At the very mention of Brazil, you’d be excused if your mind is suddenly filled with vividly stereotypic images of tanned, chiselled, ripped-torsoed male-models in fluorescent, eye-popping Copacabana Speedos. Well at least mine is, but then I’m a bit like that. My shallowness aside, Brazil also conjures up an image of tropical paradise, swaying palms, white sand, samba music, sensual dancing – a place where you’ll fall in love over and over again, with literally everyone and everything.
Now mention Sao Paulo and at first you’ll draw a blank. This inland city really isn’t an easy one to describe and I can tell you for certain that it doesn’t play into the stereotype. Sao Paulo is really unlike anywhere else in Brazil, or the world for that matter. When I wax lyrical about what is sizeably the world’s third largest city, people often ask me what it is that makes it so different. At first I search my mind for the obvious: its size, sprawl and its offering of something for literally everyone. But then, when I took the time to look deeper, I discovered that it is actually the people and spirit of this city that makes it stand out.
There’s a real sense of pride to be “local”. And to get down with the locals, you have to become a ‘Paulistano’ – pronouncing the city name as ‘Sam Paulo’ – and then shortening it to ‘Sampa’. And remember it’s a Paulistano that you want to be, not a ‘Paulista’; there’s a difference – the former meaning that you’re from the city itself and the latter meaning you’re from the greater Sao Paulo state – it’s like the difference between a Manhattanite and a New Yorker. Get this wrong and you’ll be on the fringe of society, not just the city.
But let’s get physical for just a second, to set the scene. Sao Paulo is no oil painting. In fact, I would dare say (at risk of losing my honourary Paulistano status) that it is one of the ugliest cities that I’d ever fallen for – a concrete rainforest, with skyscrapers pushing above the canopy, complete with patience-trying traffic, overcrowding and general ‘third-world’ capital-city chaos. And I say ‘third-world’ lightly, because Sao Paulo and with that, Brazil in general, is rapidly on the up. Sampa has become the 10th most expensive city in the world to live – beating both London and New York. With a youthful and upwardly-moving middle class, there is a glut of capitalism, some would say of the bad kind – but to some degree, I think this makes it more accessible and exciting for visitors than ever before. However, you’ll need to stuff your Dunhill bi-fold with some serious currency (Reals) to enjoy the city to the max.
This should not put you off. I’m going on record to say that I love Sampa, with a passion. Perhaps there’s something in the smoggy air clouding my judgement, but I think that the ugliness is actually what makes it beautiful. Beyond its modernity and colonial guilt, there’s an energy transcending its aesthetics, perhaps the lovechild of its inherent physical ugliness, bred with creativity, curiosity and open-mindedness – where decadence challenges traditional values, where there’s an insatiable thirst for pleasure, where cultures collide. It’s just exciting.
What I absorbed immediately was the city’s spirit, particularly as its sight-seeing isn’t really much cop. But then again, great sightseeing is a matter of definition and if people watching is your thing, Sampa is not short of its own unique sights. The racial mix of Sampa is unrivaled in Latin America and I was surprised to find that Paulistanos come in all colours and sizes – meaning that an Asian visitor like me actually blends in with the everyday hustle and bustle. When I travel to most places outside Asia, I’m usually talked at slow and loud – or in English of some local variety. Not here. In Sampa, conversations open in Portuguese.
“Oi! Tudo Bem, Japa”
This noise may at first sound weird to the untrained ear, but actually is somewhat affectionate. You see, most Paulistanos would assume that I’m of Japanese heritage as the largest community of Japanese people outside Japan is found in this city. This is over three quarters of a million inhabitants of pure Japanese descent (albeit with a Latino temperament) – not to mention the new generations of mixed raced ‘Nippo-Brasileiros’ – a melting pot indeed. There’s a very interesting reason as to why this is, that I won’t go into, but it makes great trivia – and I found the answer I needed at the JAPANESE MUSEUM OF IMMIGRATION in the district of Liberdade.Walking through Liberdade really summed up Sao Paulo’s attitude to race. It’s a hotpot of all things Asian plus some other cultures for added flavour. At first I thought I’d wandered into a some crazy ‘one-world’ theme park, but this is the real thing – Brazil’s infamous cultural integration model come true, set in a landscape of ‘as far as the eye can see’ concrete high-rise towers and suspended cable lines.
