Oldie but Goldie: How I got to stay in Japan for 7 years

This is a text that I wrote 7 years ago, about the moment I entered Japan with the determination to stay there. I just read it after years and it’s still funny, but my language is kind of…. exalted. But please read, it’s actually entertaining…


The first time I visited Japan I stayed from the day of my 33rd birthday in 2006 for over 7 months on a tourist visa that I got exceptionally extended twice (3 months each). After this first stint in Japan, I flew back to Germany to tell my parents that I just came to get some of my stuff and that I must go back to Japan immediately. It was just too weird there, I needed more of it, I was hooked. I packed my stuff and went off again. Upon my return to Tokyo’s Narita Airport with one of the last planes arriving from Europe in the evening I naturally encountered problems with immigration.

The white-gloved immigration officer sitting in his glass-box at the point of immigration looked through my heavily used and tattered passport and explained drily that I had already overstayed my last visit and that it’s impossible to grant me another re-entry into Japan. It did not come as a complete surprise to me as I knew the Japanese immigration laws already back and forth, but sometimes they just don’t care. This gentleman obviously cared and wanted to do his job well. I was unlucky.

He called an attendant who led me into a huge neon-lit waiting-room with maybe 200 orange plastic-chairs on polished green lino flooring facing a long simple white front desk. Three middle-aged uniformed immigration-officers efficiently processed through documents that piled in files and folders in front of and around them on the desktop.

A few other mainly male Western and Asian immigrants were sitting around, looking lost and displaced, unshaved and tense. Most of them were alone, placed on seats that each of them had carefully chosen to keep the farthest possible distance to any other applicant. This was not the right place to make new friends. No unnecessary word was spoken.

The sound of dry fingers turning pages, stamps hitting documents and passports, footsteps echoing between hard surfaces, now and then a suppressed cough. The humming of electric lights and the sweet smell of floor wax: bureaucracy.

I tried to avoid looking into anybody’s eyes and took an inconspicuously looking seat in the last row. I waited. I stared into the flickering reflections of the ceiling-neons in the swamp-colored linoleum-tiles of the floor until I got bored and found a curious interest in examining the minuscule white labels that were glued on the back of the chairs.

Each seat had a tiny handwritten number beneath the silk-screen-printed Japanese brand name. The chair in front of me had 27-s. My own chair was 27-e. The chair next to me was 42-g. This did not make any sense!! I did neither understand the concept of their numbering or if there actually was a concept behind it at all, nor could I decipher the name of the chair-manufacturer that was printed on the aluminum sticker in matte-black Kanji-characters. My focus shifted and I started to pick little dust particles from my pants that I collected in the hollow palm of my left hand, then I formed a little ball from it that I carefully discarded in the back pocket of my jeans because I just did not dare to throw it on the highly polished floor. I tried hard to suppress the urge to pick my nose.

Occasionally names were called out and one applicant after another stepped to the front desk to be questioned and reviewed. More than an hour passed until I finally found myself alone in the room with the officers. Everybody else either got approved or maybe deported, I don’t really know. They just disappeared.

It was getting late and I was tired. The officers looked as if they wanted to finish as soon as possible as well. The initial busy formality had already given way to the slow casualty of a late-night office-shift. One of them had taken off his dark-colored uniform-jacket, his white shirt-sleeves rolled up to his elbows.

He called my name and I stepped to the front desk. Mister Whiteshirt asked me why I would want to come back into Japan when I knew that it would not be possible to let me in again. The two other guys to the left and right sorted their files. I knew that game: any implication from my side that I’d want to apply for a work-visa after entering Japan as a tourist would have been a fool-proof way to get a free seat on the first plane back to Germany in the morning. This had to be avoided at all costs.

The strategy that I had already laid out in advance as a possible response to this not completely unexpected question was that I was a practitioner of meditation and that I would like to continue my studies of Zen in Japan. The beauty of this statement was that it sounded so harmless and naive and at the same time so absurd that for the unknowing listener it must have some truth to it. The more absurd something sounds the truer it probably is.

A similar concept had worked before for my second tourist-visa-extension, which is allegedly absolutely impossible to get. I do not know of any other case that would have received a second extension. My trick was to go to the immigration-office and when the friendly Japanese attendant told me that it’s legally not possible to extend the tourist-visa past 6 months I told her that I must stay in Japan until the cherry-blossom. At that time it was only 3 more weeks until the trees would blossom. I told her that I’ve heard that it’s incredibly beautiful and that I must see it and that I could not leave the country without admiring the cherry blossom. In reality, I did only marginally have an interest in cherry-trees, but I knew that there are two things that the Japanese love more than anything else: good food and cherry-blossom. She looked at me and smiled and gave me a stamp for another three months. That was easy. Three weeks later I got insanely drunk on Shochu under a cherry-tree in Shinjuku-Gyoen, the central park of Tokyo, while little pink blossoms kept raining all over me. I had never expected that it was as beautiful as everybody told me. I was drunk on my own life.

This time would be more complicated, cherry blossom time was long over. While it’s true that I had practiced meditation for a longer period of time in my life and count myself as a deep admirer of Buddhist ideas in general and the teachings of Zen in particular, I did not really return to Japan to meditate. Problem was that I could not possibly tell them straight out that I foremost came to work and party as hard as humanly possible and that any religious bliss that would find me on the way was welcome but of secondary interest at that very moment. It was a good idea to play the bluff. There’s no harm in a student of Buddhism. I put on my Zen-face and tried to look as honest, humble and enlightened as I could while I watched myself saying: “I am a practitioner of meditation and I came to continue my private studies of Zen Buddhism in Japan”. I crossed my fingers, hoping that he would not ask me for the name of a Zen-master because I did not know anyone but D.T.Suzuki, but he was in San Francisco. And dead. Since 1966. Hell: I could not even think of any name of a Zen-temple at that very moment. The immigration officer looked at me with a puzzled expression. I kept smiling: please just give me an approval, dear immigration officer-san.

