While eating lunch with a few colleagues recently, one asked about my next travel destination. I replied that I wasn't sure, since I had been planning a combined trip to Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan, but it had fallen through. She responded, "Why, are those countries not dangerous enough for you?" I guess my recent trips to Mali, Bosnia, Israel and Jordan give just cause for that way of thinking. But even though I'd love owning a European passport to visit North Korea, I'm generally a type of person who savors living in a safe environment. That, however, is not always the case.
While walking out of a home in the town of Itapecerica da Serra, where I was living at the time, I glanced down at a newspaper lying on table just outside the front door. In my limited Portuguese, I had only been in Brazil for three months, I read the headline: 'Itapecerica da Serra, number one city for homicides in the state of Sao Paulo' and thought, "well, that's comforting." We, my missionary companion and I, lived around the corner from a road called Rua Guatemala. It was that road which gave the city its acclaim. One Sunday morning as we were seated at our desks, we heard the sound of fireworks. My Brazilian companion exclaimed "The drugs have arrived!" I, in my naivete, replied, "That's dumb of them. Why would they use fireworks? Now the police know too." To which she responded, "No, no. It's the police who distribute the drugs." Again, I thought "well, that's comforting."
Each time we visited church members living on Rua Guatemala, they would plead with us to not come again, even trying scare tactics such as: "8 people were killed on the street last night." But we were not deterred. Well, not until we left a teaching appointment on that road. For 30 minutes, as we sat on a bench in a kitchen, my companion spoke to a few 17-19 year old boys who stated were interested in knowing about our church. My Portuguese was still so minimal that I had difficulties following along. Instead I spent the time leaning against the wall and zoning out. Once we stepped out of the house my companion made Speedy Gonzales look slow. "We are never going back on that street," she stated as we turned onto a different road. Rushing to catch up I asked, "What? Why?" She said a bunch of words that were unintelligible to me. After she repeated herself a third time, I thought it best to pull out my dictionary. It was then that I understood her reasoning. Those boys wanted to kidnap me for ransom. I laughed and said, "They'd be sorely disappointed with the amount of money they'd receive."
Since then I've lived in more sheltered areas. And yes, despite its notorious reputation, Amsterdam is one of those places. Even after realizing it was only because I didn't understand Dutch that I deceptively believed Holland was the safest place in the world, I still felt secure on the streets. But every city has its creepers and, for some reason unknown to me, I tend to attract the best of them.
On my bike ride home yesterday, a man in sunglasses (the skies were cloudy and gray) pulled up in front of me. I only took notice of him as we reached an intersection and he slowed down considerably. The light was green. Annoyed, I passed him and continued on my way. He soon caught up and again biked in front of me, occasionally glancing in my direction. When he finally turned right, I internally rejoiced that I no longer had to deal with his horrible biking skills.
Ten minutes later he appeared in front of me. Alarms rang in my head. The last time someone had turned another direction, and later reappeared in front of me, ended in a scenario which included a knife, pointed inches from my face. I decided then that if he was indeed following me, I would stop at the police station in route to my house. At the next intersection I watched as he glanced to his left. He did a double take, looking a bit farther behind him to the left and then immediately turned his head and glanced to the right, in my direction, before looking ahead once more. When we resumed biking, I slowed my speed. He turned down a street (that I too would turn down) and I told myself I was just being paranoid. But I still kept my distance.
It wasn't until he stopped at the side of the road, waited for me to pass, and then continued on his way that I became unnerved. I've had guys pull up beside me and strike up a conversation before, but never had a guy act like this. So I played it cool.. as cool as I could while going weak in the knees. A scene ran through my mind: me standing in the lobby of a police station for a few minutes and, if asked by an officer, stammering something about possibly being followed. I hoped beyond hope that I wouldn't have to make a fool of myself like that.
He lagged behind another few minutes before biking past me once more. I took it as my opportunity. I stopped pedaling and coasted along. I watched as continued his occasional glance; our distance growing farther apart. Once he was a block ahead of me, I stopped at a red light. He glanced behind, hurriedly glanced again, and (I assume upon not seeing me) stopped and turned all the way around until he looked straight at me.
As the light turned green and a car drove through the intersection, blocking me from his view, I turned right and maneuvered my way through back streets and alleyways until I reached my house.
Now, it could have just been paranoia causing me to see more into the situation than what was actually there, but my instincts state otherwise. Either way, I'm glad to have been spared from discovering whether or not I was right.