(Mum, please don't read this, at least not until I'm safely back in Paris.)
Now when I’m soon flying back to Europe, I guess I can write “the only time”, but fingers crossed that nothing dangerous happens to me anymore. I wrote this story long ago, because I knew that writing would help me feel better and get over what happened. There are many reasons why I didn’t post it right away when I came back from Brazil. Mostly I was waiting for my so called friends to send me pictures (they never did), and at times I was not even sure if I wanted to share this with you. Finally, I feel ready.
As I already said when I told you about my last days at Fundación La Vecina, I always try to keep my blog positive. Sometimes I write about things that slightly annoy me but even then I try to write from a pleasant and amusing angle, being curious and accepting that life here is different from how it is back home in Europe. Most of the time my blog is full of sunshine, beach life, cute kids, and sunsets on rooftop terraces. I admit, all these things are part of my everyday life. I love it and I know that I’m privileged. However, I rarely write about the misery I see in La Boquilla and how it breaks my heart being there four days a week and the weekends living the “chic tourist in Cartagena” – life. Nor did I write much about how I in the beginning was very lonely and homesick. I didn’t complain because I knew already then that later I would look back to my Caribbean life and remember it as a great experience, rewarding in so many ways. But some days, I felt so lost and I found myself daydreaming of going back. I thought of blogging also when things didn’t go well, but I think that by keeping my posts positive and by talking mostly about everything good, I was trying to keep this blog less personal.
That is going to change now, and what I’m about to share with you has been for me the worst experience here. This is nothing compared to feeling lonely or spending my days with a community that lives in marginalized conditions. I know that I have been extremely lucky because I have not gotten into any trouble or threatening situations here in Colombia. Naturally, because nothing bad has happened, I have started to feel less scared and to let my guard off. However, I have now seen that South America is not only sunshine, dancing and having fun. There are places that are seriously dangerous. So I’m just going to say it. In Rio de Janeiro, me and my friends visited a favela. And we got into a situation where we could have been killed.
First of all, I need to say that I still feel awful and I don’t know if the shock will ever go away. I still can’t understand how we did something that stupid. I’m certainly not proud of anything what happened, nor do I think that it was cool in any way. I regret it and if I could I would take it all back and not go.
When visiting Rio de Janeiro, me and my Australian friend M had as our Airbnb neighbors two guys from Miami, also E and M. We spent quite some time with them, and with our local guide B. One day, B wanted to take us to see a real Brazilian favela. The boys were excited; I was the one hesitating. In the end, curiosity won, I wanted to see if it would be anything like life in La Boquilla. Of course, I asked B at least thousand times if it was safe to go there and he swore that it was: “I know the people there; they are my friends. Just don’t go anywhere alone and don’t take pictures without asking me first and there is nothing to worry about”. I still couldn’t shake the queasy feeling, especially because B kept telling us horror stories about conflicts between gangs and civils being assaulted or killed because they did something unconsidered, or simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Why I didn’t say no, I have no idea. Moments later we were all in a taxi, on our way to the Rochina favela.
As soon as we got there, things started going horribly wrong. We had to take moto-taxis to get to the highest part of the neighborhood, from were we would see amazing views that we would never forget. “We will all stay together, right?” I asked B, who nodded. But for some reason my driver went slower than the others and soon we had lost sight of them. There I was, alone in a favela, and starting to panic. I told my driver to go faster but he didn’t catch up with the others, nor did we see them when we arrived to the view spot. We drove around and around looking for them, I was hysterical but tried not to show it. Still, I could feel people staring at me, looking at me like what is this blond foreigner doing here on her own? When we finally found my friends, I collapsed crying into M’s arms, and was more than ready to go back.
However, the views from high up were breathtakingly beautiful. We visited B’s friend’s house and took tons of pictures from his terrace (though I wish I had them and not only these few that I took with my old iPhone). B took us around in the area, we circled on narrow streets and between the houses, and we got a glimpse of how people there live. It was interesting, I wasn’t scared anymore and I agreed with B that I would have regretted not coming.
When we got back down from the hill, we stopped for drinks and a snack. We were seated at a table right by the road and when I asked if it was ok, B nodded and said that we were now basically out of the favela. I could breath again and decided to have a drink to celebrate our survival. However, the sun started to set and me and M were ready to leave. B insisted we go for another drink and the boys didn’t mind. We didn’t have any other choice than to follow them; B was our guide and we couldn’t separate us from him. So we sat at an other terrace and stayed there for a long time, the guys ordering more and more drinks. I was getting bored so I had an other caipirinha and started to get a bit tipsy. Not the best plan. I really was not interested in what the others were talking about so I started looking around and saw a cute guy smiling at me from a nearby table. A moment later this guy signaled to me to go there and have a chat with him. It felt like he was a perfectly normal guy, and that we were in a perfectly normal bar, and besides, B had said that we were basically out of the favela. So I stood up and intended to leave to go talk to him, and that is when B went nuts. He got furious with me and told me to sit down immediately, saying that we were in a favela in Rio and that I could definitely not go talk to people. So I sat down again, of course, not wanting to cause any more drama. It really wasn’t that bad, and I thought that the whole episode was already forgotten when we finally left the bar.
