Brazil is a fascinating country. I have travelled there on two separate occasions. On both occasions I was fortunate to stay with locals and see a lot of their way of life. Seeing and experiencing the local customs is one of the reasons I travel. I learned a lot about security, self reliance, what it can look like when society breaks down (temporarily) and how people respond when rules disappear or are not enforced. In many ways daily life in Brazil is the situation people in North America prepare for.
On my first trip there was a state of emergency in the state I was staying in. When we landed in Sao Paulo I noticed that the three prisons beside the airport had a lot people on the roof. In my ignorant first world opinion my first though was “wow third world prisons really are crappy”. This was not correct, not by a long shot. What I witnessed was the beginning of a prison riot that would shortly become a state wide state of emergency. The specifics are not important, the end result was gang leaders inside the prisons started paying people to kill police officers. The resulting violence was shocking. Police officers were murdered in their homes, at restaurants and on the street. Being “off duty” was no saving grace. The total body count was just under 300 people most of them were criminals killed during the police retaliation.
During the state of emergency the entire city shut down. This is a city of 30 million people (at best estimates) and all day to day activities stopped. It was like Christmas day, everyone stayed home.
On my second trip there was nothing so exciting but there is always a certain level of crime that tourists and residents alike need to be aware of. The following are my observations from both my trips.
The first lesson I learned was to blend in. It is hardly original but it is very beneficial to not stand out in the society, especially if you are significantly wealthier or poorer than everyone else. This isn’t as hard as it looks. Avoid logos on clothing; you may like designer brands but they will out you as an outsider. Avoid sports team branded clothing. I made the mistake of buying a shirt for the Brazilian National Soccer team, the first thing I was told was “take that off, nobody from here wears those.” I kept the shirt obviously but I didn’t wear it during the trip. If you are familiar with the culture then you can add little bits to help blend in. The general rule is if you don’t see other people wearing it/doing it then DON’T do it or wear it. Learn the local languages as best you can. The better you speak the language the easier it is to blend in and get out of trouble.
The second lesson is to avoid having a routine. Simply because of anyone is watching you they can set up a time and place to attack you of their choosing. On one of my trips there was a store owner who lived in the next town over. She left at a similar time after closing and went straight home. One day she was followed. They took what they wanted from her home. Then made her drive them to her store and let them in. They took what they wanted from the store. They finished the night by setting the woman on fire and leaving her for dead. The more uncertainty around you the less likely you are to be chosen for such an attack.
The third lesson is to avoid large crowds but don’t avoid people. The crowded market is dangerous if people feel threatened or afraid. People are unpredictable when frightened and it is very easy to get lost, hurt or killed in a mob and nobody see anything. Just as dangerous is being alone in the wrong area. If there is nobody else around then you are the only available target.
The fourth lesson is that geography matters. Every city has places that you shouldn’t go alone, or shouldn’t go at night or shouldn’t go unless you are from there. Learn where these places are and learn how to spot them. In the city I live in it is very easy for me to spot the dangerous areas. The problem is that different cities have different standards of what dangerous means and often the dangers themselves are different. Learning the local standards for dangerous area is critical. In many cities the dangerous areas are surprisingly close to very wealthy areas. Crossing the wrong block can sometimes be life threatening, like it is in Rio de Janerio there is a large slum two blocks from the hotels on copa cabana beach. Wander too far in the wrong directon and you will be in a whole heap of trouble.
Geography played a key role in our navigation during the state of emergency I described above. Because the target of the civil unrest were police officers we avoided going anywhere near police stations. The most likely places for violence in this scenario was a doughnut shaped ring around the police station where you weren’t too close to the station and there were too many officers. But not too far away from a station so the likelihood of seeing a police officer to attack is too low.
Always remember that geography is fluid when it comes to people, risk and danger. Riots are not in one place, they move around. As do criminals, armies, battles and victims. Always be on the lookout for signs your location is becoming more dangerous.
Geography is also important at other levels. During the state of emergency next state over was totally normal. We chose this time to visit another state and avoid the problem altogether.
Here is a list of things I noticed when the government or the market stops working for the public good.
If you don’t have a home, build one. This is how slums form. If enough people build a shack/shelter somewhere it becomes very difficult to remove them. If a slum exists long enough, they become proper neighborhoods with time.
If everyone has a gun then there is no such thing as gun control. On my second trip there was a story on the news about a statement a politician made. He said and I’m paraphrasing, “Anyone with a gun should turn it in to police and you will not be asked any questions”. Remember, there are already laws in place restricting firearms of all types but everyone still has one for personal security. The resounding response to the politician’s statement was “You First!”. The Brazilian people think as much about owning an illegal firearm as most North Americans think about speeding.
Please don’t think that Brazil is an overly dangerous place. I went twice for a month each time and nothing dangerous ever happened. But I was aware of my surroundings and I had expert guides in the form of local residents. Without them I am sure I would not have been as safe or seen as much as I did. I am writing about the danger I experienced in Brazil because it exposed what happens when a whole society is left to it’s own devices and the chaos/order that develops. In other words it provided a glimpse into the end of the world as I know it.