The Audacity of Grope

I’m getting towards the end of my travels now, and I’m starting to feel a time conflict between actually going out and doing or seeing things and blogging about them. Apologies if my posts are shorter, less frequent, and generally crappier. I have a lot of stuff that probably should be written about and I’ll get to it eventually, even if it’s in a disordered backlog after I return to the States.

Anyway, last night, I flew to Rio de Janiero. There’s a weekly street party Friday nights underneath the Carioca Aquaduct, so I went out to that. It was a really cool, lively scene, with samba, live music, colorful clothes and dirt cheap food and drinks.

I wish I had photos, but I try not to take a camera out at night in Brazil. So far on this trip, I feel like I’ve done reasonably well at avoiding theft. I was short-changed by a cabbie in Buenos Aires, and I lost my previous camera on the overnight bus, but I haven’t been mugged or lost anything really important.

In Brazil, I’m orders of magnitude more paranoid about theft than I have been in any other country. I’m used to being told, “oh, tourists shouldn’t go to that part of town,” but here in Brazil, even the locals seem really cautious. In Sao Paulo, when driving at night, everyone rolls through red lights because if you’re sitting stopped at a light, somebody might run up and rob you or take your car (I hadn’t realized the tactic I use in Grand Theft Auto was effective in real life as well).

When I go out at night here, I take only my old Pomona student ID (I actually have a Watson Fellowship ID too, but it’s closer to passport-sized and therefore really inconvenient to carry) and as much cash as I think I’ll need; I leave my bankcard, driver’s license, and camera. Last night at the street party, I was dancing when I felt a hand slip into my left front pocket. Since it wasn’t that kind of dancing, I was pretty surprised. I looked, and there was a guy next to me blatantly grabbing for my wallet. I shoved him, and said something appropriately meaningless but internationally interpretable like, “Hey! What the fuck, man!”

I’m not exactly sure what reaction I was expecting. Quickly slinking away? Feigned confusion and denial (“Oh, see, I thought I was reaching into my pocket! My mistake.”)? Trying to pass it off as a gay pass? In any case, his actual reaction was probably funnier. He just kind of stared at me with this shocked, indignant look, like he couldn’t believe that I might actually be offended by his comically-obvious attempt to pickpocket me. We stared at each other for 5 or 10 seconds, and then he moved off, presumably to try again on somebody drunker.

In truth, this is only the second goofiest reaction I’ve gotten from somebody trying to rip me off on this trip. In Florence, I went out for drinks with my friend Rachel, and we paid the bartender with a €20 note; he brought back change for a €10. When we called him on it, he just laughed and gave us the correct change, while saying, “Ha! You caught me! (Do we win a prize?) I have to try, you know, I always have to try…”

I’m glad I held onto my wallet, but I also feel like maybe I should have done something more to raise the marginal cost of pickpocket attempts. There were plenty of cops around, but by the time I approached one and explained myself there’s no way they would have caught the guy. Maybe I should have hit him, but the chance of inciting a street brawl made that option less appealing.

I understand that petty theft is going to be an issue any time you have rich westerners and crippling poverty in close proximity. I am not an absolutist when it comes to property rights, and the gross disparity in relative need complicates the moral calculus. In Buenos Aires, one night I was walking home eating a takeout pizza when a bunch of street children begged away all my slices. I don’t care what you think of Lew Rockwell, you’d have to be a monster to look a hungry child in the face and go right back to eating your cheese and pepperoni.

That said, I am not such a bleeding heart that I’m just going to let you take my wallet.

One Response to “The Audacity of Grope”

  1. Dave Jacob Hoffman Says:

    I have a teacher that lived in Brazil for a while. He says the trick is to carry two wallets; one that is hidden, and one to give to muggers. Apparently there are routine kidnappings and all sorts of shady stuff going on down there.

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