A brush with what appeared to be a shark and a large-scale beach robbery leads Dom Phillips to reflect on Rio de Janeiro, a city that despite talk of pacification, often reminds residents of a wildness lurking beneath the surface. Above, cops being ineffective in Ipanema.
By Dom Phillips
It may not have been a shark. It may have been a rêmora, the life guard said, a scavenger silver fish about a metre long that hangs around sharks.
It lurked under the fibreglass stand-up paddle board I was on for 20 minutes or so, a few hundred metres out to sea from Ipanema Beach, just by Rio de Janeiro’s famous Arpoador rocks, two Sundays ago. Long enough for the Jaws theme to start playing in my head.
On land, as at sea, there is a wildness about this city it is wise to remember. Rio de Janeiro is, quite literally, a jungle: there are snakes and monkeys in its forested hills, and tiny sagui monkeys that sprint along telegraph cables, or get fried if they misjudge it and land on electricity wires instead.
It is also a deeply violent city and for all the talk about pacification and armed police bases in the favelas, that violence is not going away. On purely anecdotal evidence, having abated in recent years, it now seems to be getting worse again.
As we sat nervously on our paddle boards a few hundred yards out to sea, on the sand a gang of small boys were beginning to opportunistically rob things here and there. Fears grew of a arrastão – literally, a dragnet, or trawler; in this context, a mass robbery that used to be common on Rio beaches, until pacification came along.
In the arrastão, a gang of thieves sweep down the beach seizing bags and wallets. As bathers flee in panic, the kids sweep up whatever they have left behind. Hence the name.
Out at sea, we debated what kind of aquatic creature was casting a cloud over a mildly adventurous Sunday afternoon paddle. I thought the fish looked like it could be a mini-shark – but I wasn’t sure. My friend Luciana Whitaker who was on the paddle board next to me got the longest look at it. She is sure it was a small shark. “When I saw the tail, I didn’t have any doubts,” she said. She also found this story – in which local media said a surfer may have been attacked by a baby shark in April in nearby Copacabana.
Whitaker is not a woman easily phased – she is a photographer who lived for ten years in Alaska, where she once faced down a polar bear, and where she returns every year to photograph the whale hunt. She has covered Rio favelas and protests extensively – as her site here shows.
In attempt to lose the fish, we hitched a lift on a nearby speedboat with the boards, hoping that if we could sail a few hundred meters we could leave it behind. The guy on the boat looked and said it was a cação – a Brazilian word for a small shark. Was it dangerous? He shrugged. We motored a few hundred metres down the beach. But back in the water, the cação was back under my board.
Meanwhile, on the beach, my girlfriend Alessandra was nervously watching the ripples of panic that spread every time the gang of boys approached somebody. Cariocas – Rio natives – like her have finely tuned survival instincts. They have grown up in a city where violent crime is a staple of life, and are constantly attuned to their surroundings.
Cariocas don’t see the same city we foreigners do. They see a map of risk. They have learnt which street not to go down, which corner to avoid at night, which passer by, or motorbike, is a little too close. All over the beach, cariocas like Alessandra were watching the boys looking for easy prey, and quietly putting their beach stuff into their bags, ready for flight if necessary, ready to stay if the danger abated.
The boys found their prey, right in front of us. A woman standing in her bikini by the water’s edge. The boy was about ten, in blue shorts. He reached up, ripped off her necklace, and sprinted off down the beach. The woman shrugged. This is Rio. What can you do?
The boys started the arrastão. The ripple of fear became a wave. This time, everybody ran. In minutes, a whole stretch of beach was empty. Police stood around clumsily, a show of force as ineffective as it was too late. Beach stalls owners stalked around with staves of wood or umbrella poles, furious at two good hours of lucrative Sunday afternoon business that had just run away. The boys had melted away.
Many cariocas argue that the favela pacification programme credited with reducing Rio’s crime rates has failed to offer employment alternatives to those young men who lost their income when the armed police presence forced the drug trade either underground, or somewhere else.
One is a friend called Claudia, born and bred in a Rio suburb. She works for an NGO that offers artistic training to teenagers and young adults from favelas. I have changed her name at her request. Claudia believes street robberies are increasing. She has suffered two violent assaults in recent months.
The first time was at a station where you can rent bicycles via Itaú Bank at a minimal price. Claudia was there with a friend and was on a brand new bicycle she had just bought. She spotted the three youths approaching and felt a twinge of instinctive carioca fear. She told herself she was being paranoid. It was early evening, not even dark.
The boys produced a knife and stole her bike. Shaken, she flagged down a passing police car. The cops shrugged. This is Rio. What can you do?
I’ve heard a half dozen stories like this, and worse, over the last year. There have been a couple of similar assaults by small boys on the beach recently. Claudia’s second robbery was three Sundays ago. She was getting out of a friend’s car in front of her building in Flamengo, about 8pm at night, when a youth approached with a gun. He told them to get out of the car. As the driver clicked off the central locking, the thief tensed in fear and cocked his trigger. They got out, trembling. He took the car and sped off.
This time the police were at the crime scene in five minutes. They gave chase. Shots were exchanged – one went through the windscreen of a police car, missing an officer’s head by centimetres. The thief abandoned the car and ran into the nearby Aterro do Flamengo park.
I was flying through the Aterro do Flamengo on an Itaú bike at the same moment – flying because after dark a different kind of wildlife gathers in the trees: men, presumably looking for anonymous gay sex. I saw the policeman with his gun in his hand, the police car with the light flashing, the crowd of morbid onlookers following, and decided to get out of there.
This time, they caught the thief. Cornered, on Flamengo beach, he waded into the sea hoping to swim to safety, but ran out of breath, according to this news story on the robbery.
Given what might be out to sea, that might not have been his smartest move. But this is Rio. What can you do?