Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Pondering the imponderable - São Paulo

How to tell a bullet-proof car. The black "margin" around the window (not the rubber bit)

As I have mentioned before, I have found myself in charge of our house's motor pool (of two cars). This week it was the turn of my Honda CRV. The window was making a click-click noise when lowered. And it is making this noise because it is "blindado" or "protected". Or as most like to translate: "bullet-proofed."  In actuality, bullet-proofing adds a great deal of weight to the motor that raises and lowers the front windows, and these windows only open halfway. Rear windows do not open at all.

I know I've talked about bullet-proof cars here a few times. But it came up again today for two reasons: 1. This is the first time I have visited the bullet-proofing factory in Barra Funda and 2. Because a sister gringa was robbed at gunpoint last night. Her car was not blindado.

I am not going to name my bulletproofing company--they work with Honda, but they are not Honda. Let's call them BPC for Bulletproofing Company. The reason I am not going to name them is that they seem to go out of their way to be secretive. When I finally found the place down a dark alley of  walled-in buildings, I wasn't sure it was them. A street number was on the big rolling door, but no sign at all. I had to call my service representative and say "am I here??" And yes, he told me to just "embicar" (love this--put the "beak" of the car) in front of the huge gunmetal grey door and they would open it. And so it rumbled open...to show a tiny antechamber (picture the Panama Canal locks) where the front door closed behind me before the front door opened. I actually sat there for a few seconds wondering if some water would start pouring in...

A car entering the locks...

Finally the door in front opened and lo and behold...about 100 blindado cars all in a huge warehouse, guarded by the cutest black terrier mix I'd ever seen. I was asked about the problem with the window and then escorted to the waiting area for a coffee. Where the following was displayed behind the coffee stand:

Pictured is a Level 3 bullet-proofed window that has been tested by the factory for security. You can't see too well in this photo: the window has a spider web of cracks but has not been broken. When I commented on this with Silvio, the receptionist, he led me over to another display which was even more graphic, and of an actual attempted crime. 

This is an actual car door on display at the factory, nicely set off by a palm, don't you think? The bullet marks left on the bottom of the door are from a caliber 380 handgun, and the ones on the window are from a caliber 40. If you think I have any clue what the difference is, you are mistaken. If you think I want to know, you are also mistaken. I hate handguns--but I don't really want to get into that debate on-line. We can chat some other time.
Caliber 40. Photo credit: www.aquilafaa.com

As I had learned when I was buying my bulletproof car, the only way to shoot through the glass on a level 3 bulletproofed car is to shoot six times in exactly the same place. Not much chance of that as you should be accelerating away.

As my sales rep said to me, if it's a handgun, you're probably good. If it's an Uzi or other automated large weapon (cannon, nuclear warhead, etc), you will want to stop and let them have the car. Now the interesting thing to me on the door above was that Silvio said the door was shot 23 times, not one bullet got through, and that the criminals had known that the door was bullet-proof. So why did they shoot, I ask? "Pura maldade" ("Pure wickedness" is the direct translation I get...isn't that an oxymoron?). They were pissed off that the car was impregnable. 

Now at this point in my story, I stop and think to myself - what the heck am I doing in a city where I need to drive a bulletproof car? And that's just the thing. I don't drive it because it is bulletproof, but because it is "protected", which is the actual translation of "blindado". The most common crime against drivers here is "smash and grab" -- a motoboy and accomplice will drive up next to you, smash the side window and grab what is in the back. Or simply point the gun at you through the window and suggest that you hand over everything, including sometimes, the car. 

The crime here is robbery, it is not murder. Our murder rate in São Paulo is about to go under 10 per 100,000 which is "reasonable" for a large city. However our robberies are going up month over month--and I know someone who was robbed in her car at gunpoint in the last twenty-four hours. For more on what to do about all this (if you are a resident), please see the Safety in São Paulo series on my blog. You can search for it on the right. 
In the end, my car window was fixed. The problem was a bum "amortecedor" ("shock absorber" -- windows have shock absorbers? All news to me...) Fixed free and with a smile from Marcelo, my punk rocker (complete with gelled up hair and skinny jeans) service rep. Back through the locks and home again through the always-surprising streets of São Paulo.


  1. I've already mentioned what I think about bullet proof cars in general so I won't go into that. But I still don't get your issue with the word "blindado". Yes, there are different levels of protection but "blindado" applies to everything from consumer-grade cars to military-spec armored (there's another term you can use) vehicles like tanks, which no right-minded person would claim aren't bulletproof. (To be honest, even the latter can also be pierced with the right type of bullet - play any modern videogame and you'll learn more than you care to know about some really scary real-world weapons.)

    It sounds like you are either dissatisfied with the level of protection available on the market or you're trying to downplay just how protected you actually are.

    1. Well, if that's what it sounds like, I'd better do some editing. What I am actually saying is that the word "blindado" means protected, not "bullet-proof". Like when a player doesn't want to give an interview at the end of a game, he can be "blindado" by his PR people. The point being that I bought my car not because it stops bullets (because there are really very few bullets flying in Sao Paulo--see low homicide rates) but because it stops someone from breaking the window and scaring the **** out of my small children and perhaps scarring me emotionally for some time. So my point is really not the different levels of "blindado" because who really cares (though I do know a lot more about it than I am letting on--it's just not important to my blog that a Level 3 is crazy-more protected than a Level 3A). My point is that I am protected and not bullet-proof. I am making this differentiation because I don't want to scare tourists from this city because they think that a bullet will fly in the window. It won't, most likely. But a motoboy might stick his elbow in and grab your computer bag.

