No surprises at Guarhulos Airport, except for the rough-looking policeman who would’ve been right at home in The Wire with his crazy-big muscles, tight black T-shirt and flack jacket, who was shouting at some poor guy in front of me at passport control: “IF YOU HELP ME I CAN HELP YOU, UNDERSTAND?!” Shudder. I thought about racial profiling and thanked my stars that I was born white and female. (Remembered flying back from Dubai after the Malta trip and the Arabic family who didn’t make it past the boarding gate. Sadface.) My bag arrived on the belt before I could start sweating about what to do if it didn’t. Exchanged some US dollars, noted that they do buy and sell South African rand at the airport. Free tip.
Quickly learnt that no one speaks English in Sao Paulo, the fifth-largest city on this planet. Managed to find the right bus to take me to the right metro station, thanks to a friendly bus driver (of a bus that I wasn’t supposed to get on). Found a window seat, gaped as we made our way through a million skyscrapers; a giant billboard with Gisele Bundchen in her underwear (no brand, no advertising, just her); the only English billboard was one that shouted: “WHY NOT INVEST IN SAO PAULO?” Not sure if that’s rhetorical. Noticed the pretty hills that popped out every now and then beyond the Lego-like curtain of concrete. Ayrton Senna highway; thought of Dad.
Arrived at Belem and found it a bit dodgy (but not the worst I’ve seen) so I put on my angry face – you know the one – and walked really fast. Green Grass Hostels’ directions were spot on and I arrived at the gate before breaking a sweat. Hot showers, hard mattresses; the way I like it. Quick phonecall home, 2am South African time, I made it.
Struck up a conversation with an American who would, by the end of my stay here, emerge the clear winner of this leg of the 2013 Crazy World Cup. Since I’ve arrived, Michael has not left his Alienware laptop; his favourite president in the world is Putin (whut?!), he wants to know “why don’t aliens abduct the people who want to be abducted?”, he’s going to Turkey to find a wife. He looks like he has a bad speed habit. He is one of those really exhausting crazy people, you know? The ones you humour at first but then try your hardest to not be stuck in the same room with alone. Luckily I always knew were he’d be. (As I’m writing this, he is still at his laptop. Sooo not giving him the link to this blog.)
I made my first friends on that first night: Rafael (Chile) and David (France/Norway). These friendships were forged from shared what-the-fuck moments as we listened to Michael rant.
Turns out Rafael has a cousin with a friend who dives on Easter Island and insisted I get in touch so that he can hook me up with a connection. David (he prefers onomatopoeic Doudou; his religion is the drums) hates South Africa, so I had some work to do here … (His reasons for hating us are not unheard of, nor entirely unfair: as a black man with origins in Cape Verde, his is part of a collective pain of colonisation and exploitation of Africa. Me being white and privileged did not help the country’s image. This would be one of the first times that I’ve had to provide context that doesn’t put me in an even worse light; an interesting side to travelling. I am opting for brutal honesty and conscientious transparency.)
On Friday I was going to mission to get hold of my mobile phone service provider in South Africa but Jim once again saved the day with a hack of sorts. Jim, the world’s best travelling companion, even when you’re not travelling together.
My time was freed up to hit Beco do Batman.
I bought a map once I got to Villa Madalena, baulked at the R$13 price tag, but at this stage I was still multiplying by seven, not four. Expect the worst, hope for the best and all that. I spent hours in Beco do Batman, it was just that great, and a lovely neighbourhood too, felt perfectly safe and suburban. Could still see the skyscrapers and hills far in the distance every now and then. Wondered what waited between here and there.
Walking Sao Paulo
So I kept walking. Chose the wrong shoes for the occasion – R17 flip-flops from Mr Price – but every time I saw a Paulista lady walking the same streets in heels or wedges I felt light on my feet. It was a long-ass walk from Villa Madalena to Centro, though. The map, which quickly paid for itself, says 6km. Felt like 60. Only two wrong turns.
There were wide streets and narrow streets and one-ways and bus lanes and bridges and parks and cemeteries. Luxury sedans in car washes, passed-out homelessness on most corners. Multi-racial poverty. Not unlike home, except no one comes up to you to beg. Mostly these men and women are sleeping or sleepwalking in whatever direction. I wasn’t shocked; just reminded of home. All the while, the tallest buildings on earth looming behind me and in front of me; some residential, others commercial. Here and there a sneaky green hilltop.
I was heading for Centro because it’s home to the Banespa Building, which has a sky-high viewing deck. Since it took me, er, a long time to get to the centre I’d missed the operating hours and the pretty lady at reception (who spoke English! Amaze!) was probably reacting to the unintentional look of disappointment on my face when she smiled and tilted her head, “Please come back on Monday, OK? Between 10 and three. You understand?”
