A mere thirty seconds away from my Rio de Janeiro hostel, I heard an approaching car grind to a halt behind me, two doors open and shut, and a burst of terse words in Portuguese that I did not understand. I turned around. Two men approached—one skinny with short hair, the other chubby. The skinny one held something shiny. It glistened in the night. I’ll never know for sure if it was real, but it sure as hell looked like a gun.
So this was it—the Rio crime I had heard so much about.
The pair stood on either side of me, leading me up the hill. The man with the gun held it behind my back, still speaking words I couldn’t understand. I didn’t need to understand. As they led me up the footpath leading to my hostel, one of them grabbed my bag, lifting the strap over my head and on to his shoulder. They now had all my valuable possessions. But we kept walking.
As we approached the door to my hostel, I mustered the ability to speak for the first time. I pointed out that, hey, I’m staying here. I’m staying here. I said it as if the criminals would somehow concede that mugging someone so close to their temporary home is pretty lame, and hastily retreat. Yeah, right. We reached the front door of the hostel, where I instinctively stopped. The skinny man—the one with the gun—motioned for me to walk around the corner, which led to a pitch dark alleyway I hadn’t even noticed until that moment.
“Oh shit,” I thought to myself. It was the first time during the ordeal that I felt real, cold fear.
I noticed the incandescent light on the hostel balcony and remembered Walter, the hostel manager, who had made me coffee and tried so valiantly to engage me with his extremely broken English. I remembered his hammock on the balcony, where I knew he hung out on nights like tonight.
One more time, with a voice raised just a little louder than before, I tried to explain to these goons that I lived RIGHT HERE, trying to catch Walter’s attention so he would give a glance down. I knew what these guys would do once they brought me around that corner. Walter was my only hope.
Walter’s head popped above the railing. He looked thoroughly confused as to what I would be doing with two shady looking dudes at 2 a.m. Eventually, he engaged my robbers in a semi-heated conversation. Then the guys left my side, as if a strong wind had blown them away and back to their car—strong enough to carry the fat one with my bag strapped across his back.
I felt relieved at first. But as the muggers disappeared into the darkness it hit me what had happened, and how much stuff I had just lost. Yes, there was the laptop and the phone. But, oh crap, there was also the film camera, a 70s-era Nikon FM that was a hand-me-down from my mother. There was my audio recorder, packed with field recordings from the World Cup final that I had yet to download. There were my tickets from all ten matches I attended, along with my FIFA credential.
And, oh shit, there was my passport.
Walter walked inside from the balcony and I began cursing. I kicked the ground, separating the sole from the tip of my shoes. Then I sat on the curb across from the hostel, unable to do much except hold my head in my hands. I couldn’t cry. Crying indicates that there is a feeling within. I had none. I felt numb and useless. Why didn’t I take a cab? Fuck.
I looked up to find that Walter had opened the front door and was inviting me inside. In I went.
Months earlier, late at night, that same bag sat next to me at my desk at Sports Illustrated. As usual, there was little sound in the Time-Life building’s absolute interior fluorescence. This contrast—light inside, dark outside—essentially transformed the office windows into walls of giant mirrors, which reflected rows of cubicles. This left an uneasy feeling of being trapped in an unending maze, one in which you can see all the angles.
I worked the night shift, producing Sports Illustrated’s website, and one of the downsides of the job was nights like tonight, when there was little to do. I passed the time by reading. And because it was 2014, most of the reading I did was about the 2014 World Cup, due to kick off in a matter of months, 4,800 miles south of where I sat.
In truth, most of this reading was pointless. World Cups are notoriously hard to predict. Just about the only thing that was certain was that the games would be in Brazil—a place where vast economic power shares a boundary with deep, abject poverty. Modern cities co-mingle with untamed, hazardous jungle. In the summer, the nation’s multitude of clashing cultures would be charged with welcoming thirty-one teams from other countries and their support crews, plus an estimated million foreign tourists, as well the homegrown fans for Brazil’s own team.
I didn’t think I’d be among any of them.
