Sao Paulo is the most populous city in Brazil, in the Americas, in the Southern and Western Hemisphere and is the 10th largest city in the World. Sao Paulo is the capital of the State of Sao Paulo, which is Brazil’s most populous and wealthiest state. When you walk the streets of Sao Paulo you see an enormous amount of wealth, especially around the Jardins district, but that’s not to say you don’t see poverty because you do and an awful lot of it, but what struck me the most in this city was how the very rich would be right next door to the extreme poor. During my 6 months in Brazil, Sao Paulo was my base and The Renaissance hotel my home, situated at the top of a hill on the corner of Rua Haddock Lobo and Alameda Santos. This was a wealthy part of the city and within walking distance to fine restaurants and the designer shops on Rua Oscar Freire.
When I pictured my imminent Brazilian adventure I envisioned blue skies, hot temperatures and a country where the sun always shone. However when I landed in Sao Paulo at the start of August after a lengthy eleven hour flight, I had a rather rude awakening. The sun definitely wasn’t shining and the blue sky… well it was grey with the temperature at a cool 15 degrees. Being driven into the centre of Sao Paulo at the height of rush hour I had an hour or so to think about my serious lack of warm clothes missing from my crammed full suitcases. Staring out the window with a mixture of excitement and anticipation everything just looked bleak!
The ‘arrival’ weather aside, the climate wasn’t so bad, although sometimes you couldn’t tell it was sunny because of the thick blanket of smog that embraced the city every day. You could see this grey haze as you looked across the city just lingering. It took a really blazing hot day for the sun to burn through the smog, and when it did, it was gloriously hot.
Sao Paulo in 2011 wasn’t the safest of cities and I didn’t venture out the hotel on foot many times alone, as I didn’t feel overly safe. On a weekly basis you would hear the British Airways cabin crew (who stayed at the Renaissance) saying how at least one of them had been the victim of pick pocketing. So the watch came off, along with my earrings and other bits of jewellery and they stayed securely in the safe for the duration of my stay. When I did venture out the hotel, I never carried a bag, just a credit card and some notes stashed in my bra and a few coins in my pocket. Walking the streets of Sao Paulo was a real eye opener, the area in which I stayed was wealthy and consisted of Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Rolex shops, but you couldn’t wander down the street without getting harassed for money, and around the next corner would be a shabby, graffiti covered, empty building with a homeless man perched in the doorway. I witnessed locals moving home and saw the removal men standing guard by the lorry with sizeable guns in their hands. When women arrived in restaurants, they would sit down and then dress themselves in their jewellery whilst the waiters would use a cable tie to secure their handbags to their chairs.
On the first weekend in Sao Paulo I went to the urban park known as Parque do Ibirapuera, it covers almost 2 square kilometres. This is the biggest park in Sao Paulo and one of the few green areas you will come across. It is the ‘garden’ to most Paulistano’s at the weekend. Although it gets very busy it’s also an island of peace amongst the chaotic streets and traffic jams of the city. It houses everything from kids’ parks, to lakes, statues, skater nooks, to concert halls and basketball courts. The young to the very old come here, to hang out, keep fit or take a leisurely stroll, which is exactly what I did. The large lakes are filled with fish and adorned with various geese and ducks. I felt perfectly safe here despite being advised against visiting here as a gringo.
On one cold weekend (I honestly would have worn gloves if I’d possessed a pair) I visited the Botanical Gardens on the outskirts of the city. I took a taxi to the location, which was a shocking experience driving through some rather dubious looking areas; real Brazilian Favelas. In hindsight this wasn’t the best thought out plan as getting a taxi back proved rather challenging and meant waiting outside the entrance to the park for an hour or so on the off chance a taxi drove past. Luckily, after sometime I managed to flag one down – good job too as the thought of having to head back through the slums on foot would not have been a wise move, and for sure I would have been saying goodbye to my camera!
I imagine once upon a time the Botanical Gardens may have been very popular and opulent, or maybe it was just an expensive scheme of the government that soon got cut. The garden features imposing paved stairways, great ponds with water fountains, artistic statues and a large green house sheltering tropical flowers. However impressive it once must have been, it now has the feel of an abandoned and forgotten land – with moss growing on the stairways, little water in the ponds and plants over growing. If it stayed like this, and you stumbled across it in years to come, it would be like finding ancient amazon ruins in the middle of the jungle. I presume because of the garden’s location it hardly ever got any visitors and therefore just fell into a state of repair. It did though have a very magical appeal to it, and not just because I was the only visitor there that day, but you could visualise coming here as a child and dreaming up some magical adventure were your imagination could just run wild. I wonder if 6 years later the gardens have improved or if my visualisation has come true?!?! I was fortunate enough during my trip here to see my first monkey in the wild in Brazil, a howler monkey climbing through the canopy high above my head. It made my day!
