Nightmare in Rio

In his maiden trip to Brazil this tourist, in an eventful week, was menaced by
a pickpocket, swindled by two young women, got a chipped tooth from a
defective manhole cover, met a dead body, had a stone thrown at his bus and even got
stung by a wasp. But he just might go back there one day.

William Moy

In his maiden trip to Brazil this tourist, in an eventful week, was menaced by
a pickpocket, swindled by two young women, got a chipped tooth from a
defective manhole cover, met a dead body, had a stone thrown at his bus and even got
stung by a wasp. But he just might go back there one day.

William Moy

Scam artists….a chipped tooth….a dead body….a near riot….a shattered window. Scenes from a soap opera? Headlines
from a sensational newscast? No, just a few of the unusual, unsettling incidents that occurred on my recent trip to Brazil. The
trip was not all bad news, but this was definitely the strangest vacation I have ever had.

My college buddy and I were both making our
maiden voyage to South America. The idea of temporarily trading the
Chicago coolness for the tropical spring of Brazil sounded good to us.
Our first destination was Rio de Janeiro, a city with a two-sided
reputation: glamorous and exciting, yet dangerous and intimidating. The
air-conditioned bus ride from the airport served as a nice preview of
Rio, as it passed through Centro (downtown) deserted on a Saturday
morning Glória, Flamengo, Botafogo, Copacabana.

Our route, most of which was alongside
Guanabara Bay, was lined with majestic palm trees. Unfortunately, the
bus zoomed several blocks past our intended dropoff. We did not know
how to ask the bus driver to stop in Portuguese, though it seemed
obvious to everyone else on the bus that we wanted to disembark. We
soon noticed that all the red octagonal signs stated “PARE”, so we
advise other novices like ourselves to say that if you want to capture
the attention of your local Brazilian driver.

Our home base in Rio was the Hotel
Martinique, whose main amenity is its proximity to the famed Copacabana
beach. The first night was a bit of a drag, for we were stuck with two
separate single bedrooms instead of getting one room with two beds.
This would not have been so bad except for the fact that the single
rooms were minuscule, with the bathroom occupying half the floor space.
(When I say the shower is in the room, I mean the shower is in the room
!). The 6-foot-by-8-foot living space featured a radio with two
stations and an air conditioner, which I turned on at night in order to
drown out the rowdy teenagers next door. After that and a little
complaint we got lucky and the management moved us into a bigger,
better, quieter two bedroom for the rest of our stay there.

Our first day was literally a washout, with periodic tropical downpours limiting our activities. My initial encounter with
the criminal element of Rio occurred about two blocks from the hotel. A teenage boy made a futile swipe for my wallet. Either
he was a lousy pickpocket or just an annoying prankster aiming to scare a visitor. This incident forced me to be even more
careful with my valuables (cash, passport, camera) and to be extremely conscious of my immediate surroundings.

The next morning was sunny, so we boarded a ferry to Niterói in order to view the scenic coastline of Rio. The
buildings in the foreground contrasted with the lumpy green and brown hills in the background, the most famous ones being Sugar
Loaf and Corcovado. My friend noticed that we were probably the only two “tourists” on the entire ferry, which serves as a
means of transportation for the Cariocas (a nickname for the locals of Rio) across Guanabara Bay. The

Cariocas were all dressed casually, and most of the males
sported soccer jersey replicas. The public buildings in Niterói were
festively painted with an assortment of pastel colors, passionate pinks
and lime greens and cool blues.

Our pure enjoyment of Rio took an abrupt
turn on a quiet street in Ipanema, away from the beach immortalized by
that “Girl from Ipanema” song. A young woman, playing the role of
goodwill ambassador, came up to us and declared that our clothing has
just been soiled. Then she pointed upwards at a palm tree, implying
that a bird had relieved itself upon us. She was so friendly, whipping
out a napkin to help clean our mess.

Our cheerful hostess was soon joined by
four or five of her male colleagues, all eager to undo the damage of
the airborne creature. Now two’s company, three’s a crowd, four or five
means scam! Our clothes were squirted with some mysterious substance by
one of these schemers. They were attempting to swipe our valuables by
utilizing this shifty tactic, which was prominently mentioned in
several guidebooks I had read before the trip. We backed away from
these vultures, and I am proud to say that nothing was lost. I did have
to wash my garments in the sink that evening, but the sweet-smelling
(bird poop? no way!) stains rinsed out with minimal effort.

