Ladies and gentleman, we shall shortly be landing at São Paulo International airport where the local time is
Baaaaaaang... The guy sitting next to me who was an experienced aviation consultant went a sickly white color and gripped my arm in what I hope was a paternal show of support, there goes the under carriage Even I winced as there was a sickening metal on metal sound, which one doesnt really want to associate with commercial airline travel. The Brazilians all around me instead of the traditional round of applause, which greets every home, coming reached for their bibles and began crossing themselves hastily. We did manage to taxi half way down the runway before the captain decided that his day wasnt going to get any better than this and a fleet of buses were dispatched to drive us to the terminal. As I emerged into the hazy light of a dreamy Saturday morning I tried to ignore the large collection of metallic fragments scattered along the taxiway and concentrated on the wonderful feeling of being back on Brazilian soil.
As I worked my way through formalities I let the old familiar sounds and smells wash back over me and by the time I had collected my luggage and had my passport stamped, my mind had made the small jump back into Portuguese and I felt terribly at home once again. As I looked for my friend who had so nobly agreed to pick me at after my red eye (and brown trouser) flight from the UK I thought back at the strange chain of events which had lead me back to the place I often feel most at home in after leaving for good a few weeks previous
I had been in a weekly sales meeting for my new company, sitting at the back of the room as I normally do, idly drawing up a list of places I would like to go and not really listening to the person giving the pep talk. Through the haze I heard the magic words Brazil, opportunity and immediate and before anyone else had a chance to respond I leaped out my seat and shouted, Meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. And then things had happened so quickly that before I really knew what was happening I was standing on the tarmac under a tropical sun and remembering the old maxim of any landing you can walk away from is a good one.
As surprising as it may seem I had never been to São Paulo. I had been to the airport countless times and had even passed through the bus terminal a few times on the way to somewhere else, but I had never really dived into the city to any great extent. I had always planned to go purely for the reason that not only is it such a strategically important city, but the Brazilians always refer to it as a megalopolis, which to me, sounds exceedingly cool if not inspirational. The extent of the megalopolis, however, wasnt really evident as we zipped through the early morning traffic and it was only when I had finally checked into the hotel and stood in the roof top bar with an early morning beer in my hand did the sheer magnitude of the city hit me.
In every direction as far as the eye could see were high-rise buildings. Some were new, some were old, some were glittering in the light and some looked like they were about to fall down. They were all cramped together like trees in a rainforest jostling for light. I wasnt sure if it was the most inspiringly awesome sight I had ever seen or one of the saddest, but without a doubt it was certainly mesmerizing.
The locals will tell you that São Paulo is only the third largest city in the world (I seriously doubt this) after New York and Mexico City but for my money, and after many happy experiences in both Mexico and NY, São Paulo is in a different league and the most visually stimulating place on earth. Visually saturated I grabbed my notebook and went to see the city from street level.
Outside my hotel was a concrete monstrosity by Brazilian legend Oscar Niemeyer under which I found a taxi driven by the unlikely named driver Archimedes Lombardo, who was as insane as the name might suggest. No sooner had I told him I wanted to see the city than we were off hurtling against the oncoming traffic at relativistic speeds.
Archimedes, that light was red.
Ah, dont worry, but did you see that girls bottom. Nossa (Wow)
Archimedes, this street is one way
I am only going one way..,
Yes, the wrong one.
And so it went on and I didnt really see all the things I wanted to because I was too busy trying to peel myself off the seat and keep up with Sr. Lombardos conversation (most of which concerned the disgraceful state of the Brazilian energy system and bottoms). He picked me up a few days later on my way to a meeting at the British Embassy and managed to detain me for almost an hour (dont worry, I am sure the ambassador will wait) because I made this mistake of asking him about football. Like most things in São Paulo he was much larger than life, completely endearing and probably unique.
But Archimedes wasnt always a happy man and even the casual visitor would understand why when they saw the state of the roads. In a country where superlatives need to be redefined to fully grasp conventional ideas like distance and population, the traffic in São Paulo city, is simply amazing. If you arent inspired to visit the city for anything else go to see the incredible traffic jams and be prepared to be amazed.
