That Time I Got Accused Of Stealing in Brazil

Posted by Jay in Travel on November 20th, 2017

It is very, very important that I preface this post by saying this: While I was wrongly accused of stealing in Brazil, I honestly do not think that it was because of my race.

Right, let’s get stuck in…

While this particular incident happened to me over 18 months ago, I have never actually told anybody this story before. Not my closest friends, and not even my parents. I wanted to pretend that didn’t actually happen because this was one of the worst things that has ever happened to me while abroad. Up there with that time I wasn’t allowed to enjoy my birthday in China

Anybody who has ever asked me where my favourite place is, Salvador da Bahia always tops the list. The time I was able to spend in this amazing city felt like a homecoming for me, in more ways than one. Even though I was born in Nigeria, I have never been back to my home country. During the transatlantic slave trade, half of the Africans that were stolen were sent to Brazil. Due to this horrific past, many of the Afro-Brazilians in the country can trace their heritage back to Nigeria. A large population of black Brazilians call Salvador home. I noticed striking similarities to my own culture in the history, the language, and the food among other facets of the city. I felt that I was getting a slight sneak peak into what I could expect back home.

I had pre-booked a place to stay in this cute little hostel that was not too far from the beach, and other hot spots that I wanted to visit. I was enjoying my stay there, and everything had been going just swimmingly. I had completely forgotten to buy an adapter for Brazil, and since this was my last stop, I didn’t want to bother. The reception staff had allowed me to leave my phone with them to charge it at the front. I decided to do this for the remainder of my trip.

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During the night time, I was in the kitchen getting something to drink and noticed that a phone had been left on the side. It was just me and the housekeeper there at the time. She had not motioned towards the phone, and it was not being charged. I decided that as I was going to the reception anyway, I would take the phone with me and hand it over to them. I did not want to bother the housekeeper, because I figured she would only give it to the receptionists as well. During my time in university, I had accidentally dropped the digital camera of an international friend of mine, and it had broken. As it was in my care when it fell, I paid for a new one, as it was my fault. Not wanting to repeat this, especially with such an expensive iPhone, I decided to put it in my pocket so nothing could happen to it. I didn’t have my caliper on at the time, so I didn’t want to take any risks when I was just trying to help out.

I had turned towards the door and started walking in the direction of the reception when I felt a hand on me. It was the housekeeper. She looked absolutely furious, and I knew exactly what she must have thought at that point in time. She couldn’t speak English, and I could not understand Portuguese, so there was no way for me to explain anything to her. I tried as best as I could to get her to understand, but she understandably was not in the mood for my explanations. She opened up her palm for me to give her the phone, and when I handed it to her she took it off me and walked back into the kitchen. At this point, I noticed that there was another guest at the hostel who saw this entire exchange. The look on her face made my heart sink just that little bit further.

I was still in a bit of a daze as I approached the reception to give them my phone for charging. I’d considered telling them what had just happened, but I didn’t want the potential language barrier to create an even bigger misunderstanding. There was a risk that even more people would think that I was “that girl”, the thief that got caught. Deciding against it, I handed my phone over and went back to my dorm room to try and get a few hours of sleep. I’d hoped that through my body language and lame attempts at gesturing my innocence that the housekeeper would realise that I was never going to take her phone. The next morning, it came rushing back to me that someone where I was staying felt that they could not trust me around their belongings. 

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I pushed that thought to the back of my mind, as I had a busy day. I already had plans to get my hair done by this woman near the water, facing the Mercado Modelo. I was getting ready to leave when I heard someone at the door, it was the manager of the hostel. He looked visibly shaken, and his voice was shaking when he spoke to me. He had watched footage of the night before, and was standing there asking me to leave the premises immediately. Hearing this accusation for the first time in English shook me to my very core. In this place that felt like my new home away from home, I had been accused of stealing and branded a thief. 

Replaying the moment over and over again in my mind, it came as no shock to me that he would presume that I was guilty, and simply got caught. I had seen the phone on the counter, the housekeeper had been there at the time and I didn’t ask her about it. I had put the phone in my pocket and walked away, before I was stopped. Anyone watching the footage would have bet all the money in their account that I was trying take something that did not belong to me. It looked to be an obvious conclusion to come to, an open and shut case.

I explained to the manager that I was well aware of how it seemed, but that it was just one unfortunate decision  after another that led to such a huge misunderstanding. I point out the fact that I was not wearing any shoes, let alone my caliper, so thus had no intention of stepping outside of the hotel. All my belongings were still in my dorm room, so there was no chance that I would leave without them. I’d already paid for the entire duration of my stay, and there were still two days left. I was not the woman that he thought I was, I wasn’t stealing and had no intention of doing so. I told him that I wanted to say this all to the housekeeper yesterday, but the lack of a common language between us meant that I just had to let it go, and not push the issue any further.

I wish I could say that I explained all of this to him in a calm and collected manner, but this was far from the case. He had to step out of the dorm room to get me some tissues because I was crying so much. I had never been accused of stealing before in my life. I had been brought up never, ever to steal. “If you lie, you will steal. And if you steal, you will kill.” – My mother has been saying that from as far back as I can remember. I am unsure if this is just something Yoruba mothers say, or if it applies to other Nigerians. So to have to defend myself against something that I would never do was simply too much for me to bare. And there seemed to be nothing that I could say to convince him otherwise. He didn’t know who I was, and whether or not I was capable of doing such a thing. He started to believe me (at least that’s what it seemed like to me) when he took in all the points I was making, even if my intention stealing the housekeeper’s phone, why would I do it barefoot in my pyjamas? 

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Before all of this, he had suggested that he could get in contact with some other nearby dorms where I could stay, and that they were also within the same price range as the place I was staying. I had seriously considered just moving to a different hostel for the remainder of my stay, after he stepped out to get the information. But as I was calming down and my breathing evened out, I thought it better to stay where I was. I could not be sure what he would have told the other hostel about me, and I wouldn’t want this undeserved title to follow me around the city. I have a very…memorable look. I also didn’t want to risk looking even guiltier by leaving the scene of the alleged crime. When he came back, I told him as such and stated that I would rather stay in the hostel but wanted to apologise to the housekeeper for the confusion my presumption had made.

The manager came with me to act as a translator for us. I am not sure if she really believed me, as I just felt really awkward and uncomfortable every time I saw her around the hostel. I am not sure how many people thought of me as “the stealing girl”, in that place and I have no particular desire to find out. I have decided against mentioning the name of the hostel purely because as I mentioned above, I do not believe the accusation was motivated by race. It really did look like I was up to no good, and for that I cannot blame nor shame them.

The most difficult part of that entire ordeal was an uncomfortable realisation I had made about myself. I had to come face to face with my own prejudices that led me to that moment in time. And this is also the reason why I have never told anybody about this until now, karma bit me in the ass for my own prejudices. Even though the housekeeper had been in the room at the time, it did not even cross my mind for a singular second that the phone might have been hers. I had automatically presumed that the very expensive phone on the counter had to belong to someone like me. Someone that had probably come from a wealthier Western nation with disposable income, and the privilege to travel so frequently.

So there it is folks, to assume really does make an ASS out of U and ME.

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about Jayon UPDATE: As of 25/09/2015 Nigeria has been removed from the WHO's Polio Endemic List! Having been born in Nigeria, I hail from one of three countries where polio is still unfortunately endemic, the other two being Pakistan and Afghanistan. I had contracted the poliovirus before my ...Read More

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