Thursday, July 10, 2014
My extra contribution to Brazil's economy -- getting my pocket picked in Salvador
It was nearly midnight when Nancy and I headed back to our room following dinner after the United States’ loss to Belgium. We could see that an intersection ahead was jammed with people. Nancy expressed apprehension and suggested that we choose an alternate route, but I was sure of myself and we strode into the mix. As we were working our way through the crush, I could feel someone’s hand in the left front pocket of my shorts, and I reacted angrily, pulling the hand of a man in his twenties out of my pocket and yelling. I reached down for papers that had come out of the pocket with his hand, and crowd opened a bit. But as we reached open space, I recognized that the hand in my left pocket must have been a diversion. My wallet was gone, even though it was carried New York style in my right front pocket! But the pocket was so loose that this particular precaution was less useful. Along with my wallet, I lost several hundred Reais that I had withdrawn from a bank machine earlier in the day, roughly $100 US, and my driver’s license and credit and debit cards.
I have been traveling internationally for nearly fifty years, and this is the first time I have had my pocket picked (I have never been robbed at gun or knife point). So I should count myself lucky in that regard. But in retrospect, I know that I have become less careful over the years. When I am abroad, I generally carry my passport and emergency monetary reserves (that is, travelers checks) under my clothing, and at least until recently I would have put any cash not needed for that day in the same location. I know full well that crowd situations are a boon for pickpockets, and until recently I would have avoided them where possible, and been extra cautious when in them; and we had been warned that Salvador was a particular haven for pickpockets. I have become perhaps too sure of myself, and I paid the price for that. More caution in the future!
I spent the next twelve hours recovering from the theft. First, Nancy helped me calm down and insisted that we make an immediate report to the tourist police, which had been all over the neighborhood throughout the evening, on the streets and at every corner, it seemed. Not at the corner where I was victimized, and not, we soon discovered, at many other locations at that hour.
Eventually we found an officer who brought us to a police office where an officer in civilian clothing took my report. I did my best to explain what had occurred in Portuguese; her English was almost as bad as my Portuguese, but she used Google Translate on her computer to ease communication – a clever use of technology, I thought. She would have me type out my account and use the translator to figure out what to put in the official report. In the end, though, after nearly two weeks in Brazil, and following my six weeks of online learning, I was able to communicate fairly effectively orally, using the Translate program to supplement on specific words. She remarked that my Portuguese was pretty good for a tourist. It was a nice self-confirmation. She handed me a printed report, which she stamped and signed, but told me to return in the morning for an official version; I thought she was saying I would need to sign that. Not quite correct – my ability to express myself in Portuguese was always much better than my ability to understand what my interlocutors were saying.
The office had been almost empty when Nancy and I got there, except for the officials, but by the time I had finished my report there were several other tourists waiting for their turn to tell their stories -- each had an experience similar to mine, and each recalled the attire of the young man in the blue shirt. Nancy had speculated that the pickpockets had singled me out because of my age and, hence, presumably easy pickings, but the rest of the victims were in their twenties or thirties. Plainly, it was incaution and not age that was at work here.
The desk at Albergue Leranjerais has the facilities for local calls, but not international calls, so I would have to wait until local international calling shops opened the following morning. Luckily, Bank of America has online chat capabilities round the clock, so I was able to cancel both my new travel-rewards credit card and my debit card within two hours of the theft — I learned that small purchases had been made at the same store within fifteen minutes of the theft. There was no way to interact with my other banks without phone capability, so we got to sleep in anticipation of a morning making long distance calls. I went to sleep, but I could swear I heard somebody out in the street near the hostel tauntingly calling out my name.
After 10 AM, when the calling facilities opened up, Nancy and I headed down to Praça da Sé, where we had noticed an international calling place the preceding day. I had trouble getting calls through to the regular phone numbers placed on the credit cards for emergencies occurring abroad (Wells Fargo did not list ANY international number), but once we started calling the 800 numbers we got through without any difficulty. I got the cards cancelled after roughly $15 in calling charges, and got the added good news that for our main ATM card, and one of our credit cards, Nancy and I have slightly different numbers so that her cards for those accounts would not have to be cancelled – we would be able to make our own ATM withdrawals, and we could continue to pay by credit card in many places, without having to impose on our children traveling with us. But by 11 AM, we were done with the process and ready to move on with our day.
As we sat in the international calling shop, we noticed a parade going by outside; with floats, even!. We were sorry not to be able to step out and watch, but after the cancellation job was done, we stepped out an saw celebrants in groups with a variety of politically oriented Tshirts and signs for the groups to which they belonged. Unbeknownst to us, we had managed to be in Salvador for Bahia Independence Day. I was determined to land one of those Tshirts as a souvenir!
First, though, we returned to the tourist police office to sign the official report. When I sat down with another officer in civilian attire (later in the day, Nancy noticed him out on the streets in undercover capacity), I learned that I was not there to sign, but to get a copy of last night’s report bearing the electronic signature of the head of the state police. He and I had a nice conversation, partly in English but also partly in Portuguese. In response to a question about when the Portuguese R is pronounced like the English R and when it is aspirated, like a cross between the English H and the Hebrew Chet, he have me a lesson in distinguishing the two circumstances. As we were talking in Portuguese, another official wandered over to listen in, appearing to be impressed by a foreigner who had mastered so much of the language. I explained that it had taken a few weeks of online study, and both were astonished. I felt that I was making real progress.
In fact, I ultimately concluded that it was a waste of money and packing space to have brought a pocket dictionary and phrase book. The online lessons, free for duolingo.com and $1 for one month's access to portuguesepod101.com, were all that I what I really used; the books were an unnecessary crutch.