We dodged one bullet, but my friend was
nailed point-blank later that same day. I joked with him about this
teenage girl, with a cast on one arm, who was performing a new scam by
asking us to unwrap a piece of gum for her. The levity of this moment
soon dissipated once we boarded a city bus. First, I must describe the
configuration of the typical local bus in Rio, which is not to be
confused with the air-conditioned airport bus. The passenger must board
at the back door, where a “cashier” accepts fares and doles out change
when necessary. The passenger then proceeds past a waist-high turnstile
to reach the seating area, and exits at the front door adjacent to the

After boarding behind me, my friend
flashed a five-real note, the equivalent of a five-dollar bill. While I
grabbed two seats, the cashier gave him insufficient change. At least
five minutes elapsed before my friend was properly reimbursed. When we
were about to exit at our stop, my friend noticed that his canvas bag
seemed rather light. He could not believe it; his expensive camera and
zoom lens were missing! This was a stunning development, for both of us
are seasoned world travelers who have never lost any valuables before.

My friend theorized that while he was
haggling with the cashier about the change, someone brushed past him at
the turnstile and lifted the goods. He even suggested that the cashier
worked in tandem with the thief by acting as a diversion to my friend,
and I am actually inclined to believe this scenario. He went to the
nearby “tourist police station” to report the crime, but it was a
foregone conclusion that he had seen the last of his camera equipment.

Too depressed to do any sightseeing
without his camera, my friend decided to hang out at the beach the next
day. I ventured out towards Sugar Loaf mountain, but it was now my turn
to take a fall. I was walking uphill on a sidewalk when I stepped on a
manhole cover. Instead of staying in place like a proper manhole cover,
it suddenly tipped, sending me crashing face first onto the pavement.
My collision with concrete resulted in a chipped tooth and an
assortment of scrapes and bruises, though nothing more serious. I was
dazed, cursing at the defective infrastructure.

At this point, I realized that this was
my personal nadir of this (or any previous) vacation, that there was
nowhere to go but up. I staggered uphill towards the first doorway I
could find, which happened to be a dental clinic just a block from my
accident. Little English was spoken here, with the exception being this
orthodontist who had recently trained in Chicago for a few months. She
explained that it was not necessary to extract my damaged tooth, but it
did have to undergo a bonding process.

I spent two hours having my tooth bonded by the lovely and talented Paula, a young dentist who wore earrings that
said “STOP” (why not “PARE” ?). I felt like the new arrival at the zoo, as the other dentists scrutinized Paula’s skillful
treatment of her hapless patient. The folks at the dental clinic were so nice to me that I was almost able to forget about my
miserable predicament.

The next day, I was actually successful in
reaching Sugar Loaf mountain (Pão de Açúcar) without injuring myself or
getting robbed. A handful of rugged souls are known to climb up the
sides of Sugar Loaf, but most people reach its peak by riding a set of
two smooth-running cable cars. The views from the peak are truly
spectacular, and it was fun to spot various buildings and landmarks in
the distance. The lofty Christ the Redeemer statue stands atop
Corcovado mountain, with arms outstretched to embrace all of Rio, for
richer or for poorer. The favelas, giant hodgepodges of shacks jammed into the hillsides, form
part of the colorful and complex mosaic that is Rio. As I observed the grand panorama around me, comfortably basking in the
morning sun, I finally felt relaxed for the first time in Rio.

Our merry romp through Rio continued in Centro, now bustling with
Cariocas on a typical weekday. My friend was interested in
taking a few photos of this classical building. The sculptures atop the
building were all curiously wrapped with light-colored fabric, vaguely
reminiscent of Christo’s Reichstag project which my friend had intently
observed in Berlin. The massive building itself was not wrapped,
revealing its Corinthian columns.


We were intrigued by a political rally taking place in front of the building. Facing the heavily guarded edifice, the
main speaker lectured forcefully to a crowd of supporters. The atmosphere within the plaza seemed a bit tense. While watching
a newscast that night, we saw shocking footage of the rally which degenerated into a near-riot. There were bloodied
officers, smashed vehicles, screaming protesters being hauled away by the authorities. Rats, we were this close to witnessing
mayhem and violence that was unrelated to a soccer match!

We departed Rio with bittersweet feelings,
my friend’s being mostly bitter. We hopped on a bus for a four-hour
ride to Parati. A small colonial town along the Atlantic coastline,
Parati was a good place to relax between Rio and São Paulo. Parati’s
six-block historical area features cobblestone streets and quaint
eighteenth-century buildings. I am not quite sure why we spent two days
here, however. One would have sufficed. After our intense stay in Rio,
I suppose both of us wanted to lay low for awhile.

Our place of residence featured a pleasant courtyard and an agile gecko (the house pet?). At first I mistook it for a toy
on the wall, but then it started to move about in search of food. This creature must have been the Michael Jordan of geckos, as
we cheered each time it sucked down a pesky mosquito and gasped after the rare misses. This spectator sport was nearly
as entertaining as watching a televised soccer game between two top Brazilian clubs in the “family room” of the inn. The
spirited reaction of the proprietors and their friends after a fabulous goal captured the essence of Brazil’s passion for

After our mellow stay in Parati, it was
time for a scenic six-hour bus ride to São Paulo. A sprawling gray
metrôpolis with over ten percent of Brazil’s population, São Paulo is
the most populated city in South America and is the third most
populated metrôpolitan area in the world (behind only Tokyo and New
York). Interestingly enough, the population density in São Paulo is
less than that in Rio. We stayed in Liberdade, which is the home of the
largest Japanese population outside of Japan at nearly one million.
Quite a number, but it is a mere fraction of São Paulo’s 16.4 million
inhabitants. When we dined in a local Japanese restaurant, I was unsure
of which “thank you” to utter: obrigado (Portuguese) or arigato (Japanese).