That spring night at SI, all indications were that I’d watch my favorite sporting event in the office’s sterile light, probably too overwhelmed with work related to the tournament to enjoy the tournament itself. I imagined tearing myself away from the screens at my desk at halftime of a random evening game sometime that summer, pacing around the office and eventually staring at the window so I could look at something other than a computer. I figured I’d see a little bit of midtown Manhattan and a little bit of me in the glass, and suspected that I wouldn’t be particularly proud of either.
Yes, soccer is only a game. But it’s a game that tends to map a life, perhaps because the World Cup provides such convenient four-year markers.
My family brought me up watching the game, but it had mostly been a far-away ideal—until 1994, when the World Cup came to the United States. At eight, I was finally old enough to understand what it was I was watching, but still impressionable enough for the game’s visceral moments to have a lasting effect. I watched the final in my uncle’s family living room, surrounded by my father and five uncles, all yelling at the TV. I got my first taste of dramatic heartbreak as Roberto Baggio sailed his penalty kick over the bar, handing Brazil its fourth World Cup title.
By France ‘98, I had begun collecting soccer jerseys. I was enamored by the different colors and crests and names on the back, each of which seemed to have some sort of intriguing backstory. My favorite was a white German home jersey with “Klinsmann” on the back. I cheered for the United States, investing some emotional energy in the team for the first time. It wasn’t repaid—they finished last.
By 2002 I had become a bona fide nut. My father wasn’t, but such was his desire to introduce me to new cultures that we went to the World Cup together anyway. I watched firsthand as the United States achieved its greatest-ever World Cup performance, and experienced what a public square in Seoul is like when South Korea makes the semifinals at home. I suspected that the hysteria I saw would never be matched.
In 2004 I moved to London for school and, as a side job, began writing about soccer for various websites. The World Cup would be in South America in ten years, and I made a promise to myself to make it there, as a professional.
By 2006, my uncle Jonathan had built up enough jealousy about being left out in 2002 that he decided to go to the World Cup too—this time in Germany. Once again, I came along. We slept in the back of a rented station wagon, and attended all the U.S. and all the Iran games. I didn’t see a single win by either team. It didn’t matter. It was an incredible experience.
In the following four years I joined a band. We got signed to a label and released an album. Our first tour coincided exactly with the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, which I figured would be a minor annoyance. It was far more. After being spoiled with two straight trips to the tournament, following along on Twitter in the back of a minivan in the middle of god-knows-where just seemed wrong. My 2004 promise to myself resurfaced. If I was going to miss out entirely on the 2010 World Cup, I sure as hell better be there for the 2014 edition.
Sitting in my Sports Illustrated cubicle, I figured that chance had passed. I’d gotten close, but I hadn’t gotten on the plane. It was OK. Life goals don’t always work out.
Then U.S. Soccer called.
Pangs of nervous energy and tightness swirled in my chest as I walked into my boss’s office, sat in a chair across from him, and delivered the news. I gave it to him straight, he understood my decision, but I struggled to keep my fear under wraps. Goodbye, full-time, salaried position with benefits. Hello, temporary assignment with a set expiration, no benefits, and no guarantee I’d have anything to fall back on after it was done.
My ace in the hole, the only saving grace of this move, was that it would send me to the World Cup. I would join the U.S. team in San Francisco on May 25 and stay with it, possibly through the World Cup, which would last from June 12 through July 13. Weeks earlier, the U.S. Soccer Federation, which organizes and promotes the U.S. team, had offered me a job: from the U.S. Men’s National Team’s warm-up games until whenever the team ended up getting knocked out of the World Cup. I would be the team’s beat writer for ussoccer.com. Hotels and expenses? Booked and paid for. Fee? More than reasonable. My job? Write stories. It was all I had wanted to do for a decade.
When I walked out of the SI’s offices for the last time, I felt I was leaving a cocoon, albeit one that sapped my nights and weekends. As it turned out, I was just moving from one secured bubble to another.
