My wife and I decided to return again to the Bairro São José this weekend and spend a little bit more time in the Mercado São José (last week we had our toddlers with us and didn’t really spend a lot of time looking around). Some of the things that you can find in abundance at this market are clothing and household fabrics with lace and embroidery, which is a specialty for the area. There are also leather goods and some rather creative uses for MDF (medium density fiberboard), which wasn’t in the market the last time I visited it in 2011.
After checking out the market, we decided to walk a bit further south to the business areas around the market. As we were there on a Saturday, the street was full of people. Most of the stores here have fabrics, rugs, and other household goods. It felt a lot like being in some of the market areas in Turkey (my other reference point). We had a lot of fun exploring and seeing what was here. I, of course, was enamored with the older buildings and the pedestrian-centric focus of the neighborhood. It’s one of the few places in Recife where people clearly have precedence over cars.
But, something rather unusual happened, not once, but three times when were were walking around, we were warned to be careful of theft. I do like to take pictures and have a modest camera (nothing like a high-end SLR). Noticing my photo-taking, a nice young man warned me to not take pictures because there were people in the area who would try to steal the camera. I’ve been to many places in the world where I’ve been warned about this kind of behavior, so it wasn’t really unusual, but became more cautious and judicious with my behavior. Then, inside a carpet and curtain store, my wife was approached by a well-meaning woman who told her to be very careful with her purse so it was not snatched and to be aware of our surroundings. She mentioned that because we don’t look like typical Brazilians, we need to be extra cautious. With this second warning, I was beginning to feel a bit concerned, but continued on. When we were warned a third time only five minutes later that there were many ladrões (thieves) around and we needed to be careful, I began to be genuinely concerned. Keep in mind that these three interactions occurred in only 15 or 20 minutes.
When I was in Bairro São José in 2011, I explored the area alone and never encountered any of these warnings. (I should also mention that I was completely safe.) Of course, what was different this time around was that my wife was with me. (I admit, I was also wearing a hat to ward off the sun, which might have made me stand out; Brazilians don’t seem to wear many hats. On the other hand, we were pretty much dressed like everyone else–casually with no flashy jewelry or watches.) So, to be honest, I’m not sure what all of this really means. Has something changed in the last four years? Is theft really this big of an issue for tourists or is it more perception than reality? Or is it simply indicative of the fact that people are trying to be helpful? (A rather nice characteristic of all the Brazilians I’ve ever encountered, so far.)
Anyway, I don’t think this will dampen our desire to explore too much, but it does reinforce that no matter where you are in the world, it’s a good idea to be aware of your surroundings and behavior. Because Bairro São José offers a lot of interesting sights and sounds for visitors, I wouldn’t necessarily discourage others from visiting this neighborhood, but perhaps some caution is warranted. Mercado São José, for instance, felt very safe, and no one gave us warnings there. Saturdays are one of the busiest times in downtown Recife, but on Sundays, as I understand, there’s not many people around. (From the perspective of crime, it is probably best to avoid visiting on Sundays as well as the evenings.) So, my recommendation: definitely visit Mercado São José, but be cautious if you venture out into the surrounding neighborhood.