He turned to each of his two colleagues to tell them about my declaration and after each of them checked my Gestalt with little to no interest and an obvious expression of disbelief, each of them stated their personal opinion about me in fatigued Japanese. I did not really look like a typical Zen-monk to them, more like a club-kid from Berlin, which I probably was.

He sent me back to take my seat in the last row of the room and I saw my hopes for a re-entry-permit diminishing by the minute. My bluff probably did not work as well as I expected and I slowly started considering the possibility to be put onto the next flight or worse…

I was watching the happenings around the front-desk like in a theatre, from the distance it had a surreal feeling to it. The scenery looked like a stage and the officers like tired actors in slow motion. They repeatedly kept looking into my passport, my tourist-visa-application and other official-looking guideline-books again and again, they made some telephone-calls discussing my case and frequently shook their heads in disbelief, when suddenly the door behind the front-desk opened.

In came a beautiful female flight attendant, dressed in a tight dark-blue JAL uniform, pulling my slightly beaten-up silvery Rimowa suitcase behind her with squeaking wheels. My doubts vanished in an instant. It was obvious to me that this must be the end of my very fresh relationship with Japan. She came to bring me my suitcase and that was it. “Bye-bye Japan! It would have been nice! Maybe next time! Arigatou gozaimasu!”

She moved with determination towards the front desk and after a quick formal Japanese greeting asked them for my name. The immigration officers pointed wearily across the room in my direction upon which she presented my suitcase to them, made another quick bow and exited the stage as swiftly and decidedly as she had entered it. The three immigration officers got up from their seats and had a look on the suitcase when suddenly there were these vocal expressions of surprise that are typical among the Japanese, reverberating throughout the whole empty room: “Eeeh!? Sooo desu, neee!!!”.


I was not quite sure what to make of it.

They signaled me to come forward and I nervously joined them. Mister Whiteshirt exclaimed: “Buddha!”, pointing towards a big colorful sticker on the metal case that I put there ages ago. He looked at me in expectation. I eyed the sticker and had to suppress a nervous laugh. It was actually not Buddha but a depiction of that crazy-guy Ganesha, the Indian god of joy & dance, who’s been with me for years wherever I go. But well, I’m not a nitpicker and Ganesha probably does not care. So, yes: “Buddha! It’s Buddha!”, I agreed.


The officer smiled contently and began discussing these new findings with his colleagues. They nodded their heads in consensual agreement. There was relief in the sound of their voices. Now they could believe that I came to study Zen-meditation and they wouldn’t have to make more telephone calls or search for paragraphs in heavy immigration-law-books. They could finally finish their shifts and take the train home to order Sake at their local Izakaya.

It took two more minutes and I had a stamp of approval in my passport and I could re-enter Tokyo without any further problems.

I loved Japan.

I would stay for 7 years.


Nanjing Nioushoushan Culture Park

One of the most extraordinary places I ever visited was a Buddhist “VIP temple” outside Nanjing in eastern China. I was only allowed to enter it because I was a photographer on assignment for the company that had designed the lighting for the temple.

A driver took me and my Chinese contact to the site of the “Nanjing Niushoushan Culture Park”, which was still under construction. At the top of the hill centrally located in the park, we entered a huge dome-shaped structure with two attendants dressed in military overalls.

They led us to the main temple, which would be opened to a wider public in the future. It was huge and rather kitschy. I took my documentation-photos.

A private lift then took us six floors down into the mountain. We walked through guarded labyrinthine underground corridors, at the end of which a heavy steel door opened electronically controlled. The sight of the luxurious temple room almost left me speechless. The room was not particularly large, but nevertheless, I suddenly felt very small.

Hesitantly, I said that this room would probably only be open to a few very rich and famous people. My Chinese companion replied, “Money and fame do not open these doors. This place is only for the most powerful in Chinese society”. The temple was built by the Chinese government for high-ranking politicians and military personnel. He told me that no even anyone from the planning and design office - including himself - has been allowed to visit the space itself. They all had planned the space on their computers and only knew it from these simulations. This space was strictly not for public eyes, it was “only for the upper 0.001%”, he added. “You are probably the only white person ever to visit this space”, he quipped. I was not sure if he was joking.

I was allowed to take some quick photos, and I even could convince a guard to pose in front of the central altar. After a few short minutes, we were rushed out again. The steel doors closed behind us with a solid click. We were led back to the lift.

It was already night outside.


One Night at Amarelinho

Rio de Janeiro, 2006


Part 1

I was so angry I could have killed him. „Tell me you didn’t!“ I exclaimed in disbelieve from the backseat. „Yes, I did!“ Bingo chuckled.

The driver’s little Jesus pendant that was hanging from the rear view mirror jumped violently when we slammed across another pot-hole, my head hitting the ceiling.

„*ç%&/(…“ I mumbled and looked out of the dirty side window. The night was hot and humid and outside were black, burned out skeletons of cars that got unlucky. They were all along the curb, in front of grey concrete walls that separated the derelict highway from the favelas. They were sprayed with gang-signs and obscenities.

I wanted to get out: NOW! But it was too dangerous to get out here. This was gang territory. I would first get killed, and then robbed, not the other way around.

I was stuck. I was stuck in a rickety cab shooting through the North Zone of Rio de Janeiro. I was stuck with MC Bingo. That was it.

No way back.