U.S. Soccer staff flew to Brazil together, stayed in rooms twice the size of my Brooklyn apartment with king-size beds and private bathrooms. A FIFA van carried us wherever we needed to go. We all worked our asses off, but it was, in some ways, a very comfortable life.
Comfortable wasn’t what I was after. I was chasing adventure. There wasn’t much of it at first.
Every day followed a similar pattern: Wake up early, go to training, do interviews, write a story, go back to the hotel, do more interviews, write another story, plan for the next day, and, oh yeah, eat. Occasionally. A State Department rep addressed the staff one night, recounting horror stories from the subway system, how to avoid muggings, and reminding us that we could catch malaria or dengue fever in some of our more tropical travel destinations.
But after a week of concrete routine, I felt so trapped that I declined a ride to the opening match. I wanted to take the subway. I had been told it was dangerous, dirty, and teeming with seedy characters who would pickpocket my life savings in an instant. It was none of those things. The train rocketed efficiently between clean, well-maintained stations. It seemed that everyone on board smiled, including a small child who looked fascinated by the steadily increasing crowd of loud soccer fans in colorful shirts. I gave the kid a high-five as I left and eventually found my way through rambunctious crowds to the Arena Corinthians.
I watched the opening ceremony from the press box. Tree people walked on stilts and Jennifer Lopez performed. The game kicked off with Marcelo inadvertently knocking the ball into his own net, giving Croatia the lead. Neymar equalized for Brazil with a pinpoint shot from the outside of the penalty area. I breathed in deeply. The World Cup was underway. I was there.
I didn’t get a break from World Cup mayhem until a few days later in Natal, where I had traveled along with the U.S. team for its opening match against Ghana. Time was tight on game day morning, but I managed to sneak away for an hour, for a walk on the beach. As I strolled along the sand, a beautiful, warm, unending ocean rolled in over the tips of my toes. I sat on one of the concrete hunks of a disused staircase and watched an informal beach soccer game unfold. It was nice to see soccer played in a context other than the most famous, pressure-packed one available on the planet.
The sun warmed the hairs on the back of my neck. I had completely forgotten to put on sunscreen, but when the burns made it painful to adjust in my seat during the United States 2-1 victory over Ghana that afternoon, I hardly minded. I figured that finally, I had experienced something like the “real” Brazil.
In Manaus, on my way to the U.S.’s second game, against Portugal, I discovered that there is no such thing. When a plane hovers over an Amazonian city, the trees covering the swamp look so tightly packed they could be shrubberies. By extension, the Amazon River looks like an ordinary stream and a broken down boathouse appears no larger than a broken down dock on the shore. When the airplane landed in Manaus, it taxied past a graveyard of rusted out planes that, for one reason or another, had come here for their final rest.
In Manaus itself, from the back seat of yet another FIFA van, I saw a man digging through a pile of garbage by the entry to a dirt side road leading to one of the city’s slums. I wasn’t watching him closely, but out of the corner of my eye I saw him lift something from the middle of the pile. At first I could only make out a strip of matted, dirty fur, pinched between the thumb and forefingers of this faceless man in flip-flops. As he lifted further, he revealed the rotting carcass of a small dog, its lifeless body now held upside-down by the tip of the tail. Just as my stomach quivered, the van sped away. The image stuck in my head for the rest of the trip. I had gotten used to the World Cup bubble. Now I jolted out of it and into the realization that I had no idea where in the hell I actually was.
I also knew that the air was as humid and pungent as I had ever known.
To step outside in Manaus is to dive into thick, unrelenting heat and coagulated smells that happen when everything in your general environment is either baking, rotting, or trying desperately to do neither. I walked outside and found that every layer of clothing became instantly moist. I also found no shortage of insects that wanted to eat me. I knew some of them could lead to my downfall.
