“Do you think Brazil is dangerous?”
Like a dozen of other locals and I, the old lady was watching a capoeira performance on rua XV de Novembro, the pedestrian street. It was about 8 p.m. and the city was shutting down for the day. The streets were quiet but for a few late-night shoppers—supermarkets are open until 10 p.m.—, homeless people and security guards.
I shrugged. “No, not really.”
She nodded, apparently happy with the answer.
“You know, there are drug dealers in this park at night,” she added, pointing to the Praça Osório behind us.
“Most big cities have the same problem,” I replied. “Central Park in New York used to be very bad.”
Again, she nodded, pleased as if I had passed a test. She was one of the first Brazilians who didn’t insist the entire country—but mostly the place where we were having the conversation, no matter where—was a death trap. It was refreshing.
I don’t know if Brazil is dangerous. What I do know is that I feel safe enough to enjoy the country. I can’t challenge the statistics, the number of crimes and assaults reported. But I’m not going to claim we travel filled with fear, hoping for a bodyguard, going from one gated community to the next. I don’t go out of my way to explore dodgy neighborhoods and slums but I walk everywhere—with Feng and Mark, with Mark and alone. We stay out late, although we are generally back at the hotel by midnight. I walked downtown Porto Alegre where we stayed a couple of blocks from the bus station. I walked in Curitiba late at night. I walked in Florianópolis Centro.
Really, I’m not scared.
I’m not stupid either. I don’t carry much with me—no passport, no wallet but a few banknotes in my pocket, no camera unless I actually know the area well enough to take the risk. I stand tall and walk with purpose. I go by the “women and kids” rule, one of my safety rules: if there are women and kids in the street, the area is generally safe.
I’m not immune to crime. But really, as uncomfortable as the thought is, no one is, no matter where you are. Life is full of risk—deal with it.
Brazil does look dangerous to the untrained eye. Expect a culture shock if you are exploring a Brazilian city for the first time. The tropical heat gives urban areas a dodgy feel as building look like they are falling apart. There are bars on windows, security guards in front of stores. There are people digging through garbage bins. There are homeless people living in the street. There are armed police officers patrolling. There are big black guys with tattoos.
Close your eyes, overcome any prejudice you may have and try again.
Skin colour is irrelevant. Believe it or not, the purpose of black people in life isn’t to assault white people. Homeless people tend to mind their own business, either sleeping or working—looking around for recyclable materials or food. Cities are dirty, take a shower at the end of the day.
Socioeconomic gaps are very obvious in Brazil. At home, you can probably pretend that the homeless dude begging by the bus station is a guy who has issues and could try to put his life together if he wasn’t so lazy, so inclined to drown his sorrows in a bottle. In Brazil, you cannot ignore the slums surrounding the cities and you can’t exactly claim the two toddlers playing with garbage have a drinking issue. Poverty is real, in your face. This is the uncomfortable truth you face when you explore cities.
But for a minute, forget about issues people created and focus on people, their life, their work, their art.
Here are the people of Curitiba. This is why I walk around with my camera, to see another side of Brazil—mundane snapshots of life that won’t make the headlines.