“Why are you walking the streets at 2:00 am! It’s not safe!”
My hostel mate from Belgium screamed as soon as I entered the hostel. She was working in her computer at this hour while I, half sh*t-faced, couldn’t utter the words to her welcome remark. It was already the first month of my solo female travel in Brazil so Sao Paulo already grew on me. I wasn’t sure how to answer back in a way that will be pleasing to her.
The receptionist was half paying attention. He was reading a magazine with his legs elevated on the table.
“She is from Manila. Sao Paulo is not scary for her.”
That was something a response I never thought of saying but maybe he’s right? Maybe I am not scared of walking the streets of Sao Paulo because I lived in Manila? I’d like to believe Manila was a training ground for me. My courage is coming from the broth of my experiences while studying in Taft Avenue — the most notorious street in the whole University belt. I was once robbed while crossing the street so being extra cautious and watching my back every day has become a habit. It was a one-time thing but you can never be complacent in Manila. Something will always come up, especially when you least expect it. I’d like to believe that if I made it in Taft, I can make it anywhere.
When I first landed Sao Paulo, it looked exactly like Manila – the traffic, the culture, the people – I felt like I never left the Philippines. Because of that, I became comfortable and stayed for 90 days. Yes, I was just in Sao Paulo for 3 full months just because it didn’t feel strange. I have local friends there and that’s probably another factor why I didn’t feel unsafe.
Sao Paulo always gets a bad press. People skip it. Brazil is so big that others prefer to visit the most touristy parts (like Rio de Janeiro) to save time and money. I, on the other hand, went to Sao Paulo and felt like staying. My South America journey was set on indefinite travel time so there wasn’t a rush – I can stay as long as I want to do my digital nomad work. I also believe that staying in a certain place for a long time contributes to its level of safety. The longer I stayed in Sao Paulo, the more it became my home.
Many Brazilians in Sao Paulo are often from European ancestry. For example, my Couchsurfing host didn’t grow up in Italy but has an Italian passport. The Italians migrated to Brazil in 1875 when Brazil opened its lands to increase their population. Today, there are more than a million Italians in Brazil. Half of them live in Sao Paulo. By 1904, Italian migration decreased so Brazil and Japan signed an agreement allowing Japanese migration to Brazil.
With this, Sao Paulo has been very used to foreigners. I was once mistaken to be Brazilian-Japanese (because of my Asian eyes and brown skin). I am only speaking for myself but I’ve observed my European travel companions did not get any weird glances while traveling Brazil. They are really used to foreign faces.
On my second visit, I stayed for another 4 months and spent my time mostly in Rio de Janeiro and the north. It has always been my dream to go to the World Cup 2014. The streets were full of people from all parts of the world. I did not think of becoming cautious until one drunken morning, I got pickpocketed in Copacabana. I was living with a few people in a rented apartment. We take turns in cooking every day and when my turn came, I went to the supermarket. As per any big sporting event in one of the busiest cities in the world, the supermarket was really crowded. I put my wallet in the basket and started strolling the crowded alleys. I wanted to cook adobo, a famous, tasty and easy to cook Filipino dish. There was never a time that nobody liked it. It’s always a hit.
Though this dish is easy to cook, the ingredients in Brazil are different. Adobo’s main ingredient is soy sauce but based on experience, soy sauce in different countries are different. In Uruguay, it was less salty I had to put 2 liters. In Nicaragua, I got one that’s sweet. In Japan, well, Kikkoman. It took me a long time to decide which Brazilian soy sauce fits the Filipino adobo.
When I finally chose one, I put it in the basket clinging to my right arm and to my surprise, my wallet was not there. It would’ve been okay if the contents of that wallet were easy to obtain but it was mostly identification cards (driver’s license, citizen ID, etc) that I can only get in the Philippines. It’s not a problem if I don’t have those because my passport is still safe (thank God!) but I wasn’t comfortable traveling with just one ID, especially I was traveling for an indefinite period of time. What hurts the most in that instance was that I just withdrew my salary from my online job. It was $800 USD down the drain.
I panicked. I went to the customer service area and asked for help. My Brazilian Portuguese was just okay to understand so the supermarket staff sort of understood me. They announced it on the PA but I was 100% sure I will not get it back. In a country as poor as Brazil, it will be a miracle to get this back. But I did give not much value to it just to please me. I still hoped that someone would be kind enough to leave it even without the money. But how do I win with that when the money weighs more value to me than the IDs.
