Getting mugged in São Paulo

I’m generally quite a negative person, but when it comes to going on some little adventure somewhere, I’m the eternal optimist! It’s always a case of, “It can’t possibly be as bad as they say… They must be exaggerating” and “I’ll be fine… I can do it. Nothing will happen to me”. It’s this attitude combined with a little naivety that makes me think having a holiday in Caracas is a good idea; I can walk around downtown São Paulo at 1.30 am completely drunk while using my mobile phone and nothing will happen… But perhaps the craziest and most naive idea I had was that I would come to Brazil and do Bikram Yoga. In the biggest city in the Americas??? Home of the caipirinha??? I never stood a chance.
The reality of travelling to Venezuela is slowly starting to sink in: hyperinflation, a currency devaluing by the second, high crime rates, no food and NO CASH! I’m not worried about the food so much. If I lose a few kilos, I’ll be happy. The cash situation has me more concerned. The latest news is that Liza seems to think some banks have a special debit card kinda thing that they give out to tourists… That would be good so fingers crossed. If I can do it all above board, it’ll save me a couple of golden handshakes. Anyway, all will be revealed tomorrow so stay tuned.

The part about me not doing Bikram yoga and walking around downtown São Paulo at 1.30 am kind of go hand in hand so let me start at the beginning. I will say first though, in my defence, that initially the problem was simply jet lag. After that, however, other factors may have played a part.

During my time here in São Paulo, I’m renting a room from a guy called Marcio. After the disaster in Hong Kong renting a room from that Italian psychopath, I swore I would never share again… But since I don’t speak any Portuguese and this is a big city, I thought it might be a good idea to have an English speaking local. And basically, it has been a good idea. My radar for ferreting out freaks and weirdos has improved dramatically since Hong Kong. Marcio has been incredibly nice…. The perfect host! When I arrived on the first night, he opened the door with eyes half closed and the apartment smelling of incense … I had that one worked out in a second! Yes, that’s right… It seems that there has been a resurgence of potheads in my life. I will say though that living with a pothead is far easier than working with one. He’s very laid back, which is what you want a flatmate to be.

The next night, we went out to a little bar called Igrejinha (little church) complete with a neon crucifix hung over the counter. You just know that a bar that takes it’s imagery from the Catholic church is going to be nothing but a hotbed of sins… And I was right! I started off the night at 10 pm with a mojito, and made it back to the apartment around 7 am…. And well, I’ll let you fill in the blanks. But no, pedophilia was not involved. The great thing about travelling in non-Australian countries is that drinks are the real deal: highball glass filled mostly with alcohol and just a little splash of mixer to give it colour.  

Predictably, Friday was a complete write off.

Saturday was a good day. I started off the day with a little smidge of sightseeing in the morning. São Paulo is not exactly the kind of place for leisurely sightseeing strolls. Nonetheless, I power strolled down to Liberdade, São Paulo’s Japanese neighbourhood. You know the kind… The one with Korean sushi shops and Korean grocery stores! I didn’t hang around too long. It looks just like the rest of São Paulo, except with a few lantern-style street lights hanging over the roads. On the way back, I stopped for a while in Praça da Se, considered to be the central point of São Paulo. It’s an attractive and leafy place. While I was there, there was a little “tribe” of dancers out the front of the cathedral who were “dancing for Jesus”. At the end of the performance, one of the dancers came and handed me a post-it note and invited me to write down my sins and hang it on the cross. I admired his optimism, that all my sins could be written on one post-it note. A whole pad of post-it notes would have been optimistic… But one??

Next on the agenda was lunch with the lovely Gabriela Rocha. It’s always an amazing thing to be in another part of the world and see a familiar face. For lunch it was a truly delicious family sized mouceca and family sized caipirinhas. I’m blaming the jet lag here because usually I’m stronger than this but I had one caipirinha and I was wiped out. Mind you, one drink here is equivalent to about 17 Australian drinks.

I was in no shape to go clubbing on that night (jet lag and caipirinhas) but the good thing in São Paulo is that you can go to bed on a Saturday night, wake up on Sunday morning at 5 am, have a caipirinha for breakfast and still go out! Something I had never done before, but it was good!

Let’s cut this long story short… I was mugged. Not satisfied with spending 14 hours in this club, once it closed I thought I’d move on to the “after-the-after-party” party. I knew the next club was near my place, somewhere on the other side of the Praça da Republica but I didn’t know exactly where. So at 1.30 am, while completely drunk, I thought it would be a REALLY good idea to ask the taxi driver to drop me off in a dark plaza in downtown São Paulo, alone, connect to the Wi-Fi and take out my mobile phone and check Google maps. The muggers must have been rolling on the floor laughing when they saw me. The most stupid thing is that once I did that, I decided I didn’t want to go the club after all and I would just go home. I live very close to the praça but the problem with São Paulo is that absolutely every corner and every block of road looks exactly the same, especially in the dark when you’re drunk. So, it was a little difficult to orientate myself and work out on which side of the praça was my street. Suddenly out of the darkness a guy appears and offers to help with directions. And guess what?? I told him the street I was looking for!! I walked right into that one, didn’t I?!! I knew it was trouble straight away though, so I started walking really fast… He kept saying “why are you walking so fast?” But the faster I walked, he just kept up with me. Anyway, wham, bam, thank you ma’am, next thing I’m down a dark street and another guy shows up… Guy number 1 puts his arm around me and hugs me really hard. I straight away gave him my cash and the other guy asked for my phone. I handed it over no questions asked and thank God they ran away after that. I had a credit card and passport as well.

