As I lay in the cold, uncomfortable bathtub, curled up into a little ball, my heart beating wildly as I covered my ears from the explosive sounds of gunfire down below, I couldn’t help but wonder if tonight was the night I truly was going to die in Rio.
Earlier that day, I had strolled the streets of my new suburb, Lins de Vasconcelos, without a care in the world, soaking up the atmosphere and surroundings of Rio’s north zone and making a mental note to remember each of the important landmarks so I could find my way home from the bus stop to my new apartment.
One such landmark I hadn’t planned on seeing was Favela do Amor (interestingly translated as ‘Love Slum’). It was situated directly down the end of my street, like a tunnel leading to a forbidden world.
Don’t go anywhere near that amor. Only ever go as far as this apartment, entende?
As I was now getting even more serious with my dance training and working harder towards my dream of one day becoming a professional dancer, I had realised that I simply couldn’t afford to both live in the more expensive south zone and pay for regular dance lessons on my meagre English teaching salary and very limited savings.
When I finally expressed my financial concerns to my Carioca boyfriend, he immediately invited me to move in with him for free, despite us only having dated for a few months.
Being an independent Aussie girl who had come to Brazil solo on a mission to dance, I of course hesitated at the thought of:
a) moving away from my lovely studio apartment on beautiful Copacabana beach, where each day I’d stroll along the boulevard, go for a dip in the ocean and walk a mere block to the metro to head to work
b) moving out into the very suburban north zone (which would mean I’d have to catch numerous buses/trains to get to/from work each day and which had a reputation for being unsafe, unruly and full of slums and
c) moving in with a Brazilian man (probably the scariest of the 3!)
Despite yet another round of red flags being waved in my face, my desire to improve my dance skills was too strong to pass up such a good offer.
The very next week I moved in and straight away began daily private classes at the local gym, where I could rent the space for a quarter of the cost of what I’d been paying in the south zone, and where I had no lack of passistas offering their services at a discount rate (because they all lived locally and didn’t need to catch above mentioned buses/trains/ metros to come to me).
But as we all know (or eventually learn), nothing in life is for free.
One evening, after an exhausting 12-hour day of travelling from one side of Rio to the other, teaching English classes to CEOs, high school students and business executives, I arrived at my new home completely spent.
Just as I was about to take a shower, the doorbell rang.
Alo? Senhora Mishel, a Senhora Lucia esta aqui. Ela pode subir? (Ms Lucia is here – can she come up?)
Quem? Who? I don’t know anyone by the name of Lucia?
Senhora, she is insisting on coming up!
My heart skipped a beat.
Who is Lucia? And why is she so insistent on coming up to my apartment?
Suddenly, with a wave of shock, I realised that I had no idea whose apartment I was actually living in. All my boyfriend had told me was that he was living ‘for free’ in a friend’s apartment and that all I needed to do was pay half the bills.
Of course I had questioned him about it straight away, and insisted on paying rent, but he had assured me it was unnecessary and that I should spend that money on private dance classes.
Another HUGE red flag!
In my defence, I was only 23 and it was my very first time living overseas and out of home, so I really had no idea how things worked in the big wide world, and above everything else, I trusted him.
Senhora? What would you like me to do?
Ok, wait, I’m coming down!
As I descended, a flurry of questions rushed into my head. Was I going to be evicted? Where would I go? Was someone trying to bribe me? I had no money to pay off someone! Was it really the apartment of a friend? Or was it stolen? Or worse – was I unknowingly squatting?!
As I approached the porteria (foyer area of an apartment which has a doorman/guard), I could see a young, heavily pregnant woman pacing back and forth.
I walked straight up to the doorman perplexed, not imagining that this woman could possibly be waiting to see me.
He looked at me with an expression of both confusion and concern.
Senhora Lucia, this is Senhora Mishel.
Well, if looks could kill, I would have dropped dead right then.
This woman, who I had never laid an eye on in my entire life, launched into a tirade of abuse – screaming and swearing and seething like a harpie.
All I could think was, “Thank god I have no idea what you are saying!”.
I stood there for a solid half an hour while she ranted and raved and pointed her finger in my face, and despite the unnerving situation, I was silently proud of myself that I managed to grasp random words here and there like ‘marido’ (husband), ‘filho’ (child), macumba (voodoo magic) and puta (you can google that one!), as well as my boyfriend’s name over and over again.
Right. Well obviously she has some connection to him, although I had never heard him mention her.
After she had gotten everything off her chest and then realised that I had understood almost nothing, she couldn’t control her frustration any longer and gave me a mighty push to the chest, sending me flying backwards into the doorman. She then turned on her heels and stormed off.
I had heard Brazilian women could be crazy, but that was next-level.
As the shock started to wear off, the anger began to creep in. Who in hell was this woman? And why was she pregnant and mentioning my boyfriend?
Shaking with fury, I made my way back upstairs and tried to call him. No answer. He would have started work for the evening, no doubt escorting some older woman to a baile dance party and would be unable to attend his phone for the rest of the night.
I tried to keep my cool and tell myself that I was just overreacting, but that niggling feeling in the pit of my stomach wouldn’t go away.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, I heard the bone-chilling sound of gunfire.
As I had been living in Rio for almost a year now, I had gotten accustomed to the random fireworks let off at any given time of the day/night all over the city, but especially in neighbourhoods with nearby slums (usually to either signal the start of a Samba school rehearsal or to warn the drug lords that the police were about to invade), and had finally learnt to (somewhat) relax when I heard them, knowing that the loud, drawn-out sound was significantly different to the quick bursts made by a pistol.
Now if you had told me when I was growing up in Australia that one day, I would learn to distinguish the difference between the sound of fireworks and gunfire, I would have laughed in your face.
But now here I was, on a regular weekday evening in the burbs of Rio, suddenly in emergency flight mode.
My boyfriend had told me that if I were to ever hear the sound of gunfire on the street, to immediately search for something metal to hide behind. He had then explained that if I happened to be home in an apartment, that the best place to protect myself is lying down in the bath tub.
I had laughed so hard at the time, thinking it was such a ridiculous place to hide, especially as we were on the 10th floor.
And yet here I found myself, curled up in the foetal position, praying to the Brazilian Catholic Saints, African Orixas and my guardian angels to spare my life once again.
How had I suddenly attracted so much drama into my life, when all I wanted to do was Samba?