When I tell people that I’m going to Brazil they tend to get pretty excited. In the popular imagination Brazil seems to conjure up images of beautiful people enjoying beautiful sunshine on beautiful beaches.
“So, you’re going to Rio?”, they ask. Well, actually, no. I’m going to São Paulo.
São Paulo, which tends to be associated more with skyscrapers and traffic. While it certainly has a lot of both of these things, there is an awful lot more to Brazil’s largest city.
Here, I share a few thoughts on São Paulo, both good and bad.
São Paulo has a well-earned reputation for good food. As a vegetarian, I can’t give you the low-down on the meat or the many churrascarias in the city. What I can tell you, however, is how god-damn delicious the fruit is.
I never tire of fruit and fruit juice in South America. Brazil is no exception. Fruits like mango, papaya and watermelon – which are often bland in England – are absolute joys in Brazil.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, finding vegetarian food in São Paulo is not a particularly difficult endeavour. Buffets where you weigh your food before purchase are pretty popular, and you can always find a range of salads, beans, rice and potatoes.
As I’ve been to São Paulo for business, a lot of my time has been spent in the main business districts. Here, the landscape is dominated by impressive and imposing skyscrapers. Between them amble well-dressed men and women on their way to work.
As noted, São Paulo is a good destination for foodies. Indeed, here you can find plenty of fancy restaurants. With them often come steep price tags, suited to the more affluent citizens of São Paulo.
I’ve been amazed by some of the grand houses I’ve seen in certain residential areas, always located back from a tree-lined street, safe and secure behind high walls. The tall walls – and the CCTV which keeps a constant watch on the houses and entrances – tell you a lot about the contrast between the rich and the poor.
In São Paulo, poverty is clear, and it is everywhere. It is common to see people sleeping under underpasses next to busy roads or digging through trash cans.
In England, poverty often isn’t so visible. Sure, you see homeless people begging on the streets of London before the police come and “move them on”. But you don’t tend to see lives lived on the streets.
Although slums, or favelas, are often associated with Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo has a huge number of favelas. The country as a whole is one of the most unequal in terms of wealth distribution. This shocking contrast between rich and poor, explicitly visible throughout the city, stunned me.
Here is something incredibly important which should not be underplayed: in São Paulo, people often smile while they talk.
They smile while they talk. This is something that I absolutely adore. And you can hear it when they speak.
I’m a smiley person myself. Smiling is a universal language, and whether I’m home or abroad I tend to smile a lot, including whilst talking.
As a clarification here, I am not one of those people who seem to have perfected a beautiful smile. You know the type: not too much, not too little, just looking pleasant and attractive. Not me. I tend to go all out. Too much teeth, I think. I try to tone it down sometimes in certain, less-friendly cities where people don’t smile, out of fear that I look a bit mad. In São Paulo, this is not necessary – people smile all the time.
Brazilians have a reputation for being happy and positive. This is a stereotype that I found quite accurate in many cases. Even during business meetings, discussing Brazil’s current political and economic situation, people often focused on the positives and discussed opportunities, not just limitations.
I’ve been to São Paulo twice, both during February. This of course is summertime in the Southern Hemisphere. What this also means in São Paulo is rain.
And in São Paulo, when it rains, it pours.
Interestingly, it seems that this was not always the case. While reading up on São Paulo’s year-round climate in preparation for this post, I found a lot of references to São Paulo as a drizzly city. Times are changing, it seems, as drizzle seems to be reducing and intense rain and storms increasing. If you’re interested, I found this site quite useful.
People tend to think of England as a rainy place. And in many ways it is. However, in England we really do get a lot of drizzle: naff, light rain that lasts all day and makes you feel like you’re consistently being pissed on. (Interestingly, that’s a metaphorical feeling you could use to describe how you feel mentally and spiritually each day you live in England too, but I digress…)
The rain in São Paulo truly is immense. Thunderstorms are fairly common in the afternoons during January and February. These can cause mayhem in the streets, with roads often flooding quickly once the heavy rains start.
The street art
I will end by commenting on what I consider to be São Paulo’s most stunning feature; its street art.
Gigantic works of art adorn the outside of buildings, garage doors and underpasses across the city. We are not just talking names or tags. We are talking grand murals, imaginative and often political and rebellious images.
Beco do Batman (Batman Alley) is a must-see spot for anybody interested in street art. Situated in the beautiful Vila Madelana neighbourhood, the alleyway is covered in some remarkable works of art.
Lured by the bold splashes of colour and images, it could be tempting to immediately get out your phone or camera and start snapping images of every corner. If you take the time to look closer at each piece and inspect all of its elements, though, you’ll be able to discover and appreciate a lot of meaning and emotion behind the art.
A strong and stunning form of expression, street art is one of the boldest and often most controversial forms of art. It can tell you a lot about a city, and São Paulo’s street art really showcases the creativity and talent of many of its citizens.
Aside from Vila Madelana, other great places to see art include Pinheiros and Cambuci. Wherever you are, though, you’re bound to come across plenty.
Overall, São Paulo has its pros and cons. While it might never top the list of places to visit in Brazil, it definitely shouldn’t be written off either.