Allow me to tell you what most people's initial reactions were when they heard I was going to Brazil.
"Good lord, why would you ever study there?!"
"My uncle once did business there, he had to hire three body guards to go to lunch in Sao Paulo."
"My dad did business there once, he got robbed in his taxi on the first day."
"Haven't you seen the movie "City of God", it's just an impoverished and drug ridden country."
Even worse, read the following description about Sao Paulo & Rio de Janeiro from the US State Department website and tell me if you have any interest in coming to Brazil or the two cities I've spent the most time in.
CRIME: Brazilian police and media report that the crime rate remains high in most urban centers, including the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, and is also growing in rural areas within those states. Brazil’s murder rate is more than four times higher than that of the United States, and rates for other crimes are similarly high.Street crime remains a problem for visitors and local residents alike. Foreign tourists, including U.S. citizens, are often targets, especially in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, and Recife. While the risk is greater during the evening and at night, street crime also occurs during the day, and safer areas of cities are not immune. Incidents of theft on city buses are frequent. You should keep a copy of your passport with you while in public and keep your passport in a hotel safe or other secure place. You should also carry proof of your health insurance with you.
The incidence of crime against tourists is greater in areas surrounding beaches, hotels, discotheques, bars, nightclubs, and other tourist destinations. It is especially prevalent prior to and during Carnival (Brazilian Mardi Gras), but also occurs throughout the year. Several Brazilian cities have established specialized tourist police units to patrol areas frequented by tourists.
Use caution when traveling through rural areas and satellite cities due to reported incidents of roadside robberies that randomly target passing vehicles. Robberies and “quicknappings” outside of banks and ATMs occur regularly. In a “quicknapping,” criminals abduct victims for a short time in order to receive a quick payoff from the family, business, or the victim’s ATM card. Some victims have been beaten and/or raped. You should also take precautions to avoid being carjacked, especially in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Recife, and other cities.
In airports, hotel lobbies, bus stations, and other public places, pick pocketing and the theft of hand-carried luggage and laptop computers is common. You should "dress down" when in public and avoid carrying valuables or wearing jewelry or expensive watches. "Good Samaritan" scams are common. If a tourist looks lost or seems to be having trouble communicating, a seemingly innocent bystander offering help may actually be a participant in a scam. Take care at and around banks and ATMs which accept U.S. credit or debit cards. Travelers using personal ATM or credit cards sometimes receive billing statements with unauthorized charges after returning from a visit to Brazil, or discover that their cards were cloned or duplicated without their knowledge. If you use such payment methods, carefully monitor your bank records for the duration of your visit.
Sao Paulo: All areas of Greater Sao Paulo have a high rate of armed robbery of pedestrians and drivers at stoplights and during rush hour traffic. The "red light districts" of Sao Paulo, located on Rua Augusta north of Avenida Paulista and the Estacao de Luz metro area, are especially dangerous. There are regular reports of young women slipping various drugs into men's drinks and robbing them of all their belongings while they are unconscious. Armed holdups of pedestrians and motorists by young men on motorcycles (“motoboys”) are a common occurrence in Sao Paulo. Criminals have also begun targeting restaurants throughout the city including, but not limited to, establishments in the upscale neighborhoods of Jardins, Itaim Bibi, Campo Belo, Morumbi and Moema. Victims who resist run the risk of violent attack. Laptop computers, other electronics, and luxury watches are the targets of choice for criminals in Sao Paulo.
Throughout 2012, armed groups in Sao Paulo targeted restaurants, robbing patrons during the peak business hours of 2100 to 2400. These criminal events are not isolated to one area of the city and target both rich and poor neighborhoods.
Efforts of incarcerated drug lords to exert their power outside of their jail cells have resulted in sporadic disruptions in the city, violence directed at the authorities, bus burnings, and vandalism at ATM machines, including the use of explosives. Be aware of your surroundings and exercise caution at all times. Respect police roadblocks and be aware that some municipal services may be disrupted.
As in Rio de Janeiro, favela tours have recently become popular among foreign tourists in Sao Paulo. We advise you to avoid Sao Paulo’s favelas as neither the tour company nor the city police can guarantee your safety when entering favelas.
Rio de Janeiro: The city continues to experience high incidences of crime. Tourists are particularly vulnerable to street thefts and robberies in the evening and at night especially in areas adjacent to major tourist attractions. There have been attacks, including shootings, along trails leading to the famous Corcovado Mountain and in other parts of the Tijuca Forest. If robbed, do not attempt to resist or fight back, but rather relinquish your personal belongings. At all times, pay close attention to your surroundings and the behavior of those nearby. There have been reports of thieves and rapists slipping incapacitating drugs into drinks at bars, hotel rooms, and street parties. While crime occurs throughout the year, it is more frequent during Carnival and the weeks prior.
