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How I escaped from being locked up by the Brazilian Federal police [Travel story]

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

As you can imagine, with over eight years on the road, I have had quite a few things happen to me. Today I'm going to share one of my many (mis)adventures.

It takes place in 2006, in Rio – my first time in the city. I would come back three years later to live there and learn the local dialect of Portuguese (carioquês), but in this visit I just had two things I needed to do: see some touristy sites, and renew my travel visa.

I had already spent three amazing months in Brazil; most of it on the paradise island of Florianópolis (Floripa), and travelling through Porto Alegre, Curitiba and hanging around São Paulo state, going deep into it to a wonderful town called Votuporanga – where I was the first “gringo” (foreigner) most of them had ever met.

For this whole time I had been speaking Portuguese, and this enhanced my experience to an incredible level with the friendships I could make and experiences I could have. To this day, Brazilians remain my favourite people on the planet. Those three months were the happiest I had ever been in my life…

Until I got to Rio.

The “simple” visa renewal procedure

I could have renewed my visa in Curitiba or São Paulo very easily – all you need to do is go into a Federal Police station and go through some bureaucracy and they'll do it for you. Other travellers assured me that it's a sinch.

Staying longer was a no-brainer for me. I really wanted to spend three more months in Brazil so that I could experience the World Cup atmosphere there. I had already arranged for accommodation and arranged to meet friends and had many many plans for travels in the Northeast in the coming three months. Renewing a visa just seemed like a minor formality.

Before even looking at the Cristo statue or Sugar Loaf Mountain, I went straight to the Federal Police station. Doing so in the most touristy city in the country was a bad idea, since they are so overworked, but the later I renew the visa, the longer my 3 extra months counts. I went in a few days before my current visa was to expire.

After waiting for several hours, I finally got in only to discover that the fee for renewal had to be paid to a bank and I had to present the payment receipt. They wouldn't accept cash. Annoyed as hell for all the time wasting, I went to a bank, paid and returned and lost my place in the line and had to wait all over again. I skipped lunch so I could just get this overwith.

Finally it was my turn again, after waiting most of the day in sweat and starting to get hungry. I was very much impatient and just wanted the stamp already.

My run-in with the federal police officer

The same lady saw me again and told me to take a seat. She examined my passport and glanced back up at me suspiciously, as I came in with a disgruntled look and was speaking impatiently to get this overwith. She didn't even look at my payment receipt. She looked me in the eye and said “I think you want to work illegally in Brazil”.

What?? Of course not, I insisted.

I produced a bank statement I prepared just in case, and showed her my credit card that has a decent limit on it. I had saved up in advance thanks to a convenient well-paid English teaching job in France just before, with plans not to work at all here, and was not spending much on accommodation as usual, so my money was taking me far.

You say you're a tourist here for the first time – then why are you speaking Portuguese so well??

The exchange was taking place in Portuguese of course. This was one of the few times that speaking a local language has ever worked against me. The real problem was that she was stressed out from talking to impatient tourists all day, and needed to lash out on someone. When you deal with lazy English-only tourists all day as your full time job, my story of having picked up Portuguese in just a few months must have seemed hard-to-swallow.

She didn't believe my retorts and said that she reckons three months is more than enough time for me in Brazil, and it's time to go home. She stamped my passport with a one week extension, which meant I couldn't have gone to another federal police station instead. That was it… I had to leave Brazil and my plans evaporated because I was acting impatient and because of one surely woman.

My mistake: Asking for trouble

Now, what I should have done was to just go back to the hostel and accept this. But I was mighty pissed off. Hungry, thirsty and now being sent away with nothing when I had such wonderful plans.

I went back to the line of people waiting for their visa extensions and vented. I did it a little too enthusiastically though. I cursed the officer, and suggested that they go renew their visas in any other place than this hellhole. I was yelling my curses in a mixture of English and Portuguese.

What I didn't know was that there was a small window to her office in the wall above me and she heard everything.


She stormed over to me and told me to come to her this instant. Suddenly, I (conveniently) couldn't understand Portuguese any more and hastened towards the exit instead. Thinking I had gotten away from her, I was amazed to see several police officers running towards me. I didn't run away – I was just confused about what was happening. They got to me, slammed me on the floor, handcuffed me and threw me into a locked interview room.

