Saturday, August 31, 2013

Where's the "play" in playground? - São Paulo

This sad little wooden slide belongs to the playground in the small square around the corner from my kids' school. There are also some monkey bars, a swingset and a teeter-totter. All look beat-up and old--though the playground is only a few months old. I have never seen any children here, except for my own, and only because I told them I thought we should check it out.  The gravel on the ground is a major turn-off, though my kids enjoyed pelting the swingset with the pebbles (until stopped, of course, by their crabby mom). 

The tiny playground is surrounded by an ugly chainlink fence with a bolted (though unlocked) gate. It is the most uninviting place in the world, inside what is a quite pleasant tree-filled square. Someone please adopt this square. Crochet bright colors into its fence.  Paint the toys. Do something.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Water, water everywhere - São Paulo

It costs me R$4,50 (US$2) for a 500 ml (16 oz) plastic bottle of water at my favorite restaurant. That may not seem much, but this bothers me on a couple of levels: 1. That's a whole lot of recycling for one restaurant to commit to if everyone gets a bottle of water and 2. São Paulo water is actually drinkable. Yes, you'll want a filter on that, but brushing teeth and eating your salad with regular water is fine.

First let's talk about recycling in São Paulo. Let's just assume that the restaurant is in fact recycling and not just tossing the bottles into the regular trash. I read somewhere that only 30% of items left out to be recycled is actually recycled. (It's better not even to look at the percentage of overall trash that is actually recycled, currently a dismal 2% of all trash---Source here). That's too low. Plastic really bothers me as well--glass recycles better as everyone knows. I will choose brands based on plastic packaging vs glass packaging and will even pay more if necessary. 

Second let's talk about São Paulo water. It is not Mexican water. You could actually drink tap water here and not get sick. Yes, you might get a little extra iron from rusted pipes but in this city, you're actually okay. It gets worse, however, as investment is made in private sources, rather than fixing the public water supply--read more here. So what's the deal? Culture? And why in the world can't a restaurant put in a super-sized filter and serve that in carafes for free? And here I will mention one of my favorite restaurants, Chez Vivi, that actually does that. It is the exception not the rule. Talking with a friend yesterday, she suggested that no one would actually believe it was filtered water--being Brazilian means finding shortcuts, so that means the staff would be filling the carafes from the unfiltered faucets. Clients would still ask for bottled water.

To me, that means it's time to fix the water supply at its source.  Brazil has 12% of the world's fresh water supply yet only 4% of it is considered "excellent" quality. I'm guessing it's not a priority. Time for a free and filtered tap water campaign. Anyone?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Big words (swear words) - São Paulo

"I am so shocked at the swearing" said no Brazilian child ever

We belong to a small neighborhood club where our kids do gymnastics, racquet sports and soccer (of course), and we spend weekends at the pool or eating too much feijoada at the buffet. I love this small club. It is not one of the big famous ones where people go to train for the Olympics, but the staff all know me and my kids (not because we are famous but because my kids are characters in search of a story, as my husband would say).  We are also some of the very few foreigners in this club because you have to buy membership rather than renting as ex-pats are frequently allowed to do at other bigger clubs. 

There are a number of sports open to the adults too including swimming, soccer, basketball, and tennis. I had a wonderful year of tennis classes given by a teacher named Summo. I've since been on the waitlist for another two years--spaces are given by lottery. The drawback of a small club. There is also a fairly serious soccer league, and one of the men's teams comes and tosses my son's soccer team off the field every Monday and Wednesday at 4:15. I am still trying to figure out how they have that time off every other day: dear Lalo and Nico, please look into those careers. Also our volleyball and futevolei (a combo football and volleyball game) teams are pretty strong.

One of the by-products of any sport available to "adults" is the swearing. In Portuguese, swears are called "palavrões" or Big Words. As I have mentioned in other stories on soccer games, there are quite a variety of swears here, as in any country, but there is a shortlist that I will call the "f" word list, except there is a "c" word, a "fdp" combo word and "pqp" phrase. They are used often. So often in fact that this sign was posted over the futevolei court.  It says "Education. Respect. Cordiality" and at the bottom "Say no to swears".

The sign has, in fact, made a difference, which is good because my son does gymnastics right next to this court, and the other son has racquet sports across the way.  As far as I know, the only swears they know are American. And come from me. I am so proud of how bilingual my kids are.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Fuscópolis - Joanópolis

The Fusca, also known as the VW Beetle

I know I have talked about the "Fusca" before in my posts about visiting Joanópolis, a cute country town, population 12,000. It seems that Joanópolis (or as I call it Fuscópolis) has about one Fusca for every three residents. Nowhere inside or outside of Brazil have I ever seen so many VW Beetles. I frequently challenge visitors to our rented country home to count as many as they can from the start of the dirt road, but no one has beaten the record of 51 Fuscas (in 17 kms) counted by my friend Emily three years ago. 