We happened upon a pulsating rock concert
in a plaza near the Teatro Municipal. I actually recognized one of the
band’s songs (must be a smash hit in Brazil), though I did not know the
name of the group. The acoustics of this outdoor concert were
surprisingly good, though not good enough to prevent one druggie from
bouncing about the inside of a police wagon. The officers were
certainly focused on the druggie, for another fellow relieved himself
next to the wagon (how nice!). Our evening was capped off by a dead
body across the way from the main cathedral. From our vantage point
there were no obvious signs of bodily harm; how did he die? The lonely
corpse attracted quite a curious crowd: police officers, local
passersby, plainly attired prostitutes….and two visitors from
Chicago. Gee, was this a new scam, the “corpse on the sidewalk” trick?
My friend and I left the scene, but the deceased was still waiting to
be carried away.

On our last day in São Paulo (and in
Brazil), we visited the Memorial da América Latina, a captivating
campus of curvilinear concrete buildings designed by Oscar Niemeyer,
Brazil’s most notable architect. The centerpiece of the Memorial is a
large “bleeding” concrete hand, with a red image of South America
superimposed in its palm to reflect the concept of Latin American
unity. In my own mind, the bleeding hand symbolized my freak fall in
Rio. We then ventured to Ibirapuera Park, considered to be São Paulo’s
equivalent to New York’s Central Park. An older grouping of Niemeyer’s
structures from the 1950’s dominates the park, which was quite popular
with the rollerblading crowd. The park also features a Japanese
pavilion, museums, sculptures and a planetarium. While in the park, a
wasp jabbed its stinger into my neck. Just my rotten luck, my first
wasp sting ever. At least I did not seem to suffer an allergic
reaction, though the back of my neck was rather sore for about an hour.

Our last meal in Brazil was the feijoada,
a stew which is the meal of choice for Brazilians on Saturdays. Just
about everyone in this particular diner was enjoying this rich
concoction of fatty meats and black beans, accompanied by rice and
greens. We drowned our daily sorrows with refreshing sucos, beverages made from Brazil’s cornucopia of fruits. How about

laranja (orange), morango (strawberry),
abacaxi (pineapple) or acerola (vaguely cherry flavored) ?

The escape from Brazil started on the jam-packed metrô. We were informed that our metrô ticket was not usable for the
airport bus, though we were led to believe otherwise. Oh well, the additional fare was not much, not a big deal.

Unlike in Rio, the passenger boards the
typical São Paulo bus at the front. One then pays a cashier sitting
near the driver, passes through the omnipresent turnstile and exits at
the rear door. The bus ride was uneventful….until we drove through
one of the favelas, and a marble-sized stone crashed through a
bus window. Luckily, no one was injured, though I mentally questioned
the judgment of the driver for stopping the bus in the middle of this
shantytown in order to view the damage from the exterior. What was he

After the unscheduled curbside
inspection, we proceeded towards the airport as if nothing had ever
happened. Soon, my friend and I both spotted a sign which appeared to
indicate the terminal for our flight, so we hurriedly followed a man
off the bus at this junction. We were puzzled to see the man walking
off into the distance; were we to follow him? Dumbstruck, we then
realized that this was not the terminal at all, but merely a minor stop
along the highway for specialized airport employees.

The sign which lured us off the bus was
actually an advertisement for a certain fast food restaurant, which
proudly proclaimed its location at that particular terminal! We were
marooned at this kiosk for only a few minutes, as another bus saved the
day for us. Naturally, the cashier refused to accept either of our
previous ticket stubs, so we paid a third fare in order to reach the
airport. As an appropriate epilogue, the announced movie on our flight
home (“Apollo 13”) was canceled due to technical difficulties.


We will definitely be laughing about this
surrealistic journey for years to come. Our slice of Brazil had its
charms: spectacular natural landscapes, tropical weather, miles of
beaches, delicious food and drink, beautiful women, exciting modern
architecture. However, the level of crime and poverty in the big cities
cannot be ignored. I have never encountered so many distractions,
scams, incidents, all concentrated in an eight-day span. I became
rather tentative on this trip, cautious, reacting instead of acting.

The vacation metamorphosed into a Brazilian obstacle course, and neither of us survived unscathed. Despite the
mind-boggling series of events, I would welcome a return trip to Brazil someday. Not soon, but someday. Now, I must send a
thank-you note to Paula.

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