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Part 2

Baile Funk-music was blasting from the speakers. The rickety taxi was speeding way too fast into the Zona Norte on the so-called ‚Gaza Strip’. They called it like that because the derelict highway pierced right through two rivaling favelas. Any vehicle going too slow was in imminent danger of being shot at from either side and if the gangs scored a hit by wounding or killing a driver, they’d rob the car and burn what they couldn’t carry away, including the bodies of the passengers.

Bingo turned around: „I dissed him hard! I tell you! One has to do it that way, otherwise they’ll never pay any respect!“. I nearly lost my mind: „You can not provoke someone like DJ PallMall on a radio-show like that! Do that any time, but not right before we are about to go into Amarelinho! Why the hell did you do that? PallMall will get us both killed!“. I kicked his front-seat. „+*ç%ˇ“, I cursed.

DJ PallMall was the most powerful producer of Baile Funk in Rio de Janeiro. He was making most of his wealth by buying the publishing rights for Baile Funk-songs of penniless musicians from the favelas for cheap and selling them internationally under his own name, without channeling any profits back to the impoverished artists. There were rumors that he could get anyone killed who was standing in his way as he was deeply connected with the gangs of Rio. PallMall was loaded, he had near-absolute power in the Baile Funk-scene.

I understood that Bingo was trying to play the tough guy for once. As an Austrian he was the only non-Brazilian who was a Baile Funk-MC and now he wanted to be respected beyond his questionable fame as an oddity on afternoon TV-shows. Baile Funk was Brazilian gangster-rap and Bingo yearned for respect from these gangsters by publicly starting a fight with PallMall on that radio show in the afternoon. He could have told me about that before we had entered this taxi, but now it was too late.

For Bingo all that was just a publicity stunt, but for me, it seemed like a public incitement to get murdered. That’s not an exaggeration: we were about to enter Amarelinho („The little Yellow“), at that time the most dangerous favela of Rio de Janeiro, and for sure PallMall would have his henchmen there, that guy had his dirty fingers everywhere. I was sure we would both get killed that night, but there was no way back. I was trapped.

.

Part 3

Two weeks before, Bingo came rushing into the living room at Achilles’ place in Santa Teresa, where I had my room, upon the hills of Rio: „Guys, I got big news!“. Achilles and I were sitting on the sofa playing WipeOut, that classic racing game on PlayStation.

Bingo surely was excited: „My new agent Gabriel got me a gig in the Amarelinho! I will finally get recognition from the real Funkeiros! If this won’t give me some serious street-credibility then I don’t know what could!“ - „You’re joking. That’s gonna be dangerous.“ Achilles replied without taking his eyes off the projection of our game against the wall. „For sure it’s dangerous, that’s why I need to do it. No one will ever take me serious if I don’t show that I’m able to play at the same venues as other funkeiros from the favelas. You guys should come with me!“ Bingo said. „Fuck no, I won’t go. I have a little child to take care of. That’s too dangerous!“ replied Achilles.

I’m pretty sure that Achilles was the smartest guy in the room at that moment.

His racing pod sped through the finishing line, just milliseconds ahead of mine. „That bastard won again!“ I sighed. I dropped my controller and looked at Bingo. „I would go if I’m able to take some photos“ I remarked. „Okay, that sounds good. We’ll try that!“ said Bingo and we shook hands on that.

I’ve always wanted to photograph in the favela and “dangerous” was as good for my reputation as a documentray-photographer as it was for Bingo’s reputation as a MC. Some days later Bingo called and let me know that he asked for photo-permission through his new streetwise manager Gabriel. The boss of the favela replied positively. I could join him, it would be exciting.

„You guys are crazy!“, Achilles shook his head, „If you get killed I’ll take your MacBook and iPod“.

„Keep dreaming!“ I laughed and lit a cigarette.

.

Part 4

„We are nearly there“ said Matheus, our driver, and turned down the music. We were lucky to have found him: Matheus knew the Amarelinho, he had visited the favela before. „The best and cheapest cocaine in Rio…“ he had remarked before, „…and lots of nice ass!“.

The reason why Amarelinho was so crazily dangerous was that they sold most of the cocaine and weapons in Rio. You could get anything there from a handgun to machine-guns, if you were willing to take the risk to go in there. The area was ruled by a gang called „Comando Vermelho“ („The Red Commando“), while at that time there were two other gangs - „Terceiro Comando“ and the „Amigos dos Amigos“ - who wanted to gain entry into that territory. The paramilitary forces of the BOPE, the official special unit of the police that was notorious for its brutality, wanted to get in as well. The Amarelinho was the hot-spot of the gang-wars, there were shootings daily all around the area, and we were about to go in.

The atrocities of the gangs were widely known. The more savage they acted the more respect from the rivaling gangs they would gain. A popular way of killing traitors and enemies was to put them into the so-called Microonda, the microwave. The gang would take the condemned in shackles to the highest point of the favela. They would stack old car tires around him until only the head is sticking out. They’d pour gasoline all over the concoction, then set it on fire, and then kick the poor, flaming, sreaming soul down the hill. The melange would speed down the slope of the shanty-town as a blazing ball of fire and end up as a scorched pile of rubber, flesh and bones at the foot of the hill. It definitively was a cheap way to kill someone, as much as it was devilishly creative and certainly spectacular.

The BOPE, fueled by government money, wasn’t known to be any less cruel. There were cases where they penetrated into the favela with their armored black vans, shooting from embrasures at anything that moved outside their speeding vehicle - men, women, children, dogs. Once deep inside they’d find their targets - the leaders of the gang - execute them and cut off their heads as a trophy.