Where I may be painting a rather grey picture of Sao Paulo, looking back through my photographs I was reminded of sudden hidden gems. There are small green parks dotted about the city, each with there own interesting historic statues, among the high rises you will find a quaint little house that has some how stood the test of time and there are hints of jungle life around the city where large roots have uplifted the pavements and plants with inch long thorns can be seen. The city boasts a very impressive equestrian centre, Sociedale Hipica Paulista (if you can afford it) and also the jockey club where you can venture for some weekend entertainment for a spot of horse racing. There are also a large number of art galleries to visit.
I quickly fell in love with the food in Brazil. The fine restaurants in Sao Paulo served fabulous steak and fish dishes. My favourite restaurant was down the hill of Rua Haddock Lobo called the Figueira Rubaiyat – A large elegant restaurant where you get to eat outdoors, indoors. The dining room is built around the enormous fig tree and the huge branches have been glassed in. Whenever I ate here it was always a toss up between steak and a large king prawn dish. The menu was vast, and the display of puddings to choose from was just mouth watering. Even now, I still imagine that if I won the lottery I would fly my closest friends and family here for a feast to remember. I’ve also never seen a restaurant with so many staff, one that just served bread, just laid the tables, poured drinks, took the orders and so it went on. I guess the wage in Brazil was so minimal they could afford to employ so many staff. This was the restaurant where I first discovered Brazil’s famous pao de quieijo, AKA cheesy bread balls, served warm they were just gorgeous and probably solely responsible for my weight increase! The only hitch with this restaurant was the fifteen-minute hike on a full stomach back up the hill to the hotel, and my, did you feel the burn!
Another favourite restaurant was Amadeus, only a two-minute walk from the Renaissance. Amadeus is a seafood restaurant and served some of the best seafood I have ever tasted, they also served the most delicious hors d’oeuvres and the second best chocolate mousse I have ever consumed (Mum’s being the first)! As with most Paulistano’s I came across, no one here spoke English but it felt like I was still able to strike up a strange yet comfortable relationship with the waiters here, in particular the manager or maybe owner, he was short and overweight and walked with a limp and looked like he would belong in the Mafia. He was always so happy to see me and in the end I didn’t need to look at the menu, he knew what I would eat. In a city where you couldn’t easily talk to anyone, something like this was very comforting and took away a little bit of loneliness.
The freshly squeezed juices available in Sao Paulo were quite frankly amazing, and the best I’ve ever had (even now). Thankfully, as I was to discover, you could get the best-squeezed juice anywhere in the country, even in the poorest of areas. I quickly learnt how to ask for orange or pineapple juice in Portuguese, which always received an impressed, warm smile. To this day I can still remember the lingo!
One of the rare beautiful structures in Sao Paulo is their cathedral. An avenue of rather tall palm trees entice you towards the stunningly, designed cathedral. Despite visiting here on a wet day, I felt mesmerised by the various religious groups singing and dancing outside oblivious to the rain. The cathedral shone like a rose between the thorns, for it was surrounded by shockingly run down and broken buildings with the homeless literally lining the streets.
I was only a few minutes walk away from the well-known Paulista Avenue. Paulista is one of the most important Avenue’s in the city. It’s 2.8km long and is notable for headquartering a large number of financial cultural institutions as well as being home to an extensive shopping area and Latin America’s most comprehensive fine art museum. This is where I first experienced the Sao Paulo subway system which I must say exceeded my expectations – it was clean and modern. I used the subway a handful of times to explore the outskirts of Sao Paulo, to reach the city zoo, the Cathedral and the coach stations, which is where my first few Brazilian adventures started. Like most of Sao Paulo, Paulista Avenue had its fare share of homeless on the streets begging. What shocked me here was the deformity of these pitiable people; I have honestly never seen anything like it before.
Come Christmas, Paulista Avenue put Oxford Street to shame with its amazing display of Christmas lights. On one of my last nights in Sao Paulo, in severe humidity, I wandered along Paulista amongst the cheerful crowds of men, women and children who had ventured out to enjoy the festivities. Christmas music played rowdily along the Avenue and out of the shops with every building lit up like a Christmas tree. I remember feeling completely over whelmed by the whole affair and feeling like I was the only gringo in town with the hustle and bustle and the buzz of Portuguese all around me I felt like I was having an out of body experience.
Christmas brought around my saddest memory in Sao Paulo. Alone in the hotel room some 20 floors up I heard the soft murmur of Christmas Carols drifting up through my open window. Wandering into the bathroom I climbed across the large bathtub and sat myself down on the wide window ledge, which offered me a half decent view of the city beneath me. Here the Christmas Carols became louder as they danced around me and time seemed to stop whilst the twinkling Christmas lights in the street below mesmerised me, and it was only when the tears started rolling down my cheeks did I realise just how lonely I felt a million miles away from my Christmas.
10 days before Christmas I left Sao Paulo to explore more of Brazil – read about my Brazilian adventure.
To put my story into context I was in Brazil whilst my boyfriend of the time was contracted there for work.