The bus ride from Foz de Iguacu to São Paulo departed at 6PM on Saturday and arrived at 11AM on Sunday, covering 1100 kilometers in an interminably slow 17 hours. Thus, Stefje and I were feeling haggard, tired, and dirty for our introduction to Latin America’s largest city. 12 million people strong, with an astounding total of 23 million in the entire metropolitan area, São Paulo is a supercity. It hit us right in the face with a gigantic bus terminal, a packed and modern subway system, and an intense Sunday street festival before we even arrived at the hostel.
We spent the afternoon touching just the tip of the iceberg in terms of exploration. Avenida Paulista, the modern commercial street lined with high-rise office buildings, was the place to be on a Sunday: it was shut down to motor traffic and teeming with carefree pedestrians. Amid all the hubbub we found plenty of salesman looking to make a quick buck hawking hand-made jewelry, freshly boiled corn on the cob, and DVD collections of questionable quality. In this neighborhood, the grunge lifestyle of the city was prominent, headlined by dreadlocks, tattoos, and gangs of skateboarders kick-flipping all over the avenue.
We meandered along until Avenida Augusta, one of the city’s social epicenters. Fast-casual restaurant serving up pizza by the slice, falafel, and mexican food combined with tiny bodegas and old-school diners to make me feel like I was truly back in Western Civilization. Yet the real attractions here were the bars with outdoor tables serving up beer after beer to an exceptionally thirsty crowd.
The clientele had a little bit of everything: motorcyclists with leather jackets, tourists like us trying to fit in, and plenty of gay and lesbian couples. Yet the one constant was libations: it was the weekend, and everyone was seizing the opportunity to over-indulge. This felt like an apt introduction to a city of such astounding size. In São Paulo there’s an undocumented diversity of lifestyles. This is a place where you can be anyone, do everything, buy anything, and do it all at any hour of the day or night. It’s a city where the clubs are still awake when the commuters begin their trudge to work; perhaps most importantly, it’s a city of astounding inequality with a tremendous gap between the have and have-nots.
On our first full day in the city we worked our way downtown to Republica Square in anticipation of the city’s free walking tour. Just getting there brought Brazil’s economic plight to the forefront: the main walking streets were littered with job postings alongside resume-clutching applicants and most of the green spaces were converted into shanty towns.
Dozens of homeless contributed to the atmosphere of the open air plazas, setting up temporary homes and living amidst the chaos of the city.
Brazil’s economy has been in a tail-dive recently as a result of widespread government corruption. In the last year, the Real - their currency - has lost more than half of its value relative to the dollar, making budget travel for outsiders more accessible yet wreaking absolute havoc on the middle class and their job prospects. While the culpable parties largely walk free, the new president talks of reform, but a vibrant and growing movement of opposition protestors doesn’t buy it.
As a testament to the turmoil, São Paulo’s main constant regardless of neighborhood is homelessness: 15,000 of them according to one recent count, and a city-wide crack epidemic that threatens to destroy thousands of lives. It’s a sobering sight for tourists exploring the sprawling metropolis, yet our tour began just steps from a shanty town.
Our vivacious tour guide was a Brazilian of Japanese descent, packing huge energy and a powerful voice into her compact frame. She fearlessly led our gaggle of a group through the sights of the historic district, filling us in all the while with some of the vibrant history and diverse culture of Sampa (as the locals call their city).
Although most of the buildings in the city center consist of uninspired white and grey apartment complexes, we came across a few gems, notably the Edificio Italiano and municipal theatre. Yet even the ornate theater was a popular gathering place for the homeless, juxtaposing the city’s widening divide between rich and poor.
We moved along to the Plaza de Se, home to a tall, imposing Cathedral with stunning pillars and an austere yet impressive interior with high vaulted ceilings.
