In light of the Rio Olympic Games and hearing about Ryan Lochte and other Olympians getting robbed this is what happened to me in Rio. From the Book “Blue Collar Buddha”
RIPPED OFF IN RIO
After eight years as a flight attendant based out of Dallas/Fort worth International, I changed my home base to Miami International for two reasons: I qualified for seniority in Miami and I wanted to go to Central and South America, destinations that Dallas didn’t fly to. I still lived in Dallas so if I had a flight scheduled, I’d fly into Miami, take a trip for a few days, then fly home for four days off. work- ing out of Miami was awesome; over the first six weeks I went on four three-day trips with the same sixteen-person crew. They were young and cool and we had a blast together.
In 1995, a year after I transitioned to Miami, our crew worked a flight to Brazil and laid over at a beautiful hotel in rio de Janeiro. It felt like I was vacationing more than working. A bunch of us were lying around the big hotel pool, soaking up the sun, when the captain said, “we’re all going out for some great Brazilian steak tonight. My treat. And after dinner, we’ll check out a club.” I said, “Great! I’m in.” Four other crew members jumped in too. The six of us piled into a van and were dropped off at a Brazilian steakhouse in a central square filled with restaurants and shops. we had an incredible meal; everyone was talking and laughing and having a great time. After flying internationally for more than a year, I still found myself looking around fairly often, thinking, Man, what a life! whether it was Madrid, Paris, or rio de Janeiro, I was working with cool people and having the time of my life.
After dinner, we found a great disco for drinks and dancing. Around one in the morning, the cap- tain said we’d better wrap it up so we went outside and flagged down a couple of taxis. I ended up with the captain and another flight attendant in the taxi in front. on the way back to the hotel, which was on the other side of a mountain from where we were, I noticed that we weren’t going back the same way we came. Instead of taking the major highway, we took a mountain pass back. It was a gorgeous view, with the rio de Janeiro skyline behind us and the Atlantic ocean reflecting the city lights to our left.
Suddenly, we were slowing down and stopping. There looked to be a military vehicle on the side of the road. when I saw a uniformed man with a machine gun standing in the road, my first thought was that it was a military checkpoint, which is not uncommon in certain foreign countries. I wasn’t too concerned until our taxi driver started argu- ing with the military guy. Something about their rapid-fire discussion and exaggerated hand gestures seemed a bit staged. I nudged the captain and whis- pered, “I think we’re being robbed.” Sure enough, the taxi driver turned to us a minute later and said in english, “You must give him all your goods.” even though we half-expected it, we just stared at him, unblinking, like, Are you kidding me? This can’t be happening. The driver added, “You must give him everything or you go to jail.” when the military guy poked his gun in the window, we knew we had zero options. either we did what they asked or we’d be in big trouble.
Somewhere during my transition from surreal to terrified, I remembered the bulletins put out by American Airlines warning employees about poten- tially dangerous encounters and situations when traveling internationally. At the top of the list of do’s and don’ts was an alert about never wearing expensive jewelry on layovers. That never concerned me because I didn’t have much money or anything of value to worry about. But the captain was wear- ing a rolex—the operative word being was. The other flight attendant riding with us lost her wedding ring and necklace. His wallet and her purse were also seized. when my turn came, I offered the guy my Iron Man watch but he wasn’t interested. I opened up my wallet and all I had was my driver’s license and three dollars. He gave me a dirty look and let me keep it. At the same time we were getting ripped off, another military guy with a gun was relieving the other three members of our crew of their valuables. Finally, the gun guys waved us on and we drove off. Once we hit the main road where there were lights and lots of traffic, the captain told the driver to pull over; he got out and walked back to the other taxi to make sure everyone there was all right. The taxi driver apologized and said how badly he felt but we didn’t feel like talking; it was a quiet ride back.
As soon as we got back to the hotel, the cap- tain alerted hotel management, who summoned security. They quickly converged on the taxi driver; he pleaded ignorance but security was on to him. It turns out this scam had happened before and they were certain the driver was in on it but couldn’t prove it. It almost sounded like they were giving him a scolding. I don’t know what, if anything, ended up happening to the driver. I was just glad to be alive. The robbery itself was scary but we were probably more shaken up when it finally sunk in that we could have been kidnapped or killed. That’s when it struck me that another airline bulletin had cautioned us to be aware of scams that were designed to take advantage of our helplessness in certain situ- ations, particularly ones involving the police and other authorities. It made perfect sense: what better time to rip off tourists than late at night when they were vulnerable and a little tipsy. The taxi driver takes a different route back on a dark, secluded road. everybody gets scared, nobody gets hurt, the taxi driver claims innocence, and the bad guys get away with the loot. It’s genius, actually.
once security had assumed command and we were no longer needed, the six of us retreated to the hotel bar. we were all still in shock a bit and needed to process what we had been through. even though it was late, nobody wanted to go back to their room and be alone. The captain told us to order whatever we wanted and put it on his tab, and we were happy just to drink ourselves past the point of caring.
Needless to say, getting ripped off in the moun- tains of Brazil was a huge wake-up call. Glancing at a bullet point in a memo doesn’t have quite the same impact as having actual bullets pointed at your head. I’m a lot more cautious today than I would have been had that robbery never occurred. Now, whenever I get into a taxi in a foreign country, I make sure it’s well-marked, I make a note of the driver’s name and number, and I interact with him to establish a cer- tain degree of comfort. while I feel badly that my coworkers lost wedding rings, watches, and other expensive jewelry, all I lost was my naïveté. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Ripped Off In Rio
Your Life, Your Thoughts
• what are three things you can do to keep your awareness high when you’re traveling internationally or domestically?
• what are three things you can do to protect yourself and your belongings when you feel vulnerable in an unfamiliar environment?