As far as I know, just about every American that traveled to Brazil in a professional capacity got “the talk.” Mine was delivered by a wonderfully blunt woman in a doctor’s office in downtown Chicago, who explained hepatitis b, typhoid fever, and the shots I’d be getting to prevent them. Then she explained dengue fever. I would not be getting a shot for dengue fever, because no such thing exists. But, she explained, I could still easily contract it. The doctor gave me a prescription for malaria pills, to be taken two days before leaving for Manaus. She said they’d give me wicked dreams. Under some circumstances that warning might sound like fun. This was not one of those circumstances. Especially when I realized, upon arrival in Manaus, that I had forgotten to take them.
Every sight of a mosquito caused fear throughout my body. Then there were the larger, more unexplainable bugs—giant moth-like creatures with gnarly wings that looked like they had been cut from the mold of a prehistoric fossil. On a visit to the arena for the team’s final pre-game training session, I noticed I had been absentmindedly scratching an itch on my neck. Oh shit. I had been bitten. I think. I kept feeling the bump to see how big it was. It seemed to be growing. But was that because I kept touching it? I should stop touching it. But it itches! Oh shit. I have malaria. Wait, do I have malaria?
Looking up the symptoms did not help. I read that nausea was one, and instantly felt queasy. I read that patients get the chills, and shivered in the same instant. If I had read that growing wings was a symptom, I would have felt an incredible backache and acquired an urge to fly. Eventually I tried to ignore the bite until something unassailably real actually happened. That day, nothing did.
I discovered two red bumps on my left shoulder after waking the next morning. They couldn’t be bites, I thought. For one thing, my hotel room was sealed off from the world like an antigravity chamber. I didn’t see any way any living thing from outside could get in. Plus, there was no itch. I assumed they were my skin’s way of reacting to carrying a bag on that shoulder in such humid weather, so I flipped the bag to the other side and went about my life. Portugal scored in the final minute against the United States in a 2-2 draw that had all the symptoms of a loss.
The U.S. played its final group game against Germany, in Recife, where the U.S. Soccer crew was met by a kind, college-aged driver named Marcela. I asked Marcela what she studied in school. The answer: journalism. So that’s why she seemed so smart.
She told me about a row of warehouses used as an artistic haven on the outskirts of Recife, a community that was being taken over and re-built thanks in large part to the World Cup. She had another story about the time she reported on corruption at her internship at the local newspaper. As she told it, the editor of the paper was buddies with the party under suspicion. Her story was killed and her internship was terminated.
She was an antithesis to the FIFA behemoth, but just happened to be driving one of its vans. I counted Marcela as one of the most notable people I had met on the trip. Then, later in the day, I met Will Ferrell.
The stunt had been in the works for weeks. U.S. Soccer would bring in Ferrell, unannounced, at the lavish, loud party for fans that had been thrown in each city the night before each game.
Like the first two events in Natal and Manaus, I assumed the Recife version would turn another Brazilian building into another tiresome embassy for my dear country’s soccer party culture: DJ’s spinning thumping club remixes of The Hits of Today; a whole lot of Americans drinking a whole lot of Budweiser and chanting a whole lot of chants in English. These were frat parties, souped up with the dollars of official sponsors.
I attended the FanHQ party half-heartedly, and assumed I would not be anywhere close to Will Ferrell when he arrived. I spent most of the time standing in the kitchen in the back of the pizza restaurant that had been co-opted for the event. It turned out to be doubling as backstage, which meant it was the best seat in the house.
I watched Ferrell arrive in a van with buddies in tow, greeting everyone in the vicinity. He cracked jokes with all of them, delivered a few quick lines for morning show producers, and paused for pictures. As he waited backstage, I found myself mere feet away as he grabbed a piece of chicken on a stick next to him and offered it to me. The shock of the moment prevented me from saying much.
Then he walked out the double doors and every single person in the venue lost their mind.
The next morning Marcela picked us up early to drive to the stadium. It had been raining all night. Water rushed through the streets, high enough for me to feel it splashing against the underside of the car through the soles of my feet. I asked Marcela if the city flooded like this often.
“Yes,” she said. “But that’s usually when I stay home.”
The U.S. lost to Germany that day, but progressed to the second round. Salvador was next, where the U.S. would play Belgium on July 1st.