In the afternoon we chose to cover one last aspect of the busy central, heading to the municipal market. Even when we were still blocks away from the striking baroque dome, sellers and kiosks began filling the streets. As we walked closer the shouts began: storefronts, carts, and salesman hauling goods verbally assaulted passerby, hoping to cajole a few shoppers into becoming customers.
Everything was for sale here, from normal t-shirts and shoes sold at bargain basement prices to bizarre bug zappers, exotic fruits, and bubble blowers. But the oddest trend was the ridiculous proliferation of people hawking bottled water. Literally dozens of them lined the path, unrelenting in their constant barrage of yelling “agua helada."
By the time we sampled some fruits and picked up some fresh vegetables, our heads were overwhelmed and our legs began dragging signaling it was time to retreat to the hostel and recover from an overdose of stimulation.
Tuesday we stuck closer to our hostel’s turf, exploring the neighborhoods of Paulista and Jardins. The city’s widest and most impressive street, Avenida Paulista on a Tuesday was a far cry from the hippie and alternative crowd we encountered on Sunday afternoon. Freshly starched shirts, high heels, and business suits were the norm here for the thousands of workers commuting, heading to lunch, or stepping outside for a cigarette break. Unlike the historical center with its old world cafes and cheap eateries, Starbucks and expensive lunch buffets were on every block.
South of Paulista is Jardins, another step up the class ladder of Brazil. With the designation as Brazil’s answer to Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles, here high fashion is mandatory. Luxury shops had our eyes bulging with their exorbitant price tags and opulent designs, each storefront a chance to one-up its competitors. American and European brands were the norm here, but no clothing store was as popular as the lone eatery: Ben and Jerry’s! The chain is not the first to make the transition to Brazil’s biggest city, but it’s certainly one of the most revered by locals.
Having already filled my bloodstream with enough Cherry Garcia in this life, I opted instead for gelato from the wildly popular Bacio di Latte. Occupying an absurd 4 of the top 8 spots on TripAdvisor’s list of the best restaurants in the city, the Scottish-Italian ownership team is being duly rewarded for brining real gelato to the Southern Hemisphere.
Each tiny taste of a new flavor was a revelation, with the smooth and creamy goodness exploding off of my tongue for a heavenly dining experience.
In an enormous city such as São Paulo, even the most detailed observations and explorations expose just a thin layer of the cake, so on Tuesday evening we moved to a different neighborhood to experience Vila Madelena, heartbeat of the city’s nightlife. Our new hostel was predictably hosting a roaring party that night to celebrate the owner’s birthday, so we did our best to fit in with the hordes of effervescent Brazilians as they drank, sang, and danced the night away.
Wednesday a pallid sky played into our Caprinhina-induced hangover, leaving the endless stream of skyscrapers across the skyline looking uninviting. Eventually we stepped outside and almost right away tremendous rains came, trapping Stefje and I inside at a street-side cafe. Instead of feeling downtrodden we watched in hysterics as pedestrians got soaked and commuters hopped from awning to awning to keep their expensive clothes and shoes dry.
During a brief lull in the incessant storm we made a dash for it back to the hostel, only to be greeted by spectacular claps of thunder and the instantaneous loss of power. In this uber-connected city I was grateful to have a few hours where all the travelers and employees had to huddle around the hostel’s lone candle, engaging in actual conversation.
Thursday Stefje and I engaged in one of my favorite activities for getting to know a neighborhood first-hand: strapping on a pair of walking shoes and pounding the pavement one step at a time. Vila Madelena is São Paulo’s best for nightlife, with dozens upon dozens of bars coming alive in the evening hours. Yet during the day it was a curious case study as well, as just one block could include a brand new restaurant, a boutique shop, an apartment building, and an art gallery, each occupying no more than 10 meters of storefront.
However, my favorite establishments to frequent so far in Brazil are the old-school bar/restaurant/diners that are ubiquitous among the local crowd as the best place to grab a salgado (fried bread snack), eat lunch, or drink beer at all hours of the day. For just 15 Reales (4 dollars), their serving of rice, beans, fries, meat and salad is one of the city’s unbeatable deals.
