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If I had left my friends earlier, or if I had taken the stairs instead of the ramp, or if I had not greeted the curly haired woman, then maybe the man wouldn't have followed me to my room, robbed me, and beaten me up.

But I did spend time in Nicole's apartment in Chapeu Mangeira, a favela in Rio de Janeiro.

I did take the narrow, crooked favela ramp and stopped to chat with the teenager with the radio and the gun in the space leading away from her apartment.

I did stop when I passed the exuberant, curly haired lady whom I had met once months ago, and I sat down with her short haired female friend and bare-chested guy friend. After a bit, I joined them at the cleared out apartment where loud Brazilian funk was playing - a gang's party.

When the bare-chested friend first asked me for beer money, I gave it to him, but I didn't give it the second time he asked. He reacted by storming off angrily, and I soon felt too uncomfortable to stay, so after shuffling around a bit, I left.

I met him on the road near my room. He was carrying some cigarettes.

"You're leaving?" His Portuguese, heavily tinged by a favela accent, sounding genuine.

"Yeah, I'm sorry. I have to work tomorrow. Sorry about the money, too."

"Not a problem, don't worry." He looked around. "I just wanted some more alcohol."

"Hey! I actually have some cachaça at my place. I can get it."

"I'll come with you. Is it near?"

And so I lead him down the narrow allies and up the winding stairs, into my shared house and then to my room. I checked my phone, put it on the table, then handed him a Velho Barreiro (only the best) with a smile.


He put it down without drinking. If the crazy look in his eyes had been there before, I hadn't really noticed.

"I don't want cachaça. I want 20 Reais." I was confused and a little shocked. "I already gave you 20 Reais. I don't have more money."

"You have. Give me 20 Reais."

Anger and disbelief waved over. "No. Get out."

He moved closer to me, his head swinging in a strange, leering dance. His eyes were wide and fixed on me, voice low, spittle on the bottom lip - the situation had turned eery.

"You think you can trick me like that, you fucking gringo? I know you have it, and I'm going to take your phone unless you give it to me."


And just like that, as if in a dream, his hand slithered around me to my phone. He didn't reach quickly at all; rather, it was a weirdly calm, confident grab. I guess the potential of that boundary being broken was just too foreign to me to react.

Desperation caught in my chest. This couldn't be happening.

"Please, don't take it. Why are you doing this?"

"Give me the 20 Reais, bitch."

I found my hand reaching into my wallet and handing him 20 Reais. He took it, and, his smile crooked, held the phone still.

"Now give me 40 Reais."

Further shock lowered my voice.


He turned and moved to egress. Galvanized, I stepped between him and the door. I grabbed the frame in one hand and his bare chest in the other.

For a while, we struggled like that, waving in and out of the doorframe. He slammed me twice into the edge of the door and rammed my cheek into the doorknob. I bit his arm and hung on until he hissed and slapped me.

One of my roommates, the son of my pastor landlord, lived right adjacent to me -- I could have shouted for him.

But I didn't. Instead, I wrestled the man back into the room.

Breathing heavily, "I gave you what you asked for. Now give me my phone."

He turned, making a sweep of the room. I stayed by the door. Despite the throbbing in my cheek, I still felt a barrier to engage him further. Some irrational part of me was worried for my eyes. An image flashed of them being punctured in a bloody burst.

He moved over to the window - to spit I thought - and then hopped through it. My room is on the third floor.

I crossed the room and grabbed his chest through the window.

He looked back at me, spit into my face, and swiped at my head, his long nails scratching my neck. Shocked, I again tried to grab the phone.

He wound up and punched me square in the left eye. I fell back onto the floor, grabbing my nose and gasping. By the time I could open my eyes without stars, he was gone without a trace.

I was trembling, bruised, and could barely breath from all the of adrenaline. I paced outside an bit. Then, making up my mind, I called a friend, Alberto, from my house's landline, packed my computer and passport and immediately left the favela for his apartment.


Trembling in his place, I hugged Alberto and cried on his shoulder. The unreality of the act paralyzed me, washing me with the guilt, fear, self-pity, and regret. It felt like everything had changed.

At a practical level, I didn't feel safe in the favela. The man knew exactly where I lived; would he come back to take more stuff? Was he part of a gang, would they come for me if I told anyone? I envisioned my window shattering and shadows piling into the dark room with guns and knives.

