At this point, my retrospective on Brazil has been nearly two years in the making. While it is true that I haven’t put words to digital paper until this moment, the past twenty-two months have been a constant reshuffling of the deck of memories and experiences my brief visit to Sao Paulo left me with. How do I, a white American male from the Midwest, possibly contribute anything worthwhile to the complex and nuanced conversation surrounding one of the most polarizing countries on the planet? How does anyone who grew up coddled in the safe confines of Ohioan suburbia begin to peel back the layers of desperation, pride, crime, hospitality, corruption, beauty, despair and hope of a place such as this? I don’t think I have an answer to those questions. I visited for work. I was an outsider, primarily there for particularly non-journalistic reasons. But while I was there, I made it my mission to extend my stay, to throw myself into the depths of Sao Paulo on my own and take in what the city offered me. In the months that followed, I found myself recalling specific moments of my adventure in new contexts, realizing that perhaps Brazil left a more influential and permanent mark on my life than I could have ever realized back in early 2015.
My overnight flight landed in Guarulhos, the massive international airport two hours outside of Sao Paulo known to English speakers as GRU, and to the locals as Cumbica. Right away, as I stepped out of the jetway, blinking into the bright sunshine of the terminal, there were signs of contradiction. Outside the windows in front of me, across the tarmac, sat the airport’s newest terminal. It was supposed to be a beacon of modernity and prosperity to welcome fans to the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and yet here it lay unfinished, six and a half months after the tournament concluded. A colleague of mine, a local to the area, filled me in on the details. Apparently financial misappropriations, bureaucratic red tape, and construction delays resulted in an embarrassment felt by the people in deep and profound ways. Hope and good intentions, thwarted by nearly omnipresent incompetence; this was their government at work.
FIRST, THE SUBURBS: SAO JOSE DOS CAMPOS
The beginning of my journey took me two hours overland by secure transport to the city of Sao Jose dos Campos, located about a fifth of the way from Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro. The city is the seat of industry and technology in the region, home to a large military presence and aerospace and IT companies. There is shopping, nice housing, and amazing food. A friend of mine, another Brazilian from the area, eagerly gave me a list of places to eat and drink in the vicinity. But there is also poverty. His to-do list came with an ominous warning, to take cabs everywhere, and to never walk alone, even during the day. His other piece of advice was to bring every detail of your destination with you in writing. The language barrier here is severe, and aside from your five-star hotel service, you're quite unlikely to find anyone in Brazil that speaks English.
I'll keep my rambling about the Sao Paulo suburb to just the cliffnotes, but my time in the city was an interesting glimpse into middle class life in Brazil. We were with locals, who know the area intimately, and we were allowed the opportunity to experience the city as they do. One night in particular stood out. We decided to gather for an after work function at a nearby go-kart track. The premises functioned as part barbecue joint, part go-kart track, and part Ayrton Senna memorial. Senna, the lightning-rod legend of Formula 1 fame before his life was tragically cut short in an accident at the notoriously dangerous Imola circuit in Italy, was revered in Brazil for his prowess on the track and his boundless generosity towards his fellow Brazilians. His state funeral was attended by an estimated three million people, many of which benefited directly from his philanthropy.
As I downed my plate of chicken hearts and my fifth or sixth cachaca of the afternoon, I was dragged to my kart by the owner of the establishment, eager to get a race underway. No helmet, no seatbelt, no sobriety. The track was spartan, with tires serving as barriers between you and the driver on the otherside of the hairpin. But no matter, as we spent the evening taking laps at speed, our karts whizzing by the poster of Ayrton Senna by the front gate. As the sun set over Sao Jose dos Campos, a storm crept in, one severe enough to shut down any other track I've been to before, but we raced on. Lightning cracked overhead as rain fell onto the already slick track, our karts' backends sliding out on each turn, a result of slippery conditions and an even slipperier bartender.
AND FINALLY, THE BIG CITY: SAO PAULO
A few days later I was in the heart of Sao Paulo. The term "concrete jungle" is commonly used to describe a number of massive cities around the world, but I'm unsure if any of them are as fitting for the name as this one. As seen from the sky, there is no central district of skyscrapers. The mass of steel and concrete simply stretches on infinitely, a monotonous sprawl of human habitation. In lieu of a towering downtown, there is the absence of one. Surrounded by countless twenty to thirty story buildings, in the middle there is what can only be described as a bowl of lush green; Jardims. This was where my hotel was located, the towering Renaissance Sao Paulo. It is home to the wealthiest individuals in all of Latin and South America. It is also a symbol of much of what is going wrong in Brazil. The staggering income disparity here was on full display, as giant concrete walls topped with electrified barbed wire separated the extravagant homes from the less fortunate. As I walked down Avenida Paulista, the economic center of the region, the inequality became even more apparent. I walked cloaked in the shadows of radio antennae towards MASP, the preeminent art museum of Brazil. The city morphed and swirled block by block, each street a glimpse into the struggles and triumphs of the Brazilian people. One block housed a street market, set back in a park where families walked and the homeless slept. Another held an intense protest, my minuscule understanding of Portuguese able to determine that it was a demonstration against a corrupt government official, with the leader screaming animatedly into a megaphone and the crowd reacting in kind. Yet another street held a festive party for Carnival, the road blocked off with dancers and as I snapped a few pictures, one such reveler handed me a cold beer, gave me a hug, and continued on clapping and singing into the crowd.
