28 hours in Saõ Paulo

Last week, during a routine conversation about our upcoming projects, my boss casually asked me if I would be available at the weekend to drop something off in Saõ Paulo. I immediately said yes, then frantically began googling ‘where is Saõ Paulo?’ and, after doing the math on my flight schedule, ’24 hours in Saõ Paulo’, ‘what to do in Saõ Paulo in one day?’. Saõ Paulo, it turned out, is the largest and most populous city in Brazil, it is located on the South East coast, and although there are many things to see and do, I would not be visiting the statue of Christ the Redeemer because that is actually in Rio de Janeiro, approximately 400km away.

I flew overnight on Friday, arriving in Brazil at 6am on Saturday morning, feeling groggy and disorientated. It look at least an hour to get through passport control (perhaps because there were only two staff members manning the ‘estrangeiro’ or ‘foreigners’ lane, while the ‘Brasileiro’ lane was, if anything, overstaffed), and by the time I got to the carousel to collect my bag there was just one lonely suitcase left on the belt. Unfortunately, that suitcase was not mine. As I ran around the baggage collection hall imagining that I had already lost the irreplaceable cargo I had been sent to deliver, I got my first taste of Brazilian hospitality in the shape of the help desk guy, who took one look at my expression of pure panic and dread and silently pointed me towards the left-luggage area with a friendly wink. My case was waiting for me in the capable hands of more lovely Brazilian people, who openly laughed at my distress (in the friendliest way possible), and gave me a chance to use, enthusiastically and repeatedly, one of the only Brazilian words I had learnt: ‘Obrigado!’

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All the panic and running around meant that I was also late for Sergio, my pre-arranged driver, but he was very friendly about it- he good naturedly stopped me from being run over in the airport car park as I wandered groggily to the car, and let me fall asleep in the back of the taxi for forty five minutes on the way to my hotel. I arrived a little more refreshed and was able to check into my room ridiculously early (by around 9am), thanks to the hotel staff, who took pity on me and got me into the first available room.

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Ten minutes later I was bouncing out of the hotel lobby, rucksack on, ready to explore. The hotel was conveniently located just a block away from Avenida Paulista, the centre of the city’s business district. The street is lined with skyscrapers and shopping malls, and the mirrored panels of the buildings reflect the buildings on the opposite side of the street to create an incredible double skyline, which runs along the whole avenue. I was desperate to take photos of everything but I was also trying to blend in and not look like a tourist waving an iPhone around. In the end I managed to be discreet about it and that worked well until I accidentally dropped my phone in the road and loudly screamed. Apart from that particular incident, nobody really gave me a second glance – I felt pretty safe the whole time I was exploring and got catcalled a lot less than I normally do walking around London.

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From Avenida Paulista I walked North, heading for the Central Market. Away from the glass and brushed steel of the business district, Saõ Paulo seems to relax, taking on the slightly shabby, dusty appearance of a city that is constantly in the sun. I loved the faded paintwork, pale stone bricks and little green weeds growing through the cracks in the pavement and I could have spent hours on just one sunny street. I had done a bit of reading in advance and, not wanting to have my phone out all the time, I’d printed out some pages from Google maps and marked where I wanted to go. This turned out to be a real life saver as it quickly became clear that Brazilians don’t care too much about where they put their street signs or what direction they are facing in.

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Even though there’s no crazy city traffic or blaring car horns, Saõ Paulo is loud. It sounds like a Latin American cliché but everywhere I went I could hear music – being played by street musicians, or blaring out of storefronts and passing cars, or from tinny portable speakers in amongst groups of people. As I approached the centre everything got even louder and busier, and by the time I reached the Fiera a large market in Liberdade, the Japanese district – I really felt like I was getting close to the heart of the city. I looked around the Japanese market, where they were selling sushi, bao, tempura and rice bowls, but I have to say I kind of turned my nose up at it because the market seemed really touristy. I didn’t notice many tourists at all in any other area of the city, so it was unusual to come across a place that really did feel ‘touristy’. Even though I was obviously a tourist myself (walking around carrying a home-made map in my sweaty little hands, no less), I quickly moved on and wandered further towards the centre.

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This little area was easily my favourite part of the city. Even though it felt slightly ‘rougher’ than the posher part near my hotel, it was super vibrant, colourful and alive in all the ways that you kind of expect Latin America to be. Huge murals and colourful street art covered the sides of the buildings, there were buskers everywhere, and in front of many of the shops and restaurants there were people in costumes with megaphones trying to entice customers inside with their patter.  I let myself get completely lost as I explored the tight grid of streets, often emerging into little plazas, where there might be several market stalls, a bit of green space and some restaurants, or even, once, a bright yellow church.

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Finding my way again, I began to loop back around in the direction I had come from, and crossed a wide footbridge over a busy freeway. The bridge was lined with street hawkers selling knock off handbags, ornaments and even batteries, padlocks and light bulbs out of cardboard boxes or blankets on the ground. Others were advertising ‘Magic’ and selling tricks out of battered briefcases – one guy had three metal rings that he was connecting together and then separating, seemingly by magic, and I could hear the sound of the rings clinking together and his cry of ‘Magia!’ all the way along the bridge. There were also a bunch of guys doing the old trick of putting a ball under one of three cups, moving them all around, and then having a passerby pay to guess where the ball is. They always let the punter win, at first, but the house always wins in the end. I have fond memories of watching this game being played on holiday as a kid, so I watched from a distance for a while, but then a pair of policemen came strolling over the bridge and suddenly everybody was picking up their blankets and boxes and pretending that they, too, were just out for a lovely stroll over the bridge. As soon as the policemen were out of sight the blankets and boxes came out again, and the cry of ‘Magia!’ started up as if nothing had ever happened.

