My Last Saturday in Sao Paulo (Part One)

3 09 2015

sau paulo cityIt’s our last night in Brazil. Ten days ago I had never been in South America. I’d also never felt 22 million people surround me in a metropolis so unimaginably large. Sao Paulo is the 13th largest city in the world, according to the interwebs, and after spending 7 days here, I definitely do not doubt this. And I definitely have no desire to see the other 12.

The city proper has something like 12 million people thickly spread across a concrete sea of low-lying favelas (the semi-permanent government solution to mass encampments), peaked with 25-story tall skyscrapers. The skyscrapers are a mix of residential towers and financial offices, interspersed throughout the endless vista. Helicopter pads top each tower downtown, like  Amazonian canopies from which loud, metal creatures take flight throughout the day, buzzing the denizens of the underbrush as they hunt for their next prey.

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When I arrived, I met up with another American friend, also speaking at the GreenBuild conference. We were equally floored by the vastness of it all. The extreme rich and the extreme poor living side-by-side, with no buffer. The disregard for the pedestrian, or those who might choose to travel by bike, was utterly apparent outside the tourist district and the lush green Parque Ibirapuera. We had experienced first hand the dominance of the automobile while trying to walk to find a grocery store. The prospect of living in this city in an intimate, sustainable community seemed impossible.

sao paulo apt 2We were warned by locals to be wary of crime. “Don’t carry a purse or a bag- even in broad daylight.” “Be very careful if you go out after dark.” As a woman, I have learned to be extra cautious when traveling, because being pick-pocketed is one thing, but personal safety is not something I ever want to fear. My male friend shared his own cautions, as he was advised to hire bodyguards for his own protection. I was floored by this extreme- people seriously pay for this level of security?!?!– but I respected the genuine concerns for our safety. As a frequent traveler, I don’t think of myself as an easy target. I don’t carry bags. I keep my money split up and tucked discreetly in multiple places on my body. I don’t stare up in wonder while walking down the street admiring landmarks. and I don’t ever look at a map in public. I also don’t dress like a tourist. A foreigner, perhaps, but not a tourist.

So, on our last night here, we decided it was finally time to go out after dark. We had heeded the warnings, we felt like we were now more familiar with the culture and the city, to some extent, and we felt comfortable going out for a night on the town. Even my portuguese had improved significantly in just 10 days, since nobody speaks English (except the very rich and well educated, who were rarely the ones we were trying to ask directions from).

IMG_9860With a screenshot of the metro map saved on my phone, and a the names and addresses of a couple of restaurants and bar, we headed out early in the afternoon with nary a plan. There was a dance club, called Blitz Haus, that was supposedly a lesbian bar, which wouldn’t open until 8pm. Although we were prepared for it to be empty until well after our bedtime, we at least wanted to stay out late enough to see what it was like on a Saturday night in Sao Paulo. So, as the winter sun eased into the 5 o’clock hour, we looked for places to explore in the tween hours.

Along our travels, from Brazilian AirBnB guests who stayed with us in Indianapolis, to new friends we met on the flight to Brazil, we had been told that we might enjoy Augusta Avenue, and so that is where we started our adventure. We had walked part of it the day before, after turning south off Paulista Avenue, and found an average mix of local shops and restaurants, some touristy, some genuinely independent. Nothing stood out as particularly interesting. Tonight, after emerging from the metro station, we headed north.

11094334_928128867269738_6094179952429941875_nLong lines wrapped the sidewalks outside several vegetarian restaurants that we had read about and recognized the names of as we passed, and it was just after 5pm. I was surprised at how many more people were out tonight compared to during the day Friday. Vendors had set up along the streets to sell knock off DVDs and cheap sunglasses. We stopped at 4 or 5 tables so that Bethany could try on countless pairs of sunglasses to find a cheap and functional souvenir, with no luck. We decided to keep walking up Augusta a mile or so, so that we could see the dance club in daylight and decide if we would still feel safe going there at night.

Along the way, we finally saw another openly gay couple, which reassured us a little that we were in the right part of town. Although marriage has been legal in this country for two years longer than it has been in the United States, we have definitely felt people stare at us as we held hands down the street. It is a little surprising, in a culture where you greet everyone with a cheek-to-cheek kiss, that our affection would be so noticeable, but it certainly was.

While the shadows started to cover all parts of the buildings around us, ample light twinkled from storefronts and cafes, luring us onward. I heard a faint yet boisterous sound of music growing louder as we crossed another street. From the mid-block void between two large buildings, a beautiful scene emerged- laughter, lights, beats, and a bounty of colorful visual feasts. The alley was lined with carts and trucks and bicycles, each vending some narrow niche of edible delicacy, from Indian gyros to handmade chocolates. People streamed in and out of lines, and as I looked deeper into the narrow space, the alley flowed uphill and the joyous atmosphere continued.

11896216_928128817269743_2868753340446398802_nWe turned into the alley and flaneured our way to the top of the hill, where a handful of picnic tables were set out in front of a food truck specializing in alcohol. We decided that this was a perfect place to stop and take in the culture while we waited for the Blitz Haus to open. So we stopped. I ordered a Caipirinha sem açúcar, and Bethany was lucky to find that they had red wine. Everybody else drinks beer here, even in the chilly 80 degree days of winter. I could have spent hours there, watching, listening, reading the foreign yet familiar Portuguese signs and artwork.

11855825_928128653936426_5675676341151794366_nIt was rich with diversity, and intriguing to try to discern what everything meant. I watched the interactions of strangers, straining to hear what they were saying over the speakers that were streaming English songs from before I was born. I smiled gleefully when I was successful at understanding the general meaning of a sentence. The two of us were the only ones anywhere around speaking English, which was pretty much how our entire trip in Brazil went.

11855776_928129060603052_3474473024532461096_nA bit later, we joined a table with two Brazilian men who were also a couple. And they spoke English. We quickly found ourselves wrapped up in conversation and waxed philosophically about equality, human rights, and the healthcare systems here and afar. Into the darkness of the evening, we enjoyed the company of these two sweet souls, until it was finally time to keep wandering.




One response

7 11 2017
How to Choose Your Own Adventure: 6 Valuable Tips! | Travel Grrrls

[…] applying to present at international conferences. This strategy has taken me to Split, Croatia, Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Kandy, Sri Lanka! I go on my own dime, using vacation time, but now I can proudly list on my […]


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