Fuscas are ubiquitous in Brazil. They were made here from the 1950s until 1986 when the factories were shifted from Fuscas to the Fox and the Santana. But ex-president and now dead Itamar Franco (he of the friend with no underpants and short skirt) asked VW to bring them back in 1993...and they were produced here from 1993 to 1996, when they finally ceded the Bug to Mexico. Which means a whole lot of these cars on the road are very very old.  

I spy with my little eye....a Fusca!

How these less-than-sporty cars can get down the pockmarked, pothole-filled, frequently muddy-to-the-doorstop dirt roads, I really will never figure out. I drive a 4x4 that seems to have more trouble than these Bugs. Perhaps I'll have to try to pick up a second hand one when Dia do Fusca (VW Bug Day) is celebrated nationally on January 20, as it is every single year. I love a good holiday.

And another one!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Expect the Unexpected- Perus, São Paulo

This is the sunset near Campo Limpo Paulista (Clean São Paulo Field--seriously could there be a less interesting name for a town? Also untruthful--it's quite dusty) on our way home from the fazenda on Sunday. Yes, those are indeed dead bugs in the windscreen. Still, it's nice, right? We were coming back a little later than usual because our friends had gotten a flat tire (it rather seemed that the tire had exploded in several places) as we left the driveway. Or, as I have learned to say here: "Aconteceu um imprevisto" (Something unexpected happened")

Now just to digress a bit, I have to tell you that the "Aconteceu um imprevisto" phrase is one of my favorites. It can be used for anything: "I'm sorry I'm late to the meeting, but aconteceu um imprevisto" which in this case might be "I slept late because I drank too much last night" or "I forgot to wear clothes until I got halfway here" or any other number of unexpected occurrences. Or it could even mean "I just really didn't feel like being here." So, something unexpected happened. I personally had nothing to do with it. The speaker has accepted no blame whatsoever. It happened to me.

Sunday's trip was filled with the unexpected. About 20 miles from the city, a major traffic jam cropped up from an accident 2 miles ahead. According to waze (one of my favorite new toys), the average speed to get to the accident site and beyond was around 2 miles an hour. An hour more to home with two cranky hungry six-year olds in the back.

So we opened up the car's gps (maps unrenewed for five years) and decided to hightail it off the highway in Perus, a district on the north side of São Paulo. It's now dark, but as my husband shrugs and says to me "well, we're bulletproof." It's always nice to start off an adventure this way--"at least we're bulletproof." So we wandered about in the dark, him following the gps, and me arguing for the route shown by waze. And we ended up following neither one and visited some interesting parts of the backside of the Pico do Jaraguá, São Paulo's highest peak. Hiking that one is on my bucket list--how can you resist a mountain named "Lord of the Valley" in the Tupi language?

Sunny days at the Pico do Jaraguá
In other helpful advice, I will tell you that the Estrada Jundiaí-São Paulo does not, in fact, link Jundiaí with São Paulo. At least since the Rodoanel (Ring Road) was built. So you're going to want to trust waze on that, not your ancient gps. Or take a side trip to the mountain. Aconteceu um imprevisto...

Monday, August 26, 2013

Security in São Paulo Part III - Car Safety

City streets (not my car--I do not own a gps!)

This post is a continuation of a series on safety in São Paulo, in conjunction with Born Again Brazilian.

Probably one of the most nerve-racking times you will have as a visitor or resident of São Paulo is when you get into a car. Really, anyone’s car. Brazilians are aggressive drivers, and not necessarily prone to advising you of lane changes or allowing you to move into their lane. Just getting through a round-about without breaking into a cold sweat will probably take you months of training. 

We won’t get into driver safety except as peripheral to car safety (in the avoiding problems sense). What we write here is our opinion from our experience, as well as advice we have gotten from the military police and executive-level personal drivers. Please use your own common sense in individual situations.

First off, let’s talk about motoboys. Motoboys or motoqueiros are the motorcycle delivery guys. They are a menace (yes, there are some good guys—just don’t think you’ll be able to tell which is which. For one of my prior blogs on motoboys, see here). They will pass in between lanes and give you the finger if you infringe on their non-legal space. By the way, it is legal to pass between cars when they are stopped but not if they are in motion. However, I have never seen a transit cop stop a motoboy for passing through cars in motion. We are going to spend some time with the motoboy phenomenon as it is directly related to safety in your car.

1.   Stay out of the way of the motoboy. If you fight with one, they are as likely as not to kick off your sideview mirror or attempt to engage you in a verbal battle that may or may not get physical. And of course you never know how many of their friends are behind them. Leave them be—make space for them and be aware at all times about where they are around you.

2.   Do not open your window if a motoboy asks for directions. He needs to ask his one of his compatriots on two wheels. The percentage of bad motoboys is just too high to risk being a helpful citizen.

3.   Motoboys do not generally respect pedestrian walkways (this concept merges into pedestrian safety). In fact, most Brazilian drivers don’t respect pedestrian walkways. But in particular, don’t expect the motoboy to stop. Do not anticipate, especially when you are crossing the street, that they will obey traffic laws. Do not assume they won’t drive their moto on the sidewalk. 