I know you all just read that and are thinking “You f***ing idiot”. And I am, because I’m smarter than that. I don’t care about the phone or cash, I’m just angry with myself that I was so stupid and walked into that easily avoidable trap. You just don’t do that in Latin American cities. It makes me realise I really need to lift my game if I’m to survive Venezuela.

Dusting off the blog again

Good morning São Paulo!!
The view from my room…

And here I go again, off on another adventure!!!!

So far everything has gone very smoothly… It was my first time flying on LATAM and first time flying on a Dreamliner. Somehow every time I think of Dreamliner, I get that Mariah Carey song “Dream Lover” stuck in my head. But other than that, it’s been a smooth ride and a surprisingly nice experience starting from check-in through to arrival. I did think for a moment though at the check-in counter in Sydney that there needs to be a mandatory IQ test or some kind of travel quiz for anyone buying a ticket on a plane and one of the questions needs to be:

Which of these is NOT an acceptable form of container for your checked luggage?

A. Hard suitcase

B. Soft suitcase

C. Duffel Bag

D. GLAD garbage bag.

Yes, that’s right…Abuelita rocked up to the counter and had decided that putting all her belongings in a garbage bag was a far better idea than putting them in a suitcase. It slowed things down considerably… If it was all Aussies, they would’ve just told her to “Get f***ed” and pushed her aside but since most of the passengers were Latinos, the other passengers at the other two check-in counters had to stop and help her repack her stuff.

My travel arrangements had all been moving along nicely in the weeks preceding my departure but then hit a couple of speed bumps just recently. The first speed bump was trying to book internal flights in Venezuela. At first glance it seemed that it would be the same as booking flights on any other airline. However, even though the various web pages are in different languages, they’re set up in such a way that they only accept Venezuelan credit cards, ID numbers and phone numbers. So now the challenge was trying to find someone to buy me a ticket.

I’m renting an apartment in Caracas from a lady named Liza Lopez and she put me on to her travel agent Francoise to help me book the ticket. Of course, Francoise just had to be French didn’t she. As well as being French, Francoise writes all her e-mails in capital letters. What sort of normal adult person does that? I mean, it’s like the net equivalent of shouting. Anyway, the short story is that she agreed to book me a return ticket from Caracas to Porlamar and asked me to transfer her US$28 to the company bank account. After I transferred the money at a cost of $30, she tells me she can’t accept US dollars after all and the bank is sending me the money back, again at another cost to me of $30. Now, could I please just pay her in person when I arrive in Caracas. Of course I not-so-delicately pointed out that it was her mistake and would not be paying her again since I had lost all the money. Eventually though I relented because I thought I may need her help again in the future. It seems though that the damage has already been done because when I asked her to book me another ticket she flat out said, “NO”!! She’s probably gone and cancelled the ticket to Porlamar just to spite me.

The second speed bump is the money situation. I’ve basically been banking on having a “black market” holiday for the five weeks in Venezuela. Hence my underpants are stuffed to the brim with greenbacks. Again, this part of the plan had been going OK until recently. One US dollar on the black market was fetching a thousand Bolivars. The biggest banknote in circulation is only 100 bolivars. Even still, I wasn’t going to let that be a deterrent. I’d just be like a “trummerfrau” I thought, risen from the ashes of the Weimar Republic, wheeling my barrow of cash round the streets of Caracas. Then suddenly about two weeks ago the bottom fell out of the Bolivar and is currently at 2400 to the dollar. Because the country has run out of cash, the government has placed a cap on cash withdrawals and the daily limit is now 10 000 bolivars. This basically means, I’m screwed.

There is always the government and the “official” exchange rate, but that will easily quadruple my travel costs. So now, I’ve been fishing around madly looking for options. I have one contact who works in customs at the Simon Bolivar airport and whose name is Libya Gomez… I wonder what inspired her parents to name her “Libya”. Anyway, she claims to have enough banknotes to do the exchange in cash. Another guy I’ve tracked down by the name of “Charly” claims he can open up a Venezuelan bank account for me and do the exchange via transfer and I’ll be able to pay for everything by card (no need to channel my inner trummerfrau and get a wheelbarrow). Another two people have offered to lend me their bank accounts and IDs for the time I’m in Venezuela. Apparently not having a picture that looks like you on your ID in Venezuela would only be a very minor problem. Hmmmmm… I know what you’re all thinking!

Anyway, I’ll cross all of those bridges next week when I come to them. Hopefully everything will work out fine. And now off to explore São Paulo… I’m still determined to Bikram tonight! Fingers crossed!