      My point is that English fails in the translation of "blindado" as it means "protected".

      I am not dissatisfied with my level of protection. And I have no need to downplay how protected I am. I am as protected (physically and emotionally) as I can be. And that is how I deal with daily life in São Paulo.

    2. OK, I think I get it now. It's not about the actual protection it gives you from bullets but rather the fact that it probably stops those bullets from being fired in the first place. Like the person who learns a martial art to *not* get into fights. Or at least, that's what I think you're saying. I was just making a nit-picky comment about the word itself. :)

    3. That is indeed what I was reaching for...apparently not well ;)

  2. I read your blog because I came across it by accident and I think you write very well. I like the way you see little things as different from other Brazilians. I think you see things with humour and intelligence.

    I hate the fact that to live in São Paulo some people have to have bullet proof cars. I think living in SP is kind of... Really messed up actually. I know you've been living here for a long time since you mention it on your blog, and I think it's a big sacrifice to you because you come from a proper country with laws that (at least to some degree) work and way less corruption. Plus I've been to the US many times (11 or so) and I know people there are more civilized, in a day-to-day basis. At least it is my impression. They have better education.

    And probably most importantly there's way less violence there. And traffic. I hate the traffic here as well. I don't know. I am Brazilian and I find this a strange country. I think you focus on the strange things on this blog, but I would also say the country doesn't help much. Do you feel like living in Brazil for the rest of your life? Don't you and BH think of going tot he US?

    I don't think I have as much money as you so I never had a bullet-proof car. But I know it is recommended for some. I understand it is like living under-siege. I hate that about Brazil. I lived in Europe for a few years and I know what it is like to live in a better society.

    I constantly feel ashamed of my country reading the stuff you post here. There are good things, of course. I think that there are great people here in the end, not only uncivilized people. But there's a lot of bad as well. It is really not a developed nation, unfortunately.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful and well-written response--wow, I hope you work in the tourism industry with that English!

      The bulletproof car thing is an endless source of amazement to my friends in the US. It is not something you need or want when you are middle class or above there. Where I come from, a tiny town of 17,000 people, we left windows, doors and cars open at night and were left to play in the open, not behind walls, during the days. Crime did touch us of course (and this is a generation ago--things change) including the murder of a local woman by one of my classmates. We are not totally safe wherever we live.

      When we moved here, my husband was an executive for a Brazilian company that required its senior execs to have blindado cars (with drivers trained in defensive moves). I hated that car. Ironically we still have it 5 years later--it is the Volvo I mention in another post. I spent the first five weeks or so with nightmares of accidentally driving into a river and not being able to open the doors or windows to be rescued. I missed rolling down the rear windows. I am a small-town person. I am not a city person. But to make city living, and specifically SP living work for me and my small children, I also bought a blindado car two years ago after two friends were held up at gunpoint at streetlights. With kids in the back. After becoming a mom, I have worries that I never had before. If I were single or childless, I might not have a blindado. I get crazy about protecting my kids from sights and situations that in reality, I have very little control over. It's my way of seeking control.

      I do not see me living here for the rest of my life. I do love Brazil (see today's post). But I have always deeply loved my own country, even with all of its faults. When I return, I will switch my blog to the US in My Eyes--after living abroad for a long time, I can now more clearly see the faults in my own country. The guns are out of control. The Republicans are out of control. The education system is dying--the public education system which I grew up in. The difference between the haves and have nots is more accentuated. There are so many things wrong. But it is, in the end, home.

      I too feel ashamed of my country for various things: Kyoto Protocol, government shutdown, the NSA...that is normal. But I also feel great pride for it, and you should too for Brazil. Things can change and they do change, and you have to believe it. Several of my Brazilian friends are making great changes every day--a new children's playground, a stronger neighborhood association, a better private school education. It can happen.

    2. You touched on another couple of interesting points: the small vs big town and the difference between generations. Quite often I I see statements (not from you specifically) such as "Brazil is like this and my home country is like that" where the more precise observation is "Big cities are like this and small towns are different".

      As for generations, I'm guilty of that myself. I'll sometimes say "Growing up in Brazil was like this and here in England my daughter is seeing a different experience" but is that really true or is it that my generation was one way and her generation (here or there) is different? I suspect sometimes it's the latter.

    3. I agree with you, Andrew--it's hard to tell what is a generational thing, and which is purely cultural. Or size of town. I have a friend in Michigan who lives in a town of 9,000 people and lets her 7 year old and 10 year old walk to friends' houses a half mile away. Things that are unthinkable to me in any large city in any country. But probably happens in any town of 9,000 here in Brazil.

    4. When I was 10 my mother taught me to take the bus to school on my own in Sao Paulo. (Let's be clear, I'm talking about the mid-eighties here.) Some people thought she was crazy back then but there was never any real issue. I only got lost once when I took the wrong bus and still eventually managed to get to school by myself. But will I do that with my daughter when she's that age? I don't know yet to be honest.