Published: October 24th 2012October 25th 2012
After the aquatic delights of Bonito, my next destination promises to be something of a shock to the system.
São Paulo, a city of rather frightening superlatives. The largest city in Brazil, a country of monster metropolises. The largest city in the Americas. The largest city in the Southern Hemisphere. One of the largest in the world. São Paulo, famously one of the most densely-built concrete jungles to be found anywhere. São Paulo, home to some of the world's longest traffic jams. Like I said, a bit of a shock to the system. São Paulo certainly doesn't have a reputation as one of Brazil's more interesting or beautiful cities - places like Rio and Salvador get those awards. Which might make my decision to spend two weeks there a little strange...at first.
A four-hour bus journey whisks me from Bonito to the state capital of Mato Grosso do Sul, Campo Grande. A large metropolis of three-quarters of a million people, Campo Grande is - rather surprisingly to me - home to Brazil's third largest Japanese community, many of them the descendents of Okinawan immigrants who settled last century. From a cluster of tropical islands scattered in the Pacific, a
thousand miles south of Tokyo, to a sweltering city perched on the edge of the Pantanal wetlands in deep inland Brazil...some change! Interestingly enough, my neighbour on the bus ride from Bonito is a third-generation Japanese-Brazilian lady, and a very talkative one at that. After getting over my initial (and obviously stupid) surprise at hearing rapid Brazilian Portuguese emanating from the mouth of someone who looked at if she'd just stepped off a Tokyo street, it was a very informative bus ride indeed. It was my first introduction to Brazil as an intensely multiethnic nation of immigrants from all over the world - a melting-pot just as varied as the United States, albeit a far less well-known one. From blond-haired, blue-eyed Germans in the southern state of Santa Catarina, to Japanese in the Mato Grosso, to the descendents of African slaves in Bahía, to Lebanese urbanites in São Paulo, Brazil is indeed one mesmerizing mix. And nowhere in Brazil is this more obvious than São Paulo.
A nice comfortable overnight bus takes me across a thousand kilometres of southern Brazilian plains from Campo Grande to that megalopolis of the Americas. São Paulo's famous concrete jungle is not, strangely, very
much in evidence as I approach from the west - I know it's there though! I've had the incredible good luck of finding a real-life Paulistana
, as the residents of this city call themselves, to stay with during my fortnight here - having friends and acquaintances scattered over the globe is rather useful! Cris, an English language teacher living in a lovely flat perched high above the rather swanky neighbourhood of Perdizes, will be providing me with a home away from home during my time here - in addition to acting as a 24-hour-a-day Portuguese tutor. After nearly a year of swanning around Spanish-speaking South America, the Portuguese I so diligently spent a year learning in Oxford needs a bit of tune-up...
São Paulo, as I've mentioned before, has a reputation - as a grey, polluted, crime-ridden concrete jungle. Well, if the city has taught me anything, it's to completely ignore reputation
. "Don't judge a book by its cover" is a phrase that could have been designed to describe this incredible city. Yes, it is a place of wide motorways, abominable traffic and extraordinary vertical explanses of concrete. It is also one of the most cosmopolitan, sophisticated and friendly
cities I have ever visited. Paulistanos famously complain about their city - but leaving it would be out of the question. Sampa
- to use the city's nickname - has enough museums, galleries, cultural centres, theatres and cinemas to keep you busy every day of the year. Restaurants to make you wish you had three stomachs. Bars, samba clubs and music venues where you can feast on Brazilian music - some of the world's best and most varied - until your ears buzz.
São Paulo's neighbourhoods are incredibly, compellingly varied. The city's traditional centre and financial district is a maze of narrow pedestrian streets overlooked by immense skyscrapers, giving it the distinct look of a South American Manhattan. Liberdade is an overwhelmingly Japanese neighbourhood, with soba
restaurants, Asian groceries and elderly shopkeepers reading the Yomiuri Shimbun
perched on chairs outside their premises. Jardins, one of the city's poshest and most expensive areas, brims with stylish condos and shops to make Bond Street look like a cheap strip-mall. Pinheiros, stacked with edgy bars and umpteen music venues. In a place the size of Sampa, every bairro
is a city of its own. Getting between them - as long as you're
not foolish enough to try it at rush-hour - is not the nightmare I imagined it would be, thanks to a modern and efficient bus and metro network.
My secret weapons during my stay are, of course, Inez and Cris - there's nothing like having bona fide, real-life Paulistano
guides to really get to know São Paulo. And - are far as it's possible to "get to know" a city of twenty million
souls in the space of two weeks - I feel like I do. Well, a bit. To label Sampa a "concrete jungle" might be literally accurate - but with its gorgeous food, gorgeous music and gorgeous people (I'll say this: I don't think I've ever seen people more obsessed with their appearance than Paulistanos, although I have a feeling that Rio's Cariocas
will trump them shortly) São Paulo is more, a lot more.
There are more photos below