Thieves Mugged my husband in Rio but I Fought Back with knives in my face

Welcome to RioCredit: Jim Visser

My husband and I are intrepid travellers and had set aside a few weeks to visit South America and its major attractions, starting in Rio de Janeiro and moving on to Peru and the Amazon. We arrived in Rio way before the Fifa world cup in 2014. This adventure took place in 2003 and although a lot has changed tourists are not always as safe as they think they are on the streets. In South Africa tourists are ripped off on a regular basis and street crime is rife. At traffic intersections where we live in Cape Town you see signs that show: "Smash and grab - crime hotspot." My Tai Chi Guru made a point of teaching us to keep the mind calm and clear and it had worked so far. Self protection is about a mindset but this time we fell into the trap of mentally attracting disaster. Of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The big mistake - being scared from the beginning because of our valuables

We checked into one of the little cheap hotels the guidebook had recommended. After a scanty breakfast we were ready to take on the city. But the receptionist was not at the front desk of the hotel to place our valuables in their safe. For us, this is an ingrained habit. No experienced tourist would choose to wander around the streets with passports, valuables and all their travel cash – obviously not.

The hotel manager was nowhere to be found and neither was anybody else who looked vaguely trustworthy. One does not expect very much from a basic hotel, other than it should be free of cockroaches and have clean sheets. The bedroom wardrobe did not have a safe; let alone two doors that closed properly so we decided to walk out on the streets with all our valuables tucked into our day packs. With the bags slung over our shoulders, we set off to take Rio by storm. It was a pleasant day of hopping on busses and strolling around. We spent the morning climbing the famous peaks and shaking hands with the statue of Christ that overlooks the beautiful bay. During the 2014 Fifa world cup we became familiar with these scenes.

Rio BayCredit: Sue Visser

Setting the scene for the grand mugging

After a picnic lunch and the obligatory coconut drinks we had a glorious swim at the famous Ipanema beach. We are Capetonians and are familiar with beautiful beaches but this one beats anything we have back home. It is stunning. We took the usual touristy snapshots of each other. Here you see me as the girl from Ipanema, posing with sand sculptures in a flimsy skirt and sandals. This girl was half a century old at the time but fortunately no stranger to martial arts including Karate, Kickboxing and Tai Chi. So that sets the scene for what happened next.

the beach in Rio and the sand sculptureCredit: Jim Visser

Out came the knives,

down went my husband

We took a stroll around the lake area after that. It was a quiet afternoon and we walked around the park and sat on the stone benches for a break. It felt creepy although there was no reason to be suspicious of anything. There were a number of locals hanging around, obviously also enjoying the outing – or was there mischief hanging in the air? We were still fully in control of our backpacks and took out the cameras for yet another shot of Rio - this time looking up from the lake at the high-rise apartments that formed the upmarket beachfront residential area. The streets were lined with generous shady trees.

We packed up our belongings and walked back towards the beach front. I noticed two young men following us. I felt a shudder as we crossed the road. The one was pushing his bicycle and they were closing in. As we walked up the street that faced the apartment blocks I felt my personal space being violated. This is a sensation that I was familiar with. I had trained with some of the best karate instructors and was used to the “smell” of conflict. They were right behind us – very close to our bags and I could feel the hairs at the back of my neck beginning to twinge. I whipped off the bag from my shoulders and carried it in front of me. I spoke quietly to my husband in Afrikaans, telling him to do the same.

But Jim is very confrontational. He turned round and glared at the two men asking them what they wanted. Well, obviously the two bags that contained all we had - neatly packed with traveller’s cheques, cash, passports and travel vouchers to get us around South America. “No, you little shits!” Jim shouted and suddenly two knives were pointed at his throat. He eyed them up and down and like a connoisseur remarked that they were only kitchen knives.

With a thud, thump, rip and thwack Jim was shoved against a wall. He still had his backpack on. They grabbed the front of his jacket, pulled him up again and flung him down onto the pavement. Visions of our forthcoming trip to Machu Picchu, Iguazu Falls and the Amazon shot past my eyes in a blur. Added to this was the dread moment to face – was he hurt badly? They then pointed to my bag that I now held in front of me. Out came the knives, very close. Yes, kitchen knives - sharp kitchen knives in my face. The bag became my shield as I swished it across their hands and plunged it into the face of the closest thug.

For a few moments time stood still. I gave a kick to his chest and he fell back.

I pulled the bag back and they lurched forward as I gave a few lethal kicks to their private parts. Now they were really angry. Jim got up and grabbed my hand. He began shouting torrents of abuse at them. They reached towards us again, leaning over to try to rip off Jim’s bag. Then suddenly time stood still. It felt like a slow motion movie as I gave one of the dudes a powerful kick slap bang in the middle of his chest. It sent him reeling backwards and he fell on his ass. Such a high and powerful kick? In tai chi we do a very elegant high kick in the 24 step form. It is performed gently and slowly after opening out both arms. In this case, Jim held my one arm and seemed to have miraculously powered me up - or was it by this statue of Jesus Christ?

Christ over Rio

Jim then joined in the fray and soon both of them retreated and were cowering behind their bicycle, using it to ward off our fierce kicks and pushes. Jim was issuing profanities with the “voice” of Dune. They began to cower like two naughty little schoolboys who had been caught masturbating. “No - no!” They pleaded and took off down the street. Jim went after them but they were already out of sight. We heard police sirens in the distance. Both of us were in a state of shock but unhurt and we still had all our belongings - our resources for 3 weeks of travel.

