Central & South America Literature

Bloodthirsty bandits in Brazil

“The gunman gets into my car. He’s in the passenger seat now. The barrel is pressed against my temple. This is it.”

This is what it’s like to be chased. I skid around another bend, my lights panning over the chicane and out to distant rainforest on the far side of the valley. The wheels squeal. The rain is falling in sheets now. And they’re still behind me, right on my tail, their black pick-up weaving and bobbing in the rear-view mirror, desperate to overtake and block the road again.

I floor the accelerator and the tiny Fiat engine revs so hard it sounds like its pistons will burst, the road lines flashes of light in the glistening black. The car claws back a precious few metres from my pursuers. Then they speed up, swerve to the left and are level with me. Their window’s down. The driver’s shouting across the narrow gap, his face explosive with rage. ‘Para o carro filho da puta!’ Stop the car! But I’ve accelerated just enough. I’m into the next bend. They brake hard and are behind me once again.

It’s got to be soon. Paraty’s got to be soon!

But there’s still no sign of the town. No lights through the rain. No life. No headlights approaching the other way.

No… wait. What’s that? There’s a shimmer through the trees, just round the next bend. I floor the accelerator again and leap into the corner, the car lurching towards the precipice at the edge of the road before swinging violently back into another straight. I see a single light – four hundred metres away. A house? Three hundred… There’s a sign, ‘Mecânico’, dripping with rain. Two hundred… Yes! A house. That means people. One hundred… I swing in and pull to a halt, horn blaring. Someone’s bound to emerge. The pick-up will whizz past.

It doesn’t. And the house stays quiet. I’m caught. The pick-up pulls in behind me, headlamps blazing. They get out. Big black pistols in their hands, right index fingers on the triggers. Left index fingers across their lips.

The older one’s at my passenger window now, gun pointing through the glass.

Abre a porta!’ he mouths. Open the door. The house is still silent. Is there really no-one there? Or are they looking out, terrified, through darkened windows? The gunman gets into my car. He’s in the passenger seat now. The barrel is pressed against my temple. This is it.

‘You’ve caused enough trouble,’ he says, his face all pits and shadows in the patchy reflected light of the pick-up’s headlamps. His eyes are as black and hard as a shark’s. How could I have been so foolish? How could I have thought he was friendly? He points back to the dark, and the road. ‘Drive.’ And I drive into the night, beams cutting into the rain, his friend following behind in the black pick-up.

If only I’d left earlier that morning. As usual I’d put things off until the last moment, waking a little too late to a bright São Paulo day, taking a little too long over breakfast.

The morning seemed perfect now. I savour every detail. Thick coffee. What a great flavour coffee has. I can almost taste it. Such a perfect morning. The three of us at breakfast. Sun streaming through the windows, the early morning light as warm and thick as melting butter. The smell of crispy Brazilian bread, fresh from the bakery on the corner. Orange juice in the glasses. Gardenia and Raphael so beautiful, light playing in their hair. They were planning a day in the park. The sunlight bringing out the colours in their eyes. Raphael clapping his hands together in front of Mummy. Big grin. Chocolate spread all over his face.

I didn’t want to drive to the coast. Five long hours in a hot car on my own for a single lousy commission that would barely pay for the petrol. I threw some things in a case. Gathered the lenses and cameras together. Computer. Mobile. Raincoat just in case. Driver’s licence, ID, CPF, insurance, tax details. Bloody Brazilian bureaucracy… Did I really have to go? I guess so. It was for a broadsheet. My first. More commissions would surely come. I grabbed my bags. The keys.

Then the phone call came. Gardenia picked it up as I was halfway out the door. It was Chico, her brother.

‘Send him my love,’ I said on my way out.

But hang on. What was he saying? A bomb? In London?!

I came back inside. Dumped my bags, rushed to the TV. A wrecked bus near Baker Street… Tatters of clothes… Were they clothes? People with blood caked on their faces. Tony Blair speaking at a hasty press conference lit by strobe-light flashes. A bottle-blonde Globo reporter at the scene. ‘Ataque terrorista… Londrinos num estado de choque…’

I spent hours on the phone checking with everyone I could think of. Thank God. They were all safe. Thank God.

It was nearly lunchtime before I reached for the car keys again and headed for the highway, mind buzzing with London. Avenida 23 de Maio was crawling with cars. What did I expect? My mind drifted as the jam cleared. Bombs. Violence. It all seemed so immediate, and yet so strangely far away from São Paulo.

I passed giant air-brushed and super-colour saturated hoardings pinned to the skyscrapers – a chef in white holding a skewer of fatty meat, Ivete Sangalo with pearly white teeth and tiny shorts beckoning with a can of ice-cold beer – super gelada! Then an evangelical church the size of a warehouse, a gutter-like canal filled with rubbish. It was so far from London. My thoughts drifting, I missed my turn. Then I got lost on the Minhocão, the snaking multi-lane raised highway that winds through the stacked concrete in the city’s west like a giant graphite-grey worm wiggling through egg boxes. There’s no way off for kilometres.