At some deeper epistemological or ethical level, this threatened my world-view of kindness, compassion, and love for all. I had shown the man goodwill and freely taken him into my house. I had beseeched him to stop when the trouble started- and wide, spittle flecked, crazy, his eyes had stared back into mine and denied them. He had treated me with violence.

"Man, you can move in with me," Alberto said, a worried hand on my shoulder. His apartment was on the eleventh floor with two locks, and the building had a guard. "I'll give you keys. Get yourself out of there."

My brain accepted Alberto's advice, especially as my other non-favela friends reiterated it.

But my heart was reluctant: I liked thinking of myself as being different; that after the Indian village and Myanmar monasteries, I could think beyond the locks and walls of the developed world. I had felt secretly proud that the pastor never gave me a key to my room, that I could trust the favela and the world.

After some restless hours on Alberto's couch, a shake on the shoulder and a murmured request, I fell asleep in his warm, comforting embrace. I felt safe.


When I stepped back into the favela two days later, I no longer trusted it. I was shaking.

I made it to the start of the narrow allies, and that's when I ran into Pol, a Belgian man who lived in the favela. He asked about my eye and I told him the story. Unlike Alberto's, his reaction was affronted and angry.

"This does not happen in our favela," he stated, "and this will not happen in our favela." He marched me to Francesco, the pastor who owned my house, and together we told him the story.

Francesco was beyond himself. How could this happen, in his house! How could I not have screamed for help? Where did I meet the guy, who saw him? Francesco stopped his work and, with Pol, marched me to the pizza place.

We met Luiz, the pizza shop owner. Who was the guy that was with the curly haired woman? Luiz, confused, pointed to me. We pressed him, providing some details - a tattoo with Chinese lettering, tanned caucasian skin, a large mouth - and then Luiz remembered with a flash.

"It was that guy with the stutter, right? Him? My god! His nickname is Stutter. He works for.... who does Stutter work for, do you know? Maria?"

Maria, a woman sitting at a table nearby pointed up the hill, and said, "Pedro."

Luiz, nodding, "Go ask Pedro, and if he doesn't know, come back to me! I'll go find that guy myself, that fliha de puta. This problem all started here in my shop, I'm responsible too!"

Pedro was outside his shop when we arrived.

A brief description of the man. Pedro nodded, serious. He hailed a motortaxi who was riding past - I had heard once that all the motortaxi guys were in or related to the gangs - and talked in a whisper.

"Was your phone a cracked Samsung Edge?" The motortaxi called out to me.

"That's it, white with a blue cover!" I replied, surprised. The motortaxi guy did a 180 and disappeared down the hill. "Where is he going?"

Pol sat down at the table. "They're going to beat him up."


Three days later, the pastor came to me with an update. The man had already sold my phone by the time the motortaxi guys had gotten to him, but they recovered the money it had been sold for, and the pastor gave it to me to buy a new phone. The man had been told to leave the favela for good, and no one has seen him there since.

I was amazed by the events.

The favela had banded together as a community to uphold the so-called "law of the favela": you do not steal within the favela. People far removed from the event who barely knew me had taken almost a personal interest in it. I didn't find out the extent of the violence that was directed towards the man who stole my phone; I wouldn't have condoned it if it happened, but I understood that a threat to one person was a threat to all. The following days, people who didn't know me would call out to me to see if everything was well. In this way, a crisis had united the favela residents.

By contrast, the response by my friends in the asphalt was isolationist. They told me to move away, to stay silent to protect myself, and to invest in more locks. They themselves invest in security for their buildings, modify their nightly plans to avoid areas deemed unsafe, and never, ever enter the favelas. Crises separate them from their neighbors.

By and large, this seems consistent with a response I might expect in New York. We build more walls, detach from neighbors and people we don't know so well, and retreat into our homes.

Ultimately, the favela response healed and reinforced my faith in the trustworthy-ness of humans. I hold that if I continued to live a positive and kind life, I would generally amass the same in return, and that everything would work out. I felt safer then ever in the favela, and continued to live there despite Alberto's kindness. I decided not to let fear dictate my actions.

Next time, I might be at Nicole's apartment again, I might have the choice between the ramp or the stairs, and I might see that curly haired woman. I think I would do mostly what I did before.

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