Making Sense of São Paulo

If Rio is Brazil's face, São Paulo is its soul—and much of the credit for this goes to the large-hearted, fashion-forward Paulistas.  
Sao Paulo
São Paulo has its own fashion week, and Paulistas dress to impress, whether they are out shopping, running errands, or sweating it out in the gym. Photo by: Fabiana Matuck/moment/Getty Images

Brazil is huge. But all everyone ever keeps talking about is Rio,” grumbles Bruno. Dressed in a crisp business suit, the young Brazilian has just knocked back his third beer. Awaiting our connecting flights at Dubai’s loyalty lounge we have hit it off, more so after I tell him that I have travelled extensively across his country. His interest piqued, his ranting intensifies.

“My country has so much to offer. Won’t you agree? But our government is lazy. It only wants to promote Rio,” he laments, now occupying the bar stool next to me. As a solo traveller wiling away hours at an airport lounge, my commitment to his monologue is 200 per cent. “Where in Brazil are you from?” I finally prod, intrigued. “Florianopolis”, he replies, loud and proud. The island city of Florianopolis, dotted with pristine white sand beaches, is about 725 kilometres southwest of Rio. It is an up-and-coming party destination, and yet it’s recognition as a Brazilian hotspot has not been up to Bruno’s satisfaction.

Two hours later, as Bruno and I hug and part ways, I mull over his drunken diatribe. Strangely, I do see some merit in it. Of the five months I was in Brazil, three were spent in São Paulo alone, and, just like Bruno, many Paulistas fail to fathom why Rio always gets the lion’s share. As a FIFA volunteer I stayed in São Paulo longer than any regular tourist, and when I look back, one thing is writ large: If Rio is Brazil’s face, São Paulo is its soul.

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Street art (top) is all the rage in the city, and is often used to make political statements. Virada Cultural, a 24-hour fest held every May, features mid-air musical gigs (bottom). Photos by: Anadolu Agency/Contributor/Getty Images (installation); AFP/Stringer/Getty Images (musician)

Brazil is 2.5 times the size of India and just as multi-ethnic. Still, all that the country is associated with is football, samba and Rio. Compared to Rio—the country’s cultural capital thanks to the world’s collective attention on Copacabana—and the political capital Brasilia, São Paulo does get a bit of a raw deal. This matters because Sampa, as it is lovingly called, is not only the largest and most-populous city in the Southern Hemisphere but it is also the economic nerve of Brazil and the whole of Latin America. Its two international airports, Guarulhos and Campinas, also make it the continent’s busiest aviation hub.

São Paulo is charming for several other reasons too, that is once you ignore some shortcomings. Its metro network is infantile and yet to service all pockets of the city, and the bus service leaves ample room for bickering. Still, Sampa keeps moving, two steps forward, one step back, just like its beloved dance form, samba. There is a magic that flows through São Paulo’s bustling neighbourhoods of Rua Augusta and Avenida Paulista, its crammed alleyways, packed football stadiums, and the fans who occupy them. In my interactions with locals—at a house party in the upmarket Pinheiros neighbourhood; in a friendly football game with some blue- and white-collar executives that ended in a poolside barbecue; during a pub crawl with a lesbian couple in Perdizes—one thing became crystal clear: Paulistas are a hard-working lot. But they love to celebrate too, raising toasts at the drop of the hat, and for that any alcohol will do. Beer here, much to my amusement, is had in glasses in which I sip cutting chai back home. The calories gained the previous night are diligently burnt the next morning. Gyms—there is one around every street corner—are all the rage here. Ditto for beach bodies.

Unlike Rio’s Christ the Redeemer or the Sugarloaf Mountain, São Paulo is not synonymous with any marquee monument. Of course its cathedral, amongst the world’s five largest neo-Gothic churches, impresses and intimidates, as does its first skyscraper, the 30-storeyed Martinelli Building. But what truly makes the city the energetic mess that it is are its people. They work hard, party harder, and are always in good spirits. Clubs such as Casa 92 in Pinheiros and Vila Mix in Vila Olimpia are as good as any nightclub in New York, London or Paris. During summer, the Ibirapuera Park (designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer as an improvement on NYC’s Central Park) remains open all night long on weekends, welcoming people of all ages to camp, play games, work out, or simply chill.