The first impression one gets of the traffic in São Paulo is that something like this could never have been planned and that the roads must have grown organically. The second impression, and one that is best formed from the back seat of a taxi, is that there is no way anyone sane would ever want to drive here. Imagine multi lane highways, flyovers, bypasses, tunnels and ring roads all coming together in a symphony of chaos and then people this landscape with twice as many cars as you initially considered possible driven by highly strung speed freaks who all have the radio pumped up, the windows down and their hand on the horn.
Well, that is not São Pauloits nowhere even close to the chaos of the place. Quite frankly, its indefinable and even a short taxi drive across the city can leave a grown man crying. Of course, this only actually happens on the rare occasions when the traffic isnt impossibly snarled uplike 3 am Saturday morning when the traffic situation can safely be downgraded to mildly terrible. I spent more time in the back of taxis stuck on Avenida Paulista then I did in my hotel or at meetings. The person who links each cab to the internet with video conferencing facilities will make a million in the first week alone judging from the number of calls I made and received alone the lines of:
Where are you?
Me too, the traffic is a nightmare.
Oh, sorry, shall we reschedule the meeting for next week then.
But, despite its frustrations, the thick cloud of pollution which hangs over the city, the blaring car horns and driving which makes that famous scene in Gladiator look like a Sunday school picnic, I have to confess that I love São Paulo. I dont quite know why, it must be something with the improbable energy of the place and the fact that I felt that I lived more in one day in São Paulo than I do in a week in the small village where I live in Cambridge.
The only real problem I have with the city is that there is much too much to see and do and I ended up not really doing anything as I spent so much time trying to work out whether I wanted to see the Museum of Sacred Art or the Museum of Modern art more. Even going to lunch was a problem, as São Paulo must have the widest selection of great places to eat in South America. If you want simple Brazilian food then you cant swing a cat for restaurants (though, perhaps thats not the best analogy to use) but if you want something rather more outlandish such as Mongolian barbeque, deep fried Chinese chicken, sushi, tempura, a Portuguese stew or an all singing all dancing buffet fit for a king then São Paulo is for you.
I lost count of the number of restaurants I tried in the week I was there but I had to go out and buy a new suit half way through the trip as the old one had mysteriously shrunk. And the Paulistas love to eat, and eat big. My problem was that all my potential clients wanted to take me out and force-feed me steaks the size of paving slabs, which was good the first couple of times it happened but after the third steak in a day even my digestive system begins to break down a little. I think its something to do with Brazilian government officials not being allowed to claim for any meals that include alcohol on expenses and so they try to woo potential clients with half a cow instead of the normal bottle of decent brandy I tend to favor.
It was after one memorable mealwhich had actually begun as a late lunchhad slowly degenerated into a fully blown dinner before maturing into a midnight feast that I had a revelational momentone of those rare moments which seem to justify all the long hours hanging around airports and having to deal with stroppy cabin crew and being away from home so much. I was crawling along the magnificent Av. Paulista in the back of a taxi when the driver, for no discernable reason, decided to take a shortcut and swung a wild left down a narrow side street and after a series of deft maneuvers onto a relatively unclogged highway.
The sun had just set and most of the city, due to the terrible energy crisis, was in darkness. The only sign visible along the highway was a forty-foot blinking neon sign that said, NON STOP EROTIC BINGO. By the time I had digested this information we were already a long way down the road and it was too late to turn back and investigate. Later I did manage to pick a friends brain on this crucial matter. She told me that indeed I had not been mistaken and that there was indeed a chain of non-stop erotic bingo halls dotted about the city.
She seemed less keen to take me to one and rather coy when I asked her what exactly went on there. Its just like normal bingo you know, Philip. Now please grow up and get me a beer please. Of course I didnt know and unfortunately run out of time on this particular trip in which to find outbut I am sure it wasnt full of purple rinsed golden agers like bingo halls are back home. Perhaps one day I will get the opportunity to return to São Paulo and find out more about this important social phenomenon. I really hope I do.
Philip Blazdell is English by birth, a scientist by training and a traveler by nature. He has traveled extensively in Brazil and is a regular contributor to numerous magazines and Web pages. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org