On exploring the city further, I found that the spirit of Liberdade extended to many other districts. I’m a real foodie, and I found myself in eateries of all kinds throughout Sampa, including many creative outlets offering the currently fashionable buzz that is ‘fusion cuisine’ – although I have to turn my nose up at cream cheese in sushi; it’s just wrong on every level. But in seeking out the very best of Paulistano food, my tastebuds were enriched with flavours like pastel, grilled meats, feijoada, bachalau and mortadella, washed down with ice-cold chopp (draft beer) or a caipirinha, or ten.
“Caipirinha ou Caipirioska?”
The ‘bicha’ at the gay bar will shout this over the bar to you. Paulistanos traditionally have a drinking palette limited to beer or their national cocktail made out of that potentially blinding sugarcane spirit, Cachaca. But as the middle classes rise, you’ll hear this bar call more and more often, as luxury vodka or in some cases Japanese sake is used as the base spirit, just another one of those weird cultural fusions. Throughout my time in the city, I’d learnt that you can only ride the Paulistano wave if you go old-school. So the answer to this question is always “Bicha, um caipirinha com Nego Fulo!” or some other local Cachaca of choice.
Drink one of these and you’ll believe that you’re fluent in Portuguese, but you’ll only really be limited to the words of a Michel Telo song. Two, and you’re ready to take on the locals at samba dancing with a massive, unashamed grin on your face. Three – well the boys will be screaming “Aloka!” (that roughly translates as ‘crazy bitch’) at you whilst you dance the ‘Bate Cabelo’. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of catching a drag show in Brazil, it has a basic pattern – she launches onto stage in one outfit, lipsynchs to Porto-pop or Madonna for a bit, starts stripping down to a bikini, takes her elaborate diamante headpiece off and starts whipping her hair up a storm, round and round, faster and faster. When she’s done, and seriously dripping in sweat, she’ll pull her wig off to show she is a man. Trust me, after a big caipirinha drinking session, you’ll be doing the same – I’m speaking from experience.
For kicks, giggles and to satiate my interest in gay people-watching, I found myself sipping caipirinhas in the gay and gay friendly venues around Avenida Paulista.
Taking in the surrounding areas of Rua Frei Caneca and Rua Augusta, I found a wonderful collection of hang-outs to suit every taste; from exclusive members-club like venues where you’ll find coiffured, pedicured, sculpted and gymmed ‘boy barbie dolls’ ; to coffee bars and restaurants frequented by the black polo-neck wearing, thick-rimmed bespectacled queer intelligentia of the arty and trendy Villa Magdelena. From the midweek silent-discos rammed by skinny-jean clad, bearded hipsters of the up-and-coming bohemian San Cecilia neighbourhood; to the infamous down and dirty meat-markets where students and blue-collar singles come to mingle, fuelled by super-strong 2 for 1 drink offers. They all come for the laissez-faire attitude here, brought together by their sexual orientation and quest for love, although many will probably first experience it in one of the ubiquitous ‘love motels’ in the area.
What I do take from my time here, is that the scene is a strong and very community-driven one, which is really refreshing to find in such a big city. You’ll find the biggest Gay Pride carnival in the world here, with a sea of people swarming Avenida Paulista each year, attracting nearly 4 million revellers. But outside this gay neighbourhood, it seems that gay people are integrated into many of the other districts, each with its own bars and clubs. I’m sure that being gay is not without its struggles in this predominantly Catholic city, but on the surface it seems as though the mainstream is accepting and tolerant of gay people.
Uwern stayed at Hotel Unique, arguably Sao Paulo’s most designer hotel.