In Sao Paulo, Uwern Jong discovers there’s more to Brazil than its picture-perfect beaches and oh-so-attractive locals.
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.
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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.