So, I’ll begin with Carnaval, which arrived on the heels of our travels, because that happened first. The sights and sounds of neighbors returning to their beach houses descended upon us, as always. The traffic on our highway, Rota do Sol (‘route of the sun’ to the beaches south of Natal) increased exponentially during these 5-6 days. Various bearable and unbearable versions of music ensued, ranging from simultaneous background murmurs to the office vibrating with too-heavy woofers from across the street.
Several of our friends have houses in the northern beach town of São Michel do Gostoso, and others were renting places for the weekend. We accepted the kind invitation from Hian and Ana Paula to stay over in their rental for a couple of days. The town was alive with parading. We were very happy just marching (dancing) along and stopping to take it all in while gabbing with our buddies.
Monday of Carnaval was spent at a lovely Gostoso beach with some gentle waves, sun, a little hike for a vista, great company and grilled fish. We left in time to drive the two hours home before dark, EXCEPT… that one wrong turn. Our altered route took us through every little town and Podunk Junction where ‘Drag’ parade day was happening. We were stuck in traffic for 3 hours following ‘blocos’ of hairy beauties dancing behind trucks with speakers. It was much better than getting stuck in plain ol’ traffic.
Upon the hour we had initially planned to arrive home, we reached the raft that carries the car across a river if one has missed the road to the new bridge. As the always-sudden darkness fell, we joined the crisscrossing raft parade. Carnaval turned out just fine.
Blasting music concerts near the point between our beach and the next characterized the last two nights of Carnaval. The sound was carried across the water to our bedroom till 4:00am. Festive!
And then the evening of Ash Wednesday descended and the beach and beach houses were abandoned, the music gone, the traffic non-existent, and all became oddly dark and quiet as it does every year.
That Friday we went to a nearby pizza and crepe restaurant run by a guy from Uruguay – really one of the few places nearby to eat at night.
While we sat with a beer awaiting our food, a guy who looked like he was dressed up like an Arab – a cloth tied all around his head and across his face - appeared and approached the couple at the table in front of us with a gun at the end of his outstretched arm. At first we both thought it was a joke, having just seen so many Carnaval costumes. Immediately two others emerged from the bushes and plants surrounding the open restaurant and headed towards the only other two tables with customers. I commented, “Oh, this is a robbery,” and Newton said, “Yes, stay calm.” The owner was just heading out of the kitchen when all of this happened. A masked guy came right over to us and had us follow the others into the kitchen, out of sight from the deserted Rota do Sol that runs in front of the restaurant. I had picked up my purse from the chair, which the robber immediately took from my shoulder along with Newton’s wallet from his back pocket. Of course, the shock prevented much reaction other than just cooperating and hoping no one would get hurt.
I cannot do justice to what only later had the horror/comedy impact of the next moments: feisty Newton decided he might rescue his BRAND NEW iPhone from the US by tucking it into his underwear. A robber noticed and started going for it from the outside of the jeans while the robber who had been behind us placed his gun on Newton’s neck. The phone was rather gingerly worked all the way down Newt’s pants leg and out. I was greatly relieved that the operation to extract it was done without roughness.
All of us were crouching or lying on the kitchen floor, and Newt now joined us (I was under a table next to him and the owner was just beyond the table). The other two couples were a Potiguar native couple who looked a little too poor to be there, even though the restaurant is simple. It turned out that the kid worked there and was able to have a ‘date’ with his girlfriend. Damn. The other couple lives down the block near the restaurant.
It is hard to recall all the minutes that passed with low, gruff orders and such, but when the robbers came to collect watches and…OK – this is emotional - my diamond ring and both our wedding bands, I still recall being rather numb and just hoping their somewhat gentle manner would not change. The owner got pulled to his feet to go back out to the cash register. When they brought him back, they asked about more money in his living quarters. He said there was none, only his family there. His wife and two daughters, 6 and 8, then appeared in the door and joined us crouching on the floor. I felt very sorry for them all going through this, as the generally low-key robbers were the most verbally threatening to the owner while in front of his family.
