January 24, 2007

Brazil Bus Terminal Thieves
Porto Alegre, Brazil

I had my first encounter with Brazil's notorious reputation for crime, less than 12 hours out of the bus and into the country.

The large, riverside city of Porto Alegre has a bus terminal with two different types of restrooms: Pay and gratis. The variety that doesn't require BR$1 (US$0.50) to enter is tucked away at the end of one of the terminal wings.

Making people pay to piss is high on my list of things no civilized country should force upon its travelers, and always drops a nation down a notch in my book. What's curious about Porto Alegre's terminal is that both options are available—but you probably wouldn't know it unless you happened to walk to that particular wing.

It was a blazing hot day, and I needed to freshen up before getting onto an overnight bus that would last at least 14 hours. While Tatiana went to use the pay shower facilities, I walked over to the free restrooms for a wipe-down, shave, and shirt change.

The bus terminal is two levels, with the top level almost completely unused, save for a few offices. Both levels look onto the departing buses in a pair of partially complete ovals.

There are two sets of restrooms, both women and men, one on each level (almost atop one another). Naturally, the ground floor restroom gets the most foot traffic, so I opted to climb the short, circular stairwell to use the second level facilities—knowing full well it would be easier for me to keep my possessions in check in a less populated place.

The Stage

The bathroom is 12 feet by 20. As you enter, stalls line the left wall—about six of them. To the right: Three sinks mounted on a slab of rock in front of a large mirror, close to the door, with a shoulder-level partition dividing the wash area from the urinals. A warm air hand-dryer is mounted on the partition, facing the sinks. A dispenser with a large spool of toilet paper is mounted on the far wall, opposite the door (between the stalls and urinals).

The Incident

I walk into the restroom and take stock of the situation. Those that have met me or spent any time traveling with me know that I always keep a high guard up, and I'm on the absolute highest level of alert/defensive suspicion when I'm in places like bus terminals and airports.

I walk into the restroom and heave my backpack off my shoulders and onto the ground in front of the sink next to the hand-dryer. As I start fiddling to unpack my needed items, it becomes clear that I'm annoying folks by taking up a sink station (without actually using it).

I temporarily move between the partition and stall—the only spot that I'm sure hasn't been splashed with urine—opening up the sink for others to use, but taking up half the walking space used to enter the rear portion of the room—I cared not.

The first thing at the top of my pack happened to be the protective case for my camera that I use when my pack and I are mobile. Knowing that I wouldn't need to take any more photos for the day, I removed my camera from the cargo-pocket of my shorts (and proceeded to place it in its case). As I did this, I did not look at the camera or case, but at who was noticing what I was doing (a cursory glace from one or two folks, but nothing more).

Small things can stick out when I'm on the defensive, and it struck me as very odd when I noticed a man had washed his hands in the sink before walking around me to use the urinal. This practice is rather uncommon, and enough to attract my attention (and flag him as suspect).

While keeping an eye on this 35–45 year old man (overweight, but not excessively, wearing a button-up royal blue shirt that was about five shades too bright), I repositioned myself in front the same sink again. From my opened pack I removed my designated in transit shirt, a small toiletry bag, and the new shaving razors I had bought earlier in the day.

When I had finished placing the items on the counter I synched up the top of my backpack and positioned it at the base of my feet, under the sink, next to the partition. The pack was secure from grabbing, as long as I didn't step away from it.

During this time there was a slight buzz of activity in the bathroom, but nothing compared to that a level below. Most often there were four or so guys in the room, but sporadically swelled to more (or subsided to fewer).

I began to prepare to shave, keeping an eye on blue shirted man that was still idling in the restroom. He had taken a leak, passed by me to wash his hands, then passed behind me again to use the roll of toilet paper to dry his hands (like so many others in the room).

As I lathered up, a younger guy in his early 20s entered the room. Immediately red flags went up. His shoes caught my attention—some type of designer sneaker with mustard-yellow highlights. I noticed his nice jeans and the off-black, button-down short sleeve shirt (made of a light blended material). He was carrying a frosted transparent folder for documents, with a few pieces of paper inside.

I looked this kid in the eyes when he came in, and instantly didn't like his vibe. Unlike every other restroom patron, he too washed his hands in the sink before proceeding past me to use the urinals. Man in the blue shirt was still there, and passed by me to throw water into his short, black hair that was starting to grey—yet again returning to the roll of toilet paper by walking past me. The kid was pissing next to the paper, and I thought I caught an exchange of non-verbal communication.

I was sizing the two up, and didn't see any protrusions that looked like concealed handguns. My best guess was that I was the mark, and they were waiting for the right opportunity to strike.

As I continued to shave, I would look over at the kid after every (or every other) swipe. I was occupied with watching him, as I identified him as the most immediate threat. Blue shirt was finally about to leave, but stood behind me and to my right at the entrance of the restroom, doing something with a cell phone (sending a text message, perhaps).

In the meantime, this kid was just being stupid about his behavior. He would circle behind me, use the urinal, wash his hands, dry his hands, then use another urinal or go into the stall for a minute, before immerging and looping around again. All the while I was staring at him, with a pissed off look on my face, like I was ready to relieve his mouth of several teeth.

People would enter into the bathroom, oblivious to the small war that was being fought between me and my future assailant(s).

What I didn't want to do was get into a scuffle or argument with this kid, though. That's all the distraction needed for someone to grab my pack while I was nose and nose with the kid (or in a fistfight). I'm sure the initial plan was to grab my backpack while I was changing my shirt, or distracted by some other means.

So I'm done shaving by this point, the kid's still in the bathroom, and blue shirt guy gone. After 15 minutes of this routine I was pretty fed up, and started quickly tossing my stuff in the pack to leave. As I quickly gathered my things on the counter I stared into the reflective sliver of the hand-dryer. I could clearly see the kid staring at me, and he probably noticing that I was staring back at him.

The final flap closes on my pack and as I rush to get out of the room, when the kid makes his exit. I look up into the mirror again and notice an eye looking intently at me though the small gap in the door of the stall closest to the exit. I stare at it, and then turn around, as I lift my pack onto the countertop.

As I'm sliding the shoulder straps into place, my back to the mirror, I'm watching the stall door. A moment later the door opens up partially, to reveal a man in shorts and a black sleeveless shirt sitting on the toilet—his pants up—undoubtly the fourth player in the game, waiting to pounce.

Fearing that I'd get an arm slung around me with a knife pressed to my side as I exited the bathroom, I withdrew my spring-loaded blade from my pocket and readied it in my hand—prepared to give someone a nasty stomachache should they touch me.

Scanning faces as I walked out, I needed a secure place to pause and actually put on that shirt that I wanted to be changed into. Luckily, the 2nd story walkway/catwalk turns into a dead-end, from which I was able to observe anyone who would approach.

With the ability for someone to sneak up on me removed, and a security camera above my head (an administrative office was behind me), I changed, packed up my bag properly, and walked downstairs to see if Tatiana had finished getting ready (scanning for the three tangos the entire way).

Amazing—I was clearly onto the plot, and still can't believe how they didn't back down or scrap the robbery attempt (when it was more than obvious that I was wise to their intentions).

…Just another small event during the course of a day on the road.



January 26th, 2007

you should have cut them anyway

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