Thursday, May 02, 2013

Learning Harder Lessons in Even Harder Ways, or How I Went to Brazil and Fought Off Two Muggers In a Beach Assault AND WON!

I'll just get straight to the point - yesterday I was mugged on the beach in Recife, Brazil.  Or, rather, I was the target of an attempted mugging.  I fought back, held on to my bag with every ounce of energy in me, and I won!  The guys ran away and I kept all my things.

Okay so now we can back up a bit. 

I've been working with students from Brazil since 2007.  I had heard plenty of anecdotal stories about crime in Brazil.  All of us college reps on this tour were given information packets including tips for safety in this country, common sense stuff like "do not go out alone," "store your valuables in the hotel safe," and "do not flaunt expensive items like cameras or jewelry."  I do not take that information lightly or laugh it off.  I don't want to live in constant fear, but I also want to be safe, so I shoot for the middle ground between adventurous and cautious.

Having my phone stolen in Sao Paulo made me feel so stupid - like how could I be so careless?  While everyone talks about the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) as these growing societies moving rapidly toward financial superpower status and their increasing middle classes, in reality Brazil is still a nation of Haves and Have-Nots.  And the Have-Nots desperately want to be Haves, no matter how it's acquired.  I should've known better.  I should've realized how this college fair might've appeared to an industrious young person - a large room full of expensive electronics whose owners were distracted by hundreds of people and conversations.

Our group departed Sao Paulo for Recife (pronounced by the locals as "heh-CEE-fee") last Sunday.  All I really knew about  Recife is that it's a large city of several million people, that it only recently got a US Consulate, that so many of my students had their visas denied there, in fact, that we started requesting that they go to Rio instead.  I think that's partly because many of my students came from poorer families and, to the visa interviewer, poor means "will try to immigrate to the US" so the visa would be denied using the vague justification of "insufficient ties to Brazil."  I had so little time to prepare for this trip.  I like to do a lot of research beforehand so I at least have a good idea of what to expect in each city and take notes about things to see and well-reviewed restaurants.  So I didn't quite realize until we had arrived that our hotel was not the greatest and that Recife is a city known for crime and instability.  Not that that knowledge would have stopped me from doing something as innocuous as walking to the beach directly across the street of our hotel in broad daylight with a colleague, which is how it happened.

A young woman from the University of Nebraska and I both had the morning off so we made plans to meet in the hotel lobby and walk to the beach.  Since my point-and-shoot camera, my iPhone, had been stolen, I only had my big DSLR camera.  I was well aware of its obvious value and size, but (again stupidly?) thought that 11:30am in a well-populated area in the most tourist-y section of the city/beach that the two of us would be perfectly fine.

Allison and I walked across the street down to the beach.  We took deep breaths and remarked how nice it was to have a morning off after the intensity of traveling, school visits, and college fairs day after day.  I took a photo of her as we waded in the surf then asked her to take one of me.  I immediately put my camera back in my leather purse, which I'd emptied of everything but my camera and some cash (see?  I knew not to have everything in one bag and to keep most of my valuables back in the hotel safe!).  I kept my bag firmly under my arm.  I purposely selected a leather bag with short handles for this trip because it is big enough to carry all my crap but I can keep it secure under my arms when in populated areas and airports.  Allison and I started walking toward the police towers and toward an area of the beach where more people were.  Again, this was an unspoken agreement we made as women who have traveled plenty.  It just so happened that, as we walked up the beach together, we were relatively alone for a few hundred meters in both directions.  As we walked in the surf we could hear people walking behind us and noticed the pace was quickening.  It didn't sound like joggers or people out for a stroll.  Again, we didn't talk to each other as this happened in an instant, but we both turned around at the same time and realized "Oh.  This is happening."

The two young men must have targeted us for some time, waiting for the perfect opportunity when there wouldn't be any other people nearby.  One guy grabbed for Allison but she didn't have a purse or bag on her, only her sandals in her hands.  As I mentioned, my bag was under my arm.  I think the heft of my bag helped me as it was too big to quickly grab - you'd pretty much need two hands.  And the straps were thick and leather, not the thin canvas straps that are on most travel-style purses that women wear cross-body style.