We staggered into a café and sat down for some liquid refreshment. We felt a mixture of triumph and trauma as we swigged down the local sevessa (beer) which tasted exceptionally good. I was still in my flimsy beach attire. I ran my hands over my skirt. It was sopping wet - a small price to pay for such a victory. Now I know what it means to wet yourself. Under extreme stress the bladder jettisons its load. Thank heavens the bowels behaved or were already empty!

We carried a fear vibe but were well prepared with combat techniques

We learnt a big lesson that day, in 2003. We admitted that we had attracted those thieves by somehow emitting a silent fear-based signal. We had something to protect, we feared losing it because it would mean the end of a holiday that we had just begun. As South Africans, we know better than to carry valuables around or walk in quiet shady urban areas. We never wear expensive jewellery or even carry cash around. We have heard too many stories about tourists in our country even being robbed of their NIKE sneakers! Opportunistic thieves are everywhere and will go for the softest looking target, usually the female. In this case they first tried to knock out the opposition and got more than they bargained for.

Maintain the mindset of a martial artist

We were fit and the Bag ladyCredit: Jim Visserwell-trained. It is all very well to attend self-defence classes and think you will be able to ward off an attack. But regular practice and fitness training is essential. So is strength building, especially for women. One need not become the Incredible Hulk to develop a powerful kick. For me this was my best weapon and I was grateful for all the hours that I trained against a punch bag. I would stand on one leg and kick at it repeatedly with high and low power kicks. Kancho Eddie Cave taught me many tricks and cunning ways to defend myself but at the scene of the crime they seemed to vanish out of my mind. I remembered a picture from a book on self-defence for women written by Sanette Smit, also a black belt. The picture that saved the day was of an African woman in a train being robbed. It was used to demonstrate using the handbag as a weapon, instead of handing it over. It is not difficult for women to find something heavy to carry in a handbag! Hang onto it and use it as I did to shield off the knives and then to thrust at them. It is the element of surprise that counts.

Now for some fun in Rio - let's visit the Marakana stadium

We had our money and spent a small fortune on a local soccer match. You can't go to Rio and not go to Marakana, even if you find the popcorn (huge kernels) more exciting than the match. It is rated as one of the top 5 of the soccer stadiums in the world and had already hosted a Fifa wold cup in 1950. It had a seating capacity of 200 000, a sight to behold. We are pleased we actually sat in two of those seats, 11 years ahead of the latest 2014 tournament. My husband is Dutch, so it meant a lot to him to have his home team leave Brazil with the third prize.

Marikana stadiumCredit: Sue Visser

The soccer score won us some extra cash!

Back in 2003 Marakana was bigger than it is now. We attended a local soccer match for the sheer experience of being there and enjoying a soccer match in grand style. We joined a tour for the occasion and in the bus we placed our bets to see who would be able to guess the final score.


Vasco were playing their opponents, Fluminense. Jim guessed the score correctly and we collected all the bets. That paid for one of our tickets: $ 40. No wonder the local Brazilians are so cut up about the huge cost of hosting the world cup. Imagine what it would cost the average local family to even see one of the matches live?  Thank goodness for TV coverage.

The winning scoreCredit: Sue Visser

Taking a seat in the stadiumCredit: Sue Visser

Brazilian food is colourful, nutritious and delicious

Rio is a vegetarian’s delight. At one of the self-service restaurants we visited I counted over 60 tempting meat-free dishes on offer. Then there was another section that was like a walk-in butchery where you could have any cut of meat, cooked in front of you. The plates of food were weighed at the till and nobody bugged you at the table with a tatty little menu. The Portuguese influence on Brazilian eating habits is evident because freshly harvested vegetables are on offer in generous quantities. So are olives, cheese, wine and of course, plenty of fruit in season.

Weigh out a mealCredit: Sue Visser

Green medicine on the streetCredit: Sue Visser

 remember the basics of tourist safety before you head off to Rio!

  • Always check in your valuables or use the hotel safe in your room. Most places have them these days.
  • Do not wear a lot of expensive jewellery - that attracts thieves. Fake pearls are fine, you are on holiday and there is no need to flaunt your wealth.
  • Take two watches, your favourite one and a cheap alternative to use when you go to the beach
  • You do not always need your most expensive camera for a casual day outing, especially if you are going out on your own. Save the gadgets and camera flaunting for protected group events.
  • Don't flash cellphones and i-pads around in public unless there are a lot of people around you doing the same thing. Back home on our local beach, the loner chatting on a phone is an obvious target.
  • If you are going to lonely places take along some form of mace spray or anything to ward them off. If you use a spray first close your eyes and hold your breath. After the blast, run like hell.
  • Use the element of surprise and fight dirty! Aim at the eyes, is what Kancho told me and especially if you have long fingernails. Use head butts, elbows and unexpected kicks to the shins. Men don't expect a fierce reaction that is backed up with nasty surprises.
  • Most important is to keep yourself strong and fit. Regular training at the gym and especially the dojo is essential, I was told. It is important for the mind as well as the body in being ready for the unexpected.
  • Go to self-defence classes but study your notes and techniques. Imprint the images in your mind. I find it good to visualise imaginary scenarios and train yourself over and over again with just a few good techniques. You only need one or two - I discovered!
  • The most important thing to remember is if you feel uneasy, then don't go out. If , like we did, you feel you are taking a risk then first take precautions. Then you can go out with a calm mind.




One of our favourite guide books

Lonely Planet Brazil (Travel Guide)
Amazon Price: $29.99 $17.72 Buy Now
(price as of Jul 20, 2014)