Their official logo looks as if a 15 year old made up a pirate flag for a very bad-ass evil villain from a cheap comic-book: a white skull on black background, a dagger penetrating the skull from above, two guns crossed behind it.

But the gang-wars were no child’s game, as we were about to learn…

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Part 5

We got off the „Gaza Strip“. In front of the shacks of the shanty-town a large dark tree stood high against a deep-blue starry nightsky. Some guys in their teenage years, maybe five of them, were sitting in an orange cone of light coming from a naked bulb that was hanging like a strange fruit from one of the tree’s branches.

They were all outfitted head-to-toes in Nike garb: shorts, sneakers and muscle-shirt, the standard uniform of the gangs in Rio. They were sharing a joint and looked quite relaxed, or probably stoned. Two of them had semi-automatic machine-guns slung around their shoulders, the others were outfitted with handguns.

When we stopped next to the tree one of them came to the car with a pocket-light. Bingo rolled down his window. „Oi carra! What are you doing here?“, the gangster asked while pointing his light into our faces. „We are here for the Baile! I am MC Bingo!“, said Bingo. „I will play here tonight! This is my driver and on the backseat my photographer. We were officially invited to come here!“ - „We will check that, wait. Don’t move“ said the gangster and turned to his friends.

After some exchange over a crackling walkie-talkie he returned to the window. „Okay, listen. You can enter but you have to do exactly what I say. If you don’t follow exactly my instructions you will be shot at immediately.“ he pointed into the general direction of the rooftops of the favela-shacks. I looked up and could see the dark silhouette of a man.

He continued: „Put on all the lights in the car, so we can see your faces. Keep the lights on at all times! If you put off the lights you will be shot, so keep the lights on, we need to see your faces. You will drive slowly, as slowly as possible. If you drive faster than a man can walk we will immediately open fire at your car. Don’t stop. If you stop we will immediately shoot at you. Do you understand? You will drive this road here to the right…“ and he pointed to a dirt-track that was leading along the edge of the favela „…and you will take the second alley to the left. If you take another way we will open fire at you immediately. Do you understand me?“ he took a puff from his weed-joint and blew the smoke into the car. „Yes, we understood“ said Matheu „Yes, understood.“ said Bingo. „You will keep the light on, you will drive slowly, you will take the second alley on the left, otherwise you will be shot, is that understood?“ - „Yes, understood“ - „Okay, you can go now…“ he said, turned around to his cronies and the group gathered under the tree again.

Matheu drove slowly. He did not seem to be concerned at all, but I was on the edge and I could feel that Bingo was tense as well. He usually talks much more. Now no-one said a word. The silhouette on the roof that I saw before was now visibly pointing a machine gun in our direction and the further we drove along the dirt track the more shadows I could see appearing three floors above us, until there were 3 or 4 of them that followed alongside our car on the roofs slowly, all pointing their guns on us. I was terrified and convinced that we had to expect some kind of retaliation from the Bingo/PallMall-dispute. I was so sure, that I wondered why we weren’t dead already. „Idiot!“ I thought again.

The car turned left into the narrow alleyway that we were instructed to use. It looked like a canyon, slightly curved to the right, there were no windows in the walls. As we drove further into the darkness and turned slowly into the bend, 4 figures appeared in front of us. Two of them stood on the left of the alley, the other two opposite on the right. They were all masked with bandanas and aimed their machine guns on us. It looked like a firing squad. „That’s it!“ I thought in terror „Here they’ll kill us! I’m such a lousy fool, why did I ever come here with that bastard Bingo! That’s it! I’m busted! I’m dead!“. The little pendant of Jesus on the cross was slowly swinging.

Without breaking a sweat Matheus drove smoothly and very slowly between the first two guys. As we passed by, the barrels of their machine guns were following our heads. The first guy to the right was now pointing his gun directly at Bingo‘s head, the muzzle just inches away from him, and while the car was slowly advancing the barrel was coming closer and closer to my window. I very slowly let myself sink lower into my seat, trying to slide down as far as possible without attracting any kind of attention. The muzzle was now right next to my head, on eye level just outside the window, and in absolute terror I looked into the dark hole of the barrel without moving my head. The black opening was so big that one could easily have put the neck of a wine-bottle into it. I did not know that machine guns could be so big.

„That’s it.“ I thought, and closed my eyes.

„That’s it“.

.

Part 6

„Here’s the Baile!“ said Matheu in his calm and friendly voice, and I dared to open my eyes again. We were past the four guardians and in front of us was a hot-dog-stand, decorated with a chain of colored lights. It looked like we were entering a small Brazilian village-fair. There were children running around holding sticks of cotton candy and grown-ups gathering around food-stands. People around us were chatting, eating BBQ-chicken and drinking beer. It was as surreal as it was eerie: there was something a bit off about the scene. In retrospect it seemed to me that people forced themselves to pretend they were happy.

Nevertheless I rejoiced: I was not dead.

We drove another couple of yards through the crowd until we found a place next to some other parked cars in front of a big building that looked like a multifunctional community hall. As soon as we stopped and got out of the car there was a small group of gangsters running towards us, wielding their handguns and screaming: „Oi carras, stop right there! Hands up! Don’t move!!“. The first one grabbed me and put his gun against the back of my head, turned me violently around against the car, and began body-searching me.

His gun was flashy, nearly gay, it looked like it was made from polished gold. I’m no weapons’ expert but I guess it was a Heckler & Koch with a custom paint-job. The gangsters in Rio absolutely love Heckler & Koch, just as much as they love blingbling and Nike.

Life as a drug-dealing gangster in the streets of Rio de Janeiro is as short as 27years in average. Thats not a lot of time, so the gangsters like to spoil themselves while they still can.

