I felt a hand on my shoulder, firmly gripping my right trapezius. It was clearly the grip of a man, maybe even a trained masseur. After a split second, I concluded that it must be one of the two guys that I had shared a hostel room with for the last two nights. It was the sort of surprise greeting you’d expect to be followed by “Guess who?” or “Hey, Mike, what are you doing here?” I turned slowly, fully expecting to recognize the face behind the grip.
As I was contemplating who this might be, I detected a flurry of motion behind me. I turned and came eye to eye with a stranger. He was in his mid 20s, about my height, and wearing a muscle shirt that showed off his chiseled biceps. He was deeply tanned with a few days’ worth of dark beard on an angular jaw. Our eyes locked.
It would make a better story if I could describe seeing right through a set of cold, black eyes, or that the ocean or perhaps Rio’s famous mosaic sidewalk patterns were reflected in his eyes, or even that I saw my own face in the dark abyss, but I recall nothing of the sort. We spent no more than a second assessing each other. I was rapidly processing the clues that he was sending. He was probably wondering why this wasn’t going as he planned. The only thing more amazing than how quickly the brain works is how drawn-out a split second interaction can seem while it’s actually unfolding. Even my Commodore 64 computing power rapidly calculated that I was being mugged.
We were standing toe to toe. I could have taken a swing at him, and maybe have dropped him, but I might also have riled him enough to get a knife in the ribs. I reasoned that fighting back just wasn’t worth it. I was wearing three necklaces – two cheap pendants on leather strings that I had picked up in Chile and one gold chain with a gold ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ pendant that had been my mother’s.
In hindsight I realize that the guy initially tugged at all three chains and only managed to break the two leather straps that then dropped to the ground. It took a second yank while we were standing face to face before he got the gold chain.
It was over in seconds. He jumped on a bike that had been leaning against an adjacent railing. As I yelled a string of expletives, a second guy, who was very similar in appearance, rode up from behind me and yelled something in Portuguese as the two rode off together. I have no idea what he said. It could have been, “follow us and you’re dead,” or “shut up or I’ll come back there and cut your tongue out.” I don’t know.
By now you’re probably thinking that I was asking for this by hanging around graffiti-filled alleys in Lapa or Santa Teresa. That was the reaction of many friends and colleagues when I was innocently caught up in a G20 mass arrest in Toronto a few years ago. Many people tend to think, “Well you probably deserved it.”
The reality is that I was in Ipanema this afternoon. I was walking on the sidewalk beside one of the world’s most popular – and crowded – beaches. It was 1:30 in the afternoon. Swank hotels lined one side of the road, their patios full of people sipping expensive cocktails, a sidewalk and wide white sand beaches on the ocean side. There were literally thousands of sun worshippers and beach volleyball players within a few hundred meters. Hundreds more were on the sidewalk, walking elbow to elbow with me.
A small crowd gathered as the two thugs rode off. Few of the bystanders even realized what had just happened. Perhaps they were like me and had been lulled into believing that muggings only happen at night in the seedier parts of town. Most were probably thinking, “It could have been me.”
By this time I was about 10 meters from where the interaction had taken place. A hat vendor made his way through the crowd and handed me the two pendants and broken straps. He had found them on the sidewalk, a few meters from where we were now standing. I was thankful to get them back and gave him some money.
I decided not to wait around until police came and instead headed off to the hostel that was about four blocks away. As I walked, I thought about the gold ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ pendant that I would almost certainly never see again. I remember when my mother bought it in New Orleans in 1970. It was gold-plated and not worth very much. The chain was new and gold but about as cheap as gold chains come. Oh well, I thought, at least things didn’t escalate. I realized that had I taken a swing at the first guy, his accomplice would have been on my back in seconds.
Ten minutes later I was stopped at a red light, about three blocks away from the beach when I heard a guy yelling in my direction.
“Sir, sir, sir.” I turned to see a young man who I recognized as the guy who rents chairs on the beach. He had joined the crowd of people shortly after the muggers left and he was there when the hat vendor returned my two cheap pendants. He ran up to me at the stoplight and held out his hand.
“You?” he asked.
“Yes, yes. I mean, Sim, sim.” I stammered in Portuguese.
Another guy soon appeared on the scene and explained in English that they had found the streetcar pendant by the railing where the thief had parked his bike. They had just jogged three blocks to find me and only because I had obeyed several red lights (which few pedestrians do) had I still been out on the street and not back at my hostel. I reached in my pocket and gave the guy all the cash I was carrying – a 50 Real bill (about $20 Canadian).
I have no way of knowing what he thought. Was he embarrassed that a tourist had experienced the worst of Rio? Was he determined to personally show me the best side of Rio? He might have been thinking, “Twenty bucks, you cheap bastard!” I wouldn’t blame him. The pendant was gold-plated and of very little real value, but for all he knew it was an ounce of solid gold.
Lesson Learned: When in Rio, don’t wear even the cheapest gold chain, even when it’s concealed under a t-shirt. Rio’s street criminals are adept at spotting such things. However, some of the best looking but dumb-as-fuck criminals won’t realize your messenger bag contains the MacBook that you will use to write a 100% true account of Saturday #24.