Flying back from Recife, I felt as if every joint in my body needed oil, for there was no cushion between my bones. My legs and arms stiffened, as if I hadn’t used them for days. My head pounded. Plus, well, let’s just call it “gastrointestinal distress.”
Arriving back at our Sao Paulo Home base, I did what I promised never to do again and went to the Internet in search of medical answers. But this time I was actually feeling the symptoms, curled up in my bed, ready to pass out and sleep for thirteen hours. The results came back: Dengue fever.
How could I have contracted that, I wondered? Dengue isn’t a big deal in Recife. The only place I could have caught it was in Manaus. It had been five days since I had been there. And then I read that five days is about how long it takes for Dengue to appear after a bite. Usually, the Internet said, by spiders. I remembered the red dots on my shoulder.
I forced myself through a yoga routine on my hotel room floor to relieve the stiffness, drank as much water as I could handle, and slept as much as I could while still getting work done. The worst of it went away in a matter of days. The rest was solved with ibuprofen.
Next up was Salvador, where the temperature was warm, the skies were clear, and nothing off the field went especially wrong or especially right. It was the best and most boring section of the entire trip.
A large woman in a gray sweatsuit ambled up the front stairs of the overnight bus to Rio de Janeiro. She did this slowly and with assistance from the driver, and I wondered what ailment could be giving her so much difficulty. Every lift of her leg up another stair seemed to be an exercise in agony—teeth clenched, lips pursed—with audible moans and groans.
When she made it to the top of the stairs, the woman took a single step on the level aisle, then fell with all her weight into a seat in the front row—the aisle seat right next to mine by the window. The woman muttered something in Portuguese, reclined her seat back as far as it could go, let out a cough and a fart, and within minutes was snoring. She would be my neighbor on a six-hour journey to Rio that I originally had no intention of making.
I had awakened that morning inside the World Cup bubble. The U.S. lost to Belgium on July 1st, which meant that on July 3rd my U.S. Soccer contract was up. It was time to go. I wanted to stay, but the loss, the end of a long daily grind, and the lack of any kind of a support system around me had me thinking about Independence Day plans. I was due to return to New York early in the morning on the Fourth of July. Surely, I could have a hot dog and/or a burger in my mouth by sundown.
Brian Straus, my friend and SI colleague, thought I was insane. “It just seems to me,” I remember him saying, after the U.S. loss, “That with the mountains you moved to get here, the least you can do is stay as long as possible.”
Something about that rang true. So I changed my flight. I would see more World Cup. Now I’d leave on July 16th, two weeks later and three days after the final.
The next night, my last in the U.S. Soccer hotel, I ordered room service, drank from the minibar, and spread out as much as possible on the king-sized bed, pulling the thick, puffy sheets up to my chin and finding a use for each of the fifteen or so pillows that were on the premises. I slept until late that morning, and went back for seconds and then thirds at the breakfast buffet after waking. I took the longest shower of my life, with the water on full hot.
Then I went to the airport bus station, and boarded the bus with my sweatsuited seatmate. When I arrived in Rio at 6 a.m., my first stop was my hostel in Santa Teresa.
Santa Teresa is essentially a separate town built on to a behemoth hill in central Rio. Getting between its apex and rest of the city requires hikes that, while easy enough to do daily, were also strenuous enough for me to consider Glória metro station, situated at the bottom of the hill, to be something of a “base camp.” But besides being tiring, I also found the journey could be dangerous.
There aren’t always sidewalks, and when there are, they are usually narrow enough for just one person to walk at a time. Footpaths with concrete stairs provided a few shortcut opportunities, but by and large these were hidden at the end of narrow alleyways that a tourist would never normally think to explore.
So to get from place to place in Santa Teresa, one must walk on the streets. Soon you become used to the automotive flow, accustomed to constantly checking over your shoulder and peeking around the sharp street corners for cars, and you realize that you need those dangerous hunks of metal on these roads with you. They remind you that you’re not negotiating them alone. After a time, Santa Teresa felt like home. But that was temporary.