The metal pressed cold against the skin of my neck. „What are you doing here? Identify yourself!“ he barked and before I could even open my mouth Matheu already explained who we were. After they bodysearched all of us and didn’t find anything suspicious they seemed to be pleased and put away their guns, they just kept them in the waistbands of their Nike shorts.

The guy with the golden gun, obviously their leader, explained to us: „There is a private space for you on the second floor of the hall. It is safe for you to stay there. It is not so safe if you’re leaving that space.“ Turning to me he added: „You are allowed to take pictures of MC Bingo, but you’re not allowed to take pictures of anyone else. You might get shot if you photograph anyone else. People do not like to be photographed here“.

That made me feel a bit disappointed. I had taken two cameras with me in a hard-case, because I thought that this would be a unique opportunity to take some images that no one else took before, but I didn’t like the idea of getting shot for that.

Matheu said good-bye to have a look around the fair and promised to wait for us until after Bingo‘s gig to drive us back home into the center.

Mister Golden Gun ordered two armed guys to watch out for us. They were middle-aged Brazilians with big beer-bellies. They didn’t wear the gangsters’ uniform, nevertheless they had smaller semi-automatic guns slung around their necks. They looked like Brazilian daddies with small machine guns. They led us into the barren hall. The space was as big as a middle-sized barn, with the difference that it was made from raw concrete and red industrial brickstone. I noticed that there was no floor covering, the ground was just plain dirt. There were around 70 or 80 people standing around in groups, but these were not like the people outside on the fair, who looked just like average Brazilians.

Everybody inside the hall wore Nike, most of them in shorts and sneakers, many of them without a shirt, some of them sporting baseball caps. Apart from the few kids that were running around, oblivious to their surroundings, everybody seemed to be heavily armed. Very loud and distorted Baile Funk was blasting from the stage to the left. The general mood was gloomy.

Our guards led us through the groups of gangsters, through heavy wads of weed-smoke, and showed us the stairs to the second floor at the other side of the hall.

„Have fun!“, one of them said.

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Part 7

On the way up the stairs we met Gabriel, Bingo‘s manager, who was coming down and signaled that he was about to leave the venue. He had organized the gig for Bingo to give him some street-cred. I’ve never met him before, but he looked like the whitest black person I’ve ever seen. He was pale as a ghost, visibly in distress, sweating profusely. His right arm was bandaged. “Why the bandage?”, Bingo asked after a short-spoken greeting - “Fell down the stairs”, Gabriel responded. “Nothing serious, gotta go!”, and he proceeded to rush down the stairs. “That was weird, is he okay?”, I asked when he was gone. Bingo didn’t know.

Upstairs we were greeted by a boyish guy behind a mini-bar, he introduced himself as Luca. It was one of these mobile bars on wheels one can find at tourist spots at the beach, with a sunshade mounted on it that was striped in red and white. Luca himself wore a striped shirt in black and white that he had combined with light blue cotton-shorts and white linen boat shoes. His dark short hair was combed up like Tintin, and his dapper appearance made him look like a figure from a French film noir. I guess he was in his mid-twenties and he did not appear to be very happy. The bar and Luca looked completely out-of-place, and I wondered for a moment if he got kidnapped by the gangsters from the Hilton Hotel’s beach-club to serve drinks for us. We ordered some Caipirinhas and Luca reluctantly complied. He definitely wanted to be elsewhere.

Apart from me, Bingo, and Luca there was only one other young couple on the second floor, that I could only recognize as dark silhouettes. They were a bit further back along the balcony and were in the process of making out. She was longhaired, leaning with her back against the railings overlooking the hall, while he was kneading her breasts and kissing her neck. “At least someone is having fun here”, I thought to myself.

“Quite a party”, I remarked when we got our drinks. “That was some scary shit outside”, said Bingo. I nodded in silent agreement. The fact that we weren’t dead yet in combination with the alcoholic beverage restored a feeling of confidence in me. If PallMall really had wanted to kill us he would probably have done so already.

We toasted on the evening, on that it might all go well, on that Bingo’s upcoming gig would be a great success. Bingo was alright, I had no bad feelings against him anymore. We were two gringos in uncertain territory, we had to keep together …

The party was unremarkable and boring. Some nameless DJ was standing on the makeshift stage to our right beneath us, playing his records like an amateur. A feisty looking woman in a red tight dress tried to rap into a microphone over his distorted beats, but failed miserably to hit a beat or a melody.

Downstairs to our left were the groups of gangsters lingering around like the proverbial bad kids on a schoolyard, just that these were heavily armed bad kids with machine guns, doing coke and smoking weed. No one was dancing or even paying any attention to what was happening on stage.

Ironically there was a huge 8 meter wide Nike advertisement hung from the wall above them. The image of a sweating woman’s face against the backdrop of a sunset. “JUST DO IT! NIKE”. I have no idea how it got there, as I doubt that Nike officially hung it there. Despite this paradoxical fatamorgana of looming consumerism the mood was tense, the favela was under siege, there were bad vibes in the air. After the second Caipirinha I really needed to go to take a leak, but I did not know where to go. The couple in the back were fucking against the railing now, at least that’s what I believed what I could see through the foggy dark air. I didn’t want to go there.

“I’ll go to the toilet” I said to Bingo. “Any idea where that is?”. Bingo shrugged. No-one had told us.

On our entry through the hall I had seen toilet-signs right where the gangsters were gathering. I went to Luca and asked if the toilets were downstairs, but he only returned a blank absent stare. I wasn’t even sure if he understood my question over the loudly blasting music, so I walked down the stairs to ask the guards, but I couldn’t find them.

