Robbed in São Paulo

Even though I live in one of the most violent cities in Latin America, I had never been robbed – until today.  But there is a first time for anything. And unfortunately being robbed is part of the day-by-day in São Paulo, a city of 10-million inhabitants. Some people even carry extra money – say 20 reais, or 10 dollars – just in case they get robbed. "It’s always good to have some pocket money for the robber", they say.

Well I had no extra money. I was on a bus, on my way to do an interview (always prefer to use the bus rather than conceal myself from the city inside a car), when this guy sat beside me.

He said somehting that I did not understand at first. I just had time to look around and notice that, while thinking about questions to ask and how to conduct the interview, the bus had emptied. I was alone sitting in the last row of seats. Now he was with me. "Give me ten bucks for the bus", he said in a harsh voice. 

Dark skinned, in his 40’s, thin and with some anger in his reddish eyes – he was exactly like so many men I have interviewed in my life. Prisoners, workers, rappers, victims of police brutality… People who have opened their houses and hearts to me and told me how hard it is to live in poverty. And who felt grateful for the simple fact that I heard them – and published their stories.

But this man, he was holding something under his shirt and pointed that thing at me. I instinctively asked what it was. "Do you really want to see? Now give me the ten bucks". I must confess I was more curious than scared. Well, actually, I was not scared at all. I found it intriguing that one person can sit beside another on a bus and demand money without even showing a gun or anything. All he had was the power to intimidate me. And then again, if he had a gun, would he use it on me for 10 reais, inside a bus? Very unlikely. Still, best to be wise. I asked him again if he had a gun. He was fast: "You’ll regret if I show it".

I took some time to savour the moment. The only thing that separated this man from me was 1. fear 2. we came from different classes, parts of the city, backgrounds 3. he implied he had a gun 4. I had 30 bucks in my purse and he did not

"OK, OK", I said, best to get it over with. No money for lunch, but what the hell, just the day before I was charged 200 reais by a state agent to help me let a house. Now those were real professionals. This man only had fear on his side. And he was not very good at it. 

So I slowly opened my purse, took 20 reais (managed to hide the other ten) and handed it to him. I sensed he was quite unseasy. I was too slow, had asked too many questions, and obviously was not as frightened as he wanted me to be.

Still, he gave it a shot. "Now give me your mobile phone". That was a bit too much. No mobile phone for you, fellow. "I’m sorry", I said. "I can’t give you the mobile". A woman in the row in front of us looked back, he told her to turn around. Then he gave up : "OK, I’ll make things easy for you", he said as he left the bus.

When I stood up, I told the woman that I’d just been robbed. "In a bus!", she cried. "That’s unbelievable". In a few minutes everybody in the bus was discussing violence, and they all had stories to share about the last time they had been robbed. I asked the woman why she hadn’t called the driver or asked for help when she saw what was going on. "I thought he was your boyfriend, shouting at you in that manner". Now that would have been much more acceptable, I thought.

In São Paulo, at least, people think so.