As the title of this post already suggested, on my very second day in Brazil I was mugged in Fortaleza, while walking (or starting to!) along one of my favorite beaches, Beira Mar. Before you think “You should have known Brazil is dangerous”, let me tell you that yes, I know many Brazilian cities have a very sad record when it comes to street crime, but Fortaleza apparently wasn’t so high in the Brazil crime stats. Clearly, I wasn’t very up-to-date.
I’d arrived about three weeks ago and have taken advantage of the tranquility of the city for catching up with some work before a new hectic season from March on will start. Although I had initially contemplated the idea of staying in Fortaleza for at least two months and do some travel in the neighboring states, this unpredicted occurring of events made me change my mind and future destination.
It was Carnival time, and apparently in those days Fortaleza pickpockets feel entitled to mug passers-by and the police doesn’t feel it’s necessary keeping the streets under control.
Also, because I know of the worrisome figures and because I’m constantly reminded by locals who never forget to warn me every single time I go out or I try to take a picture of something, I usually don’t carry anything with me.
That morning, barely 7am (pickpockets don’t sleep??), before the unforgiving sun would start hitting too much, I left home to go for my usual beach walk with my tiny shoulder bag with inside literally only my keys, money worth about 10 euro to buy some water on my way back home, and a tissue.
When I was in Beira Mar, before reaching the beach, a guy approached me and tried to sell me some canvas he was carrying. When I refused to buy the painting or whatever he was selling, he followed me to the beach and asked me point-blank “You are Italian? Give me your bag!” My first, impulsive reaction got spoken before I could activate my brain (I’m a morning bird, but it was still 7am): “No!” I said, and immediately waking, my wiser self shouted out to the irresponsible side of my mind “What are you stupid or something? He can have a gun, give him your dress if he asks for it!”
But it was too late, the damage had already been done, and since I didn’t volunteer to give him my scant beach possessions, he came to take them. He grabbed my bag, held down my protesting arm, and kept working on pulling out my tiny purse. Since I haven’t learned to shut up in awkward moments, and since I was aware he had already decided my bag was going to be his first loot of the day, I gave it another try: “There is nothing in the bag!” Very clever attempt, to which my aggressor, rather unsurprisingly replied: “Let me decide about it, I’ll take it anyway.” Flawless argument.
Hopeless and nearly bag-less, I tried my last attempt: I started shouting, in the vain hope someone on the long beach could hear and/or care. No help arrived, the guy was already running away with my bag. I ran after him, he even looked back, not sure if he couldn’t believe I was actually following him or hoping I would. After I got out of the beach and emerged in the paved avenue, a lady who (finally) realized what was going on asked me pretty much the same way as if she was asking me if I’d fancy a coffee: “Did he have a weapon?” I froze, I looked at her and I replied: “I don’t think so, at least he didn’t show me one.” In that moment, as he turned around a corner, I stopped and gave up altogether, scared that someone was waiting for him and knowing full well that I really didn’t want to put myself in that situation.
Admittedly, his catch was not nearly as big as he might have expected from a foreign tourist. Now I might be giving the impression I took it with breeze and irony, but at the moment, and for about two days afterwards, I was frightened. The fact that it happened near my house didn’t allow me to stop for a moment thinking that I might have seen him again should I go back to the beach, and in the very next days I barely went out only when strictly necessary, without any bag and not without a constant sense of fear.
Let me tell you, I had been mugged before, once in Rome and once the friend I was traveling with in Seville. It made me angry, annoyed, and caused me troubles, but I was never scared. Why? Because the pickpockets at least tried not to be seen, they sneaked their hand into my bag and ran away, in fact I don’t know their face, but this time the guy really didn’t care if I remembered his face. He came out of one of the beach stalls where they sell drinks carrying a series of paintings to sell (or pretending to sell) and just decided to steal my purse.
Fear was replaced by a sentiment of anger. How was it possible that no police was around knowing that Carnival days are a pickpockets’ feast? How was it possible that everybody takes it for granted that if you go out with a bag you are likely to getting mugged and nobody is doing anything about it? The first thing that comes into my mind is that this is not exactly an incentive for tourists to come, but then I remembered this is not exactly Fortaleza’s first priority.
I’ve been coming to Brazil every two years for the last twenty years, and the changes I have witnessed unfold in such a huge country in so little time since Lula got to power are incredible. Even who didn’t vote for him recognizes that now the poor can eat. This is why I fail to understand why the local administrations are not addressing the street crime issue properly.
Although I know they won’t rob you every time you go out with a bag, I’ve also learned that if it does happen locals are pretty used to it, it’s not a big deal, and just be thankful thieves were not armed.
If I can issue any advice, it will be not to bring anything valuable with you in order not to get mugged in Fortaleza, don’t wear jewelry nor a watch and if you can, don’t carry a purse.
If you do it, I would avoid bringing credit cards (although my bank blocks my card every single time I try to withdraw money here, probably due to the well-known street crime figures), don’t bring a lot of money or try to distribute it in your pockets rather than all in one bag. Also, I would avoid carrying around my passport.
As per the old saying, after a storm comes a calm, so after my anger got sedated I signed up to a Yoga course for the month I would have spent here (because meanwhile I had made up my mind and reduced my stay to one month). So, a good amount of workload, a fantastic Yoga class twice a week around the corner and no plans to visit the city’s attractions (also because I have already visited most of what Fortaleza offers) made me experience the place like a local, taking advantage of the great food, fruits and veggies it has, wonderful weather every day and a relaxed environment to carry on with my work and get ready for my next adventures.
Getting mugged did spoil my stay a little, especially at the beginning, and it goes without saying, I remained totally uninspired to go back to the beach. But it also allowed me to enjoy the city in a way I would probably not have had, without frantically sourcing new activities and attractions to visit as my usual. If my plans go as I’m thinking now, maybe I will come back in summer, with the aim to travel around Brazil’s other northern states and also some other South American countries. In the meantime, I’ll be embracing the novelties the Universe is sending my way and keep you posted.