It was your average night at Copacabana Beach in beautiful Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for most people that is. The sweet smell of churros along the Copacabana boardwalk, groups of locals and tourists playing soccer and volleyball in the sand, and people enjoying drinks at the many cafes and restaurants found there. Naturally, our group of volunteers had decided to head down for all of the above.
The atmosphere down at Copacabana Beach is something I would consider to be magical. It brings out a side of you that you can’t help but love, or maybe that is just travel in general. I remember feeling all sorts of mixed emotions that night. I was overwhelmed, doing what I love in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. I needed to talk to someone about everything I was feeling that night. Two friends, Jen and Rachel, which I had met in Peru the previous year, decided to take a walk with me down the beach. I was in such a weird place at the time, feeling lost, and feeling like the whole world was mine but I didn’t know what to do with it. I wondered what I was meant to do with my life and why I was there. I feel like I have always known exactly what I want but have never known how to obtain it and it’s frustrating. I knew that both Jen and Rachel would understand where I was coming from because I connected with them on a different level than most of my friends back home as we all shared the same passions.
The three of us were in such a deep life conversation at the time that we didn’t even realize just how far down the beach we had walked. The same moment I realized that we had strayed rather far from the group was the same moment I looked up and got a really bad gut feeling; we needed to turn around but it was too late.
A young man, not much older than us at the time, came racing over frantically asking us the time in Portuguese. I only knew what he was asking because he was frantically pointing at his wrist and made facial expressions that indicated he was asking a question. All three of us immediately got nervous and kept saying “no, Canadian, no Portuguese, sorry”, and we all turned around to walk away. As Rachel and Jen were slightly ahead of me, the young man grabbed my left arm hard enough to leave a bruise, which surfaced a few days later. I yelled for the girls to help me and as they turned around to see what was going on, three more young men approached us. We all knew this wasn’t good.
Things happened really fast that night but I remember it like it was yesterday. The men were yelling at us in Portuguese, which obviously we couldn’t understand. We didn’t have to understand Portuguese to know what was happening. We were being robbed. I remember my words to them, “take whatever you want, you can have it all, please don’t hurt us”. One of the men started unzipping my sweater and I thought he was going to rape me. I am lucky he didn’t. He was checking to see if I had any jewelry around my neck or wrists, thankfully I don’t wear any of that. After they checked me for jewelry, one of the men unzipped his sweater in order to reveal a machete that they had been waiting to threaten us with. Unfortunately, I don’t think the image of the man with the machete’s eyes will ever leave my memory. He stared at me directly in the eyes with more anger and hate than I have ever seen in my life, while holding the machete in my face.
After the men took everything from us, they forced us to sit down in the sand and they ran away. We all obediently sat down and my friend Jen started crying as we watched the men in the distance. I think I was still in too much of a shock to even realize what had just happened. You never know how you’re going to react in any kind of life threatening situation and I was surprised at how calm I remained. I remember I was almost laughing in a way at my friend Rachel as she had given the men attitude because they were going to steal her bathing suit and she thought that was weird.
We all waited until we could no longer see the men before standing up. The three of us stood up, linked arms and walked shakily towards the boardwalk, realizing how many people had been around and watched what had just happened. After a walk, which felt like a lifetime, we made it back to our group and the second I saw Raoul I just started crying uncontrollably. Raoul is the organizer or all of the Solidarity Experiences Abroad trips and is like a father figure to me as he is a huge inspiration in my life. We explained what had happened and were immediately comforted by our group of friends. I don’t think that any of us were able to sleep that night.
I realize that I just told a travel story that some people may find horrific and the purpose of my blog is to encourage people to travel but I promise there is a reason for it. First of all, I looked at what had happened almost like it was a sign. I thought, and still do think, it was weird that we were in the middle of a deep life conversation about how I didn’t know what my purpose was and that I was feeling lost in life when it happened. All of the sudden I saw my life flash before my eyes and it made me feel so thankful to be alive. The fact that I walked out of that situation with a mere bruise on my arm is extremely lucky. I realized maybe there is a reason I am here, maybe I am meant to do more, and maybe I am on the right path. Secondly, it made me stronger and less naïve. I look back on that and think how naïve we were, three young females, walking along a beach in Rio de Janeiro at night and by ourselves. I am a lot more cautious now when I travel about where I go, who I am with, and what belongings I carry with me. I am also proud of myself for handling that situation as calmly as I did. Lastly, I realized I needed to embrace more in life. For example, I had been commuting to university for my first two years (before this incident) and when I got home I decided to move out of my house and closer to school in order to make new friends and be more independent. I don’t know if I would have made that decision when I got home had I not been put in such a crazy situation that really made me think about my life.
I waited until I landed in Canada to tell my parents what had happened to me and immediately my mom said, “you’re never traveling again”. Obviously I knew she was just being dramatic and she hadn’t had time to let that information sink in. I knew I wasn’t going to let one bad experience ruin something I loved. My point through all of this is that yes, bad things sometimes do happen when you’re traveling. Do bad things not happen at home too? They can happen anywhere. You just need to be careful. When I tell people all of the places I want to travel to, they look at me like I am crazy and almost always immediately say “oh, I don’t know about that… you have to be careful”. I am not a stupid girl, yes that night at Copacabana Beach I made a mistake but I learned from it. Nothing will stop me from traveling to all of the destinations I have planned and I hope you don’t let stories and fears intimidate you in your travels either.