4.   Do not ever, ever, ever put your laptop case on your front passenger seat or on the floor. Put it in the trunk before you leave your secure location. It is so easy for a passing motoboy or other passerby to break the side window and grab it while you are stuck behind the wheel of your vehicle. You might notice a long line of motoboys passing you on heavily trafficked roads like Rebouças.  A few of them are carefully looking in each car to see if there is something easy to get, and perhaps signaling the motoboy behind him to break in.

Other general rules of traffic:

Do not look as good to rob as the car next to you. Purse in trunk, laptop in trunk, no iphone or gps in easy sight.  Don’t be interesting to a criminal. Your car will be less interesting, regardless of make and model, if it seems there is not much in it. Remember that this smash-and-grab is a crime of impulse. Don’t provide that impulse.

A smash-and-grab victim. Put the purse in the trunk.

Carry a wallet in the car that has R$200 in it. If the worst happens and you are held up, you hand that over immediately. Give up your cell phone, ring, watch, whatever they want. We will continue to emphasize that your Rolex or iPhone is not more valuable than your life.

The other day, an incident happened on a street in São Paulo where a woman driver was being held up by an assailant, and another car came to her rescue.  Story here (Portuguese only).  The good Samaritan in the second car pinned the robber against the first car. We do not recommend this. What if that assailant had had a gun as well as a knife? Things could have ended differently. Make your own judgment call.

Some additional driver crime-avoidance tips:

1.   Stop 50 meters before any stoplight that has people hanging around who you don’t like the look of. In general, you should stop a meter behind the car in front so you might have more room to maneuver as necessary.
2.   It is indeed illegal to run a red light at any time of day or night. But if you pull up to a corner that looks particularly shady, you won’t be the only one who rolls that red light. Make your own decision on what feels right and safe. Regardless, you should always slow down/stop before crossing an intersection—do not literally RUN a red light.
3.   Know where you are going before you leave the house. Print out a google map. Even if you have GPS or an iPhone, these may go in and out of service around São Paulo. Do not rely only on electronics. Also, a GPS can draw unwanted attention to you.
4.   If you are involved in a small accident (like someone bumps you from behind), do not get out of your car to investigate until you are in a safe area. Put on your hazards and pull into the nearest gas station, restaurant, anywhere that is well-lit and well-populated. If you should hit and knock down a motoboy, do not get out of your car. Call 190 for the police and wait for their arrival. Motoboys will call their friends. They will not be on your side.
5.   Before getting into or out of your car, look around. See if there are papers stuck into the back wipers before you get in. Do not turn on your car then notice there is a flyer on the back window and then get out to take it off. This is an interesting car grabbing tactic. Before getting out of your car, see if there are people in the street and what exactly they are doing.
6.   If you are getting your kids out of your car, stay aware of who is around you and where your purse is. Let us highly recommend parking in valet parking when traveling alone with your children. You are vulnerable during those moments that you are clicking them into car seats, strollers, arranging diaper bags, etc.
7.   Do not park next to vans in parking lots. You never know who is in it or what they are up to.

A police spokesperson we know recommended that you keep your car windows as darkly tinted as legal to keep bad guys from being able to see inside and take note of what you have with you. However, a neighborhood watch person suggested that this is also dangerous in the case you are taken hostage because no one can see in to recognize you are in trouble. Since there are pros and cons to both, go with what makes you feel more comfortable. 

Note: If you are particularly worried about being kidnapped, it is possible to install a panic button in the trunk of your car that connects with a service that can track you down via GPS. 

Car safety and kids

In general, criminals do not target cars with small kids. It is too much of a hassle. You need to think like they do: they are going for the least amount of risk that something will slow down their crime. 

If you are accosted by an assailant while driving with your kids, hand over whatever they want (see Street Smarts).  If they want your car, put your hands where they can see them. Tell them where the key is and that you are going to get your kids, but the rest is theirs. According to the military police, the last kidnapping of a kid happened three years ago. 

Let us reiterate: the typical São Paulo bad guys do NOT WANT YOUR KIDS. They want your car to go sell it for $500 reais. That is all. Move without panic, take attention off of yourself by saying where the key is, where the documents are, that your valuables are in the trunk…just say you are going to get your kids. Do not stress out the criminal. They could be on drugs and you don’t want them to get panicked and irrational. 

Bulletproof Cars

Brazil is the world leader in bulletproof cars, beating out Colombia and the US. There are more than 70,000 bulletproof cars in circulation, and 70% of those are in São Paulo. All types of cars can be bulletproofed. We even know someone who has bulletproofed a Honda Fit. For some interesting stats on bulletproof cars around Brazil, check here

There are different levels of bulletproofing, from the lowest level that can stop not much, to the most popular Level 3 which can handle most handguns (as long as the sharpshooter doesn’t hit six bullets in the exact same place) and up to Level 5, which must be near nuclear-proof. When I asked my salesmen to tell me about which guns/bullets could penetrate my car, he said “Really? You’re going to be able to tell a Glock from a plastic one?” So I took that as a “if it looks like a rocket launcher, you are no longer bullet-proof.” For general handguns, I’m pretty safe.

As we talked about in our last post, there are some issues to consider when it comes to bulletproofing:

1.   Expense. It is very expensive to bulletproof your car. Upwards of R$40,000 (US$16,000) depending on the model of your car. In addition, service intervals are at least twice a year, and possibly more as most cars are not built to handle bulletproofing. Heavier cars (Mitsubishi, Land Rover) handle it better on their chasses than the beautifully engineered European cars. Remember that to bulletproof, your car is literally taken apart piece by piece and a shield installed and then it is put back again. Unskilled laborers working on your German engineered car… think about it.
2.   Attention. This argument came up on one of our posts - bulletproof cars attract attention. If the bad guys think you have something inside that is worth bulletproofing, then you are a target. I would argue that the average criminal is working on a crime of impulse—smash and grab. Bulletproofing makes that criminal’s impulse move along to another car rather than yours. Yes, they can tell you are bulletproofed.
3.   Quality of life/travel. Rear passenger windows do not roll down on a bulletproofed car. It is possible that your sunroof will not work. Front windows go down only halfway. As a policeman said “You are not safe if you roll down the windows or put back the sunroof in a bulletproof car. You got it for a reason. Keep the windows up.” Perhaps you can understand why my kids’ favorite thing to do in the US is travel in grandma’s car with the windows rolled down.
4.   Forgetfulness. What? Yes, that is what I shall say to explain that people forget that they are not safe getting into or out of a bulletproof car. You have to remember that: don’t be chatting on the cell phone when you get out of your bulletproof car. Don’t keep the door open blowing kisses to your kids leaving school. Look around before you get out because the attention you get with a bulletproof car might deter someone from trying to get into your car, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t target you when you get out of it.
5.   Peace of mind. No fear of dark corners and back streets when you are bulletproof. The impulse criminal is no longer your problem if you are in your car. Same with the traffic light stops and the passing motoqueiros.

At a presentation with a military police officer, we had a debate about people with bulletproof cars helping other people they witness being robbed at stoplights or in traffic by throwing on their alarms to scare off the criminals (these external alarms are loud). The captain did not recommend this approach. You do not want to stress out the criminal—it is possible that he will kill that driver believing that it is the police who are behind him. They know that the police will stop to help the victim before going after the perpetrator. Don’t do it. 

Next week we will continue our look at crime-avoidance on the street with taxi and public transportation safety tips.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Drop me a line - São Paulo

Here's the tow truck that pulled out in front of me returning from the grocery store. Where? That blue pick-up truck in front. It is towing that little white van by way of a rope. I would not say he was taking it easy either. I was just hoping that no kid would be heading over the pedestrian walkway at that moment.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Over the top - São Paulo

Here is one of the fine fans at the Palmeiras game on Wednesday. He has tattooed a stylized "P" for Palmeiras on his back. I really don't get this. Why in the world does one need to get a tattoo with your team's name if you have already shelled out $80 for an official shirt? Goes along with your official fan club card that says "Minha vida é voce". If your life is Palmeiras, you might have a problem. Especially because you're in the second division. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Happy Endings - São Paulo

For the past couple of weeks, a motoboy has been making my neighborhood more than a little nervous. He has robbed kids leaving schools, taking cell phones and tablets. He has attempted to rob a woman walking with her 3-year old child in a stroller. In spite of reinforced police presence, he was able to get away with it....until Tuesday afternoon when he was caught "em flagrante" in the neighborhood. He was hauled to the local police station and the following note went out over the neighborhood's security page on facebook: 


Basically, the neighborhood was informed that the suspect was being held at the station and if anyone had been robbed in the last couple of weeks to go down and identify him. Seven teenagers from one school went and all identified him as the perpetrator. Multiple identifications means that the chances are better for this criminal to be off the street for more than a day. Maybe it will be 10 days now.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Sprawling waters - São Paulo

This is the view from my car of the work in progress on the monorail that will run from the Congonhas Airport (the national airport) to connect with business areas and other metro lines in São Paulo. It is one of the areas that most surprises me when I venture there every six months or so.

When I first lived here in 1998, this avenue was called Aguas Espraiadas (sprawling waters) and was largely a road to nowhere. I should say nowhere good. Next to the avenue, near the marginal Pinheiros, was one of the largest and worst favelas (shanty towns) in São Paulo. It was a place where you had to be on your guard against hold ups, and the horror stories were exactly that. 

In 1998, they were starting to raze the cardboard houses, but there was a significant percentage left to go. Where did the people go, I would ask? Well, they were given about US$1000 and sent off to live in other "communities" in the north and east of the city. About 40 residents who were in actual city housing received significantly more when they were at last told to leave in about 2003.

The old favela. Now squished.
The avenue is now named Roberto Marinho, though you can tell people's political beliefs or longevity in the city by what they call it. Those around longest call it still Aguas Espraiadas. Those newer or more precise will call it Roberto Marinho or the pretty postcard road (our former mayor Marta Suplicy called the suspension bridge built at its start "São Paulo's postcard"). And those who were opposed to the re-naming of the avenue (which was apparently an illegal change because of a municipal law governing name changes) referred to it as Avenue Vladimir Herzog.

