I can’t find the right three of four adjectives that would best describe Porto Alegre. There are cities within this city, lives lived so differently that it’s hard to believe there are only blocks apart.
If you arrive by bus, your first glimpse of Porto Alegre will be highway overpasses and underpasses, then suddenly a busy skyline with tall buildings.
As soon as you step out of the rodoviária, you’ll see three lanes of orange-and-blue taxis parked just before the pedestrian crossing. Drivers won’t wait long for a fare—even though the bus terminal is right in the Centro Historico, a few hundred metres from the Mercado Público, you probably won’t be comfortable crossing these few blocks with all your belongings with you. It looks dodgy. Frankly, it kind of is. Abandoned buildings, the lone Igreja Mundial do Poder de Deus playing loud music as if to chase away evil spirits, brothels… Just take a taxi. Everybody does. At least to Avenida Farrapos—once you’re there, it’s just fine.
Now this isn’t to say that you should avoid Porto Alegre Centro entirely. During the day, this is a bustling hub of activity and streets around the Mercado Público are packed with workers, shoppers and sellers. If you don’t feel like stepping inside one of the many small businesses, just look down and you’ll find vendors selling tee-shirts, hats, fans, toys, sandals, shoelaces, Havaiana straps, plugs and much more in the middle of the streets. And if you’re hungry, follow your nose—there are freshly baked pães de queijo for one real, peanuts, fried salgados and many other snacks.
The smell of bacalhau hits you when you step inside the historical Mercado Público, although you probably won’t recognize it until you see the stalls of dried and salted fish. It’s a bit dark in the building, I like it better outside, by the stalls selling pineapples, bananas, mangoes and grapes.
We’re still close to the Serra Gaúcha, so locals include blond Brazilians of German ancestry sipping mate but also hundreds of different skin colours and styles. Dutch tend to be tall, Chinese generally have black hair, most Chileans have light brown skin… don’t ask me what a typical Brazilian looks like—it’s impossible to give you a straightforward answer. Blond kid here? Brazilian. Black guy here? Brazilian. White girl with an afro? Brazilian. It’s such a wonderful mix that even the three of us can pass for Brazilian!
Porto Alegre Centro is a messy, busy place during the day and it empties out after 6 p.m. It’s not a rich area nor a particularly poor one, it’s a hub for everyone.
Now take one of the steep streets leading to Avenida Independência. On your way up, don’t forget to check out the 500-meter stretch of Rua Gonçalo de Carvalho, a green oasis in the middle of the city with tipuana trees creating a magical archway. Avenida Independência is an interesting “neutral” avenue with many hospitals, a couple of supermarkets and small eateries. There are a few good viewpoints on Porto Alegre, and then there’s the Viaduto Otávio Rocha with the many homeless people living under the arches.
Downhill to Parque Farroupilha are lovely quiet streets that feel very different from the city centre, even though Centro is just on the other side of Avenida Independência. I’m guessing this is a “better” neighbourhood, i.e. a richer one. The Parque Farroupilha is a fun place to be on Sunday but it’s pretty empty the rest of the night and I’m pretty sure it’s a drug-dealing spot at night.
One afternoon, we followed an avenue and ended up at Praia de Belas Shopping, a mall where we stopped because we needed air con (Feng), food (Mark) and a bathroom (me). After hanging out in Centro and Cidade Baixa for a few days, I was used to seeing people going through trash, military police, small lanches and generally all the hallmarks of a working-class neighbourhood, so this shopping mall was a bit of a shock. Inside were all the brand names I hadn’t seen since the airport duty-free shops. People looked different—yes, definitely more white than mixed and they were clearly upper class. I went outside for a smoke and observed the way shoppers would stand by the doors of the mall as if stepping on the sidewalk was dangerous, then jump into one of the many taxis waiting. Feng, Mark and I were the only ones who left the mall on foot. This was the other Porto Alegre, a few kilometres from Centro, the market and the one-real pães de queijo bought in the street.
That night, I went for a walk like I always do. I’m not crazy, I don’t hang out in empty streets by the bus station, but I’m not scared either. I mean, if it’s safe enough for locals to walk their dog and barbecue huge chunk of meat on the sidewalk, it’s fairly unlikely I’ll get killed. I passed men going through garbage bins looking for recyclable items, students smoking pot, bikes delivering booze—this type of late-night delivery is popular—and hungry souls eating pastéis.
You get used to abandoned buildings, empty streets, garbage, graffiti and the messiness of a giant city with huge socioeconomic gaps.
I wish everyone could be a bit richer in Brazil. I wish people in Centro would have an easier life.
But I’d rather hang out there than in sterile malls.