-dressed Hindus. Neuza suddenly stopped still, and her huge eyes got even huger.
“My God,” she whispered. “You do speak Portuguese!”
Neuza and I became great friends after that. We watched the news together in the mornings and started saving funny anecdotes of little daily this and that to tell each other when I got back from school in the evenings. Sometimes Neuza would invade the ugly pink bedroom I shared with Brook to bring us a tray that held teacups and a store-bought cake. I listened intently to her stilted views on politics, intrigued and horrified by her outlandish plot to execute all of the drug lords in the favelas. I tolerated her hot, scathing slander of the Jews and the Argentineans. An unlikely alliance? I thought so too, though I kept those thoughts to myself because Neuza liked me, and because we sometimes overlook sickening displays of racism when they come out of the mouths of old people. And we do this especially when those old people dote upon us, spoiling us like their own grandchildren, giving us too much mint liqueur on a school night, and teaching us how to gossip like a true São Paulo urbanite.
I grabbed my grocery bag and poked my head into the bedroom where I could hear groans of frustration indicating that the internet had just gone out, cutting short Brook’s chat with her boyfriend.
“Do you want anything from Futurama?” I asked her.
She couldn’t hear me over her music. Annoyed, I took another step towards the twin bed where she lay propped among pillows and guaraná soft drink cans. I tried to speak over the Shakira song that had been playing on repeat for the last hour and a half.
“Want me to get you anything from Futurama?” I asked again, louder.
She handed me two reais and asked me to pick up some cinnamon popcorn.
I hesitated for a moment, thinking of the brief rainy walk down São Vicente Street. “Are you sure you don’t want to come with me? Neuza’s bedroom door is locked, so you won’t be able to restart the router till she gets home…”
“No thanks,” she said softly, her eyes focused back on her computer screen. I took her money and left quickly as the sound of Tetris shot out of her laptop.
As I was leaving the apartment, I ran into Neuza wearing an overcoat with a scarf and cap. Alarm spread quickly over her face as she eyed my bare head and cardigan.
“Darling!” she said. “Where are you going in this awful weather?”
I told her I didn’t mind the 65 degree drizzle. I told her not to worry, that I had an umbrella. I said “tschau,” and I soon stopped feeling lonely as I skipped down the street, thinking of the flirtatious Futurama employee who usually let me sample mangos and wondering if he would be working that night.
Later, as I was chopping up peppers in the kitchen, Neuza asked me if I could teach her how to bake a potato sometime. “You just bake it,” I said, and glanced at the table where she was eating Chinese take-out from a styrofoam box. At least her stir-fry included some peas and carrots, which was better than Brook, who sat across from her eating a bowl of off-brand of Ramen noodles. Neuza beamed at me, not seeming to notice my look of disgust.
“Look at her,” she said to Brook, who was wearing headphones and made no sign of understanding. “She goes to the grocery store every week. She’s ready to get married!”
I had to silently disagree—I didn’t feel ready for matrimony. But mid-way through the summer, I was definitely ready for a break from the routine of my bizarre Brazilian domestic life. Brook and I had Portuguese classes Monday through Friday, but they didn’t start until 1:00 pm. I was always awake by 8:00. I put on a scarf and socks to keep from shivering in the kitchen. By July we were in the heart of tropical winter, and early morning was the only time of day when I cursed the whole city of São Paulo for having no electric heat. I read alone in the kitchen, munching coconut frosted flakes and waiting for the water on the stove to boil so I could make instant coffee.
If it was Tuesday, the maid would have already arrived before any of us woke up to start scrubbing the floors and making breakfast for Neuza, leaving mixed smells of real, dark coffee and lemon cleaner to escape out the open window. It was even colder than usual on these mornings. Maria stood out on the balcony smoking a cigarette with a jacket draped around her shoulders, squeezing in a quick break before Neuza woke up and told her to wash this or that load of laundry or to clean the windows. I waved at her through the balcony door. I found an afghan on the couch and bundled up tight in the breakfast nook, helping myself from the steamy thermos already on the table.
I was on my third cup of coffee and writing energetically in my journal an hour later when Neuza tripped into the kitchen, rubbing her eyes and shuffling in her thick wool socks.
“What a night!” she said. She would have stayed out late the night before at a wedding, a campaign dinner for Terezinha, or a friend’s birthday party.
“Hello, good morning!” I said politely. “Did you get in late last night?”