In my excitement to make the most of my extended World Cup experience, I had concocted perhaps the most exhausting travel itinerary possible. From Rio, an overnight bus to Belo Horizonte for the first semifinal. Then, straight from that game to another overnight bus, from Belo to São Paulo, for the next day’s semifinal, No. 2. And finally, a third overnight bus, from São Paulo back to Rio. In a matter of days, my home base had gone from a four-star hotel, to a bohemian neighborhood in Rio, to a series of buses and the FIFA media center.
I use the general term there—“the FIFA media center” instead of “the FIFA media center in São Paulo”—because it truly didn’t matter where you were. If you were in a World Cup venue in Brazil, there was a media center, and every one of them looked exactly the same: Long rows of white tables and plastic chairs filled up a massive main hall. Lockers lined the walls, and some white fabric invariably hung from points on the ceiling, draped and then stapled behind the temporary drywall. Yellow beanbag chairs filled open spaces. Even the Wi-Fi network and passwords were the same in each.
I noticed that as I walked on the gray carpet, the surface beneath that carpet would always have a bit of give, smacking into a surface beneath it. These facilities were almost always built into parking garages in the stadium, and the floors needed to be raised up off the ground to have a place to run myriad power and Internet cables, required to service hundreds if not thousands of journalists at a time.
On my semifinal trips, these sterile oases became the one place where I’d know exactly what to expect. There would be loud floors and fluorescent lights. There would be bathrooms where I could change my underwear. There would be beanbag chairs to help catch up on sleep lost on the bus. There would be Internet and coffee. And it had well-defined, wide-ranging hours.
What happened outside was less predictable, even if it truly happened right outside.
In Belo Horizonte, I returned to the media center after witnessing a stadium go through six of the seven stages of grief over the course of Brazil’s 7-1 shellacking by Germany.
I tried to put into words what I had witnessed—both on the field, and in the stands, where I spend the second half of the game pacing around, embedded with a hotbed of angry Brazilians. I had never seen anything like it. The World Cup had never seen anything like it.
I returned to Rio proud of my decision to make the trip, and equally as exhausted. I checked into a different hostel in Santa Teresa, this one much closer to the bottom of the hill. I met Walter for the first time while checking in, but didn’t think much about him. I was too focused on finally sleeping in a bed.
Fifty days after leaving home, I sat at my desk in the press area at the Maracaña Stadium as fans filed out after a thrilling World Cup final. I was struck more than anything by how normal everything felt. After a full decade of yearning to be in this very place at this very time, it really was just a game.
Hundreds of German fans celebrated, holding plastic World Cup trophies peddled outside before the game, before Mario Götze’s late goal made them a keepsake.
At the other end, stone-faced Argentines stared into the middle distance. Two friends in blue and white jerseys embraced each other and cried. One shook with the uncontrolled pulse of grief. He lifted his face from his friend’s shoulder, yelled something incoherent in Spanish, and charged off down the concourse. We made brief eye contact, and I gave him a quick, gentle, flat-handed tap on the back of his shoulder, what I figured to be the international sign for, “Sorry, buddy. That’s rough.” The stare he shot back at me spoke just as clearly: “Get the fuck away.” So, I got the fuck away.
I returned to the media center and worked for much longer than I needed to. I had no immediate post-game story to file and no deadlines to meet. I stayed because I wanted to take in every minute of that bizarre isolated world. There was some point of honor in it. At the World Cup’s end, I wanted to be the last to leave.
When the announcement came that the final media shuttle would soon depart, it echoed off the walls of a giant, mostly-empty room. I sent off a few quick emails and made sure I had all my belongings—laptop, phone, sound recorder, camera, iPad, passport—all of it in my brown shoulder bag. The gray floor smacked under my feet for the final time as I walked through the glass doors shortly after midnight. They closed quietly behind me. I found the shuttle that would lead me back to the closest point to my hotel. The door to the bus closed shortly after I entered and, within seconds, it was off and running. The driver responded with silence when I exited and said “Obrigado, Tchau,” Portuguese for “Thank you, goodbye.”