Because the robbers had also collected car keys from pockets, the owner and we expected them to drive off in our cars. We all stayed on the floor waiting to hear the sound of engines after the robbers left the kitchen. Feisty Newt whispered to me under the table, “I’m gonna get those fuckers with my phone tracker!” After some time, there was no sound and someone got up to confirm they were gone. Our car keys had been left on a table. (Whew.) Cars probably make it much easier to get caught, or possibly the robbers don’t know how to drive.
We hightailed it home so Newton could play the young sleuth on the computer with his iPhone tracking feature. It took quite some time to reach any police, but once we did (through our security company), Newton was in contact with them, following the route of the iPhone signal. As a result, the police actually found some guy in a solitary house in nearby Pium Valley. He had escaped from prison nine days before and had a stash of cell phones, but he turned out not to be one of the three at the restaurant. We were all summoned to the local police post to I.D. the guy from the safe anonymity of a tinted-window car. None of us thought he had been at the scene and none of the cell phones matched, though our robber was clearly an acquaintance of his. The phone signal had moved away from the house when the police had raided and then gone into the woods behind a small settlement of houses. Newton continued talking back and forth to the police, who were reluctant to confront an armed man in the woods in the dark. They finally came over to see the satellite image of the signal’s whereabouts, then went out trolling again. Newton wanted so badly to both help the police catch the guy AND get his cell phone back. He spent the rest of the night tracking the signal, which became more erratic and stuck as the charge became weaker. At 5:00am (daylight) the police gathered to converge on the last phone signal area. Nothing. The head policeman had been particularly excited about this technology and had been pretty diligent the whole night, but the police would have needed to be on the case immediately when the signal was nearby and then to have plowed into the dark after the guy.
We filed a police report with the list of stolen items. Because we had so recently traveled to the US, we were still carrying our New York drivers’ licenses in addition to our Brazilian ones, plus a couple of US credit cards in addition to our Brazilian ones. My good leather purse itself would have soon been packed away to protect it from the marezia (sand and salt in the air), but I hadn’t yet put it away. Newton had just refilled both our wallets with cash in reais. In the purse were expensive sunglasses, travel notes; my Brazilian health insurance card; car and house keys, and Newton’s previous iPhone that I had just inherited when he bought his new one. Adding up the price of everything - getting new house locks, cell phones, replacing car keys and wallets, replacing licenses (a relatively small amount for NY State, but five trips, 6-1/2 hours of waiting and several fees for the Brazilian ones, which we were renewing because it was coincidentally near renewal time), wedding bands and the most valuable item taken, my diamond ring Newton gave me on our eighth anniversary…the tally neared $6,000. We laugh that we were so unsuspecting and felt so safe around here that we practically had ROB ME written on our foreheads! The poor Potiguar couple lost some money and the neighbor couple lost their wedding bands and a watch. I feel some grief for my diamond ring, but the robbery was most devastating for the restaurant owner who, it turns out, had also been robbed in December. His family has never stayed another night there and the restaurant has never opened again.
I hardly need to say what remains to be said, as anyone would know that none of this means anything next to still being alive and sound. As horrible as one might imagine the experience to be, we remain grateful that the robbers had the expertise or the dispositions to remain calm. I’m sure if someone had become hysterical or others at the restaurant had been armed, as the gun lobby in the United States recommends, flying bullets would have left someone wounded or dead.
My left thumb still habitually fiddles with my ring finger, evoking a phantom sensation there. I find that my bare hand tells a big story: of an object that has significance which is only a shadow of what it symbolizes. If I did not possess what the ring represents, the ring would only be a commodity. If the ring were recovered and I got it back tomorrow, I would cry with joy. But here is Newton walking through my life beside me. At this moment I don’t want another valuable thing that someone can take away.
The police told us that the escapee, who went straight back to prison, named two of our robbers by nicknames the police had never heard, so they remain at large. The third robber was just a nervous kid.
Very soon after all of this we heard from a friend about a Brazilian airline special that was ending the following midnight. We didn’t think long: off for Buenos Aires the next week!