You hear that time is perceived very differently during these types of situations and it's absolutely true.  It was sudden but my thoughts slowed down and became very focused.  I held on to my bag not only with my elbows but with both hands now too.  Once the other guy realized Allison didn't have anything they both focused on me.  I think the guys were saying things in Portuguese.  I don't remember, or maybe they were grunting or saying something like "give it to us."  I do know that Allison said "Just give it to them.  Give them whatever they want."  But I was like "OH, HELL NO!  I reFYUSE to be a victim twice!"  I felt the bag start to give way and perhaps the strap break.  My biggest fear was that the straps would break and I would have to figure out how to protect the bulky part on my own.  The force by which both guys were grabbing and pulling knocked me down into the sand but again this worked to my advantage because I could sort of roll over on top of it.  When I hit the ground I suddenly realized, "Oh!  Why am I not screaming?"  So I started screaming as loud as I could "HELP!  HELP ME!  HEEEEELLLLLPPPPP!!!!" I screamed and screamed and screamed louder.  I let loose, man.  I can only imagine how I must've appeared, rolling around in the sand, gripping onto my bag and screaming like a madwoman.

But here's the thing - IT WORKED!  They guys must've realized I would start to attract attention so they ran away.

It was over as quickly as it started.  Before it could even register, I was blinking in the unrelenting sunlight, covered in sand, holding on to my bag like a baby.  Allison and I were like "what just happened?"  I got up unsteadily and limped a few hundred yards to the police/lifeguard tower.  Two men followed us to the tower.  I think they had witnessed what happened and wanted to offer their assistance but I was in no state to deal with two more strange men approaching me, speaking only Portuguese.  The guard/police officer in the tower eventually came out and said something while holding a walkie talking.  At this point the adrenaline was subsiding and I felt incredibly vulnerable and shaky and was still covered in sand.  At this point I also realized that my skin was rubbed raw in places where I'd hit the sand so hard.  So I just wanted to get back to the safety of the hotel as soon as possible.

As we walked back to the hotel three police on Segways found us.  Apparently they were the ones contacted via walkie talkie.  They tried to talk to us in Portuguese/English.  I got that they wanted us to describe the attackers.  We were able, in our broken Portuguese/Spanish to at least get t-shirt colors and skin color across.  A group of people on a balcony above us called down.  I think they were pointing out that the men had left on bicycles.  They had disappeared.  They realized I wasn't letting go of that damn bag and ran off.  In the presence of the three police officers I felt safe enough to open my purse and relieved to see that everything was intact and appeared to be in good shape.

We walked the block back to the hotel, stepping over raw sewage in places.  That's the dichotomy of Recife, Brazil - huge multi-million dollar high rise hotels/apartment buildings built next to crumbling shacks.  The sidewalks are seeping in sewage and trash and pollution.  And these are the sidewalks in the "good" part of town!  The expensive boardwalk section.  At the hotel I rinsed off, treated my minor wounds with antibiotic ointment and ice on my elbow from where I gripped that bag with all my might.  And although it was a gorgeous sunny day and we had hours left before we had to go to the airport, I stayed in my room.

Last night we flew to Natal, a city on the easternmost tip of Brazil.  It's everything that Recife wasn't.  Beautiful, welcoming, sunny, comfortable.  Last night we went to the hotel where our conference was held.  What a complete shithole!  Seriously.  This hotel was worse than the nastiest America's Best Value Inn in some godforsaken backwater town.  I was in the worst possible room, too - next to both the main elevator AND the lobby on the first floor.  I felt even more exposed and vulnerable, knowing that there was only one flimsy door between me and everything outside.  I slept maybe three hours, waking constantly to check the lock on my door.  It was a room with two twin beds, thin scratchy sheets, a malfunctioning hotel safe, and cracked windows that dripped all night.

First thing I did this morning was walk across the street and check in at the lovely Araca hotel.  For the equivalent of like $20 USD more, I am in heaven.  My room has a terrace that overlooks the beach.  Right now I am listening to one of my all-time favorite sounds - waves crashing on the shore.  Despite this sounding like a fantasy situation (lovely hotel, beach, ocean waves, warm wind lapping on my skin) I am still kind of a raw, frazzled mess.  It's 3:00am and I still can't sleep.  I keep looking outside thinking that the shadows of the trees are people who have somehow managed to leap over the impressive gates around the hotel and break into my room.  I hate being controlled by fear.  I must fight this anxiety and fear the same way I fought the attackers.

Anyone else been through anything similar?  How did you work through it?  Carolyn?  You were mugged in  Chicago, right?  How many years ago was that?  How did you get over the PTSD?

Just so we're keeping score, I believe it's currently Brazil: 2, Alannah: 1

How about some photos?

