This isn’t entirely a happy post and (spoiler alert) the title already tells you what happened. However, despite not being a fun post or memory, it was a pretty big event in our travels, so we thought we should still document it here – not least because we think overall we have dealt with the ordeal positively.
When we lived in Beijing, they had a saying – “you aren’t a true Beijinger until you’ve had your bike stolen.” Erwan became a true Bejinger (twice), yet despite living there a year, Jen never did – largely because she invested in two locks that together cost the same as her bike. Anyway, in Rio, apparently, they also have a saying (although slightly sadder) – “you’re only a true Carioca [person from Rio], once you’ve been mugged”. We became true Cariocas on our very first night in Rio – indeed our very first night in Brazil.
When we first arrived in the city, it was early afternoon and it was pouring. So, we took the time to map out our next few days of awesomeness. We were going to be spending 3 days here, then a two-day break to Ilha Grande and then back to the city for two days – including Christmas Eve. We had a lot planned and were good to go by the time the sky cleared.
As it was early evening, we decided to walk to the Escadaria Selon (those famous Rio stairs), which weren’t too far from our Airbnb flat and then we would head up the hill to the Santa Theresa neighbourhood to see the sunset and catch dinner. Santa Theresa is full of 19th century mansion houses and is known for its lovely little restaurant and bar scene. Our guidebook recommended it and mentioned no warning on safety (despite doing so for several other areas in other cities/countries).
The Escadaria were nice, but very touristy – tons of selfie takers, who took a really long time to make sure their shirt/hair/pout were just right.
As it was a Sunday, the tram up to the Santa Theresa area was not running, so we walked it – despite the earlier rain, it had turned into a lovely evening.
It’s a winding road up, which gives you little snippets of glimpses down to the city.
We get to the top and had we turned right, there would be the lovely street of bars and restaurants, with fun atmosphere and lively music. However, as it was sunset time, we see that there is a lookout if we turn left. We turn left. At this lookout, there’s also a group of guys gathered, but we don’t pay much attention to them and instead try to find a good view. Turns out the lookout isn’t that great, however maybe on the other side of this one mansion house? We walk down that street a bit to check out that view.
That view is also not that great, so we turn to leave. As we do so, Jen notices that two of those guys are now walking rather menacingly towards them. To avoid them on the sidewalk, she tells Erwan “let’s walk in the street”. We go to do so, but at this point, they run towards us (with one of them already being in the street – so three in total) and we are now trapped between two parked cars.
One of the guys brandishes a gun and says something that neither of us remember, but clearly they want our stuff.
Now, you never know how you will react in a situation like this until it happens. You can try to prepare, you can hypothesize on what you would do, but in the actual moment, your body just goes into automatic mode and does its thing. You can only think and analyse after the fact.
Also in this situation, there are really only two responses – relinquish your stuff or resist (in its different forms). People will have opinions on which is better in the moment and we are not going to advise on which should be taken – probably because both us took a different approach. . .
When the guy took out the gun, Jen got a good view of it and rightly or wrongly, immediately thought “that’s a fake gun” (the proportions of the barrel looked too long and skinny). She thus went the resist route, thinking “it’s not real, I’m not handing over my stuff”. She thus, kept her backpack on her (it was also clipped around her waist) and held tight to her camera (around her neck), poking out her elbows to block the grabs (basketball training?), refusing to hand over anything and mumbling “no, no, no”.
In contrast, Erwan did not see the gun clearly, so with the threat of being shot dead, he unclipped his backpack and allowed it to be taken. One of the three guys runs off with this prize.
The other two are still working on trying to pry the camera from Jen’s hands and yank the backpack off her back. In so doing, they are now dragging her along the street and she is screaming. Seeing Jen in this state, Erwan comes to defend her, saying “Don’t hurt her”. The love, yet desperation that was heard in his voice while stating it, still makes Jen tear up. . .