Locked up with time to think

When you are handcuffed in a locked room in a Brazilian Federal police station, while very hungry and thirsty, you start to look at things from a different perspective.

Rather than get scared, I actually got even more angry. But after two hours passed, the anger started to subside.

I started to realise how idiotic what I just did was. Insulting a federal police officer is probably a punishable crime here. I was in deep shit. Maybe they would officially arrest me – with a criminal record I'd never get into so many countries, and I'd have trouble finding work. I may even have to spend more time locked up before they deport me. My life could be ruined by this.

There has to be a way out of this.

I looked around the room scrambling my thoughts trying to remember if I had seen MacGayver escape from a maximum security prison with just a paperclip and a napkin. No use.

Think Benny!!

Some hours later, in comes a very angry looking man with huge muscles and a look in him that told me that the lady I insulted was his sister. You and I are going to have a little talk he said as he threw down some papers including my passport, and some complicated looking forms we were probably going to fill out, onto the table. He then walked out of the room to get something else.

Desperate times call for desperate measures

F&%k!! What'll I do??

Thinking up my defence, or threatening with something weak like that I'll get the Irish embassy on you for this outrage! made me realise that it's precisely what he'll expect. Another arrogant tourist thinking he can do what he wants.

And then it hit me. I knew precisely what I was going to do to get out of this. It was my only option, but I had to try it. I had to surprise this officer with the last thing he would ever expect.

As pissed off and hungry as I was, I forced myself to imagine all the saddest things I could – when I had to bury my pet turtle Torlinus as a child, when the first girl I asked out turned me down harshly… and everything else I could. Sad thoughts, sad thoughts. And I forced myself to tear up.

By the time he came back I was ready for my Oscar award winning performance. I cried like a little girl.

I'm so sorry!! [sniff] I didn't mean to say what I did – it was such a stupid thing to do. I'm so scared – I don't want to go to jail!

Three months in this country and other times in other Latin countries taught me that when you are dealing with macho men of the calibre of what I was looking at, they simply thrive on conflict and pissing competitions. An argument would have been the worst thing to go for, and so, I went for the opposite. It's possible that he had never even seen a grown man cry right in front of him, especially in the dramatic way that I was doing it. He suddenly started feeling very awkward.

Pull yourself together! Stop this nonsense – we need to talk!

  • [sob] I… I… I'm so sorry! [sob] Waaaah!

He couldn't get a word in, and then I got the break I was hoping for.

He threw the passport at me, and said Get out of my sight! You're pathetic! … ignoring all the other forms, and reminding me that I had just over a week to get out of Brazil.

I walked out, still sobbing, and apologised to the lady and continued out, still looking like a wreck until I was a block away and sure nobody from there could see me, and then I laughed out loud. I had “escaped from federal police custody” using tears. Haha!

My consolation prize

I was still pissed off about having to leave Brazil, but at least I got myself out of the hole I had stupidly dug for myself. I got back to my hostel, looking like crap and the receptionist asked me how my day was. When I told her, she exclaimed That was you!? Come here!

It turned out my story was doing the rounds already!

She brought me to the hall where I was greeted with a cheer by one of the people who had also been in the line renewing his visa. He saw my outburst and hand-cuff detainment and had told the whole hostel the story. Luckily he was long gone by the less admirable crying part of the story. I was greeted with a hero's welcome, and spent the rest of my time in Rio knowing the entire hostel.

I got to see the Cristo statue up close for free because a group going there found a taxi driver who would bring them and explain the history, but he only spoke Portuguese and so they requested the “famous” foreign Portuguese speaker to be an interpreter and covered my share of the taximan's hefty fee for my troubles. Having the reputation I did in the whole hostel made sure that I had a fantastic time in Rio, before I did finally have to head back to Europe.

And of course I got an important humbling lesson to not push my luck too much and try to avoid getting into trouble in future. Five years later, and lots more travel experience under my belt, you can bet I'd handle the same situation very differently now!

Since I had brought this on myself, I had no hard feelings about Rio and was happy to come back a few years later. I've been in a few very different jams since, but whenever something terrible is happening you have to remember that you will be able to look back on it and laugh some day, especially if you can figure out how to get yourself out of it by whatever means necessary.

Even the worst thing in the world could turn out to be a funny story or open a door to something very interesting if you think straight.

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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