I wanted to burst into tears outside the supermarket. I left my phone at the apartment so I couldn’t call my friends. Our place was a few minutes walk to the supermarket but I didn’t understand why I didn’t go back to the comfort of my friends. I just sat there quietly analyzing the first time I lost money in this long journey.
“Are you okay?”
A guy carrying a shopping bag approached me. I probably looked like I was going to cry any minute. I told him the story on how I lost my wallet. He was listening carefully and told me that pickpocketing is very common in Rio de Janeiro. He didn’t lecture me about being mindful though it’s probably what I deserved.
“Come to my house for lunch. It will make you feel better.”
My mom has always been worried about my habit of hanging out with people I don’t know. In recent years, there have been many rape and murder cases for solo female travelers. My mom’s (or another mom’s) greatest fear is to see her daughter killed in the news headlines. But somehow, I felt the sincerity of this stranger. I felt his offer was genuine and what else can I lose anyway? My wallet is gone. He can never take anything from me. If he harms me, well, I will fight back for sure. I am not sure if I will be able to because I know that panicking is the first response when you are going to be attacked. “Groins, eyes and knees” are the three words are the words I programmed my mind together with panic. These are the three places I will aim to hit if I get attacked.
For the record, I was never attacked or physically assaulted in my travels all over the world. Not even in the Middle East. I never had to hit anyone on the groins, eyes, and knees but I’m sure it works. Repeating those three words, I went with this man to his home. The route he was walking to was going to Rocinha, the notorious favela where I use to volunteer as a teacher.
Favelas (slums) in Rio de Janeiro is considered unsafe. It is not advisable to go here on your own. It is worth seeing as it is one of the most iconic of Brazil but you will need to sign up with a tour company. My work experience there was the only reason I would go by myself. However, if I am not familiar with it, I wouldn’t dare go alone. Together with this stranger, we cooked, chatted and once again, I had the chance of seeing the good in people. If you want to read the full version of this story, you can click here.
In 2017, a heard of a Filipino blogger who was robbed at gunpoint in the same favela that I have been to. This broke my heart because I never really had a bad experience in Rio de Janeiro (aside from the pickpocketing). Maybe after some years that I didn’t visit, times have changed? I thought to myself that maybe times did change. It changed my mind visiting Brazil again because I didn’t want to overwrite the good memories I had. But then again, I realized, that safety, especially in Brazil is subjective and personal. I truly believe that our aura greatly affects our safety.
After eating at my new found friend’s home, I remembered that my friends were waiting for me to cook lunch – they must have been starving! I excused myself to my accidental host and told him I needed to go back and inform my friends that I am safe. As soon as I got to the apartment, only two of my friends were there. They told me they were looking for me for hours and were very worried about me. I told them about what happened and they insisted that I go to the police to report it. Like I was a few hours ago, they were hoping there is still a chance that I will find it. But I honestly moved on. We all went to the Polícia Federal to file a report. I needed this report to claim my insurance anyway.
Is solo female travel in Brazil safe? Would I tell you not to go there? Of course, not! I consider traveling Brazil by myself one of my greatest achievements in life. You deserve to see this country. If you ever find yourself forced to entertain unwelcome attention, all you have to do is ignore them – do it with all your heart to make them feel they don’t exist. You know, like you are not hearing or seeing them. I have mastered this not just in Brazil but in most parts of the world. I realized that if you start a conversation with them, even just a simple hello, they will never stop bugging you.
Brazil, I guess is for experienced solo female travelers. If you are not sure of your level, do not go out at night by yourself. Make sure to always hang out with people. During my time in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, I have been super active in weekly Couchsurfing meet-ups which led me to meet a lot of locals. Whenever I am in doubt of going to a neighborhood I am not familiar with, I make sure that I always go with locals or a group.
I wanted to try hitchhiking as I did from Uruguay to Argentina but this is not advisable for solo female travel in Brazil. Again, if you want to do this, make sure you are with a companion or a group.
English is not widely spoken in Brazil so you might want to learn the basics for emergency purposes. Ajuda is the world for help. It’s only one-word but everyone will understand this.
When it comes to what to wear, it is very known to us that Brazilians are really fashionable and loves dressing up sexy. My choice of wardrobe was never a problem for me in Brazil. I wore anything I want without even thinking!
Remember to be mindful with your stuff. Most of the establishments in Brazil accept credit cards so it’s okay for you to go around without cash. I only realized this during my third visit to Brazil. From then on, I only use a debit card when going out. Do not go out like me with $800 USD in your wallet because it will be trouble.
Above all, enjoy. Brazil is more than an amazing country. You will love everything about Brazil as much as I did.