I got an iPhone almost four years ago. I had switched over from a BlackBerry and was instantly a convert; within days I told Paul, ‘I love my iPhone’.
I filled it with all sorts of apps, in that excited way one gets when given an iTunes gift card (score!) after having spent the last two years with a trackball and a tiny screen. In those early days, I got a little bit carried away and downloaded all sorts of things. One that sounded like a great idea at the time was the CIA World Factbook.
I didn’t look at this app for ages, as things such as Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja seemed a much better use of my time. But one day my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to go and see what the CIA had in store.
Now, let me just tell you, this app is wonderful. It kinda changed my life. It has solved a million disputes, from verifying the capital of Cameroon to establishing the life expectancy of the Japanese. And, a couple of weeks before we left for Brazil, it left me amazed that the population of Sao Paulo was roughly the same as my entire country.
The neighbourhood in which we were staying – Villa Madalena – hardly gave away the fact that we were in the middle of a city of twenty million people, however. The hilly neighbourhood was full of quirky stores, cosy pubs and possibly the biggest spontaneous street party I’ve ever seen. We had been looking for somewhere for dinner when we came across it; it took over the entire street and surrounding area, and I still have no idea what it was all about. Brazil wasn’t playing. By all accounts (ie, the people at our hostel) it’s like that all the time.
We had a full day to explore Sao Paulo, with our other full day reserved for Holland vs Chile. As we’ve become prone to do, we ended up following the Lonely Planet’s walking tour route around the centre of the city. I can take or leave the Lonely Planet when it comes to restaurant, accommodation and sight recommendations (it raved about the Museum of the Republic in Rio de Janeiro, which we visited; you’d think that they would have mentioned that all of the exhibits were solely in Portuguese) but the walking tour suggestions are actually pretty good.
Sao Paulo was different to Rio, the city from which we’d just arrived. In Rio, the central business area seemed like an afterthought, with the beaches the main attraction, but in Sao Paulo it was all about the urban jungle. The city just seemed to stretch out forever, as far as the eye could see. We took it all in on the top of the Edificio Italia, a skyscraper that opened in 1965 yet still has retained a modern, classic look.
Not only was the view incredible, but I loved observing the others on the rooftop. Sao Paulo was an absolute magnet for immigrants in the mid-twentieth century and that means that today there’s sizeable Japanese, Lebanese and Italian communities, amongst many others. I’ll be talking about Liberdade, the Japanese district, in my next post but at the Edificio Italia it’s all about the Italians. Its tenants are largely Italian businesses and the rooftop is taken up by the Italian Social Club. Our visit coincided with one of their functions and the little old ladies seemed to be having a jolly good time.
On ground level, however, I didn’t really get the feeling of being in such a big city. It felt bustling and big, yes, but nothing like what I felt in megacities like Tokyo, Shanghai or Beijing. It had all the ingredients; the complex metro system, the skyscrapers and the traffic, but it lacked something else. Something Brazilian, perhaps. Something unique. Tokyo has Senso-ji and the Shibuya Crossing, Shanghai has the Bund and the Yuyuan Gardens and Beijing has the Forbidden City and Silk Street. From what I could see, Sao Paulo just had lots of buildings.
Some of those buildings were undeniably very pretty, I will give it that. That’s why we were perfectly happy spending a day wandering around and taking it all in. But Brazil these days has one of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies, and that means that people need to work. From what I could see, not many people were too interested in that in Rio. All the work was being done in Sao Paulo. The cities are only four hundred kilometres apart but in European terms, they may as well be as different as Frankfurt and Mykonos.
So we admired the skyscrapers. We filled ourselves up on Japanese, Chinese, Brazilian, Italian and Lebanese food. We peeked inside ornate baroque churches. We watched a great game of football at a pretty impressive (yet not quite finished) stadium. I bought homemade jewelry and Paul a whole lot of football shirts. All in all, a pretty good couple of days.
But it was on our last evening in town when I suddenly figured out what was missing from Sao Paulo. As had become the custom for us, we were looking for a bar to watch the last World Cup match of the day, Japan vs Colombia. We decided that we may as well get acquainted with another district of the city, so we headed out to the fancy-schmancy Avenue Paulista. We figured that there would be plenty of bars and cafes in amongst all the high-rises, but we were wrong. ‘What do you have to do to get a drink around here?’ groaned Paul as we passed yet another anonymous building filled with office workers dressed in black suits.
We walked for almost an hour down Brazil’s 5th Avenue and the only place we passed where we could get some sort of beverage was a Starbucks. Just before we were about to call it quits – we were going to chuck in the towel at the next metro station, we’d passed four of them – we finally came across a small strip of open-air bars. We sank into the chairs and ordered caipirinhas straight away, downing them as if they were solely water. As soon as the match was over, we headed back into the comfortable chaos of Villa Madalena. We liked it there.
I think if we had a local to show us around, we would have liked it more. That, and we were coming from Rio, a city we both fell in love with. And compared to Rio, and even Porto Alegre, the city had other things on its mind rather than solely the World Cup. It still had to endure the 9-5 while the rest of the country seemed fixated on solely watching football and then talking about football.
Don’t get me wrong, people were still very friendly; this was something that was the case during our entire visit to Brazil. We got completely lost in Villa Madalena at one stage and recruited two guys and their Google Maps to figure out where the hell we were. There was a lot more English spoken here than in Rio, which I wasn’t ready for either.
In Sao Paulo, you just have to delve a little deeper to find that Brazilian flavor to the city. There’s no giant mountaintop statue or picturesque beach which erases any doubt in your mind as to where you are. You may have to walk an hour to find an open air bar. But when you’re there, you might be treated to a random Japanese drumming parade on the nearby street, which was the case for us. You might turn around a corner and walk smack bang into a gigantic street party that exists just for the hell of it. And you might get into a lift in the Edificio Italia with a dozen others, and everyone chats together in Italian rather than the lingua franca.
It was these little surprises that will make me remember Sao Paulo. At the end of the day, it’s a city of twenty million people. Two days is hardly enough to get a true feel for the city. But from the little bit we saw, I was reminded that Brazil ain’t just Carnival, beaches and samba. It’s at least twenty million other things, too.