São Paulo's postcard Ponte Estaiada. Cabled Bridge in English.

The long and short of it is this. Roberto Marinho founded Globo, one of the largest media conglomerates in the world. At the time of his death, in 2003, his net worth was around US$6 billion. But he was not well-loved by all, not only because he was a carioca (from Rio), but because he supported the military dictatorship that lasted from 1964-1985. To say it lightly, those were not Brazil's finest hours (and yes, I do know that the US hands are dirty too. Very dirty.) Vladimir Herzog was a journalist tortured and killed during the dictatorship; he died at the age of 38. Roberto Marinho lived well until the age of 98. During the building of the avenue, there were a number of protests that changed signs to Herzog's name rather than Marinho's.

One only has to scratch a tiny bit at the story behind daily photos to turn up an emotionally scarred past. The history of the military dictatorship is burbling underneath it all. Poverty too. Corruption the time, the building of the avenue was the most expensive road project in the world. Yet much of it allegedly went into the pocket of then-mayor Maluf.

The monorail is slated to open in 2014.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Saint of Urgent Causes - Santo Expedito - São Paulo

Almost every afternoon as I drive through Largo da Batata (the Potato Square) on the way to pick up my kids, there is a little man who scurries up to my car at the traffic light near the metro. Before I can shake my head, he is sticking this little paper about the size of a business card under my windshield wiper, then he comes to my window, raps on it with a 50 centavo coin (seriously I think it is always the same coin) and rubs his other fingers together asking me for a donation. I don't open my window; he scurries away on to the next car. 

This paper says "The Prayer of the the Key of Saint Expedito"and at the bottom is the explanation "The Saint of Urgent Causes." A little research shows that Santo Expedito is very popular in Brazil since the 1980s, but no one knows anything about why (okay when I say no one, I mean wikipedia, which is the same thing) he is a saint or how he lived or how he died. This gives me hope for some day being canonized by the Catholic church though I am not Catholic nor have I done much good. Perhaps in 400 years I will get to be a saint anyway. Maybe I could be the Saint of Elephants and Key Makers.

Key Makers? What? Well, yes, Santo Expedito has been adopted by the chaveiros or key makers of Brazil as their patron saint as well. Now that I read this, I remember seeing him in our local key-making place. Not him, mind you, but his likeness. He is the key saint. And urgent causes saint. And apparently, again according to the tried and true text of wikipedia, he has also been adopted by the "slacker generation" as the patron saint of exams. This seems a bit ironic, no? The expedited guy is "the man" for the slackers? Hmmm. Something to emulate? Not sure. 

Note to self: Adopt patron saint. Not this one.

Okay, moving on. When you flip over the little paper, there is more to the prayer:

I'm not going to try to translate this devotional though I have to say that I love seeing "vossa" which is the third person formal of "your." You never see it anymore in Brazil, unless referring with great respect to an elder.  In the red writing is the explanation that this person who gave me the paper has printed 1000 of these prayers to help "propagate" the benefits and devotion to the "powerful" Santo Expedito. King of Keys. Ah, and at the bottom, you can order your own prayer cards and you get two blessed keys with your order. Why am I slightly tempted? 

Street life. I love it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Misplaced Sympathy? Police Forces- São Paulo

Okay, before getting distracted by a brain-damaged seal yesterday, I was originally going to post about this story "Metade das escolas forma policial em até seis meses" ("Half of schools graduate police officers in under six months"). Basically the story, as written by the highly reliable and objective Folha de São Paulo (sorry, does my sarcasm show?) is that there is an undue hurry to get police officers out on the street. Instead of a comprehensive community-oriented classwork, there seems to be a churning out of grey-uniformed officers ready only for the most obvious situations, and given only outlines of conflict resolution and mediation.

Now if you've seen Cops, that fine American tv program, you would think that conflict resolution was about 80% of a US police officer's job. You know, so-and-so doesn't want to move out of the trailer but his wife has thrown everything out the window including his television and maybe his dog. So, the negotiations begin. I get the feeling here in Brazil that there is not much negotiation: just haul off whoever to the station. If, as a friend points out, the police show up at all.

As many of you know, I have a natural sympathy towards the police. I grew up in towns where police officers were effective, were community members who contributed to the community well-being, and folks who you could always approach if you needed help. We knew many by name. I would also point out that the reverse is not true: not many knew MY name because I was a good girl. Really.

When I moved to São Paulo, big city or not, my natural instinct was to trust the police, unless given a reason otherwise.  And so far, I do not have a reason to do otherwise. After 8 years living here (between two postings), I still can't shake my trust and respect of the police. I have had nothing but neutral to good interactions. Okay, some of them, like the toner incident, are just plain ridiculous. The instinct to trust is not, though, the natural inclination of most Brazilians. And lest we all forget, this country is less than 30 years away from a military dictatorship where many REALLY BAD things happened at the hands of the police. I get it. Well, no, I don't. I don't think you can understand that kind of fear and uncertainty until you have lived it.

