São Paulo - City of Paradoxes

Sao Paulo has provoked an impressive array of amazing as well as debilitating emotions like no other city I’ve experienced.

Like many larger Brazilian cities, the road infrastructure is problematic in many neighborhoods, with sidewalks in notably poor conditions, exacerbated by much waste that doesn’t undergo sanitation as often as I would prefer. And yet this factor receives compensation by much tropical vegetation dispersed throughout, in places as otherwise unsightly as highway entrances and overpasses.

A number of Bohemian areas such as those found in Consolação may appear to lack any structure or theme, but that really depends on your point of reference. Each adjacent unit may appear to have been erected spontaneously without any coordination with the neighbors, as a culmination of a contemporary art experiment and with graffiti embedded all over. Yet the confines could unravel an entirely unexpected enterprise, challenging to all senses and imagination. Such as a worn down spartan Jiu Jitsu/Muay Thai gym featuring a Victorian style entrance with a chandelier, one of those very traditional sofas, an intensely framed mirror, and other decorations better demonstrated than explained. Or perhaps a beauty salon that resembles more of a discotheque. Or a clothing depot with a circus thematic. Or a laundromat that doubles as a visually striking lounge/bar/restaurant. And that’s only one street.

The city is actually a marvel to observe at night time, even in the rain. In fact, Cyber Punk is a term I find fitting to many neighborhood settings including Consolação, Liberdade, and Vila Mariana. If you explore the historic center, you can even find Gothic structures reminiscent of a film The Crow.

Consolação is considered an edgy neighborhood, and the lower section of Rua Augusta characterizes this perfectly. Praça Roosevelt is mostly a younger generation hangout, more desolate by day, packed by night. The behavior, while not strictly regulated, undergoes a vigilance by Guarda Municipal, which maintains a couple of tiny offices on the plaza outskirts. Over a significant period in São Paulo I resided either directly adjacent to the plaza or within a block’s reach to take advantage of cheaper rent and yet stay in a relatively comfortable area in comparison to the regions deeper into the historic center. The noise, however, can intimidate the unaccustomed.

Brazilians, in general, are not characterized by timid personality, and Praça Roosevelt (as well as Rua Peixoto Gomide) epitomize this well. Skaters roam the space all day. Jugglers, artists, rebels, as well as the homeless contribute various types of energy into the conglomerate. At night, beverage and food vendors transform the space into a sort of a self sustaining environment. The plaza already provides ample surface to conduct vice, yet the microorganisms occupying the region demonstrate less of a discreet presence but a continuous, normally distributed force.

I find the manifestation a fairly impressive demonstration of how a populace can optimally spread within spacial confines if left to own device. Even beyond the confines of the plaza, swarms occupy the steps leading down to the residential sector, yet leaving just sufficient room to maneuver. Bars, restaurants, art spaces, and mini-markets occupy the lower floors of those residential buildings, and crowds manage to fill all of that territory leading to the very building entrances. I once had the pleasure of residing in one of those buildings.

If the street environment intensity begins to overwhelm, a couple of organically decorated glass facade cafes can provide the needed refugee, situated on the lateral region of the plaza.

On the topic of refreshments, São Paulo amazes. While the notable presence of Japanese, Italian, and other European roots provides a staple in the culinary diversity, I prefer to introspect on the form and ubiquity of the more traditional elements. What most intrigues me are the lunchonetes, and specifically those in São Paulo, with a tendency to operate until midnight and offering a greater variety than other smaller Brazilian cities. These all inclusive establishments provide either full plates with a series of side dishes, including an unnecessarily gigantic portion of rice, beans (brown in São Paulo, black in some other Brazilian states), vegetables, and farofa. The combination is entirely flexible but those are the defaults. In Joinville, Santa Catarina, in addition to the above, the already sizable offering includes macarrão, which has generated puzzled reactions at having explained this tradition in São Paulo. Beyond that, lunchonetes feature endless fast-food options, salads, an array of fresh fruit and juices, a full kit of liquor bottles, espresso machines, pastry dishes, and some convenience store goods even, such as cigarettes. Effectively, a lunchonete is a depot catering to food and beverage preferences at any desired health level (within a bulk of the distribution.) By day, many lunchonete and other smaller restaurants offer buffets either per kilo or unlimited, many with a rich array of vegetables. I absolutely adore vegetables and never before consumed as many as in São Paulo. In a city of notable chaos, it helps to maintain exemplary levels of energy and health.

Now I don’t intend to turn this into a culinary article, but another pocket that struck my attention is the Calçadão Urbanoid food-truck area on Rua Augusta. The region, offering a fusion of Asian and Latin American cuisine, caters not so much to the health enthusiasts, but more to the appreciators of visual subtleties. The night time setting complimented by partial fog resembles the cyber punk elements typical of the movie Blade Runner (or the Neo-Tokyo facade of the anime Akira), a subject of much obsession throughout the last ten years of my life. Some regions of the Liberdade neighborhood provoke a similar sensation.

What makes my experience in an intensely overpopulated city such as São Paulo rewarding and inspiring are not only the various pockets of charm among the vast concrete (yet tropical-vegetation infused) landscape, but the notable multi-ethnic presence. As a white guy of my appearance and physique, there isn’t much that distinguishes me from the general heterogeneous populace, in comparison to most places in Mexico and Colombia, for example. This helps when engaging or being engaged in a more natural manner, as opposed to by means of a series of inauthentic and energy draining questions and comments reserved for outsiders, insofar as my perception is concerned. The hard-consonant structure of Portuguese also helps someone with my phonetic background in vocalizing more naturally and with greater ease, in comparison to a soft consonant language such as Spanish. These subtleties play a substantial role.

The city really synthesizes chaos with tranquility, and dirt with elements of eye capturing aesthetics. Avenida Paulista can overwhelm, especially on Sundays as the road closes to traffic in favor of pedestrians, artists, artisans, performers, and street food vendors. Yet the Parque Trianon-MASP provides the needed visual and emotional retreat, full of not only the typical South American heterogeneous vegetation but also bamboo trees. For a peaceful indoor refugee, head to either Livraria Cultural, or my personal preference, the second story of the techno-abundant Market Paulista. There you’ll find a cafe with red tinted windows, filtering the outside locomotion audibly and visually.

If parks are your preference of sanctuary, in addition to the small but soothing Trianon-MASP, my favorite is not the overhyped Ibirapuera, but the smaller Parque de Aclimação, arranged around a lake and featuring three work-out kits. Aclimação is a more expensive but peaceful neighborhood adjacent to Liberdade, hence a notable Japanese/Chinese presence. Jogging/walking/exercising in that park is a marvel. Alternatively, in a similarly expensive neighborhood Higeonopolis, you’ll find the Parque Buenos Aires, small, devoured by vegetation, yet inspiring and featuring one workout kit. If overwhelmed by the dancers and hipsters of Centro Cultural São Paulo (CCSP), simply head to the rooftop garden, the library, or the nature-infused cafe in the same establishment. If you find yourself in the extremely intense area of Santa Ifigênia (which houses the large technology market, in my experience smaller only to Tokyo’s Akihabara), or the historic center, head to Parque da Luz and you’ll transport into paradise.

If all else fails, the intensity begins to converge, and you feel incapacitated, simply panic and accept fate.

Welcome to the city of paradoxes.