But things kept getting worse. I don’t know if it was because B had been drinking, because he wanted to teach us a lesson, or for some other unfortunate reason, but leaving the bar we took the wrong way. I was walking first, the others right behind me, when we took a turn to a narrow street. Both sides of that street were full of men, standing there armed with different kinds of guns. I freezed, I was in shock and my memories are blurry but the image that will always stay in my mind is seeing a young man standing right next to me, taking out a pistol from his pocket. I had never seen a real gun from that close in my life. In a situation like that, I guess everyone reacts differently. My only thought was to keep walking and get somewhere safe as fast as possible. M was not far but when I turned around, B was nowhere to be seen and the boys, M and E were surrounded by men holding guns. Two of the guns were pointed right at E. I don’t know how long it lasted, maybe only seconds. From somewhere B then appeared and luckily, really, he hadn’t lied about knowing the people there. He told them who he was, said that we were his friends and after a while of negotiation E and M where released and we were all free to go. In shock but relieved we kept walking. However, soon after we came to a blind alley, had to turn around, and walk all the way back on that same street. I didn’t know if I should smile to the gunmen, say hi, or just pass by without looking. There, in the middle of the chaos, B came to me, grabbed my arm and started yelling at me. “What were you thinking going to talk with that guy?” “Do you realize now that this is a dangerous place?” “Do you think this is funny?”. The fear took over. Was this guy completely crazy? Did he really have to lecture me in front of these men holding guns? What if he got even wilder and told them that I was not his friend and that they could go ahead and shoot me? I was hyperventilating again and all I could do was to beg him to stop and to take me home. I saw taxis close by but B didn’t let us take one, instead he decided that we would walk a little bit more.
When we finally got officially out of the favela (I know there is a picture of us at the “entrance”), and in a taxi, we all were frightened but reacted very differently. While I was crying again and M didn’t say much, the boys were full of adrenaline. “It was wild, I’m torn apart. My brain says that holy shit, we were really in danger but my heart says that it was cool, the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me. I’ve never felt that kind of emotion.” “Both my brain and heart say holy shit but still I’m a little bit happy that it happened because I know it is going to be a great story. I can be that guy now, the guy who has experienced something sick and crazy. Like once in Rio, somebody pulled a gun on my fucking chest. Then I ignored him so his mate pulled another gun in my chest...” All I could do was ask: but how did you manage to deal with it? E just said that he turned around and looked for B, the only guy who could save his life, and he didn’t see him. That is when he got scared and thought that something bad may happen, that he may or he may not die. “But I accepted it in my mind, my brain just told me to not think about it. You die or you don’t, nothing to do about it. Then I just thought like no, I’m not going to die, not going to die and kept repeating it to myself.” My only reaction to this: And you’re alive. That’s all that matters.
You would think that this story ends here. I wish it had. Instead of taking us back home, B took us to a penthouse party at his friend’s place. M knows better than me and said that they were probably all drug dealers. I’m not going into details, all I know is that we didn’t feel comfortable there and when we finally got out I really had had enough. I will be eternally grateful for both guys E and M for holding me in their arms and soothing me when I was sobbing hysterically. But what I will probably never really understand or heal from is that somehow all four of my so called friends decided to blame me of what happened. They kept going back again and again to the fact that I wanted to talk to that guy at the bar. How many times did I have to hear it: “You have to realize that in Rio bad things happen. You have to be careful. If you went somewhere with him and something happened, you would have put all of us in danger.” B went as far as calling me a spoiled child who only cares about herself and I got the feeling that everyone agreed. And yes, I get it. It was stupid. I should have sat still on my chair, waiting there until the boys were ready to leave. And yes I had one drink too much and that was thoughtless, I was not thinking clearly. But I would never had left anywhere with that guy, just to the nearby table to talk. I am aloud to talk to people, right? Wasn’t it suppose to be safe? B or the boys did not seem to have any problem sitting there and ordering more drinks. If it was seriously so dangerous, why were we even there? And let’s face it: nothing happened. Instead, when we went where B, our guide told us to go, we almost got killed.
I’m not playing a victim here and I'm only telling my version of the story. I know that we should never have gone to a favela in Rio and that it was my own reckless decision to go. If I could take it all back and delete all this from my memory, I would. The boys said it was fun but no, it was not fun at all. But I’m not ok either with taking the blame of what happened. You may think that hey, don’t be silly, they will get over it but no. After this, even if we all tried to pretend that everything was fine, it wasn’t and the ambiance of our holidays in Brazil had changed for good. The boys reminded me constantly of how all this was my fault, and even M agreed with them. If I thought that I had made new friends, I was wrong. And well with M, our friendship has lately had its ups and downs for other reasons too but I really hope that it is strong enough to heal and survive, once we are both back in Paris.
But in the end, I don’t really care of what they think. I can live with it. What I couldn’t have lived with is if someone had gotten hurt. And call me hysterical, tell me I overreacted. Yes, it is true that I’ve always lived a safe life and nothing seriously bad has ever happened to me. Maybe I have been living in a crystal bubble but I’m not complaining about that. Maybe I was not as prepared for this as were the others. Whatever the reason, this incident really hit me hard and even now, back in Cartagena, I can’t stop thinking about it. We were all feeling different things when the nightmare was finally over: terrified, emotionless, amazing, unreal. But mostly I think we were all just very happy that it was over. I at least, I couldn’t have felt happier knowing that we were all safe. That’s all that matters.
I also wrote a post about the good side of Rio, jump back to day 114 and read it here.
Ps. Thank you my dear Spanish friend M for having been there for me after all this. I’m so glad you decided to move to Rio (but please be careful!), and that I could meet up with you. Thanks for listening and getting my thoughts elsewhere. And thank you J, whatever happens I know that I can always call you and that you will make me feel better.
Read the next story here.
I'm Emilia, Finnish-Parisian, a recent Master's graduate. I'm currently traveling around the Caribbean and on a volunteering mission in Colombia. I'm passionate about writing, music and different kinds of sports. I can't wait to discover new places and cultures - and share my adventures with you!