Eventually I doubled back through hilly streets lined with jacarandas. Vast gated homes. Ramshackle breeze-block dwellings. Underpasses strewn with graffiti. Finally I was back on to Avenida 23 de Maio. But it was past three before the clutter of favelas on São Paulo’s edge were behind me, before the stench of the river had given way to the spicy sweetness of the forest.

The sky became vast, the space almost infinite. I was a speck in the continental vastness of Brazil.The motorway hours passed in toll stations and processions of thundering trucks. When I reached the turn-off for Taubaté and the coast road the sun was low in the sky. And I was bursting for a piss.

There were no services for tens of kilometres. Bollocks! I’d have to hold it in – the Taubaté road was notorious for bandits. It narrowed into a single lane highway and began to wind and turn, banking to the right, climbing towards the Serra do Mar mountains. I passed ramshackle homesteads, doors closed now in the late afternoon. Signs scrawled outside offered ‘cachaça artesanal’ – moonshine, and freshly picked caju fruit. Behind them steep hillsides of scrubby grass dotted with termite mounds and speckled with cattle rose towards dark green forest. Not far now to a service station, and not far from there to Paraty.

But I had to go. It was a Thursday; the bandits would be off duty, still resting from the last weekend’s rich pickings. I’d be OK. I pulled to a stop on an embankment next to a grove of eucalyptus, and rushed out of the car.

The door bounced back on its spring, swung shut behind me. And locked. With the keys in the ignition.

My phone was inside. What could I do? Try as I might I couldn’t prize the windows down. Nor could I bring myself to smash the glass. I picked up a rock and struck the glass gingerly, but didn’t have the guts to break it. So I flagged down help. This was a busy road. No-one was going to rob me here and risk being seen. Car after car whizzed past. Then a big black pick-up stopped next to me. Two men got out: one in his fifties, thin and wiry, dark hair thinning on top, jeans and a worn t-shirt; the other younger, round- faced, smiling. They looked like country folk – maybe a father and son. The older man greeted me with effortless Brazilian affability. Nice guys.

O que aconteceu?’ What happened? ‘Onde vai?’ Where you going?

He laughed when I told him I’d locked myself out of the car, slapped me on the back. He’d done the same once. Embarrassment evaporated. These were good guys. Not bandits. I was OK. The older man started tugging on the lock, pushing down on the windows. Did he know what he was doing? Yeah. He’d had a Fiat once too. He chatted casually as he worked, pushing down at the window through the rubber seal, harder than I would have dared. A tiny gap appeared at the top.

‘You’re not Brazilian?’

‘No. British.’

‘You speak Portuguese well.’

All Brazilians say that. But it made me feel good. He asked me where I was going. Paraty, I said, to interview a writer. I didn’t mention the cameras.

‘And this music, what is it?’The stereo was booming inside the locked car.

‘Rock,’ I said. ‘Led Zeppelin.’

‘Oh, Ledgy Zeplinny, Hobertch Planchee. Great singer. You like it, Guto?’

The fat guy grinned. He loved it too. I was OK. These were great, regular guys. They’d get into the car. I’d give them the CD when they did.

But the window wasn’t budging any more.

Maybe we could pull up the lock through the gap? I suggested.

Great idea. Why hadn’t they thought of that?

‘Go and get some pliers from the truck, Guto,’ said the older man.

Guto returned and handed them over. The older man used them to cut the car aerial, bending it into a loop and shoving it down through the gap in the window. After a few attempts the lock popped up. Smiling, back-slapping.

Obrigado, amigo.’ Thanks, mate. I gave them the CD. They thanked me, and got back in their car.

Ciao, amigo. Be careful on this road, my friend. You never know who you’ll meet.’ And they sped off.

I felt light, relieved. An hour later I’d reached the coast, navigated the one-way system in Ubatuba town and was on the last stretch of road before Paraty. It was night by now and had begun to rain. Ubatuba’s last houses thinned behind me and the road plunged into darkness. I didn’t see another car for kilometres, just the occasional dirt track. Soon each side of the highway was thick with bromeliad-encrusted trees. A coatimundi ran across the road far ahead, cutting through the headlights. Maybe I’d see an ocelot?

The trees thinned occasionally to the right. By day these gaps would have shown a sweep of pristine rainforest and long, deserted tropical beaches washed by a bottle-green Atlantic. Now there was just blackness.

The car began to climb. The last mountain spur, I thought. Thirty kilometres to go. Nearly there. Thank God.

Then a big black pick-up overtook me. The same black pick-up. And the lights were off. I’d told them I was going to Paraty. And they knew there was only one way there – on a road which would be deserted at this time of night. No witnesses for a robbery.

When I came round the next bend, they’d blocked the road – parked right across it. I accelerated and swerved round the truck, barely a metre to spare. And that’s how the chase had begun.