She nodded. I wasn’t surprised. Most nights Neuza popped into our bedroom at midnight or 12:30 as Brook and I were drowsily brushing our teeth or watching Harry Potter re-runs dubbed in Portuguese. “Tschau, girlies! Good night!” Neuza would say, chipper, clutching a handbag and wearing cherry red lipstick.
In the mornings, though, I was the one with more spunk. I wondered if she might be a little hungover as she grumped about not being able to find some expensive makeup in her bathroom. Maria could have taken it, she thought. But more likely it was the Argentinean girl who lived with her before Brook and I moved in.
“Brook is grouchy, sure,” said Neuza as she picked at her plate of warm bread and salami. “But I’m telling you, that Josefina… Holy Mother of God, she was a scandal! Once I caught her trying to steal a pillow.”
Brook and I both had crushes on all the dreamy Europeans in our Portuguese class. The Latin American boys were charming too, speaking sly Spanish littered here and there with mispronounced Portuguese words. It was Brook’s idea to invite a few classmates along on a weekend trip that the two of us had been planning to Rio de Janeiro, the coastal tourist city eight hours to the south of polluted São Paulo.
“Two American girls in a huge Brazilian city… I don’t know,” she said one night while we were looking at hostels on the internet.
I was worried she might be backing out. I didn’t share her fears, but then again, Brook rarely left the apartment, especially at night. Still, the prospects of a wacky mismatched roommate adventure and a long weekend spent strictly in her company made me feel a little bit queasy.
“Good idea!” I said, too quickly. “Let’s bring a boy. We’ll be safer.”
The next day I broached the subject during a break between class sessions, sliding onto a bench beside Marie and Pierre who were sipping fast food espresso from the school cafeteria.
“Hey guys,” I said. “Wanna go to Rio this weekend?”
No. They were going to Salvador. Too bad.
“Dimitri, wanna go to Rio this weekend?”
Nope. Already had plans to visit some hokey tourist town with his Brazilian girlfriend.
Married. Not really into last minute weekend trips.
Bummer! Too late. Just booked a flight to the Amazon.
He jumped at the chance.
Carlos was no South American dreamboat—he didn’t wink like Martín and had none of Felipe’s suave compliments or big Peruvian doe-eyes. Carlos was never going to make me swoon, but we were lunch-time chums and he was easy to talk to. I knew that he was born in San Diego, but he had a thick accent from spending so much of his childhood hanging out in Tijuana with his enormous extended family. He wasn’t the brightest guy—he once asked me if you can stand on the shore of all the Great Lakes and see across to the other side or if they were too big. He was scrawny, wore braces, and was two years younger than me. But he was the only fellow in class who spoke English fluently, and the only other person I knew in Brazil who missed things like peanut butter and the 4th of July. I liked him.
When I got home from school I told Neuza that we were taking Carlos to Rio with us for protection. She didn’t get the joke.
“Ohhh, that is great!” she said, clasping her hands up to her chest. “He’s…he’s…wait, I got it: hee…eees…nice…boy!”
At 5:30 the next morning I was standing in a crowded bus station between Nice Boy and Grumpy Girl. We bought cheesy bread from the Pão de Queijo fast food stall and ate it on a bench while we watched dark-haired people run to and fro with suitcases. When the bus driver checked our passports, he told us not to dally when the bus stopped for bathroom breaks or we might get left behind in some little god-forsaken rural Brazilian village.
We boarded the bus and found our seats. For most of the trip, Brook had her headphones in, so I turned around to chat quietly with Carlos. We couldn’t help pointing out the window and bouncing a little with excitement, saying “Carlos, look!” or “What’s that, Genny?” over and over again as we sped through the layers of São Paulo’s suburbs and eventually began to wind through the countryside. Other passengers watched us and smiled at our eagerness to see cattle, banana stands, and clotheslines by the highway. A little blonde boy turned around in surprise when he heard us speaking English, and I heard his mother whisper, “They are Americans!” in Portuguese.
All three of us were sleepy and starving when the bus pulled into the terminal in Rio. We were antsy, and we wanted to see beautiful things. Brazilians call Rio a postcard town, and that’s a good way to describe it. After all, it’s a city built into the craggy hills of a tropical beach. Colors are brighter there—the sky, it’s brighter, the ocean, sure—but the fruit juice, the scarf vendors! We transferred to a smaller city bus that seemed to be taking us in circles, and occasionally we could spot the Christ statue off in the distance, lit up for nighttime. We got off the bus in the Botafogo neighborhood where our hostel was. After checking in and locking up our clothes and bags, we found pizza that looked cheap, and we ate it outside the restaurant, sitting in folding chairs at a flimsy card table set up on the sidewalk.
“Copacabana beach isn’t far, and we still have a few minutes of daylight,” I said.
Carlos pulled out a map, though we didn’t have trouble finding it. He grinned. “Guess we look like tourists, huh?”
Actually, the whole Copacabana neighborhood seemed to exist solely for tourists. The streets were full of rich Brazilians strolling about while the sun set, probably thrilled to be taking a vacation from their stuffy offices in rainier cities. Carlos and Brook and I wound around corners still bright with magazine stands, found the metro station and got to the beach easily enough. Looking at the big, beautiful hotels and the joggers on the famous black and white tiled sidewalk, we went all the way down to the water. On the beach we passed people playing volleyball and strumming guitars. We waded for a few minutes, beginning to feel more energized. Slinging my keds over my shoulder, and without making any excuse or big scene, I started walking down the beach, just a few yards ahead of them. It was a relief to be sort of alone for the first time all day. I thought about nothing deep but enjoyed all the lights coming on in the darkening city, thinking only I’m in Rio, I’m in Rio. I am happy, I am happy.
I remember exactly the moment when I realized that the boys jogging behind us were not just out for their evening exercise. I remember the acute and swift change in the way I perceived those three young men: in an instant, I knew that they were not running by us but running toward us. I thought to myself, they want to catch up with us, and that is not good.
I bet they were all under twenty. They were dark-skinned, barefoot, and shirtless, wearing only athletic shorts. Soon my companions and I would be cornered by them and the ocean. I tried veering off towards the road, where there were a lot of people and the lighting was much better. I ran for a few seconds, but I wasn’t fast enough. When you are being chased in the sand, it is very difficult to escape. We were far enough away from people, and the ocean is so noisy anyways, that we could not be heard from the road. It was quite dark by this time, the moon hanging high over schmaltzy hotels and ant-sized people licking ice cream cones. And so we were in public, in the heart of a vibrant city, and we were totally alone.
They caught up to us quickly, three on three. One on one they made their demands. The tallest and strongest one shoved Carlos onto the ground and ripped off his backpack. In the background I heard Brook screaming in panic, shouting proficiently in Spanish in her terror. A strong pair of black arms pushed me firmly on the sand. I threw my bag as far away from me as I could, and I kneeled there in the cold sand saying nothing as the man dug around for cash. It was only when he said, “Only money, only money,” that I realized he was holding a knife. Any ideas I’d had of screaming were immediately dismissed. In fact I even tried to help him.
“It’s in the pink wallet—”
He seemed frantic, like he wanted to get away as quickly as possible. He was smaller than his two comrades. He spoke more softly, and his hands shook slightly as he rifled through my pile of belongings turned out on the sand. Later I wondered a lot about this guy—maybe he was the youngest of the three, maybe it was his first time mugging somebody. Maybe he was terrified I would try to fight back and he’d have to use his knife to make big cuts in me. His knife was enormous, and to me it looked like the kitchen knife I use to chop meat or onions. Maybe he had used it before to hurt people. I don’t think so though. I think he was pretty new at this business: he didn’t even feel inside my pockets.
It was all over in just a few seconds. The three phantoms sped off down the beach with our cash, Carlos’ passport, some electronic devices. We were unharmed. Still, as I started to move around and think about what we had to do, I saw that both of my companions were crying.
Isn’t it strange, people’s instant reactions to such moments of extreme stress? I attribute my emergency calm to all the years I’ve spent as a nanny where I learned that nothing is better in a crisis than to make sure everyone is breathing and then hatch a multi-step plan for recovery.
“Come on, come on,” I said, putting an arm around each of them. I felt strange. I was overwhelmed, of course, but for a few minutes I loved them. “We have to get out of here. Come on. Pick up your things, quick!”
When we got back up to the road, we asked a young woman walking her dog for directions to the police station. It was only a few blocks away, and she offered to go with us, making sympathetic clicks with her teeth and saying, “How awful, how awful!”
She waved goodbye and left us alone with two burly policemen. One of them spoke slowly, questioning us in Portuguese and glancing sidewise to smile at his cohort whenever we made errors. Then he said to us gently, “This happens every day.”
They insisted on driving us along the beach to look for the offenders, though they admitted it was only because of protocol. I told them I wouldn’t even be able to recognize any of the men’s faces, but the officers still made us look through a binder filled with mugshots. They gave us water to drink and told us we could use their telephone to call our parents.
I sat in the corner next to Carlos while Brook used the phone. I was wondering how difficult it would be for him to get his passport replaced when I suddenly realized he had started crying again.
“Oh Carlos! It’s ok, Carlos,” I said, startled. I quickly reached out and touched his arm.
“My mom,” he said. “She’s just going to lose it. And my sisters!” Now he was crying even harder. It broke my heart to hear him choke on the word “sisters.” While he sobbed softly in the chair with his hands covering his face, I said nothing, only gently rubbing his shoulder with my hand in a slow, circular motion.
I kept the phone call to my own parents as brief as I could. I couldn’t help remembering the time I’d called them at midnight on a 4th of July late in high school to tell them I’d been hit in the eye with a bottle rocket. I wondered if they would be more or less upset to hear I’d been mugged on a different continent by a boy with a knife.
“Hi, Dad. I’m just calling to tell you I got mugged tonight but I didn’t get hurt. I’m in Rio still, with my friends. I’ll call you tomorrow. Love you.” I hung up quickly.
The metro was closed by the time we were through at the police station, so the officers gave us a ride in a cop car back to our hostel. Brook and Carlos sat on either side of me in the backseat, both of them bleary-eyed and silent as we rolled through the dark city.
“Be careful, please,” said one of the officers as we climbed out of the car. “Choose your walking paths more carefully next time.”
“Thank you,” I said, “Thank you very, very much.”
We climbed up the narrow stairs to the top storey where we were sharing a room filled with crowded bunk beds. As I dead bolted the door, Brook pulled her suitcase down from the shelf and energetically began shuffling items around.
I said, “I guess we’re pretty tired.”
Brook didn’t look up but kept rummaging through her bags. “I’m not staying here,” she said.
I sat down on a bottom bunk. I had to slump forward and bow my head a little to keep from hitting it on the top bunk’s mattress. “What do you mean, exactly?” I asked.
Her voice was quivery. “I fucking hate this country,” she said.
Carlos’ breakdown at the police station had been easy for me to handle, but now I sat wilted and motionless on the bed, unable to think of anything to say.
“Let’s just go back to São Paulo tomorrow,” said Carlos, stretching out in bed without changing his clothes.
“Wait,” I said, “but we’ve already paid for two more nights at this hostel. You don’t really want to leave early, do you?”
“I’m not staying in this city,” said Brook.
Carlos was quiet for a moment. “I think we should go back,” he said.
“You can both do that,” I said. “But I’m going to stay. We’ve hardly seen Rio at all—”
“I don’t want to see Rio!” Brook was shouting now. She jumped up with her toothbrush and flashed past the bed where I was sitting.
“I’ll stay by myself then,” I told Carlos while Brook was in the bathroom. “I just won’t go out after dark.”
I rode the trolley to the bus station with them the next afternoon and we parted ways outside the building. After waving goodbye to them with a cheerful “Tschau,” I turned around and walked back to the nearest metro station I remembered passing. I bought a ticket and went straight to Copacabana.
The idea of going back didn’t scare me. It was the middle of the day, and I knew that at this hour the beach would be packed with people sunbathing. Rio is consistently a good ten degrees warmer than São Paulo, so its beaches are swimmable all year round. I thought I would be able to find the spot pretty easily since it was right in front of the Copacabana Palace hotel.
I don’t know if I really made it back to the same exact spot or not, but I didn’t find any of the objects I’d hoped might be poking out of the sand waiting faithfully for me to come back and get them. I walked a long way down by the ocean in the direction the three assaulters had run, faintly hoping they might have thrown down Carlos’ backpack after emptying his valuables. I thought his journal might be lying somewhere in the middle of all the bikini-clad tourists, a whole book of code waiting to be found by someone who could decipher its English secrets and would take the trouble to mail it to the San Diego address written on the first page.
I walked back again to the spot where I thought we’d been attacked and dallied a few minutes longer, shuffling my bare foot in wide arches through the sand. I knelt down and dug with my hands, feeling for bits of paper. In the hostel the night before, I had carefully gone through my small collection of belongings, accounting for credit cards, IDs, house keys, an address book. Other than cash, there was nothing missing except a tiny note that had been carefully folded up in my wallet since Christmas, a scrap with a silly rhyme my boyfriend had made up on his typewriter and given to me for Christmas with some Erik Satie sheet music. For a minute I sat alone in the sand, crushed to think of that love note being violently sprinkled over the dark beach along with the loose pennies and dimes.
I first started feeling scared on the metro riding back to the hostel to freshen up before sight-seeing in the late afternoon. When the train door opened, I stepped on and sat down facing the aisle. I noticed that the car was empty except for me, and I began to feel mildly panicked.
Public transport had never scared me before, and I was taken by surprise. I called myself a fool and thought to myself that I had never been scared of beaches at night either, not before going to Rio. As I sat on the subway bench with one arm wrapped around a vertical metal pole, I couldn’t help myself from picturing any number of malicious figures entering the subway train and harming me, robbing me, shooting me, raping me, with no third party to witness or intervene.
If there is no one else around to stop it, anyone can hurt me, anytime, anywhere.
At the hostel I quickly grabbed a sweatshirt to wrap around my camera and shoved the whole bundle deep inside my bag. It was an overcast day but I wondered if sunglasses would help me look less like a foreigner just by masking my blue eyes. I copied directions to the Christ statue onto a post-it note so I wouldn’t have to carry a giant map around outside. I wondered if I could make it all the way there without getting lost and having to stop and ask someone for help, afraid my accent would turn me into a bright red target.
With no companions to argue with, chat with, drink passionfruit juice with, I couldn’t think of anything to do in Rio except for going to the cheesiest tourist attraction in the city. The Cristo Redendor “Christ the Redeemer” statue is perhaps even the cheesiest tourist attraction in the whole entire country. But on this day I didn’t care about that. I made my way closer and closer to the monument, riding around for hours, occasionally getting off one bus to pick another one that had more people on it. When I got to the bus-stop closest to the monument, I relaxed a tiny bit only because I heard snitches of people speaking English, French, and German. It was getting late in the afternoon when I squeezed onto the last tram taking tourists up the mountain to take pictures of Jesus Christ, stony and gigantic as he spread his arms over sprawling Rio.
At the top, I ambled around with the others, feeling safe but silly for touring alone. I heard others dropping happy “oohs” and “ahhs” but I was silent. Some people were making goofy poses in front of the statue while their parents or friends snapped pictures. I stood against the railing, looking back and forth between the sea and the tourists near me who were imitating Christ’s stony pose, making T’s with their arms and gazing loftily over the swirling streets and skyscrapers. Below me, too small for me to see, there were people getting kidnapped in the favelas, people getting weapons pointed at them. There were big people learning buying illegal automatic weapons in the slums on the city’s outskirts. There were smaller people begging for spare change on the streets in the city’s center, smaller people who weren’t yet old enough or strong enough to make their demands with knives or guns. A lot of them would get older and hungrier and someday they would attack people, too.
When I got back to school on Monday, I was secretly expecting to have become a minor celebrity among my teachers and classmates. Instead, I got a lot of sympathetic frowns along with stories of similar incidents.
“Hey, my boyfriend got mugged in Copacabana too!” said Marcela.
“Yeah,” said Maria Elisa, “A guy with a gun once mugged the car in front of me at a stoplight. He motioned that he would shoot me if I made any noise about it.”
At home I asked Neuza if she was surprised that we’d run into trouble.
“Well, it does happen all the time—I’ve gotten mugged a couple of times in parking garages,” she said. Then she chuckled and lowered her voice. “What was more a surprise was hearing Brook ring the doorbell at 2:30 in the morning and having her tell me she left you in Rio all by yourself.”
How much do the statistics matter? Crime rates are much higher in some places than others, but crime rates don’t seem to mean anything to my instincts.
I never got angrier with Brook than a few weeks later in when she got so drunk that Carlos and I had to drag her down convoluted paths around downtown São Paulo to get home without passing any poorly lit streets. Every time we passed a solitary figure, a dark-skinned figure, a shabbily-dressed figure, my face burned and my whole body became edgy and nervous.
My mother sent me an email to tell me she was praying for the men that robbed me. It said, “Praise God they didn’t hurt you.” When I read it, my mind filled up immediately with an image of a huge Christ made of rock overlooking barefoot shirtless men. Men who can run very fast. Men who want, “only money, only money” and have darker skin than me.
I see these men reflected everywhere now—they are the reason I’ve begun running red lights on my bike at night, why I flinch when dark-skinned homeless men ask me for directions downtown. I feel I should give money to beggars out of mere gratitude for not threatening me. I always think of imaginary conversations.
I say, “Oh, you’re a member of a disenfranchised group? No way, me too!”
He says, “Power dynamics are crazy unfair, huh?”
I say, “Sure, what do we do about it?”
He doesn’t ever have a good answer for me. I run or drive or pedal away before he does something unexpected.