The toilet doors were just 10 meters away. “It should be fine”, I thought.

It wasn’t the first time that I visited a Baile Funk inside a favela and I’ve seen more than enough gangsters with guns in my time in Rio. Usually they don’t shoot if you don’t do anything stupid or provocative, so I headed towards the toilet doors with a bit of confidence and growing urgency: I really needed to get to the toilet.

Everything seemed to go well: no one seemed to take notice of me, while I was pushing my way through the crowd. Just when I reached the short flight of stairs to the toilet door I was hit violently on the back and fell head-first onto the muddy ground. I was puzzled, because I did not know what just had happened.

I turned around onto my back and was staring directly into the barrel of a sub-machine gun. All the gangsters were gathering, looking down on me with either angered or amused expressions on their faces. On the other side of the barrel was one of the gangsters, bare-chested and screaming in anger at me while pushing the muzzle of his gun between my eyes. He stepped right on top of me while bellowing on top of his lungs, pinning my head to the ground with the barrel. Time is going weirdly slow in moments like this, I’ve had a few of them in my life. If time usually flows like water then in moments like this time transformed into something more like a gel: very dense and very slow.

The gangster’s eyes looked comically, as if they were about to pop out of his skull, like two ping pong balls with little black dots in the middle of them, the fringes reddened from smoking weed and doing coke all night. His purple, dark face was distorted in anger, the vein on his forehead pulsating. He screamed silently and in slow-motion, and he was about to pull the trigger.

I can not recall having any fear. I could feel the cold metal on my forehead, the pressure on my head being pinned to the ground, but I can not remember any fear or terror..

There was just a great certainity inside me, tranquility even.

“Okay, so that’s how I die”, I thought.

.

Part 8

Right at that moment when he was about to pull the trigger my guards rushed into the scene, they had pushed through the curious crowd, grabbing the screaming gangster at his shoulder and pulling him away. One of the guards helped me up while the other one was trying to calm down the still furious thug. I brushed the dirt off my clothes.

“What were you thinking?!” my guard barked at me angrily. “What were you thinking?!! You can not go here! He wanted to kill you! You would be dead if we wouldn’t have intervened!” - “Im just looking for the toilet”, I stuttered. “… I saw the toilet signs”, and I pointed to the toilet door. “Toilet, ha? Have a look! Go inside, idiot!”, he yelled at me.

Hesitatingly I took the three steps to the door, realizing that there was a steady little stream of water coming through the cracks.

I opened the door…

.

Part 9

The white tiled room was brightly lit by neons. On the other side of the room, maybe 8 meters away from me, was what looked like several large camping tables, loaded with stacks of cardboard boxes and clear plastic bags. The plastic bags were the size of small pillows and filled with white powder.

A middle aged guy with a thin dark mustache, wearing plain clothes, jeans and shirt, was standing behind the table and he looked curiously at me across the room. Three other armed guys in Nike garb stood in front of the table with their backs turned to me. I could not see what they were doing, but they were concentrating on something else and clearly did not give a fuck about anything else.

Before this room was used as a drug-sales point it was obviously the toilet of the hall. All the urinals and toilet-bowls lied scattered over the floor, rubbish and broken ceramics, demolished toilet stalls everywhere. There was water spraying out of some hole in the wall.

“Excuse me”, I said and turned around.

I decided that I didnt want to pee here.

My guards led me back to the stairs. “Stay up there!” they said. “Your toilet is in the back of the balcony”. I went upstairs, rushed past Luca and Bingo, and headed to the last corner of the balcony. The couple wasnt there anymore. Either they had finished in the meantime, or they had gone elsewhere to finish their business. I found the toilet.

“Did you find the toilet?” asked Bingo when I returned. “It’s here upstairs, in the back.” I responded. “Better don’t go down. Nearly got killed”, I said.

“Oh…”, Bingo responded.

We sipped on our next Caipirinhas and looked at the mess downstairs.

“I’m next, I gotta go down to the stage, see you later” - “Okay, good luck! Take care!”

I ordered another Caipirinha.

.

Part 10

Bingo played. It was not a good gig. He seemed tense and the sound was badly distorted. Last not least no one in the audience showed any interest. They were all coked-up gangsters, so what would you expect?

Shortly after he returned to the balcony a fat short guy came up the stairs. He seemed jolly and had two bikini-clad girls clung under each of his fleshy arms. They both looked a bit malnutritioned but pretended to be having a good time, nervously giggling, clutching to his hairy chest. He approached us with a wide grin in his face, exposing a golden canine tooth beneath his mustache. “Bingo! What a great concert! Please stay with us for a while, let’s have a good time! Here’s a girl for you and another one for your friend, please also take this bag of coke as a sign of my appreciation!” and he produced a small bag from the pockets of his shorts. He was the boss of the favela.

We just wanted to get out of here as fast as possible. Bingo courteously chatted with him for a while, kindly refusing both the small bag of cocaine and the girls. The boss shrugged it off. If we didn’t take the girls and the coke there would be more left for him, and he took off.

“Lets finally get out of here!”, Bingo said. I took one photo of Bingo beneath the coat of arms of the favela that was amateurishly painted on the wall next to Luca’s mobile bar.

We found Matheu and left the favela without any further incidents.

.

Part 11

It looks like I nearly finished telling my gangster-story (one very short ending chapter following below). This took a long time, I was carrying this story around with me for the last 15 years.

A lot of crazy stories were happening in Rio, but this was by far the most extreme experience I made there. I was there for only one year and three days: 368 days, and every day another story… I think Amarelinho was the last time I went to a Baile Funk. I lost interest in photographing gangsters and Favelas, as you shouldn‘t challenge your luck too often… In the beginning, when I came to Rio, I was interested in seeing (and photographing) all kinds of extreme situations: the Favelas, the BOPE, gangsters,… it was out of curiosity and the search for adventure, and also because it was an essential part of living in Rio.

