You must have heard a thing or two about São Paulo. No, it’s not the capital of Brazil—that would be Brasilia—but it’s the country’s financial centre. It’s also South America’s largest city, with a metropolitan population of 21.5 million. Major protests usually start in São Paulo—you probably saw a few CNN “breaking news” about them, although chances are you had no idea why protesters were facing military police forces in riot gear because Brazilian political issues are rarely in the international spotlight. You may also remember all the challenges associated with a megalopolis from your high school or university geography classes—sustainability, violent crime, pollution, housing and transportation issues, etc.
Worse, São Paulo is inland so there are no beaches, no women wearing thong bikinis, no highly skilled kids playing football, no caipirinha with muita cachaça, no world-famous Carnival celebrations. For all these glamorous moments the world expects from Brazil, Rio de Janeiro is the place to be and Salvador is probably the second-best option.
São Paulo tourism commission—0. Rio de Janeiro—1.
So, why on earth are we starting the trip in São Paulo? Pure masochism?
First of all, it was a practical decision. The only direct flight to Brazil from Toronto lands in São Paulo. Trust me, after a ten-hour flight (plus the Ottawa-Toronto leg of the trip), you don’t feel like getting off the plane in “GRU”—i.e. Guarulhos International Airport—and take a connecting flight.
So, do we just suck it up and accept a “forced stay” in São Paulo? Hell no. We’re actually enjoying the city.
It wasn’t love at first sight. In 2002, during our epic first Latin America trip from Mexico to Brazil, São Paulo was our first “real” Brazilian city. Technically, we had crossed the border at Foz do Iguaçu, but we had only spent a few hours in Brazil to check out their side of the falls, we were staying in Argentina.
An overnight bus ride later, we arrived in São Paulo. For context, keep in mind that: 1)we didn’t know anything about Brazil, 2) we were sleep deprived, 3) we didn’t speak a word of Portuguese—we thought we could get by speaking broken Spanish, ah, ah!—, 4) Carnival had started and 4) I was 18 years old. We found a shitty hotel downtown São Paulo, the kind that rents room by the hour. We stayed one night in São Paulo. We were scared shitless.
I have a very vivid memory of that single day and night we spent there. I remember washing underwear in the shower while Feng was watching Carnival celebrations live from Rio de Janeiro on the tiny black-and-white TV set mounted in the corner of the room. “Where the hell is the party in São Paulo?” we were wondering. We briefly went out looking for it. Everything was closed because of Carnival. We walked along endless streets bordered by skyscrapers, a steel jungle without living souls. Every few minutes, we could hear the sound of choppers flying above our heads and landing God knows where. It was like being in a futuristic movie where locals all get around in flying cars—or like being in an end-of-the-world movie where humans had died and only machines and building remained behind.
The next morning, we boarded a bus to Rio de Janeiro and got the hell out of São Paulo.
We came back in 2016 with Mark. This time, we made sure to book a hotel in a faraway suburb and we swore we would avoid São Paulo proper. Of course, we didn’t. We spent New Year Eve on Paulista and we ended up exploring São Paulo. It was nothing like our 2002 experience. I don’t have data so maybe São Paulo improved a lot over the years, but I also suspect we had just experienced a major culture shock in 2002.
Brazil is very different from the rest of South America and it takes time to appreciate it.
São Paulo isn’t like you picture it, and it’s not the city we experienced in 2002 either.
Brazil makes a lot more sense if you redefine your definition of “normal.” Armed police forces? Perfectly normal. Muscular Black teens covered with tattoos? Gee, don’t change sidewalk, Brazilians seem to be born with tattoos, absolutely everyone sports them—names and anything to do with God and Jesus are among the favourite designs. Groups of homeless people everywhere? Heartbreaking but hardly a threat. Busy streets? Guess what, there are millions of people living their life in this city.
Are we good now?
I’m no longer scared in São Paulo. Oh sure, there are places where I wouldn’t go—Centro at night is probably a bad idea—but I don’t feel unsafe at all.
And São Paulo is fun once you stop being scared.
For instance, did you know that São Paulo is home to the world’s largest Japanese community outside Japan? Did you know that Paulistas are pretty edgy and that there are entire malls dedicated to subcultures? That you can easily see the amazing mix of ethnicities, skin colours and social background in the street? That the food scene in São Paulo is pretty interesting?
I’ll show you around tomorrow. São Paulo ain’t no Gotham City, trust me.