Brazil is a gorgeous country. Hands down.
But a safe country it is not; neither for the locals, nor for the tourists. I was in Brazil a few months ago, before the the FIFA World Cup opened its gates and after experiencing a robbery in the middle of the street, I have started wondering how safe it is for a foreigner to travel to this country.
São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro were top in crime rates during these last six months.
Recife, is the country’s most dangerous city; not according to ratings, but according to the locals. And one should trust the locals. They are reliable and street-wise.
During my last trip, even though I was in well-traveled company, there came that moment of immense naiveté, which made us the perfect victims. With one camera hanging from my neck and an expensive watch on my companion's hand, of course we became the target. Neither the time of day, nor the surrounding crowds mattered. We were speaking half in Greek, half in English – in the language of the tourist, in other words. We were robbed at gunpoint (the gun seemed real), at three in the afternoon, in Jardins, one of the most expensive areas in São Paulo, in only four seconds. For some reason I am yet to comprehend, my camera remained intact.
The robber was probably an amateur, which is rare.
And if you are thinking, “come on, how common can that be?” I can tell you it is. It is so common that you’d rather go prepared. My first-hand experience made me revisit and update the Safety Manual in my suitcase, and I am sharing it with you. Because safety should be top on your list of concerns – in every journey.
A few do’s, a few don’ts, and the Safety Manual is ready for use.
1. Keep your eyes open and always be alert.
No one will mind if you stare. Don’t be naïve and don’t be absent-minded. I know, you are on vacation, and you’d rather be carefree, but not in Brazil. Brazil is not Europe. Be mindful of everything and everyone.
2. Take with you only what is truly necessary.
Leave large handbags and wallets at the hotel, and limit yourself to the basics. Whatever is visible could be a target. However, have your passport with you if possible. Otherwise, lock it in the safe box of your hotel closet.
3. If you need money, opt for the ATMs at your hotel or those at large shopping centers.
Things are risky in the streets. Keep in mind that some ATMs work only until 10 at night, for obvious reasons. Draw money only while the sun is up. A bit like with pasta – it’s better not to eat it after the sun has set. It’s dangerous.
4. If you fall victim of theft (like we did), report the incident to the tourist police.
Ask the hotel for information, if you need to, and report the incident. The chances you recover your favorite watch are miniscule (sorry to say that), but you better be typical. You should know that robbers rely on the fact that tourists don’t report instances of theft.
5. Have money with you at all times. Even just a little.
Thus spoke the locals. It’s tactics. When the robbers ask for something, you give something. If you say you haven’t got any, they might not believe you, and I don’t think you’d want that. Give something and then indicate you have no more. They will just leave and won’t waste any more time on you, since everything must happen in the blink of an eye.
6. On the beach, go only with your bathing suit, your towel, and your flip-flops.
If you want to return home without casualties, that is. In Copacabana, of course, I can’t guarantee you won’t lose even those flip-flops. They steal anything, from shoes to burgers. The only thing you may be left with is your bathing suit. You think I am exaggerating? Better safe than sorry, I’d say. Trust me.
1. No watches, no jewelry.
It’s not accidental that even the locals go without. If you don’t, you will become a target and most probably you’ll get robbed. Leave them at your hotel and if you want my advice, leave them back in your country of origin. You need neither. Honestly. No need to keep time or look fancy.
2. Don’t show your new phone off.
If possible, it should never see the light of day. In Brazil, iPhones are a number one target. They’re expensive and most people might need to work for 8 months to be able to buy one. Having lunch or coffee? Never leave it on the table. Going for a walk in the city? Keep it hidden (as much as you can). Move carefully, don’t become over-exposed and, generally, don’t expose your gadgets.
3. Let’s suppose you are held at knife or gunpoint (like we were). Never resist.
No matter how much you love your watch, no matter how much you don't want them to get hold of the secrets on your phone, you give what you are asked for and hope it ends soon. Our own adventure lasted for just four seconds and no one resisted of course.
4. Try and hide, as much as possible, the fact that you are a tourist.
Don’t talk loud, don’t let your country of origin become evident, and don’t divulge too much information. Keep you talk gentle and frugal. Thus spoke São Paulo’s Military Police. The thieves are after you, the tourist. And they will find you, so be mindful.
5. Don’t walk alone, especially in areas you are not familiar with.
Avoid small streets and isolated alleyways, and avoid exploring neighborhoods whose safety is not guaranteed. It’s better if you move around in company, morning or night. If you can, use a taxi. I don’t like suggesting this because I prefer to walk the cities, but apart from being inexpensive, it’s also safer, most of the times.
6. If you really want to visit the favelas, make sure you distinguish between the pacified and non-pacified favelas.
Even in the pacified ones, you do not enter alone. Don’t even attempt it. Make sure you find a guide, a local, who speaks the language and knows which favela you can go in and walk around, with safety.
Like every manual, this, too, was written to help you out, but following its instructions is your own responsibility. Trust your judgment, travel prudently and carefully, and enjoy each moment. No need for exaggeration, panic, or stress. Follow your instincts and common sense, but keep in mind that whatever seems normal to you, might be misunderstood there. So, observe the local customs and adjust your behavior accordingly.
Adjustment is the key word.