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  Of Total Confusion


UNMUGGED IN RIO

(travelintelligence.net – 1999)
Internet piece about being attacked on Copacabana Beach


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, undisciplined...

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 them.

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?
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