This Folha column seems to provide more reason for sympathy for the currently undertrained men and women of the police forces--folks who have nothing to do with Brazil's military past. Studies have proven that six months is just too short a time to get good officers who are focused on the important issues of daily police work. Imagine: in six months time, they are handing these trainees guns, pointing them in the direction of a car,  and putting them on the front lines against experienced criminals. Instead of conflict resolution classes, and how to handle protests, they are learning about the law. Which is good, but one should not replace the other.

The police force in Brazil is one of the most underpaid in the world. A starting-out military policeman in São Paulo makes R$26,000 (US$10,000) per year. A starting police officer in New York City makes US$41,000 per year. In London, US$33,000. And the Brits don't even have to carry guns! Yes, cost of living differences, etc. I know.  

It seems clear that the police force in Brazil is undertrained and underprepared. What this means for the World Cup and the Olympics; well, that's anyone's guess. But my expectation is not a pretty one. I still lean towards sympathy to this underpaid group. One of the moments that my sympathy felt strongest was when a military policeman here explained to me that crimes that result in penalties under four years (theft, for one) mean that the perpetrator is out on the street the very next day. There is simply no room left in the prisons for petty thieves. Imagine that you have chased someone for hours on a Thursday, and he waves hi to you from a bar on Friday. And we wonder why police men are frustrated.

By the way, I also read in a second article in the paper that there are actually eight different police forces in Brazil. Ready for the list? Federal, Guarda Municipal, Civil, Rodoviária, Portuária, Legislativa, Militar and Cientifica. 

Now in English: 
1. Federal (crimes against the government, white collar crime, drug trafficking investigations, also the guys that check every last item I bring into the country. As wikipedia says: "The Federal Police is the Brazilian equivalent of the American FBI, DEA, ATF, TSA, USBP, INS and Secret Service all rolled into one." They are busy.)
2. Municipal Guard (security forces of the cities/towns, protect municipal treasures such as buildings, parks and sculptures),
3. Civil (the state investigation and detectives group)
4. Highway (seems obvious), 
5. Legislative (no clue), 
6. Military (the chase and apprehend guys) 
7. Scientific (no clue--CSI São Paulo? Forensics? Seem to be part of the Civil Police. Maybe.)

And I'm not even going to touch on the really scary dudes like the Tropa de Choque (shock forces). Think SWAT. Think getting out of the way fast. That's a whole lot of weaponry.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Security in São Paulo: Part II Street Smarts

The following is the next installment of our collaboration (with Born Again Brazilian) on staying safe in São Paulo. 

If you think that residing in a number of big cities had made you street smart enough to survive any situation, you may want to take a quick look at this. Manhattan or Chicago living is not the bare-faced reality of São Paulo daily crime.

São Paulo is an exciting place to be, but with such a vast and diverse population, you are bound to have a higher percentage of bad guys than other places. Common crimes include:
  • Being robbed by a motoboy who can make a quick getaway.
  • Lockdown at a restaurant where the entrance will be blocked by armed men while the other criminals collect the belonging of patrons.
  • Carjacking, that could include a “flash” kidnapping during which you are forced to drain your bank account at the nearest ATM.

As mentioned in part I of our security posts, professional criminals pretty much want to get in and out. They don’t want to kill you, or even spend too much time with you. They just want what you have and be on their way. But a new crop of criminals has surfaced, ones that are a bit more dangerous. So your best line of defense is to totally avoid being in a situation that will put you on the other side of a weapon. So, first let’s look at some rules to abide by to avoid being in an incident. At the end these key rules, we will look at how you should react if you do find yourself a victim.

Key rules for incident avoidance:

Rule #1: Avoid drawing large sums of money from an ATM or teller.

It is very possible you are being targeted when you extract cash from your bank. Whether it is someone from the street or an inside job, it happens enough to assume a position of paranoia. If you need to pay someone, do so via bank transfer, a transaction you can do from home online. If you have a household employee who claims they don’t have an account, make them open one. It is better for both parties. If you need to pay a vendor or store, and they don’t take a credit or debit card, they will most likely take a Brazilian check (more commonly than other countries these days).

Rule #1b: Be unpredictable in your habits.

I’m adding this as 1b because as we’ve mentioned, criminals have time to study. This is their full-time job. If you go to the bank every Thursday at 10 am to withdraw money from your US account, someone is going to figure that out. Sooner than you think. If you usually walk to the shops and back by a certain route, vary it once in a while. This will hold true for car driving as well (next post).

Rule #2: Avoid eating out late at night, especially on a side street or more remote location.

It is always best to stay at home or in a secured location, like a friend’s house or a club when 10 p.m. rolls around. But if you need to eat on the street at this hour, go to a place that is well populated. Not just with people, but with other businesses.

Rule #3: Avoid keeping any item of a recognizable luxury brand or sparkly gems on your person while walking the streets.

Your desire to impress shouldn’t outweigh your need to stay safe. Criminals go for brands and jewels they know they can move quickly – Rolex, Louis Vuitton, diamonds… If you just can’t go out without being expensively dressed, at least cover yourself in something so sophisticated a petty criminal wouldn’t recognize it. Yes, we know your Brazilian girlfriends don’t follow this rule. They are Brazilian. You are not.