As Erwan comes to help Jen, one of the guys turns on Erwan and starts hitting him with the butt of the gun. The blows go to Erwan’s left arm (which Erwan was using to block) and his head. The gun breaks on Erwan’s head, shattering plastic bits everywhere – it was indeed fake. . .
Meanwhile, Jen is still on the street, lying on her back, but with only one guy, she is also able to kick the offender as he still tries to get her camera. Her havana flip flops now break in the process. Also during this, the phone in her pocket is either taken or falls out (and then taken).
Eventually, having taken one backpack and a phone, and now with a broken ‘weapon’, the guys give up and run off. We’re not sure, but the whole ordeal probably lasted about 30 seconds.
Once they leave, the first thing Erwan says is “do you see my glasses?”. They had fallen off in the altercation. They were by Jen’s broken flip flops – although as havanas, they are easily fixed and put back on her feet. Fortunately, Erwan’s glasses are not broken and they are put back on his face.
From Jen’s screaming, neighbours had come out into the street and, dazed and confused, we stumbled towards them. Seeing the state of Erwan, with his shirt all bloody from his head wound, we first ask for a hospital – then the police. They call the police for us, as they say we need to do that first. Still confused, we take stock of ourselves and this is when Jen realises her phone is gone. We go back to the scene to see if we can find it, hoping that it just fell out, but nope, it’s stolen.
The neighbours were really friendly and also it seemed that they were also in a bit of a shock. One of them, Christina, lived in London for 12 years and was thus able to serve as our translator. She also invites us into her house to wait for the police, drink some water and clean up a bit.
We then wait for the police to arrive on her balcony overlooking the street. During this time, we learnt that the area has gotten increasingly dangerous over the past few months, with one of the neighbours commenting that she got mugged the previous week right around the corner. Christina, herself, is now planning on moving back to Europe due to the increased crime in the city.
While waiting on the balcony, a man walks by and picks up the baseball cap that had fallen off the dude that Jen was kicking. Christina yells at him saying it’s part of a crime scene, but the guy waves her off and continues walking with his new black Nike cap. In response, Christina states in anger and disgust, “everyone steals here; they steal from you, the president steals from all of us, and this guy takes a stupid cap!”
After about 20 minutes, the police arrive – two different cars. With Christina as translator, one set of cops attend to Erwan, but the others ask Jen to get in the car with them, as they will drive around the neighbourhood to see if she is able to identify the guys. We are doubtful this will work, as it’s been some time and the guys are probably long gone. Yet Jen complies and gets in the car.
They drive past all the restaurants and bars where we were originally heading to; they drive along another fairly busy street; and then they turn down a little side street. Suddenly Jen gets scared and paranoid. She’s alone on a dark, quiet side street with two guys who might not actually be cops, and yet they have massive semi-automatic guns, which Jen is pretty sure are real. If this is some kind of scam, how will she defend herself? Is she about to be kidnapped? Her brain is in overdrive.
Fortunately, it was not a scam, they were indeed cops, and Jen is soon back to the scene of the crime with Erwan.
By this point, two tourist police have also shown up. This is the unit that deals specifically with crimes against tourists. They will now accompany us for the rest of the night, and yet they only speak Portuguese.
Due to Erwan’s injuries they first take us to the hospital, where he receives 5 stitches in his head and gets his arm x-rayed.
Fortunately, the arm is not broken, however due to the significance of the bruises and the fragility of the arm, they wrap it in a cast and sling. Jen also gets her scraps on her knees and elbows cleaned up and wrapped.
At the hospital, we were quite a sight, with numerous people stopping to stare or even ask what happened. Not only were we clearly two foreigners, one of whom is completely bloodied, but we were also accompanied by the two police officers the whole time. This scene caused one woman (who was getting a cast just before Erwan) to give the officers an earful about how foreigners are treated better than locals. She probably has a point, but at that time, we weren’t going to complain.
Cleaned up and medically sorted with various prescriptions in hand, the two police officers then take us to the tourist police station to give our statements. Along the way, they very kindly point out all the tourist sites that we pass.