Now the older man is sitting next to me. The affability he showed earlier has changed into cold hunger. The gun is on his lap: icy, metallic brutality. I’d seen its eye, looked down its dark iris into nothingness. The man’s eyes were as black. Empty. Why had I told this bastard where I was going? Why hadn’t I smashed my own car window? Why did I stop at the mechanic’s house? Why? Why?

‘Turn left here,’ he says, pistol-whipping me in the leg. Frozen into numbness, I turn into a dirt road cutting through the forest. The rainwater streams down in rivulets, flowing into gullies. Trees tower above us. The big black pick-up bobs and veers in the rear-view mirror. But I don’t notice the bumps. I’m like a rodent caught by a cat. Passive. Incredulous. We drive for about two kilometres, up into the hills. Then he tells me to stop and get out of the car.

‘Watch him,’ he tells Guto, who is as nervous as I am. Guto bumbles, puts his gun in his trousers and stares at me. ‘No! Point the gun at him, you fat idiot!’

Guto mumbles an apology, approaches. He looks awkward with the gun. There’s alcohol on his breath, and cocaine in his bloodshot, wide eyes.

The older man is as calm as a contract killer. He opens my car boot.

‘What do we have here? Cameras, computer, very nice. You didn’t tell us about these did you?’ He puts them in the pick-up and comes back to my car.

‘And in the glove compartment? Any maconha? You middle-class kids always have weed ready for the beach don’t you? Your phone. Piece of shit. I don’t want that. Or the CDs.’

‘You can have it all,’ I tell him.

… All my cameras, I think, my database of pictures…

‘Of course we can. You think you can stop us?’

I don’t react. Soon he’s emptied the car. Then he empties my pockets, wallet, ID cards, all gone. But he doesn’t want the car and hurls the keys contemptuously into the forest.

Then he turns to his friend. Guto’s gun is still pointing at my head and he says slowly and nonchalantly, ‘OK Guto. Kill him. We’ll burn his car.’

In that moment something shifts deep inside, behind the mind, deeper even than my emotions. They fade, disappear, and in a second I sense everything.

The rain slows until it falls like plankton drifting through the current in deep sea. It gathers on a leaf, pools and gently drips off. Even in the dark the greens are so intense they almost seem illuminated, and my nose fills with the scent of the forest, the sharp spiciness of the razor grass, the dampness of mycelia and epiphytes, the rich, oxygen-filled air. A thousand images and impressions flood into my mind. Childhood, school, my parents, home in Sussex, Bristol, Cambridge, India, Gardenia in Hackney. And at home. I see a tiny Huichol Mexican woman standing strong between two angry Scandinavian drunks in a bar in Tulum. Staring deeply into each of their eyes in turn, breathing from the belly, pulling the rage from each of them. I see Ashishda in his room in Mirtola high in the Indian Himalayas, holding out a coin. ‘Can you see it?’ He asks. ‘Can you see that you see it? What happens to the seeing when I take it away?’ And then I see Raphael in his chair at breakfast, chocolate all round his mouth. And I have clarity.

I am here. Now.

And I look the older man straight in the eye. Deeply, down into the depths of that darkness, into him.

‘Do you want my three-year-old boy to be left without a daddy?’ I ask. ‘Take it. All my stuff. I don’t know who you are or why you are here. I don’t care. You can have it all.’

He stares back at me. And suddenly he sees me and is a man, a sad, desperate man. He pauses. Guto pauses. It’s all happened in a moment.

‘Where did you meet us?’

‘I don’t remember.’

‘What kind of car do we have?’ ‘I don’t know.’

‘I know everyone in Paraty. If you tell the police, I’ll find you.’ He has my ID document. My address.

‘I’ll kill you and your family.’

Then he looks up to the sky.

Deus me olha!’ he cries. ‘I am letting this gringo go free. Be my witness. Walk up the road, gringo. Don’t look back. Don’t come back for half an hour.’

I set off.

‘Gringo!’ he calls me back. ‘Take your coat,’ handing me my jacket. ‘It’s raining.’

Up the dirt track. Up the dirt track. Forest all around me. Forest. Up the dirt track. Walk. Don’t look back.

I’m over the brow of a tiny hill. They can’t see me.

I fall out of my trance. I’m in the middle of the road! What the hell am I doing? I run into the trees, twenty, thirty, forty metres into the dark. Into the thick forest.

Just in time. The pick-up roars up the road. Halts just thirty metres from me. But I am lost in the dark. The trees are all around me.

Esta onde, o filho da puta? Where is the bastard?’ the older man shouts above the noise of the engine and the roar of the rain.

‘I’m here,’ I think. And I am free. And there is only life, awareness and bliss.

More information

Alex Robinson is based in London. He travels extensively in Latin America and South East Asia writing and photographing for publications including Sunday Times Travel, the New York TimesThe Guardian and Vanity Fair. He is a multi-award winner – with a National Magazine award in the US and a Premio Abril de Jornalismo in Brazil among others. He is the author of Bradt’s guide to Alentejo and this story features in The Irresponsible Traveller: