My first reaction when arriving to the scene of something horrific is to speed through a checklist of possible alternatives:
Am I dreaming? Am I drunk? Are my friends playing a prank on me? The mental equivalent of pinching myself.
Returning from the beach to our little rented hatchback to find the doors flung open and the trunk devoid of our passports, wallets, cell phones, and clothing, it only took me a second or two to rule all these alternatives out and accept reality:
We had been robbed. We were the stupid Americans you hear stories about. We were now stuck on an island in south Brazil with nothing but flip-flops and our wet bathing suits.
When planning the Brazil trip with my buddies Tom and Nate, we immediately agreed on one thing: Rio was too dangerous. Sure, we’d probably be fine, but the risk of getting mugged or robbed just wasn’t worth it, especially when we could find beautiful beaches and cachaca-fueled parties all along the country’s massive coast.
So we decided instead on Florianopilis, a popular vacation spot for locals, and were driving from one hotel to another when we saw beautiful Joaquina beach. Parking with our stuff in the car was a bad idea and we knew it but… this was the kind of beach that you read about in travel magazines and see on shows with Brooke Burke and fantasize about at your desk for the other 51 weeks of the year. Already from the road we could see beachside capriniahs, beautiful women, and rolling waves populated by the country’s best surfers. The siren song was too much for us.
Besides, there was an official looking parking lot, guarded by a man with a gun and a uniform — a uniform, for God’s sake — so we felt confident, and we left everything. And of course, they took everything (except Nate’s pair of bright white boat shoes, which apparently even Brazilian banditos wouldn’t be caught dead in). As we mugged for photos on the beach and sipped our drinks, bandits (later, we would joke that they were the guard’s buddies) rolled our bags away in full view of the beach-going public. Stupid Americans.
So there we were, half-drunk, soaking wet, looking at a looted car and a hell of a problem. Between us we had 60 bucks in cash and four words of Portuguese, and somehow, we were going to have to get out of this country.
We skipped the police thing and moved directly to the logical next step: begging. Eventually, we found a woman with a computer and a cursory understanding of English, which allowed us to cancel our credit cards and find the nearest US embassy that could supply new passports. It was 14 hours away. Brazil’s a big country.
We sped to the station and caught the last overnight bus to Sao Paulo right before it pulled out. At the first rest stop, we pooled all our remaining funds and bought as many Subway sandwiches as we could afford. For probably the first time in my life, I considered the possibility of being truly hungry and not being able to afford any more food.
Then the cold set in, adding to the discomfort of the torturously chaffing bathing suits we had now been wearing for nearly 24 hours. So, having already checked “begging” and “starving” off our list, we figured, why not just commit to the whole aesthetic? We tied our metallic Subway wrappers together and used them as a blanket.
And as we sat there shivering under a pile of trash, I thought to myself: Joe, remember this moment, and hope that this is the closest you ever get to being a homeless person.
…That’s always the punch line when I tell this story, and in the three or four years I’ve had to perfect the delivery, it always gets a laugh. But the real punch line — the moment that actually affected me, and the one I truly hope to never forget –happened three days later.
We made it Sao Paulo, penniless and lost, and eventually found our way to the embassy in a city roughly the size of New York. It felt like half of its 11 million people were in line to get American visas, but we, as US citizens, were whisked to the front. An hour later we had passports and an Internet connection, an hour after that we had access to money from our concerned parents, and an hour after that we had flights booked back to New York.
As the airport shuttle sped us out of the city limits, we congratulated each other on a thrilling adventure. On surviving and adapting and winning our way back to civilization, where warm beds and loving girlfriends and infinite Seamless patiently waited for us. And what a war story we’d have! Already we were comparing notes, laughing over details, collecting–
And then we saw them. Row upon row of dirty tin shacks creeping up the mountains all around us, stretching to the horizon. Three-legged dogs and children with distended bellies and beaten-looking old men, all fenced in by walls of barbed wire and layers of grime. The infamous Brazilian favelas we had heard about but quickly forgotten when the partying started.
We shut up and stared.
The favelas didn’t end. The entire hour to the airport, cluster after cluster of these shantytowns blurred together outside our windows.
This was the real moment to remember. We had survived third-world poverty for four days. Most of the 50 million residents of Brazil’s favelas would have to endure it their entire lives.