Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Safe as houses.

Security is big business out here. A lot of people spend a lot of money on making sure they and their possessions are as safe as possible. Bullet-proof cars, alarms, cameras, motion sensors, electric fences, bars, railings, locks, walls... the list goes on. In a previous post I detailed the various security systems we have here in what is, in truth, a very modest house for this area but there are some truly enormous mansions around us, bristling with cameras and fences and some even boasting their own permanent on-site security guards. Sadly, we're not in that league so we have to make do with the street guards.

I first came across the concept of street guards back in England. We were trying to decide whether we should be looking for a house or an apartment to live in and the issue of security was high on our list of concerns. Apartment blocks out here are all gated, with a doorman on duty around the clock and so are obviously more secure than a house. Unfortunately, there just aren't many apartment blocks within walking distance of the school and as that was our top priority, we found the decision made for us. A house it was going to be. But not to worry, we were told, as all the streets in the area we would be living in were patrolled by guards from private security firms. All we had to do is pay a monthly fee and that would be our security taken care of.

Now, when I think of security guards I imagine something like this.

These are the guys who stand guard outside the local shopping centre. You can't actually see his gun because it's on the other side of him, but they all carry them and I'm sure they know how to use them. A couple of these guys patrolling the street at night is going to be a fairly good deterrent for any but the most dedicated of electric fence dodgers. Sadly, this is not what we get. What we get is the brave lads of the Vigilância Noturna Particular de São Paulo. These guys don't need guns, or body armour, or a fancy uniform... or training... or even the physique of a mildly competent athlete. It seems to be that you qualify for guard duty as long as you're male and of a reasonable age - and one or two of the guys near us are clearly way over-qualified on that score.

The street guard's base is his box. You see them dotted around all over the place, but especially at junctions, and this is where everything happens. There is space inside for one person to sit, with a shelf for storing the few items the guard will need - some magazines, a portable water filter and container, somewhere to write invoices. Sometimes, that's all you'll get, but on occasion the guards will have made a real effort, especially if their clients are generous. I've seen boxes with carpet, a nice swivel chair, somewhere to hang your jacket, and there's even one box I pass every day going to and from school that has its own power supply and a small television set up in the corner. Now and then I see one or other of the guards sitting watching TV, but more often, two of them have squeezed in together and are busy playing FIFA 2010 on a Playstation.

But no toilet facilities. I can only imagine that one of the nearby houses allows them access to their maid's quarters or something, because these guys work long, long hours. On our street we have José, Miguel and Cristiano although there are at least two others I see regularly who must be cover of some sort. They're already there when I walk the boys to school at seven o'clock in the morning, and they're still there when I put out the rubbish at nine at night. I can only assume they're there for most of the night as well as that's presumably the whole point of Vigilância Noturna.

And our boys are in pretty good shape too. I'm not sure how well they would do against a gang of dedicated burglars, but they can certainly nip up and down the road on their old bicycle quick enough when they have to. No sitting around playing computer footie on our street! And whenever they see us heading home, they will always wander down and stand around while we let ourselves in just for a bit of extra reassurance (or possibly to prove to us that they are actually doing something for their money).

But a good street guard is so much more than a walking anti-theft device. They're always around, so they can take delivery of items that are too big for the letterbox. They can pass on messages and, although we haven't tried this one yet, I'm sure they would run errands for us if we needed them to. When we first arrived at the house, it was José who had the keys and let us in and our landlord was clearly happy enough with this arrangement. And as I detailed in the previous post, they will even help park you car for you. Who could possibly ask for more?

Finally, and slightly off topic, I want to tell you about two more home security systems I've come across and which are widely used in our area. The first is kind of obvious really.

Yes, the good old guard dog. This guy is the scariest one I could find and he seems to delight in running backwards and forwards along the length of his property every time I pass by, barking madly from the moment he sees me until I'm away round the corner. Fortunately, there is a fence between us because as loud as he is, I'm quite sure his bark is still nowhere near as bad as his bite. But he's the exception. Most of the dogs whose noses I see poking out through gates and fences are nothing like as fearsome. They're bored, lazy or pathetically old or small. They can generally bark a good bark if they put their mind to it, which they like to do in unison at about two in the morning, but I'm not sure they're much of a deterrent.

And then there's this.

I've no idea what it's called, and I don't know if it's unique to Brazil or as common as anything back in England as well, but I've certainly never seen it before. Which is no surprise really as no one in their right mind would have anything to do with it. It's really just a tangle of thick ugly stems covered in vicious spiky thorns with the occasional handful of pathetic petals dotted about so you can tell it's actually a plant and not some variety of barbed wire. People use it as a hedge along the front of their property so that even if you were stupid enough to want to climb up the wall and risk the electric fence, you can't get anywhere near it without slicing yourself to pieces first.

Here you can see a fully-developed hedge. It sprawls menacingly over six foot of a seven foot-wide pavement and as no one seems to be doing anything to keep it in check, I'm quite sure it will be forcing us to walk on the road soon enough... which is, I have to admit, a pretty good way of keeping people off their walls.

Sometimes, I really miss front gardens.

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