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I spent a bit of time wandering back and forth over the bridge, looking at everything and enjoying the view of the city, and then tried to head back in the direction of my hotel. I wanted to see ‘Edificio Copan’, a large apartment building which is famous for its striking ‘S’ shape and almost brutalist architecture, but when I eventually found it, sweaty and tired from constantly backtracking on myself trying to figure out the street signs, I was a little disappointed. In amongst all the other buildings, it was hard to make out the iconic shape, and the façade was mostly covered in scaffolding. While I was lost, I did find several supermarkets to stock up on Brazilian chocolate and hunt out a cheese sandwich (the staple diet of vegetarians visiting anywhere-that’s-not-England) so I still chalked that one up as a win and set about trying to find my way home.

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My way lay along a busy street covered in murals and street art, which turned into a quieter street filled with intriguing restaurants (a noodle bar and an all you can eat deli), and yet more colourful urban art. By the time I finally traipsed back through the hotel lobby, I was absolutely exhausted and just needed to sleep. Fortunately, if you need to have a long nap in the middle of the day (we’ve all been there), a fancy hotel is the ideal place to do so, and I woke up later that evening feeling completely disorientated and far from home, but at least I was well rested and could eat Pringles from the mini bar.

Peering out of my window at the part of Avenida Paulista that I could see, I had a moment where I really didn’t want to go out in the dark and walk around an unfamiliar city. I flipped through the room service menu and sulked for a bit, but in the end I put on my rucksack and headed out for some proper food. I should have known that a city like Saõ Paulo would be no less vibrant by night than it is during the day, and now, at around 8 or 9pm, the avenue was full of teenagers, skateboarders, couples strolling hand in hand, and street stalls that had popped up from nowhere. It was warm still, and had the casual night time atmosphere which you just don’t get in London (or maybe for just one week in August), where nobody is in a hurry to get home because it’s cold, or bundled up with their hands in their pockets, and restaurants and bars can spill out onto the street, making the whole avenue feel like one big social space. I wandered into one of the shopping malls and suddenly felt like I was back in London again, albeit surrounded by slightly trendier, slightly more tanned teenagers, enjoying slightly better air con.

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Back on Avenida Paulista, I considered buying a beer from a street vendor with a barrow full of ice and bottles, but instead headed into Starbucks. I know plenty of people who would say it’s a crying shame to go to Starbucks instead of finding an ‘authentic’ café or trying some street food, but do you know where the kids of Saõ Paulo hang out on a Saturday night? Okay, a lot of them wander around the Mall in large groups, but they also hang out in Starbucks. You can drink an iced tea while watching packs of teenagers flirt and chatter and take photos of their Frappuccino’s for Instagram, and if that’s not an authentic experience then I don’t know what is. My quest for proper food ended with me grabbing a two litre bottle of water and a pack of vege supermarket sushi from a 24hr convenience store outside my hotel, but I was still glad that I went out and got to see what the evenings taste like in Saõ Paulo.

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The next day I had to check out of the hotel and jump in a cab to the airport by 12 noon, so I headed out early to walk down to Ibirapuera Park, Saõ Paulo’s equivalent to New York’s Central Park. I grabbed breakfast at a Starbucks near the hotel, and discovered that on Sunday mornings, while the Saturday night teenagers are still asleep, all the parents and babies of Saõ Paulo come to hang out in Starbucks. For those searching for authentic experiences, go grab an iced tea on a Sunday morning and watch families come together over cups of coffee and tasty pao de queijo. In contrast to the day before, the route to the park took me South through a nice, neat suburban area filled with gated houses and well tended driveways. The park itself was huge and green with a large lake in the centre and on this bright Sunday morning it was filled with cyclists, families and dog walkers enjoying the sun. There were also a huge number of people in work out gear who mainly seemed to be photographing each other (which I support one hundred percent), but were also making use of the outdoor gym equipment or jogging in a special lane for runners and cyclists. It reminded me of being in Victoria Park at the weekend, except there were palm trees, and the coconut water you could buy was served straight from an actual coconut, and not from a carton.

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I made it back to the hotel just in time to grab my things and jump in a taxi. As soon as the driver – a super sweet and smiley elderly man – realised that I wanted to go to the airport, he reached into his glove compartment and handed me a huge handful of colourful fruit sweets, enthusiastically miming a plane taking off and then pointing to the sweets. My Mum used to send me off with handfuls of Werther’s Originals so that my ears wouldn’t hurt as the plane took off, so I was really touched by his thoughtfulness and the generosity of his spontaneous gift – it was a sweet way to end my whirlwind trip to Saõ Paulo. I hope to make it back to Brazil one day to see more of the country, but until then, back in grey London when Saõ Paulo feels like a lifetime ago, I am still finding these little sweets at the bottom of my handbag.

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