I also considered these kinds of topics (gang-wars etc…) as something I could proof myself with, as a photographer.

I did a lot of other projects in that direction: with the help of a befriended journalist I interviewed a guy who was a double-agent for one of the gangs and the BOPE. He was a friendly and warm family father, but when I looked into his eyes I could see a dark abyss lurking behind his facade. He had the eyes of someone who had killed professionally, more than a handful.

I also photographed for an NGO in prisons all over Brazil (book about that is finally in the making).

Together with an American author I did research in the redlight-district, photographing with a hidden camera. Nothing really ever came out of that, maybe it‘s time…

Today, I would not do all that again. It was often far too dangerous. Measured by the meager output I had from these really dangerous episodes (as no magazines or papers ever showed any interest in what I was doing there), I would definitively not be willing to take these risks anymore.

Rio is not only one of the most beautiful places in the world (it really is!), but it definitively must also be one of the most dangerous cities one can visit. I had wanted to dive deep into both: the beauty and the danger, and that I did.

I am glad that I survived.

.

Part 12

Two or three weeks after the Amarelinho-gig I learned the reason why Gabriel - Bingo‘s manager - had a bandaged arm when we met him at Amarelinho. Allegedly he went to meet the boss and other gangsters of the Favela in the afternoon to re-negotiate the fees. He wanted to get more money for the gig. They did not like that, so they broke his arm 3 times.

End of Story.


.

Part 13 - Epilogue

Two weeks after our night at Amarelinho, Bingo came rushing into our living room in Santa Teresa again: „Guys, I got big news!“. Achilles and I were sitting on the sofa playing WipeOut on his PlayStation, as always. „What‘s the news?“, I asked without taking my eyes from the projection.

„Well, actually I just need some press-shots for some upcoming gigs. Can you help me out? You have a camera!“ „Uh, not sure about that. I‘m still a bit traumatized from that night at Amarelinho, to be honest. That was a bit too much“, I responded.

„We just do some shots in the street, here in the neighborhood, in daytime. Nothing complicated“, Bingo said. My racing pod sped through the finishing line, just milliseconds ahead of Achilles. „You suck!!“, he sighed and dropped his controller. „Hey! I can not let you win all the time“, I grinned. Achilles rolled his eyes: „I‘ll get back to you, bastard!“ - „We‘ll see.“

I lit a cigarette and turned to Bingo: „Do I get paid?“ - „Sorry, no cash. Please, help me out as a friend.“ I sighed…. Bingo looked quietly at me with big, pleading eyes. I couldn‘t say no.

„Okay, fuck it, let‘s do some shots. Pick me up tomorrow.“

/

The next day in the afternoon we walked through the neighborhood. I had a cheap looking military-bag, that I always had with me, slung around the shoulder. In it I had a small digital camera, it was already an older model, nothing fancy. I didn‘t want to take my medium-format camera with me, because you wouldn‘t take anything expensive into the street unless you’re rich and having a bodyguard. I wasn‘t rich.

One of the first things you learn when living in Rio de Janeiro is: never take any valuables with you into the street and do not wear clothes that look too expensive. Anything that looks valuable attracts unwanted attention of the street-kids.

You could get robbed at any time of the day by a 12 or 13 years old wannabe-gangster. These little pests would hang out at street-corners and huff on glue all day. They would approach you in a group of two or three and stick a screwdriver up your throat and just force you to let go of anything of value.

If this happens, there‘s the second secret to survive in the streets of Rio coming into play: you‘d have 20 Reals (in 2006 that was around 7 or 8 Dollars) in your pocket. You‘d take out that money, showing that your pockets are empty, and they‘ll grab the cash and immediately let go off you and run away. Then, when they are out of sight, you‘d take off your shoe, where you had hidden - in wise premonition - another 50 Reals. Then hail for the next cab to get away from there as quickly as possible.

You probably then want to be dropped off at the next bar and order a cold beer, to soften the humiliation of getting robbed by a 12-year-old, high on glue, with a screwdriver.

Been there, done that.

/

The other possibility was to try and fight these little gangsters, after all these were just adolescent kids. The problem with this option only was that these little glue-sniffers had lost all fear and had nothing to lose.

I once visited a friend, he was in his end-twenties, he was muscular and sporty. He had scratches all over his face and blue marks on his neck. I asked him what had happened. He told me that two kids had been trying to rob him. He already had gotten mugged before, had played the 20-Reals-game, but by the second time he was so annoyed by the prospect of getting assaulted by these half-growns that he decided to fend them off.

He ended up fighting these two little rascals with his bare hands, one of them hanging from his back and trying to strangle him, while he kept full-contact wrestling the other one in front of him. He finally defeated them by slapping and spanking them with his Havaiana flip-flops. In the end, his shirt was ripped and the beach sandals were ruined from the beating, so he had to walk home dirty, scratched and barefooted in a shredded shirt, looking like a bum, and then go and buy another pair of Havaianas and a new shirt.

So even if he succeeded in the fight he got humiliated and lost more money than he would have had to give to these scoundrels. On top of that he looked as if he had come out of a fight against rabid badgers and not two half-strong junky-kids.

So, trust me: better choose the 20-Reals-option. It’s not worth the fight.

/

Back to our story: I let Bingo pose here and there, through the streets of Lapa. He wanted to look „gangster“. I had no interest in that anymore, I actually had enough of those childish poser-photos, but whatever: we knew each other, so I did that.

