Public health student Robert Snyder says he’s been back and forth between U.S. and Brazil at least six times. While some trips were for fun, others were to study how diseases affect some of the country’s poorest communities.
Snyder, 28, who’s pursuing a doctorate in epidemiology atUniversity of California, Berkeley, is currently in Rio de Janeiro studying how diseases strike in the city’s slums, or favelas. He’s interviewing families to learn what puts them at risk for diabetes, TB and staph. Last summer, Snyder was there for three months, delving into the rate of high blood pressure in slums and comparing it with the rate in communities with better health care options. And on his very first day, he had an unpleasant encounter.
He may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then again, he might have been a victim of an inappropriate footwear choice:
I got mugged the day I got there. It was 8 o’clock on a Sunday night, and I wanted to go over to a friend’s house. I was walking down the street and this kid and his girlfriend walked up to me. They pushed me against the wall, and he put a knife against my chest and said, “If you don’t give me money, I’m going to kill you,” in Portuguese. So I took out my wallet, gave them the money. His girlfriend put her hand in my pocket and took my cellphone, which I hadn’t even activated yet.
I went to the police station right next to my house, and they took me to the other side of the city to a special police station for tourists. I remember the female officer was like, “Oh, next time that happens, just punch him in the face.”
And you blame … your shoes?
[The mugging] happened because I wore the wrong shoes — at least that’s what people told me. In Brazil, everyone has these plastic flip-flops called Havaianas, a famous Brazilian brand. You have to wear them everywhere, and if you’re not wearing them, especially in Rio, people know you are not from there. I had on Birkenstock clogs, which I have since learned no Brazilian would ever wear.
Photo: Robert Snyder takes a break at Baia de Guanabara, Brazil’s second largest bay. (Courtesy of Robert Snyder)