The journey to my hostel took me through Lapa, which had morphed into a very drunk, very large mosh pit. Germans sang in German, Argentines chanted back. Brazilians partied with everybody. Joy prevailed in the air; joy of victory, joy of the giant party that victory had created; joy that this global celebration of grown men playing a silly game had come to a close. My journey home was officially on hold. This seemed like the place to be.
Violating just about every piece of advice offered to me by the U.S. Department of State, I bought a hamburger from a street stand. It included a fried egg along with numerous other toppings on the patty. I realized as I watched its assembly that I had not eaten since well before the World Cup final had kicked off. I sat down on a step nearby, my bag resting on the next-highest step behind me, munching on my burger, observing people doing ridiculous things, and felt a clear sense of contentment.
I’m positive that any task worth doing ends with this feeling—the journey is over, and fate grants you a moment of clarity to take a mental step back and see how far you’ve climbed. This was the end, I felt. I made it, and I made it unscathed.
I finished the burger and eventually left the area. I arrived at Glória Station—the spot at which my ascent up the hill to my hostel was to begin—only to find the normally busy mouth of the uphill road completely deserted and very, very dark.
At night, as it turned out, Santa Teresa’s traffic disappears. I considered my options. A palpable sense of loneliness crept across my chest. By almost any standard, these were not the type of streets you wanted to be on alone, at night.
While stewing, I again became hyper-aware of the weight of my shoulder bag. This time, though, my focus went purely to the things that caused it to be so heavy. My laptop, a six-year-old road warrior of a MacBook Pro. My iPhone. My Zoom audio recorder (for podcasts). My film camera. My passport. I didn’t think about the R$200 cash I had in the bag, though. I had forgotten it was there.
I could take the five-minute journey by foot from the relative safety of my position to the onramp-like side street where my hostel was located. Or I could take a cab. I knew the cab would be a safer option, especially this late, especially looking like I did (clearly not a Brazilian), especially with as many valuables as there were in my bag. I estimated it would cost about R$10 for the ride, if that. I checked my pocket to see how much cash I had. None. I had spent the last of it on the burger.
I proceeded up the empty road.
Five minutes later, having passed not a single soul or moving automobile, I crossed the street toward the small ramp road that led to my hostel. As I did so, in my peripheral vision, I saw a car with fluorescent blue headlights coming up the hill.
Walter and I developed a certain way of talking over the course of my days at the hostel. We would try to speak each other’s languages, but eventually, a moment would arrive where one of us would straight up ask the one-word question we both understood just fine: Comprendo? The answer was almost always “no,” so then I’d navigate to a translation website on my laptop. We would have entire conversations this way, typing back and forth on the same keyboard, waiting for the results to emerge, acknowledging the grammatically tenuous translation on the other end, switching the language order, and responding in kind.
A similar conversation took place once I was inside the hostel, bag-less, and still shaken from my first-ever mugging.
“I saw you…you…you….and they, I no comprendo….” Walter said, before lapsing back into Portuguese.
“Thank you so much for talking to them,” I responded, suddenly remembering that this tattooed man with a mischievous grin may have just protected me from bodily harm.
“Yes,” he responded. “They took?”
“Yes, they took. They took…all. Todo.”
“This is the first time,” he said. Apparently nobody staying at the hostel had been mugged before. Probably because they weren’t stupid enough to walk around alone in a shady, deserted neighborhood in Rio at 2 a.m.
“Look,” Walter said. “I shake.”
He held out his hand, which was indeed trembling in fear. I wondered if he saw the gun one of my robbers had held.
“I call my friend.”
He got on the phone and I stared at the floor, replaying the events in my head. A question for Walter came to mind. When he got off the phone, I asked it.
“What did you say to them?”
He looked at me confusedly. It was time to switch to the laptop. His laptop this time, obviously.
I typed in my question, and Walter nodded at the Portuguese translation at the other end. He grabbed the laptop from me, resting it on the ledge of the balcony where he rested.