São Paulo probably has as many malls as it does street markets. I spent hours exploring both. In the swanky Shopping Eldorado mall in Pinheiros, luxury brands lord over high-street labels, and fine dining restaurants and trendy cafés vie for shoppers’ attention. For fresh fruits and cheap knock-offs of football jerseys, I often found myself on a metro en route to the street market at Rua 25 de Marco and Mercado Municipal near Luz station. Another very interesting street market here is the one that pops up every Saturday at Praça Benedito Calixto near Clinicas metro station. From home-made ice creams and handmade jewellery to vintage records and gramophones, you can find everything here. There is, of course, delicious food too which is sometimes dispensed from a car’s boot, like booze in Delhi.

Go anywhere in São Paulo and the love of Paulistas for their pets is palpable—on the streets, inside malls, gyms, parks, cafés and even hotels. On several occasions, I spotted locals scanning bookshelves and clothes racks with one hand while the other loving held on to a leash.

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For a wholesome São Paulo experience, a walk through one of the city’s favelas (left) is a must, as is savouring dessert pizzas (right). Photos by: Camilla Watson/AWL Images/Getty Images (child); Stepien, Malgorzata/Getty Images (food)

As a FIFA volunteer, I met many crazy football fans, and almost everyone in Brazil is one. Ironically, nothing divides the city as strongly as the sport. Corinthians is the city’s most popular club with fans mainly from low-income groups. Their biggest rivals are Palmeiras, the club of the middle class Paulistas, who play in their own stadium, Allianz Park, which opened in November 2014, the same year Brazil hosted the World Cup. The super-rich have their own São Paulo FC and a stadium, Morumbi. Rivalries between clubs and fans run deep—deep enough to break homes and divide families. But when the Brazilian team plays internationally, all club affiliations are swiftly forgotten. It’s Brazil over all else.

Apart from football, São Paulo also takes its art seriously. There is so much street art splashed everywhere that I could barely do it justice. Most of the artwork is political, only some merely ornamental. One of the best places to see graffiti in São Paulo is under the flyovers and on facades that mark the beginning of Avenida Paulista, the city’s central business hub full of glitzy high-rises. For those who love graffiti, the place to be is Batman Alley is, the winding by-lane in the trendy Vila Madalena neighbourhood. Walls on either side are splashed with colours deep and dark, bold and bright. Vila Madalena was also the venue for the loudest street parties during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. But even today tourists throng here to browse through chic fashion boutiques, trendy gift shops and artisanal cafés. Most of them wind up the night at a club or a samba bar. Bar Samba, just a few metres from Batman Alley, is ideal to enjoy live samba performances even though the food and drinks here are steeply priced.

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Right since its inception in 1554, the city’s infectious energy has attracted people from all over the world, making São Paulo one of Latin America’s most cosmopolitan and culturally diverse cities. Up until the late 1800s, European bureaucrats and African labourers flocked here by the boatful. In the early 20th century, many Japanese migrated here. Today, São Paulo is home to about one lakh Japanese—the largest population outside Japan. More recently, Chinese businessmen are setting shop here. The city is indeed like a melting pot, turning flavourful with the addition of newer and newer ingredients. What is amazing is that there are no identity clashes, and everyone draws from the collective cultural cache. Paulistas date and marry across ethnic, religious and racial lines. I befriended Gabi, a graphic designer whose father is Japanese, mother Brazilian, and girlfriend has roots in England. The by-product of this diversity is tolerance. A direct impact of this is apparent in how common and acceptable it is to wear your sexuality on your sleeve. When two men, two women, or a man and a woman indulge in PDA, it’s not frowned upon. In fact, many queer bars populate the Republica area in central São Paulo.