Rule #4: If you must drive a luxury car, you’re going to want a blindado.

The best way to avoid being carjacked is to not drive a fancy car. But if you are not willing to lower your standards, at least get it bulletproofed. This service is expensive and also means extra spending on gas because it makes the vehicle heavier. Also, there are various types of blindado that range in price and protection, so ask a lot of questions, including what type of gun will the proofing protect from.

Rule #5: Don’t look lost.

There is such a thing as looking like a victim. Don’t wander around an unfamiliar neighborhood staring into your iPhone as you try and determine your location. It is a recipe to be robbed.

Rule #6: Don’t judge a book by its cover.

There were recently a string of crimes involving criminals who were well-dressed and well-spoken. If a well-dressed man knocks on your window and appears to want to ask for directions, don’t roll down the glass. Shake your head and say “desculpe.” Or a woman with a possibly expensive purse approaches your car in the parking lot, jump in quickly and lock the doors if you don’t want to wind up in your own trunk while she shops with your credit cards.

Rule #7: Don’t attract attention by speaking English or other foreign language loudly. The Brazilian currency gets weak. That means that foreigners (rich or no) begin to look better as money sources.

Rule #8: Think carefully about giving expensive electronics to children

We’ll cover this more in School Smarts, but there has been a recent spate in kids being mugged outside of schools. They are getting robbed of iPhones and iPads and other electronics. Think long and hard if your kid might be a target by having the latest technology. Make sure your kids know how to react.

Rule #9: If you think someone looks suspicious, they probably ARE suspicious.

Duck into a shop or busy place until the risk moves on. If it doesn’t, call 190 and ask them to check out the situation.

Rule #10: Beware of the “distract and rob” strategy.

As many know, our husbands are Brazilian. That does not make them immune in any way. In an attempt to be helpful when someone asked for directions, my husband was facing one way towards the person asking for help, while the accomplice stole his laptop from behind. Hold onto your stuff if you are asked for directions or seem to be getting the run-around.

And let me pull out Rule Zero. The overall rule of life in the big city. BE AWARE. Always, everywhere. A criminal may be hanging out on a street looking for potential quick hit victims. If you are “present”, looking around and really looking at people, with electronics and valuables hidden and purse tight to your body, he is going to choose someone else. The someone who is checking her iPhone, paying no attention, checking out her nails. Be less interesting than the next person; be less of a victim than the next person.  That being said, no matter what you do and whose advice you follow, something bad may happen. Be prepared for it: do not fight back.

Don't do this. I mean the phone; the dress seems nice.

What should you do if you find yourself on the business end of a weapon:

Realize, first of all, that your assailant may be on drugs and have his decision-making impaired. Even if not, the assailant really does not want a surprise. Move slowly and cooperate with his requests. If facing the criminal, raise your hands open-faced in front of you at waist level to show you have nothing in your hands. Do not raise hands above head as this attracts attention and the criminal does not want attention.

If you speak no or little Portuguese, say immediately “não falo portugues” (sounds like “no follow por-too-Gaze”). This will alert the criminal that you might not be following instructions because you do not understand, not because you are resisting. If they are asking for a wallet, or cell phone, point slowly to the pocket where it is and tell them you are going to get it slowly. Tell them what you are doing before doing it. Say “Te dou tudo” (“Chee dough too-doo” I am giving you everything). Try and stay calm.

This is the most important point. DO NOT RESIST GIVING UP ANYTHING. If they want your engagement ring, give it to them. If they want your Rolex, give it to them. Your wallet, your purse, your MacAir, your tablet, your car, whatever. Your life is not worth the replacement value of stuff. You have no replacement. Do not resist.  Resistance will make the criminal incredibly unhappy.

I was counseled by a military policeman to always carry at least R$200 (about US$100 or less) on me, in cash, all the time. It is an amount of money that will satisfy the small time criminal that wants an easy hit. If you only have R$2 in your wallet, they might get mad. Do not make them mad.

Do not look the criminal in the eye. They do not want to be identified. If there is a tattoo on an arm or hand, or distinctive clothing, do try to remember that. The police have an impressive file of identifying tattoos for criminals in this city. Do not take a risk in trying to memorize stuff. It may be helpful in the police report but is not worth risking your life.

At a recent security presentation by the military police, the captain gave the following sobering information:

Most of the crimes committed today are to get quick money to buy drugs. Crimes are overwhelmingly committed by 15-23 year olds. This is a group that places low value on life ---yours.  And realize that the street value of your stuff is low, even if you bought your iPhone for $700US or your car for $100,000. Want to see how low?

The street value of various items:

iPhone: $50 reais (US$20)

Car: $500 reais (US$210)

Bulletproofed car: $3000 reais (US$1000)

Laptop: $50 reais (US$20)

This is a volume business. They need to rob many folks to get money.

Do not ever chase an assailant. They could look back. They could get upset. They still have a gun. Call 190 and ask for an English-speaking officer. Or ask someone for the closest “delegacia de policia” to report the crime. Only by reporting crimes can the police put officers on the street in the right areas.