“I said that you lived here.”
Then he deleted the sentence and wrote a new one.
“Can you imagine what might happened?”
For the first time, really, I did. Walter wrote another sentence:
“You could have die.”
The truth of this statement hit like a splash of cold water over my face. The strange haze I found my mind wandering in after the mugging instantly disappeared. I had felt powerless and violated, I had cursed my inability to see the danger in what I was doing, I had felt anger at the muggers, who were just products of the environment I had wandered into. But in that moment it became clear that there was no existential crisis to be had. I could have died, and I didn’t. I lost a lot, but nothing that couldn’t be replaced. Details in my life would be difficult in the short term. But they would be negotiable details. Brazil had given me thrilling highlight-reel experiences on a daily basis. It only seemed appropriate that it gave me a little of the dark side too.
I hugged Walter, an embrace that ended up being much tighter and more intense than I intended going into it. Afterward, I grabbed the laptop.
“You’re a hero. Thank you,” I wrote. Walter smiled.
Minutes later, a fellow resident of the hostel came walking up the street. He called up to us, asking if either of the things he held in his hand looked familiar. He was holding my credit card and my drivers’ license—items I thought I had handed over as the muggers led me up the street. This gave Walter an idea: He had heard that sometimes, after a robbery, muggers will discard all the items without value to them. Like my passport. He suggested we walk the streets of Santa Teresa together.
Before we left, Walter took off his necklace and jewelry.
We returned empty-handed. As we walked up the footpath to the front door, I felt a chill of nerves. We were back at the spot where I first saw the gun gleaming in the moonlight. We stopped at the hostel door as a single headlight pulled into view on the road.
A motorcycle with two people on it stopped at the bottom of the path. One got off, dressed all in black, keeping the motorcycle helmet on while walking towards us. Our conversation stopped.
The motorcyclist halted one door down from the hostel and stared directly at us. In one swift motion, he removed a bag from his back, and plopped it on the ground in front of him. Briefly, we locked eyes. Then, without a word, he turned and walked away. My eyes fell to what he had dropped.
It was my bag. I was too paralyzed by shock to go get it. Walter did it for me.
The Apple products were gone. Laptop, iPhone, iPad, iHeadphones, iPower adapters, and cords for all that stuff: gone.
But everything else remained. My mother’s hand-me-down camera. My used film rolls. The audio recorder (a $400 piece of equipment). My match tickets, my FIFA credential, my notebook and all its scribblings. My passport. All there.
Minutes later, up on the balcony, Walter led me over to his laptop once again. He typed furiously.
“I tell this story,” he began, “and nobody will believe.”
Brian and the SI soccer crew did believe me when I told them the next night at dinner. It felt nice to recount the story in front of familiar faces. It gave me a sense of control over it.
At some point during the dinner, Brian asked me what I was going to do with the rest of my time in Rio now that the tournament was over. To cap off my eight-week adventure, I wanted to see the Christ the Redeemer statue, I said. And I wanted to hike to the top of that mountain on foot. I asked if he’d be interested.
“No thanks,” he said with a chuckle, clearly exhausted after a month covering the tournament. “I don’t have to prove anything to myself.”
I laughed and flippantly answered, “Well, I do,” without even thinking about how truthful it was.
The next day I set out on the hike, where waterfalls interrupt the path and some sections require scaling forty five-degree inclines on a series of tree roots that snake through the dirt. In one section, I had to scale the surface of a slippery rock, using nothing but an old chain drilled into the side of it. I stood on my feet and hoisted myself up.
By the time I made it to the statue, my leg muscles burned. I was drenched with sweat and covered in dirt. I looked up at the giant Jesus, then down to the convoy of buses for the tourists, who milled about right beneath his toes. I shimmied my way through the crowds and to the edge of the balcony, watching the blazing red-yellow sun as it set below the vast expanse of this incredible city and unmatched country. It dawned on me that I had seen much of both before I had even reached the summit.
This story was originally published at The Big Roundtable.