To avoid the post lunch swoon that day, we headed right around the corner to The Coffee Lab, one of the city’s most popular cafes. Somehow it’s the type of place that seems both posh and workmanlike: the beans are roasted and ground in the background and the employees sport factory overalls, grounding the otherwise pretentious front of paying 3 dollars for a cup of coffee.
Sufficiently caffeinated, our tour continued on foot over to the Beco de Batman (Batman’s Alley), the coolest outdoor art gallery for São Paulo’s street artists. We took our sweet time ogling the intricate designs from multiple angles, admiring the diversity of styles and spectacular range of colors that transported us out of the city’s concrete jungle, if only for a few minutes.
That evening we saw a different side of the neighborhood, as throughout the evening a steady crescendo of the city’s social scene took place. It started at 6PM, as offices began letting their charges loose and bars responded by throwing open their doors and putting open-air tables on sidewalks. By 8PM the bars began overtaking restaurants as the most populated locations: tables filled up and drinks flowed freely. 10PM brought with it pitchers of beer, packs of cigarettes, and wild shouts reverberating through the now crowded streets.
However, the main source of noise was the plethora of live music options. From acoustic guitar to Brazilian samba to heavy metal, each bar had commissioned its own live music and different artists were taking center stage to delight the growing crowds. As the clock struck midnight, Stefje and I found ourselves on one of the most popular street corners, the sidewalks overflowing with bar patrons. Although we were in another hemisphere and the major beats of the night were a world away, we couldn’t deny that just observing the subconscious undertones of the social scene would have fit right in anywhere. After all, kids will be kids, pretty much anywhere in this small world.
Good Friday was a federal holiday in the mostly Catholic country, so we made our way to one place in town where that wouldn’t matter: Liberdade. São Paulo is home to the largest group of Japanese outside of Japan, and Liberdade is the hub of their action. Stepping off the subway was a shock to the system: the people, the stores, the food, the smells! Everything about this place was distinctly Japanese, and we delighted in exploring the curiosities.
We uncovered some great gems by walking through the packed street malls, weird shops, and street vendors. Yet after 10 months in South America, most important to me was the food! Fried tempura, dumplings, sushi, and noodles all lured me in with their delightful smells. After being deprived of such taste for so long, our re-introduction was divine. We ate some food while prowling the streets, but grabbed take away bowls of noodles to sample in nearby Ibirapuera Park.
São Paulo’s most popular park was utterly teeming with families, packs of teenagers, and young couples that Friday afternoon, as no one seemed perturbed by the imposing storm clouds forming on the horizon. We grabbed a grassy spot and chowed down on our lunch, taking in the parade of bikers, rollerbladers, and joggers on the path behind us while games of volleyball and soccer took place on the lawn in front of us.
Suddenly Stefje suggested we should find some cover; her suggestion wasn’t a moment too soon. A powerful downpour soon had children shrieking and everyone running for cover. Eventually we found refuge under the famous Marquise, a famous Oscar Niemeyer designed sculpture that glides across a wide, sloping swath of the park.
Underneath we encountered a hotspot for the counter-culture vibe, as the two primary activities were skateboarding and smoking weed. People whizzed by us on four wheels, cutting tight turns and kick-flipping over obstacles. For teenagers, this was definitely the spot to see and be seen.
While gargantuan cracks of thunder split right overhead and a deluge of rain soaked the park, we embraced our refuge. Amidst all the skateboards, tattoos, and piercings, we broke form and did the weirdest thing possible: open a book. With Malcolm Gladwell and Bill Bryson as our co-conspirators, we passed the rest of the storm in peace.
Despite the spectacular variety of offerings and hotbed of culture that São Paulo represents, I must admit that for me, 23 million people make it a tad overwhelming. So on Saturday we were off, eschewing another day in the crazy urban environment for the fresh air and salt water of the coast.