I visited São Paulo last week, my first time to South America. I loved the city, beautiful and troubled and a place to stretch out and relax part of my brain.
I have few if any photos, because I couldn’t whip out my iPhone 6 on the street to snap them. Behavior standards are different: Don’t take out valuables or wear expensive jewelry, know where you’re going, keep cash in a few places.
With no photos, I’m left with words as my paintbrush. I’ll do my best to share what I saw.
Sao Paulo is ugly on first impression. Concrete block buildings, sprawl like L.A., smog and no beach.
Inside the urban jungle is a jewel.
Street art explodes all over flat surfaces. Faces and suns, dreamscapes and owls and vines, flags and flowers and animals, turning concrete into canvas. In the artists’ alley in Vila Madalena, a neighborhood of bars, houses and galleries, my guide and I met a mural painter. He comes every year to refresh his work, starting from scratch. He was tracing outlines on a red background, two men next to each other, the background uncertain bright crimson, with a note to leave the space clear and respect the work in progress.
Elsewhere, street art shares space with gang symbols that climb up buildings like spiders. In some cases, where 20 stories of a luxury building show markings like hieroglyphics, one per floor, I wonder if the painters started at the top and climbed down. It would be easier. Just break into the building and then rappel down like Batman.
Few people speak English. Portuguese is the language of everything. With my guide, I went places I never could have gone alone. I fit in until I opened my mouth.
Samba is the music of Brazil. At a bar Saturday afternoon, we had fried mandioca (cassava), polenta and coxinhas (chicken dumplings), caipirinhas and then started dancing. It was early, so families and friends danced together at tables. Aunts and daughters, husbands and brothers and boyfriends. A grandmother I didn’t know kissed me on the cheek.
My guide said people who like rock don’t like samba. And people who like samba don’t like rock. I don’t know why. I think they could marry each other and have crazy layered sex, one expression on top of the other, threaded through and inseparable.
Before that we wandered through a flea market at Praça Benedito Calixto, through odds and ends from all times and places washed up on the tables. I bought sunglasses because I didn’t have any.
At the end of every day, I felt dirty. Red clay soil, the afternoon thunderstorm that always came, high humidity and sunlight the rest of the day, grime from outdoor markets and bars and downtown buildings.
The city was founded more than 500 years ago and is far older than North American cities, but grew fantastically in the twentieth century, from 200,000 people in 1900 to more than 13 million today. New and old collide in unplanned chaos. In one trip downtown to the Sé district, my guide and I visited the Bovespa stock exchange (quiet because computers now trade contracts that pit workers used to scream about), the famous Martinelli building with a huge outdoor balcony for cityscape views, a free Mondrian art exhibit, a local cafe and a Benedictine monastery.
Afterward, I retreated to my hotel, showered and ordered room service, remembered I was a stranger, isolated in this oasis. I felt strange and calm and excited.
A futebol game was the highlight of my experience. I’d visited the futebol museum earlier. Now my guide and I climbed the path outside Pacaembu Stadium, entered with our tickets and found seats on the concrete bleachers. I’d always wanted to attend a soccer match, and to do it in Brazil was the best way I could think to fulfill this dream. We sat on the seats and cheered with the crowd for São Paulo. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon, the stadium only one-fifth full so not chaotic but absolutely fun. We yelled, cheered and enjoyed the match, with the win coming 10 minutes before the daily thunderstorm soaked everything.
I was ready to leave and not ready. I’m back and I’m not back. Is it possible to live in 50 places at once and give a piece of yourself to each place, and take a piece of each place in return?
This post was also published on Medium.