The food in Brazil is incredible.  Here was a delicious seafood paella I shared with a colleague in Recife

The view of the beach from my hotel room in Recife - see?  Too sketchy at night.  AS OPPOSED TO BROAD DAYLIGHT??

My extremely "eh" hotel room in Recife.  Don Draper on the laptop to keep me company.  This room was I think like $250 per night.  Ridiculous. 

Approximately 10 minutes before the assault.  Looks pretty standard and safe, huh? 

Not deserted and dangerous-appearing to you, is it?

The skinny shiny building to the left is our hotel.  That's how close we were.  But you can also see this area of the beach isn't so we started walking toward the guard tower.  I imagine the guys were off to the left here, laying in wait for the right moment.

I zoomed way in on that bicycle.  It's possible that he might have been one of the guys, riding back and forth and waiting to make his move.  I might be overly paranoid and CSI-happy, but it's a good possibility that's our man.   The more aggressive guy was wearing a teal t-shirt

I asked Allison to take my photo.  For the sake of the photo I dropped my bag down next to my side.  As soon as she took it, I put the camera back in my bag and tucked it firmly under my arm.  Not seven minutes after this photo we were ambushed.  Am I using overly florid language?  It's justified, I think.  Just wait until  you get to my injuries. 

After the mugging, I put my camera away for more than a day.  I didn't want any photos or memories after that.  This is the next day at the much prettier and safer beach at Natal.  Totally different vibe, huh?

The private path from our hotel to the beach.

The terrace pool & restaurant at the Hotel Manary, an unbelievably charming and wonderful hotel & restaurant.  We ate there twice today it was so perfect - both food and service were top notch. 

Hotel Manary - highly recommended should you ever find yourself in Natal, Brazil.

Finally I started to relax

Okay, it's been about 30 hours since I was mugged.  I am ready for a caipirinha now.

Absolutely incredible dish at Hotel Manary - Fruta do Mar.  Lobster, calamari, filet of fish, mussels, shrimp, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, and pineapple all grilled and presented on this huge cast iron platter.  We split with between four people.  It was more than enough food and worked out to be less than $20 per person!

WARNING!   You might lose your appetite here.  In fact, I won't even blow up the photos.  If you're gross like me, though, you can click on them and behold my injuries in full size.  Why did I take photos?  For evidence, perhaps.  To remind me of how real it was.  I don't know.  I'm processing this in strange ways, perhaps.

This is the worst of my injuries.  It's my inner elbow, from where I gripped and held on to my bag the hardest.

Another view of the elbow

Okay, Alannah, I think that's enough now.

Okay, well how about some sand scarring?  On my knees...

And shoulder.  And my weird eye.  But that's not the fault of the attackers. 

I'm going to fix my bag when I get back.  I love this bag so much and now I love it even more for being sturdily made. 

They came VERY close to ripping the strap off and then might've been able to pull the bag out from under my arms.  

But I have to keep coming back to the important part - THEY DIDN'T WIN.

I've been getting conflicting responses from people.  Some say that a camera and my wallet wasn't worth it, not worth being injured.  But I say it was.  To be a woman is to constantly think, "What would I do if I were ever attacked?"  And I am proud to say I reacted how I had hoped I always would.  I refused to be a victim.  I screamed insanely.  It worked.  I didn't fight back in that I never struck the other guys, but I defended myself.  I kept what was mine.  They ran away from ME.

F those guys.  They messed with the wrong old white lady. 


Wendy said...

OMG Allanah I'm so glad you are okay. Holy cow.

I Know Right? said...

It is teh risk of travelling. Its not tha I want to downplay or disregard what happened, because what occurred was awful Alannah. I am so very sorry you had to experience that. But int he long run, NEVER let it deter you from experiencing or enjoying life. (I dont think i need to even say that given teh type of person you are. I had one of teh scariest moments in my life with a group of about 15 Turks when some friends and I went to Muenster as teenagers in HS. It almost ended when knives were drawn by them but it all worked out in the end. Scared shitless for a little bit? Yes, but it willgo away. You fought, You WON! Always remember that. I am extrememly jealous of your trip. It looks amazing!!!

Carrie said...

Go Alannah! I'm so proud of you for fighting them off...maybe they'll think twice about mugging other women. In all of my travels I try to think of all the time I was helped by strangers instead of the few times I was tricked/harmed by them. When you asked your readers how they have processed similar encounters--I think of that ratio and it helps.... I'll have to tell you the Poland train story when I see you next...which will be the 17th. Next week. Yikes. Good wishes on moving. Go superwoman!