It was my last day in Brazil and I was strolling by the surf
on Rio's famous Copacabana Beach. It had just started to rain,
but I didn't mind. It was barely a drizzle and it was warm.
Way up above me on the top of Corcovado the huge silhouetted
Christ emerged and vanished from the bright, racing clouds.
Was I really an agnostic, I was wondering, or just an idle,
Suddenly they were on me. They had emptied my pockets before
I'd even realised they were there. Two strong lean youths with
a big knife, dark against the sky. It had all happened so suddenly
that I barely knew what I was doing, as I shouted at them while
they ran away. Forget the money. I only had three crumpled dollars.
Forget the pen. I wasn't going to risk my life for a Parker
Vector. But my pocket book had all my notes for the trip, irreplaceable.
Even though part of me knew that Rio was not the place to negotiate
with muggers, I was now shouting at them, explaining urgently,
as they paused mid-step, that I needed my notes, that I was
a writer, that this (did I gesture to include all Rio?) was
what I was trying to write about.
Now the tallest of the two was coming over. Knife now dangling,
he handed back my notebook. Then the pen. No, no,
I said, keep the pen. An elaborate pantomime of
gestures followed. He wanted me to have the pen. I wasn't going
to argue with a man with a knife. I took the pen. Meanwhile
his friend had finished counting the money. As with all travellers
to Rio, I'd been told by streetwise locals only to take as much
as you need. Don't take a wallet. If you carry a wad, carry
another wad for the muggers. So I had just enough for my beachside
caipirinha. Three crumpled dollars, which were now being returned.
No, no, I said, breaking into a grin at the absurdity
of the situation. You keep it. Since they'd mugged
me, I thought the least they could do was keep the loot. But
my assailants wouldn't hear of it. Their gestures and incomprehensible
words made it clear that I should take my notes back. I took
Now, absurdly, they stood before me and started rubbing their
stomachs, with a circular motion. 'Famo famo' was what it sounded
like. They had switched - it seemed - to begging, were telling
me they were hungry. Eventually I shrugged, took the three dollars
and split it three ways: a dollar for each of us. They grinned
back, apparently delighted. Now they were making friends, asking
me questions. Where was I from? What did I do? English, oh yes,
they knew some Eenglees. By the time I left them, five minutes
later, I had secured an open invitation to Muggers' Headquarters
- a tent at the end of the beach - which I politely declined.
If my luck had changed once...
Back inside the splendour of the Copacabana Palace I found I
was trembling from head to toe. Even after a long sugary hot
chocolate my hands were shaking. The muggers of Rio are notoriously
ruthless, I'd been told, stabbing their victims to death if
it takes their fancy. Life is tough in the slums, the favelas.
How lucky had I been?