Our part at the police station was pretty straight forward, but it took hours for the report to be drafted and finalised. We were there until 3am (at which point, those same two police officers saw us safely back to our flat).
During the time at the police station, we were however able to take stock, gather our thoughts and gain some perspective on everything that just happened. Firstly, we were alive and we were still together. Secondly, the bastards didn’t get much in the end – the most valuable thing being Jen’s phone, but in Erwan’s backpack, there was mostly incidentals (I hope they enjoy our tissues and guidebook) and a bit of cash. The only annoying thing taken in it were Erwan’s prescription sunglasses. Thirdly, nearly everybody else in this city has gone out of their way to help us. Even regular people in the hospital expressed sympathy or concern.
Fourthly, we were not going to let this deter our travel plans – if we allowed that to occur, the arseholes would have stolen much more than a bunch of replaceable objects. From that, we vowed to continue traveling and not let this hold us back. In fact, we were going to try to remain positive as much as possible. There’s a statement that Jen heard once – “If you hang on to anger or resentment towards someone, then you are letting them live rent free in your mind” (or something along those lines). Screw that!
So, we remained positive. Yes, something horrible just happened to us, but again, we were alive, we were together, we still had most of our health, and we still have our adventures.
That being said, getting back to normal was a bit difficult. The next day, we did nothing in the city, but just rested and recovered. We only left the flat once to fill the required prescriptions and go to the bank – however, we also went to lunch at a lovely little vegetarian restaurant down the street. Also on the positive side, the recovery day allowed us to fully utilize the rooftop pool of our flat and catch up on our BBC documentaries.
The next day, we started the morning by going to visit the city’s Modernist Cathedral. However, both of us were anxious, so we didn’t really enjoy the experience. This was also the last time that Jen brought her camera out and about in Rio. . .
Yet, we found a solution to our edginess of sightseeing – explore the city by air! After hearing about our ordeal, several of Erwan’s friends chipped in and sent us money, telling us to “treat ourselves”. Although one of the friends suggested we use the whole amount on a massive quantity of caipirinhas, we went for a helicopter ride over the city. It was amazing! One of the best things of our trip so far! We are truly thankful for all those who made this happen.
And since, we didn’t feel like going out that night, we spent the time making this video (which is also amazing)!
We would have been ok with leaving Rio after that, but that’s not what our travel plans were. So, after spending a lovely two days in the beautiful and peaceful (emphasis on the second adjective) Ilha Grande, we came back to the city as previously planned to spend two days, including Christmas Eve. This time we were staying by the beach. These two days, were about as active as the other two and we spent the time resting or running errands relating to getting our life back in order.
So, while we did visit both Ipanema and Copacabana Beaches, have dinner at the Veuve Clicquot restaurant (a cashed in birthday present for Jen from Erwan’s family) and see the awesome Modernist Cathedral, we did very little else in Rio – despite having so many plans when we first arrived. . .
- Favela Tour – no, cancelled as it was booked for first thing the morning after the incident
- Samba school – sadly not
- Sugerloaf Mountain – nope
- Old Town – none of it
- Hike to Christ the Redeemer – nada
- Botanical Garden – nao
- Maracana Stadium – nein
- Niteroi museum – Jen’s a bit gutted about this one
So yea, Rio is still largely characterised for us by a pretty horrible experience. However, as Forest Gump coined “shit happens”. What matters is how you deal with that shit. All of the bad people are entirely outnumbered by all the good people. Everyone else we met in Rio were warm and lovely. Furthermore, if it wasn’t for the mugging, we wouldn’t have gone on the helicopter ride of the city – one of our favourite experiences so far. While we still wouldn’t want to be mugged, it does show that good things follow bad. We’ll try to focus on the good things and the good people.
Postscript – after the whole Rio experience, Jen finally went through all her photos from the night. This was the last one, before we were mugged. This woman knew. . .