The integration of different nationalities is reflected in the city’s food. Japanese influence shows in the sheer number of sushi joints. But for those who’d rather savour local delicacies, the list is long and the good news is that you can gorge on scrumptious Brazilian fare as much on the streets as you can inside fancy establishments. There are certain dishes you absolutely cannot miss. Feijoada (black bean stew cooked with meat and served with rice), coxinha (deep-fried conical potato croquets with meat filling), and the pao de queijo (cheese bread) are extremely popular and droolworthy. The city also does cocktails well. The locally brewed cachaca, a rum-like spirit made from sugarcane, is a must-drink. For the famed, fruity caipirinhas, waste no time and head straight to Veloso Bar in Vila Mariana. All caipirinhas, mixed with real fruits, are wonderful here and yet, the one to die for is the seasonal Jabuticaba caipirinha, made from a local Brazilian berry. Everyone should also remember to relish all things acai—the berry is had plain, in ice cream, inside granola bars. Strange as it may sound, São Paulo also takes immense pride in its pizzas. What’s stranger? Some of the most interesting pizzas here are dessert pizzas, with toppings such as banana and condensed milk, strawberry and chocolate sauce, and pineapple, chocolate and cheese.

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The University of São Paulo’s infrastructure, like its swimming pool (bottom left), is top-notch; A trip to any street market here is a treat for the senses, especially when chunky sausages and fresh cheese blocks are on display (top left); The city is adorably pet-friendly, and it shows (right). Photos by: Yann Arthus-Bertrand/Getty Images (pool), Getty Images (market), FernandoPodolski/iStock Unreleased/Getty Images (street)

Now, the city doesn’t have a carnival but its cultural calendar is rich and varied. São Paulo is home to the continent’s biggest and most famous fashion week, the São Paulo Fashion Week. Every May the city also hosts Virada Cultural, a 24-hour extravaganza featuring top-notch Brazilian artistes (picture pianists playing Mozart mid-air). Casa das Caldeiras is another venue that hosts several interesting events through the year. The abandoned 1920s-era industrial plant was repurposed into a performance and fine arts space. I attended a gig here where a poet performed in the main hall, a street band took stage in the adjoining garden, and a DJ played in the basement. That evening was definitely amongst my best in Brazil.

The city is also an education hub, attracting students and academicians from far and wide. Result? The presence of students and their egalitarian ideals leave their mark on the city by way of round-the-year protests. Most campaigns are centred on demanding better lives and facilities for the poor. In 2014, the year when Brazil hosted the World Cup and, in 2016, when it hosted the Summer Olympics, there were several protests to contest public money being pumped into constructing swanky stadiums. Of these, the biggest were organised in São Paulo, resulting in traffic snarls that lasted over eight hours. These protests are a sign of hope at a time when the country’s government and its leaders are embroiled in a series of corruption scandals.

While Brazil has set up its political capital in Brasilia and Rio is its de facto cultural capital, São Paulo has continued to grow in stature, both as a business centre and an education hub. This growth has come at a cost, though. The divide between the rich and poor is staggering. While the affluent take choppers to avoid São Paulo’s infamous traffic, making all distances a matter of minutes, the poor spend at least five hours on commute. The less-privileged have been demanding better transport facilities, lobbying for metro connectivity to their far-flung neighbourhoods. The rich, on their part, have successfully protested against the metro reaching their doorstep.

Sao Paul, then, is most definitely a sum of its contradictions. And yet there is some semblance in the midst of all the chaos. The city’s people work hard, protest harder, and they know how to let off some steam and move on—the cachaca helps.

I landed in São Paulo a stranger, I left a lover.

  • Shrenik Avlani is a newsroom veteran on a break from full-time work since 2012. He uses his newfound freedom to travel, get fit and undertakes odd jobs, including writing, to pay his credit card bills on time.

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