I arrived in Sao Paulo with about five other passengers on a flight from Miami – this was definitely not high season in the southern hemisphere. But I wasn’t complaining. Having visited Brazil once before I knew it was important to savor whatever serenity the air time could offer; the mood would change abruptly once you stepped off the plane.
Let’s start with the language. Other Latin-based languages (French, Spanish etc.) I can generally decipher because I can make out the words. Brazilian’s many nasal vowels mean that I’m lost from the get go. To make matters worse I can’t understand their English and they can’t understand my Portuguese. The woman who sold tickets for the bus service into town clearly did not want to deal with me but at least made a valiant effort to ask me a legitimate questions—like what is the address of your hotel? Except it sounded like idreeas. The woman selling prepaid cab fares asked the same question but was slightly more intelligible, but only slightly.
That was one hurdle down but was quickly followed by the cab driver who, naturally, asked where I was going. All I picked up was “vien” but that seemed to do it. I responded the Othon hotel and was immediately surprised at how differently you can say the word Othon. As it turned out, Brazilians pronounce the “th” ‘t” shorten the ‘o” and stress the second syllable. With that straightened out, my sweet and petite female driver picked up my 50 pound bag and off we went. Arriving in break neck speed at the hotel I then tried to convince the driver we were at the wrong place. Go figure. She politely showed me the address of the hotel on the ticket and how it perfectly matched the address on the door of the building. For better or worse, I had arrived.
Sao Paulo is not a particularly safe place. It’s much less safe at night. Think New York circa 1975 with about ten times the homeless population. Apparently car thefts (with drivers in them) have gotten so bad that they’ve passed a law saying it’s OK to run red lights and stop signs at night. So while my hotel was in the historic district it was no place to hang around with expensive camera equipment.
The final river to cross before I could finally get some sleep was much as I expected. The reservation I made through hotels.com apparently had not made it down to Sao Paulo. Not surprisingly the night staff’s command of English was pretty much non-existent and our conversation degenerated into a primal ritual of grunts and arm gestures. Fortunately, as I have learned in the past, Brazilians are an accommodating bunch and I did have a document from hotels.com. So without too much fuss they gave me a key and sent me on my way. Frankly, I don’t think they could care less if I paid a centavo for the room just as long as I didn’t spend another minute in the lobby. The room they gave me was on the 12th floor of a 24 story building, the 25th floor being reserved for the Chalet Suisse restaurant.
Sao Paulo is one of the most populated city in the world, somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 million. I’m not sure what the largest is— Tokyo , Shanghai?—after a certain point who’s really counting. And these are not really cities anyway, just concrete mazes populated with myriad neighborhoods that act as miniature cities within vast megalopoli. Sao Paulo to me seemed like a cross between Tokyo and New York – a colossal area jam packed with brutalist architecture but with a vibrant street life that cranks away on all cylinders.
One of the problems with Paulinistas, as the residents are called, is they are a rude and not all that helpful. One the good things about Paulinistas is they are rude and not all that helpful. My existence was irrelevant. I have a number of theories on this. One is that Sao Paulo in June (winter) doesn’t attract a lot of non-business tourists and probably doesn’t throughout the year. Most just hightail it to Rio or other places along the coast. And who can blame them. When I left Washington DC for Brazil it was 15 degrees Celsius and overcast in Sao Paulo . When I arrived at around 10 pm it was around 15 degrees and overcast. When I walked around the city the morning I arrived it was 15 degrees and overcast. We’re up about 2000 metres here so its “tropical” in name only.
The historic district of Sao Paulo is a great place to walk around, at least during the day. It outdoes any place I’ve visited in Europe in the number of parks and pedestrian-only boulevards. That and the fact that it’s 15 degrees and overcast, and all the cars run on sugar, makes walking around the city something you can do for several hours without expiring. Where there’s a problem is the fact that such places are choice spots for the homeless. They also make not bad public toilets. So while the walking is enjoyable all the goods seats are filled with homeless and some stretches smell like they second as latrines.
On the positive they also attract an assortment of attention seekers which make New York or Barcelona seem downright sterile. The first I came across looked Pentecostal and by the time the fire and brimstone performance came to an end the preacher had the gathered crowd down on their knees seeking redemption. Another group I came across was either seeking justice or selling zerox services, regardless, they were causing quite a stir. I also ran into one of the ubiquitous human statues that appear on pedestrian boulevards in large cities. For about five minutes I thought I was looking at a stone statue until he blinked.
Other boulevard sights are the Brazilian women, who somehow, even in gray Sao Paulo, manage to let out a South Beach sirens call. This I suspect may be a factor in the 80,000 auto-related fatalities that Brazil records every year. To qualify that, at 15 degrees and overcast Sao Paulo is basically Stockholm. It’s got to be 20 degrees and sunny for the midriff comes out.