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Touchdown in Sao Paulo

February 8, 2009

It’s hot and wet and I’m lying on a bed in a hotel which is a good 2 stars short of the 4 that it claims to have, in a neighbourhood in which the only stars you’ll see are if you’re lying in the gutter. And many are.

I’m sorry to go gonzo on y’all but on first impressions that is the way I will have to write it. Sao Paulo is the kind of city that seems to have that effect. I’ve only really come here to talk to a few social organisations and to see Rio’s great rival, but it’s hard to know what to make of it. Flying into Congohas, we cut through the low clouds to the spectacle of this endless sprawl of towers and factories and suburbs and favelas and highways thrown together with as little sense or plan as any place I’ve been in Asia. Like Tokyo or Mumbai it’s just too big to take in or apprehend even from the air, although you can’t avoid the scalar indicators of class divisions – both vertical and horizontal. The airport is one of those which has been drowned in this rising sea of humanity which makes the final descent pass with a feeling of rooftop-skimming alarm, which a slight sideways jolt on the infamously greasy runway surface – a plane skidded out of control here in July 2007, killing 187 people – does little to allay.

We make it safely down. As we are heading to the terminal I see my first helicopter, another reminder of the social extremes of this place where the super-rich just don’t let their feet be soiled by the streets any more and which has the largest private helicopter use outside of New York.A taxi to the centre – they tell me there aren’t any buses though I am sure there are, and I won’t be making that mistake again!. The highway that snakes deeper into the city is hemmed in with rotting stone and concrete and every space that hasn’t been walled off has been reclaimed and is packed tight with self-constructed dwellings in various stages from shack to house. Occasionally huge voids are opened up – precursors to a further gentrification, some new fortified tower condominium – and the archaeology of the city is laid bare: a splash of colonial colour, deco curves and the confident lines of Brazilian modernism, all cut neatly and disrespectfully for some tower block with a European name and not a hint of Indio or African heritage. Brazil might not be an overtly racist culture in many ways, but ‘whiteness’ remains the shade of aspiration…

Then a sharp left off the highway and we are in the old centre. The taxi driver knows the map but he doesn’t know the area, and out path is blocked by a Sunday market. I take a mental note – I’ll be back later. We get to the hotel, which pleasingly is not anything like the priggish image on the website and if it is ‘perfect for business’, it certainly doesn’t look like the kind of business you do with a briefcase… This turns out to be exactly what O Centro is all about. I get out and head back towards the market for a pastel com queijo and a cool caldo de cana com limao, and just to wander amongst the fruit and veg sellers. This place is much more obviously mixed than Curitiba. The faces of the vendors are a whole range of darker shades, the accents more varied, tougher and more incomprehensible!

The toughness isn’t just in the voices of the stallholders though. The is a brash, hard city. The centre of Sao Paulo not a place for those who don’t like the scent of human beings together or being touched and jostled. The streets smell of piss and sweat and there are boys begging and running and men lying in boarded-up doorways or just on the sidewalks, with their dogs or without. Sleeping, drunk, dead – who knows? The market is winding down, an at the ends of the street, amidst the sickly sweet decaying piles of vegetable leaves and squeezed sugarcane pulp, several middle-aged whores work the last few departing customers. They half-heartedly ask me if I want something. I just smile and politely say no thank-you very much, which seems to amuse them. I don’t suppose they get or expect much of that sort of interaction. This sets a theme. There are women working the car parks, women on the street, women trying to entice any likely-looking customers into a seedy-looking film theatre for ‘fantasia’. Turning a corner suddenly the street is full of younger men standing around with largely older guys passing by. It’s only after the second transvestite offers me something else that I realise I’ve entered another kind of business district, which happily filters into a much more ordinary a relaxed set of gay bars and pastelarias. There seems to be some kind of club open, with another very tall transvestite on the door, but the queue outside seems to be mostly teenagers. I’ve only been a few blocks and this isn’t even (apparently) the really lively part of SP…

Cutting back to the Praca da Republica, there’s another much bigger market winding down, this one more of a craft-type affair with lots of wiry men and women selling hats and carvings and a whole avenue of dealers in stones and minerals and, outside the entrance to the Metro, food stalls selling either Japanese yakisoba or cream cakes. Neither appeals, and as it looks like rain, I head into a bar. Sao Paulo against Botafogo is on the TV but not too loudly and no-one seems interested, the beer is cheap and the woman behind the bar is singing to herself so I stay and sip the cold lager and watch the rain come down and the passing beggars and freaks and drunks and I am thinking that I am just a few hundred yards from Parque da Luz where the city has installed public-space CCTV, and it might be the beer but just makes me want to laugh. It just seems so tiny, so pathetic a gesture, how can it possibly do anything to this roiling mass of humanity with its desires and suffering and joy and desperation.

I’ve touched down in Sao Paulo.

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