We came to our local supermercado at the main street of Lapa and got us a cold can of Guarana, a non-alcoholic lemonade with a bit of coffein inside. It was hot, the sun was burning.

„Shall we take some more shots around here?“, I asked Bingo. „It’s too many people here, everyone is shopping. What about there, up the morro?“, and he pointed to a small street leading into a small neighborhood up the hill (or “morro”, as it is called in Portuguese). „We‘d have a nice view over the roofs of Rio, I can do some gangster-poses there.“ - “Well, okay, let’s do that, and then we call it a day.”

There were no people in that side-street, apart from a small group of really young, playing kids. They were maybe between 7 to maximum 10 years old. Too young to be aspiring criminals. It was not a rich neighborhood, but also no Favela.

We passed them, and went a little further up the hill, where we took some snapshots in the street. We even watche out that our camera is not too obvious, so I was partly hidden by a parked car while taking my photos. Bingo made his gangster-poses, wearing his baseball cap and soccer-club t-shirt, and I grudgingly obliged and pressed the shutter button rather listlessly.

After two or three minutes I wanted to move on. I looked down the Morro to the kids: they didn‘t play in the street anymore. They all had gathered together. One of them had a phone in his hands and talking to someone. Another one was pointing in our direction, two or three others looking at us. They were a stone-throw away down the hill.

„Do you think they‘ve seen the camera?“ I asked Bingo. „Maybe. Put it away and then let‘s get out of here“, he said.

We followed the street further up the hill just to find out that the way is leading directly into one of the Favelas in the area. It was not like the Amarelinho, just a small neighborhood-Favela, but still too dangerous, so we turned around.

We had no other option than passing by these suspicious kids, so in order to intimidate them we walked down that hill as if we were really tough guys, while at the same time pretending that we were really poor people without any valuables on us.

All these 6 or 7 little rats were starring at us while we were approaching them with wide-legged steps on the way down.

We tried to play it cool, and passed them as if we were gangsters on a Sunday walk. They kept starring at us quietly. From the corner of my eye I could see that one of the elder kids, maybe he was ten years old already, had something reflective in his hands. Bingo was closer to the kids that were now right behind us, and he turned to me with startled big eyes, gasping: „Knife! Run!!!“, and immediately started sprinting down the hill, in direction to the busy main street.

I was puzzled and started running after him, but my bag around the shoulder was hindering me, it was swinging wildly. Bingo also had longer legs and running shoes, he was much faster than me. I could hear the kids‘ horde coming after me and yelled: „Bingo! Wait!! I can not run that fast!!“

I held onto my bag as good as I could. It was only another 200 meters down the hill and Bingo was already half that way to the busy main street in front of us. The street was busy with honking jammed cars and shoppers, the usual weekday afternoon traffic in Lapa.

While taking really big steps I turned around over my shoulder, just to see that the kids are ten meters behind me, one of them wielding a bread knife. „I can outrun them!“, I thought, and then saw Gringo already standing at the corner of the street, looking in my direction.

I was only 50 meters away from him now. „What were you thinking!? I can not run that fast!!“, I yelled, and at that moment I saw a big motorbike coming through the jammed cars, speeding up in my direction. A big Brazilian guy was sitting on a big Enduro, and he was heading for me in the middle of the street. He was riding it Brazilian style in plain clothes, without helmet.

I tried to dodge him by running to the left, there were some parked cars a little ahead of me, but before I could reach those he already had cut off my way.

I was cornered against the wall of a house and his really big bike.

He looked at me and let his machine rev up in idle. I was panting, out of breath, sweating. Without saying a word he pulled up his white t-shirt to show me his gun, that was sticking out of the waistband of his pale blue jeans. He didn‘t even need to pull his gun, I‘ve seen enough, I understood already. He let down his shirt again.

Completely out of breath I pointed to my bag, and he nodded silently, revving up the machine once more for good effect. I pulled the strap of my bag over my head and gave it to him, and he raced off into the busy street, disappering into the traffic.

„Have a nice day!“, I thought, „…and thanks for shopping with us!“

/

I looked up the morro. The kids were walking away, up the hill, maybe a hundred meters away already. There was nothing to get from me anymore, my carcass was cleanly gnawed off.

I approached Bingo: „What! The! Fuck! Were! You! Thinking!? Shit…. that guy took my camera… Why did you just run off?“, I gasped, still out of breath.

He did not find an answer that would have satisfied me. On the other side it wouldn‘t have made any difference if we had kept sticking together: one gun is definitively enough to rob even two people.

Just at that moment a police car was passing by. We stopped them in the street, and agitatedly told them what happened, but they seemed very reluctant to help us. We got into the car and pointed them into the direction where the Enduro-man disappeared into, just a minute before, but they did not follow, just claiming that things like this would happen, they could not do anything about it, we should file an official police-report next day at the police station, etc… It was clear why they didn‘t go after that bike: they knew which group took the camera. This was Rio: they were getting bribed by them.

We got out of the police car again. „Thanks for nothing!“, and I slammed the door.

„Sorry, no pictures for you.“ I said. „They are gone with the camera.“

„It’s okay. Sorry that they took your camera“, he said.

„No worries“, I replied. „Shit happens. But that was embarrassing. Kids with a bread-knife. Jeeeees… I guess they just called that guy on the motorbike…“

„I guess it’s time for a beer“, said Bingo.

I agreed.

/

That was the story of how I lost my digital camera, in the middle of Rio in daylight, after being hunted down by a group of 7-to-10-years-olds wielding a bread knife, cornered by a big guy on an Enduro with a gun.

It wasn‘t an expensive camera, but I actually really liked that bag.

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