Sao Paulo is said to be the eleventh or twelfth largest city on earth and is reported to be the largest population centre in the southern hemisphere, so staying for a week and saying you have been to Sao Paulo is something of an overstatement.
Sao Paulo also apparently has the largest GDP of any southern hemisphere city (these figures are from Wikipedia, hence 11th or 12th and apparently). Basically the place is vast and very wealthy, but that wealth does not appear to have been translated into public infrastructure. There are fantastically modern high rise apartment blocks and shopping centres but the roads and streets away from the major routes are pretty poorly repaired and uneven. And when it rains the drains simply cannot cope and gutters overflow into raging torrents! Electricity lines and telephone wires are strung from telegraph poles throughout, and some look like someone has dropped a huge bowl of spaghetti on them, spaghetti which will fall into the street when the cable ties break. The over riding feature of buildings here is ‘Security’. High walls and fences, topped with razor wire or electric fences and secure underground carparks; even residential suburban streets have the look of industrial estates with houses built behind strong walls with strong garage doors. There are also plenty of trees lining the streets and in some of the more affluent areas the greenery softens the fortress impression slightly. On the opposite end of the scale alongside the motorways and in poorer areas of town there is a vast amount of graffiti, although it can be difficult to tell where the murals end and the graffiti starts, and vice versa – you would never spot a ‘Banksy’. There are also tented encampments under some flyovers. Basically, for such an allegedly wealthy city, Sao Paulo is not an attractive place, and in places it is down right ugly.
Traffic congestion is the other major ‘feature’ of the city. The sheer volume of traffic is only to be expected for the world’s 11th largest city but the road system simply can’t cope and there is simply no space for new roads. All this has the effect of reducing traffic to speeds for everyone except motorcycles. These are ridden by people who should have the life expectancy of a First World War machine gunner and have no appreciation of the laws of physics – they ride around hooting their horns to warn of their approach, unaware that sound only travels at 750 mph – by the time you hear the horn they are long gone!
We were staying with Harmen and Fatima in the Jardim Paulista area of town, one of the nicer parts, but as soon as we set off for our first walk out to lunch we were reminded not to wear anything valuable and carry a minimum of cash – so walk to the restaurant was made with a certain apprehension. I’m not going to say it was misplaced, a certain amount of caution is never a bad thing, but we made an entire week without any concerns; Jardim is a business area and no one seemed unduly concerned about not using mobile phones or wearing watches! The only reminder of the need for caution was getting into a bank to get to a cash machine, only marginally easier than getting through airport security!
But to more important matters. Food. There is a type of restaurant here called the Kilo, a buffet style restaurant which sells food by weight, in the order of R$50 (£12) for a kilo of anything you want. I am not sure you can actually eat a kilo of food for lunch but it is a brilliant idea and there is always the worry of facing the scales when you have made your selection – and if you aren’t particularly hungry you haven’t got to scour the menu for a starter or side dish to nibble on! The main business street in Sao Paulo is the Avenida Paulista. This is the financial centre of town and the home to the Sao Paulo Stock Market and various embassies, but again, even with the shiny buildings it is far from attractive. There are old buildings which should really be restored or preserved but which have been left to rot, and half demolished buildings which appear to have been left half demolished; the graffiti on these dates them! However; on Sundays Avenida Paulista is closed to traffic and is turned into a ‘promenade’ with market stalls and sound stages dotted around and it was pleasant to wander around looking at all the crafts on offer and generally soaking up the atmosphere.
Before we arrived in Brasil I had managed to break two pairs of Havaianas in as many weeks and so when Valeria’s friends gave us Havaianas as a Christmas present I was well pleased; unfortunately the size was wrong so we had to go shopping! Havianas are basically fancy flip flops and until a number of years ago they were only worn by people who couldn’t afford real shoes; now they are a world wide brand which has grown into clothing, accessories and even wellington boots.
As this is where Valeria grew up she was effectively coming home and so we spent time visiting some of her old friends, meals out and generally socialising. It was really good to see Fatima and Harmen again and we appreciated their hospitality immensely. But now it is time to make our way down to Santos, which lies on the coast some 70 km from Sao Paulo, where we’re going to stay with Dona Ermida.