Every time I go back home to Brazil, I’m amazed at how much of my awareness of the city has been erased by a decade of living in little, organised, law-abiding Switzerland.
Take the insane amount of distance between things, for example. Sao Paulo is a massive city! I’m instantly gobsmacked by the amount of time you spend in traffic – and I’m only here on vacation! This was an exchange I had with my mother during my last trip home:
Me: I have an appointment at ten AM in Vila Mariana tomorrow. What time should I get a cab to take me there?
As it turns out, to travel the 11 km from our place to Vila Mariana could take anywhere between 25 minutes and an hour and a half. With a spread like this, no wonder people are so stressed in traffic! I dug deep into my heart to find any vestige of road rage, but it wasn’t there anymore. A little part of what once made me a typical Paulist had become dormant.
Traffic was one of the many reasons why I made sure I went home weeks (nay, months) before the World Cup even started. Political commentary aside (this, I warn you now, is not the place), merely thinking about what the city would turn into during the event made my mouth dry up and my skin crawl. Can you imagine driving home, in the southern part of the city, from the airport in Guarulhos?! Without a train system or any other efficient method resembling public transportation? It would most likely look like the day after the apocalypse. Can you imagine landing in Viracopos in Campinas (which, up until recently, had no air conditioning) and then driving the two hours plus into Sao Paulo during rush hour?
But even getting to Brazil can be an equally distressing journey. There will never be a stronger testament to my love for my family and friends than the fact that I have to get on two planes (minor hurdle #1), and travel sometimes up to 14 hours (except for a magical instance, the first and last time I ever decided to take the Geneva-Frankfurt-Paris CDG-Sao Paulo route, which took me nearly 21 hours to get home), only to be stuck in the immigration line at the airport for ages (yes, even though I hold a Brazilian passport). This is not to mention the usual nuisances of modern travel – you know them all too well: children cry, passengers with an overgrown sense of entitlement will pick a fight with the cabin crew over the seat they were assigned, a tour group of kids will behave like they’re on the school bus…
I see this is taking a turn for the negative, so it’s time to drive my point home. This is the main reason why I love Sao Paulo (yes, in spite of all the negatives, like the ones mentioned above and heaps more):
Sao Paulo is alive. It has no switch off button. You see everything in this city; there is always something new, and all the same, something old you’d never noticed. I lived in this city for two thirds of my life, and have visited at least once every two years since I moved, and I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t yet seen everything. Not even close.
All my life, people have told me I must go to New York. New York, they told me (Americans and non-Americans alike), is the most exciting city in the world. So last year, I went. I saw. And while I enjoyed the Big Apple immensely, my Paulista side couldn’t help but ask – really? Coming from a city as diverse as Sao Paulo, New York is certainly architecturally impressive, albeit 50 shades of passive-aggressive.
Mind you, I’m not implying Sao Paulo is the most cheerful place on earth.
There are people who are angry (sadly, even more now than before), there are people who are out to get you. The city was never known for being safe, and I won’t try to fool you and say it’s gotten better. But here’s what makes this city unique to me: an old retired sailor selling water in traffic, who incidentally speaks very good German. A kind bus driver who offered to drive me home by bus after the last stop, two blocks from my apartment. A Lebanese couple who first established their restaurant from the garage of their home. A man who lives in the favela in Morumbi, who will be your friend if you give him books by Dostoyevsky in Portuguese. A young man who became a taxi driver because it pays more than an internship.
A group of people, as if hypnotised, watching a football match in the local boteco‘s tiny television.
Perfect, it is not – but there’s no place to find inspiration like here. Just bring a notepad, and have some patience.