People here really are friendly, just like the books say. That day, not one but two gentlemen approached me to ask me if I was OK. The first was at Se metro station, while I was trying to figure out the lines. He sent me the wrong way, though, bless. Second guy approached me when I was three hours into my epic trek from Villa Madalena and very close to the centre. He was totally incredulous when I gave him the thumbs up. And it wasn’t the creepy “Are you OK, hey baby let’s go for coffee” help either. It was a non-threatening, genuine “I’m in a hurry, but are you OK, are you sure? I’ll be on my way then” kind of friendly.
I didn’t make it up the Banespa Building but I did catch some urban warriors on their skateboards at a plaza nearby. Graffiti and skateboarding alongside smartly dressed business types and graceful women, fruitstands and newsstands and chic bakeries and boutiques and discount stores. Thought of Cape Town and Judith.
Saturday, light drizzle, sleep-in, walk around Belem (actually a very nice neighbourhood), a knowing smile from the cashier at the grocery store. By now I could say, “no entiendo” (I don’t understand), “disculpe” (sorry), and “obrigada” (thank you). Starting to recognise “de nada” (you’re welcome).
Went clubbing in Sao Paulo and lived to tell the tale
Saturday night! Ha! Doudou and I went partying in famous Augustu Avenue with some friends he’d made in Rio over New Years. We started off at a pub that played the Rolling Stones and REM and I felt right at home. (Tipped the barman, only to learn later that this is not the done thing. Say what! “They earn a salary, Eengreed.” “Yes, but how do they make money?”) Slammed down two shots of Cachaça (method: exhale completely, down shot, chase with beer, inhale. “That way you don’t feel a thing.”) Miraculously I remember everything from the night.
Julio, one of the Doudou’s friends, managed to get us near the front of the line at Beco, “the best ruck cloob in Sao Paulo”. “I don’t know what is his method but it is uncredible,” said Alexi. I’m guessing his stunning good looks play a role. It started raining and a girl in front of us passed me her umbrella as she stepped under the awning that led to the entrance. “Just pass it along!” she said. And off went the umbrella into strangers’ hands. Have you ever?!
Everyone has to show their ID before being admitted entry. Doudou did not bring his so he went all the way back to Green Grass and came back to party, what a legend. Anyway, I had been told to always carry my ID with me, and s’true’s Bob, you simply gotta!
The thing about clubbing in Sao Paulo. They give you a card for the night that you swipe at the bar, and you pay when you leave. This is massively dangerous. The most dangerous thing I have yet encountered in South America. The surprise at the end of the night is nasty. R$90-nasty. All night, I was shouting at the barmen, “I can’t believe you don’t get tipped! That’s awful!” and they just laughed. Hahahaha, they said. Well, joke’s on me. There’s a R$20 service charge on top of the R$30 cover charge on that card of yours when the curtain comes down.
The second most dangerous thing I’ve encountered in South America is a Beco drink called the “Pete Doherty”. (Here’s Pete Doherty, for the uninitiated.) I’m pretty sure this drink is illegal. Every spirit you can imagine in a long glass with a shot of lime juice. “Eengreed, you have to drink this!” said Alexi. “No I don’t!” I said as I sipped on my demure double vodka and Red Bull. “You have to! You have to!” Eventually, I caved. That shit can not be legal.
Finally won Doudou over, Pete Doherty was involved, and we danced to the Smiths and Fun (“Tonight, we are young!” – at 34 and 30 respectively, Doudou and I were the oldest patrons by about 10 years, I’d say).
It got too much for us old fogeys, so pizza across the road and singing … something … at the top of our lungs (Mariah’s Without You?) and then counting out the last of our reals for the quick taxi ride home. Arriving at the backpackers at 4am we announced ourselves as Jesus and Mary, and Michael was still at his laptop playing the same game, and I went to bed and Doudou went off to Isla Del Mer.
Sunday I had a lagging hangover so I read and slept and tried to watch Bruce Almighty in Portuguese when I wasn’t being bombarded by non sequiturs from Michael, who was at his laptop. First he ran through all the Spanish-speaking countries in South America (OMFG, are you serious?!); then what pets he’d like to have (elephant, skunk). Shame.
Yeah I’m high
Today I made it to the Banespa Building! Stood in the wrong line at first, but got to cut back in because people are just that friendly. The pamphlet starts with “not for those with a fear of heights” and my overriding thought was “Oh sweet baby Jesus.” And this is what I saw.
And then I got rained on. Hard. It comes down straight at you, man. I kept walking/running through the rain, clutching my bag, feeling foolish because locals wait undercover and avoid the drops at all costs. How to spot a gringo!
Off to Iguazu Falls tomorrow on a 17-hour bus ride; struggling to confirm any accommodation bookings… Might be time to whip out the tent.