Choose lodging carefully considering location, security, and the availability of a safe to store valuables. Do not answer your hotel room door until you positively confirm who is on the other side. Look out the peephole or call the front desk to confirm the visitor. There have been several recent incidents where mass holdups of guests have occurred at hotels and hostels in the city.
Rio de Janeiro’s favelas are a subject of curiosity for many U.S. travelers. A favela pacification program, instituted in 2008, installed police stations in some favelas, primarily in the Zona Sul area. However, most favelas exist outside the control of city officials and police. Travelers are urged to exercise caution when entering any “pacified” favelas and should not go into favelas that are not “pacified” by the state government. Even in some “pacified” favelas, the ability of police to provide assistance, especially at night, may be limited. Several local companies offer “favela jeep tours” targeted at foreign tourists. Be aware that neither the tour company nor the city police can guarantee your safety when entering favelas.
Be vigilant while on the roads, especially at night. There have been shootings and carjackings on the Linha Vermelha that links the airport to the Southern Zone of the city. In Rio de Janeiro, motorists should be especially vigilant at stoplights and when stuck in traffic. Carjackings and holdups can occur at intersections, especially at night. Incidents of crime on public transportation are frequent, and at times have involved violent crimes. When traveling by yellow taxi, tourists are recommended only to use taxis openly displaying company information and phone numbers as well as red license plates. Tourists are also advised not to use public vans.
Visitors should also remain alert to the possibility of manhole cover explosions. There have been multiple manhole cover explosions in Rio de Janeiro in the past few years, with a higher incidence in the Centro and Copacabana neighborhoods.
Now let me be honest, all of the above is certainly true, otherwise they wouldn't write about it.
I, for one, have experienced some violence during my time abroad...including witnessing a complete gangster operation where they carjacked a woman, kidnapped her child, held people hostage at gunpoint, and then forced the woman to rob a jewelry store with a bomb attached to her in case she didn't. The other instance I made a post about in late November about my time in Argentina and the kniving murderer I had to run away from after a soccer game.
On another note, if you haven't seen the movie "City of God" or "Elite Squad I and II" then you're missing out on some great cinematic productions that will have you on the edge of your seat about this country.
Yet, let me note that none of the above is my norm. I don't walk around with body guards, I don't feel consistently threatened, I don't live my life in fear here, nor have I been robbed (only the credit card cloned...$14,000 at Tommy Hilfiger...nice purchase eh?!). If I truly felt in danger, I would have been gone a long time ago.
One of the things that has been incredibly shocking has been the "violence parallels" that I've drawn upon as things have occurred in the US.
The week I arrived, the US was shocked with a brutal Colorado shooting in a Denver cinema, months later I was again taken aback by the gruesome slaughtering of many children in a Connecticut elementary school. And...it hasn't stopped there, the recent Boston terrorist bombing and the explosion in Texas continually have put into perspective the concept of violence as I continue to live abroad in a "violent" country.
IT HAPPENS EVERYWHERE
Sure, the types of violence are different. But they should all serve as warnings that there's really no way to fully mitigate your risk to violence.
People in Brazil are equally scared of the types of violence in the US as Americans are of the violence here. In fact, due to the random terror that is more prone to attack the US, Brazilians might even be more scared, from my perspective. I understand this type of fear. Once I found the fact that I wore a money belt as an inconvenience and no way to live, but now I view it as a consistent reminder that I must always remain vigilant, whether walking to class in Sao Paulo or running a marathon in Boston. While some would say that living in constant vigilance is draining, I would say that the moment I let my guard down may be the moment I wish I hadn't. I almost like the reminder...it keeps me sharp.
If I've formed any opinion about crime, it's been the following: You can't live in fear...but you can play your cards right. Life will be no fun if you always think something bad is going to happen. You simply cannot be negative or lock yourself in your house for fear that something might go wrong. Go out and live your life. Give all of yourself to the world. When your time is up, it's up...and you'll have no say in the matter. What you can do though, is take a look around where you are, have a plan, take a second to locate an exit, learn an emergency number, or stay calm in a tough situation. And provided you're not throwing yourself in an extremely dangerous setting, then I like the chances.
I write this post knocking on wood...and I hope that my advice even serves me well.