Note on Technology:

Speaking of smartphones, there is a time and place for their use. Technology that can help you stay safe when you are out of your home is springing up daily. Just make sure you are aware of your environment before you become engrossed in your phone.

Taxis: There are a number of smartphone apps that can make travel by taxi safer and easier for those who do not speak Portuguese. While I prefer to use my local taxi stand when I’m near home, when you are around town, you may want to try one of the many apps: 99Taxi, Taxijá and EasyTaxi are three of the ones I have used. I have a slight preference for 99Taxi because the drivers do not have to pay to use it (nor do you). When you press a button to call a taxi electronically, when a taxi is nearby, it will accept the call and you will be provided the name, the cell phone, the license plate and make/model of the taxi, and estimated arrival time of the taxi driver. You then can leave your secure location only when that exact taxi has pulled up.

In addition, we are testing three other safety apps called Agentto (for issuing panic alerts to an established safe circle of friends and family), Cidade Legal, and Aster, which is a private security service. We’ll update this information with our findings.

Next safety post we will cover the topic of staying safe in your car.  And briefly touch on public transportation safety as well.

Hitting your head against rocks - SP Aquarium - São Paulo

Thunder, prisoner of the SP Aquarium forever.

Beware of rant. I am a little crabbed out this morning because of this article from Folha de São Paulo which just showed up in my email in-box. I missed it on its original publication date of August 4.  I'm so revved up I had to put aside my original post about a story on the military police academies this morning. And you know how much I like to talk about the police.

The title in the English version is: "Pills, Acupuncture, Live Rabbits: When Zoo Animals Need Psychotherapy." As I usually do because the English translations of Folha make me insane, I went over to the Brazilian Portuguese site and found this title: "Conheça as tristes histórias dos animais que moram no Aquário de SP" or "Get to know the sad stories of the animals who live in the SP Aquarium."  I have no idea why they changed the title except that they apparently use an online translation service (at least it's not google translate)--dear Folha, as a "respected" newspaper, do not use online translation services!! Get a professional (this professional would not be me, as how could I then make fun of their stories?).

Let's talk about the SP Aquarium. The SP Aquarium is a privately-held aquarium that charges R$40 for a visit (adult) and R$30 for children. That's around $17USD adult.  This puts it almost USD$10 more than the $8 admission price at the Shedd Aquarium, Chicago's private/public partnership aquarium. Private donations in the US are more common as part of the culture, so I understand the unfairness of comparing the Shedd with the SP Aquarium. I would suggest that a rich Brazilian would rather buy a fourth jet that support cultural institutions. In general, okay? Where are the Brazilian Marshall Fields (Field Museum, Chicago), or John Shedds? But I digress. 

Speaking of digression, anyone get to see the dinosaur exhibit with animatronic dinosaurs at the SP Aquarium? Classic. Very aquarium-oriented. This is sarcasm.

In spite of charging an astronomical price (remember Brazilian minimum wage just went up to R$675 (US$280) per month, which may or may not come out to R$4 (US$2) per hour depending on your math). So we've got ourselves a rich kids aquarium, right so it's pretty nice? Not really. Many of the exhibits are decrepit and explanations are rudimentary. I haven't been there in 5 years or so but I don't recall there being much in lessons learned. If these aquariums and zoos are supposed to provide educational resources for kids, I would like to see more lessons like Nickel in Chicago, a sea turtle ground up by propellers in open waters. She will be captive (since she is physically unable to care for herself) forever at the Shedd and all the exhibit is built to be a lesson in how humans affect the environment. 

Read on, if you can stand it. Thunder, a seal found on the Rio beach, got "saved" by humans and now can't go back to the wild because of "diseases" that it might have gotten from humans. Are you kidding me? I am no biologist, but how is it that dolphins who wash ashore in Florida, get rescued (by humans, not other seals, hello?) and then rehabilitated in Islamorada are then released with no worries of diseases to other dolphins? Is Rio particularly yucky? I don't get it. I am happy to hear from any ocean biologist who wants to tell me I am clueless. It won't be the first time.

But when I read that this "rescued" seal has scars and damage (and hence needs psychotherapy) from banging its head against rocks in its despair in being held captive, I start to get a little upset. As the biologist, Ms. Schwarz, says "Those born free do not get used to living inside walls." Perhaps euthanasia would be kinder, no?

Some of the stories from the Portuguese version don't make it into English. Maybe they exceeded word count on the online translation form. There are approximately 2000 words in the Brazilian one, and 1000 in English. Don't think about the stories you are missing. Except the sharks. Think about them. They have "trainers" who swim with them and teach them to stay, come and who knows what-all. I would like them to bite. Hard.

So what is my point with all of this? The less I know about private zoos and other animal jailhouses, the happier I am. Yes, they exist in the US. They exist everywhere. Some are ethical, some are not. Swim with dolphin programs, Sea World...yes, the US is rife with them. I can only hope the majority of these animals were born captive because the quote about those born free will haunt me for a long time.

Okay, back to happy military police stories tomorrow, okay?