Upon arriving at MASP, I was faced with the most evident example of the chasm that exists here between the “haves” and “have-nots.” MASP is a stunning structure of glass and concrete, supported above the earth below it by two massive red beams. The galleries inside house priceless artifacts from Brazil's history and thousands of examples of European art. What sits below the museum, however, can only be describes as a city for the homeless. In the thousands of square feet sitting precariously below the museum is a cluster of mats, pillows and blankets accompanied by a stench of urine and alcohol. The locals walking by turned a blind eye to the forgotten population, eager I'm sure to continue their plans uninterrupted. But for an outsider like me, the juxtaposition of the cardboard village under this iconic example of Brazilian brutalist architecture housing priceless art painted an uneasy picture of the country's precarious situation.
It is not all doom and gloom, however, as there is an astounding amount of things to do, eat, and drink in Sao Paulo. The Municipal Market, in the aptly named Mercado neighborhood, is a gorgeous building with dozens of stained glass windows and food from around the world, brought to its floors by the world's numerous diaspora living here. Back in Jardims, there is a foodie culture that has exploded onto the world scene with force, with many excellent examples of international cuisine, the most surprising of which to me was their mastery, of all things, pizza. In the center of the "bowl" is the Hotel Unique, and as the name suggests, it is worth a visit, if only to sit at the rooftop pool bar, sip a caipirinha and take in the views. There are parks, there is theater and there is shopping. The city of thirteen million people is as modern and as cosmopolitan as anything you'd find anywhere else. And due to the time of year of my visit, I got to take a taxi in torrential rain through some dodgy neighborhoods to the Sambadome, the bastion of jovial dance and color that celebrates the beginning of Lent, Carnival. With no employees at the ticket gate speaking English, I was lucky to find a group who could partially understand me, and what followed next was a whirlwind of booze, food and dance. Arriving back at my hotel that night in one piece, the room spun around my bed as I slowly began to realize how lucky I was to successfully find my way home through the concrete labyrinth.
Perhaps the phrase that best describes my visit to Sao Paulo is an optimistic frustration. The countryside is a beautifully rolling landscape of lush, green hills. The people are warm, beautiful, enthusiastic, and proud. They welcome everyone, of all colors and sizes, to their party and are eager to show off the best their city has to offer. The city of Sao Paulo is one of an urban-dweller's dream. It stretches on forever, countless blocks of gastronomic and retail therapy ready and waiting for the wallets of its visitors. But as I rode in my hired car back to the airport, I was abruptly reminded of one of Brazil's most egregious flaws. We had been driving for a half an hour in the rain, still deep in the somewhat seedy bowels of the city, and I was checking my email when I heard a tap on the glass. As quickly as the tap registered in my brain and I started to look up, the driver stepped on the gas and blew us through the light, and as I glanced back at the two motorcyclists still sitting at the intersection in their helmets, the driver said in broken English, “just in case, I didn't want to take any chances.” I was made aware in a sobering instant that Brazil has yet to break through to the forefront of tourist destinations for one major reason, one that has many causes and no clear solution; personal safety.
This last year, as the Olympics of 2016 in Rio were met with optimism, then fear, and ultimately disappointment, it was made clear to the world that Brazil is still struggling under the weight of its own decisions and economic disparity. Infrastructure problems, corruption, and crime is too much to overcome for most people when they are building their international itineraries. And while it's a shame that many travelers will never experience this unique and beautiful country, I can't say that I can really blame them. Brazil can be a difficult country. Add to the reputation of danger a long flight and an aggressive language barrier, it seems easier to look elsewhere for the time being. Many other places in South America offer safer and more accessible destinations, Buenos Aires and Santiago jumping to mind. But for those adventurous ones willing to take a chance, there is a lifetime of wonderful rewards to uncover in Brazil. And, if you're lucky like me, and countless other visitors to Sao Paulo, you'll emerge on the other side unscathed, and most importantly, forever changed for the better.