Brazil – Not Candy-Coated

We are home at last. We’re both glad to be back in Spain. Not because we didn’t enjoy Brazil but because it’s truly home. Our language has changed now – and its a subtle thing. When in Sao Paolo we referred to ‘home’ and it wasn’t the US. It was El Compartemiento. And I almost ran from the tram the few blocks to our apartment. Of course, I was tired and wanted to put down my suitcase and get cleaned up after 24 hours of travel, door to door. But it was more than that. It was the familiar. The routines and being surrounded by the things that make a life all our own.

I missed hearing Spanish and being able to understand people when they spoke. Being in a Portuguese speaking country, I found out I know a lot more Spanish than I thought. And I pulled it out liberally to try to communicate. Since the rest of South America speak Spanish, many people could understand us. And some of the words are similar. Even my shy husband was speaking Spanish – something he’s always reluctant to do here since his is not perfect. But we had to go along to get along, and needs must. The people in Brazil are friendly but they don’t speak much English. A lot of smiles and some hugs from strangers, so we muddled through using what I called Pidgeon Spangluguese.

I’m the human version of a Golden Retriever. I smile when walking down any street in the world. Even in the US, I had a boss once that pointed that out to me. ‘You’re always smiling’ she told me – like it was an anomaly. I don’t know know why, but that’s just me, and it seems to mean when I travel that strangers talk to me and I meet a lot of people.

I have spent time in other areas of the world but my focus has been mostly Western Asia and Europe for my foreign travels – although I’ve been other places. But South America was never a priority. This was a big miss on my part. And this trip rounded out my perspective on many fronts.

First Impressions

Just a heads up – This will be a longer than normal post. I’m going to try to squeeze all our impressions – sights and sounds – of Sao Paolo – into one post. And there is a lot of ground to cover in a place that assaulted the senses from the moment we left the airport.

As I said a few days ago, Sao Paolo is HUGE. It’s the 11th largest city in the world. The others that are larger are mostly in China. Looking out the window of the Uber to the resort hotel where we stayed the first few nights, there were high rise apartments as far as the eye could see. But scattered amongst them were homemade cinder block buildings; some stacked or almost piled precariously on top of each other without windows or running water, or HVAC of any kind. And shanty-type buildings that would barely stand up to a strong wind.

So the visual disparity of the ‘Haves’ and Have-nots’ is front and center. We had been warned right from the start to be very, very careful when out and about. Brazil’s – and Sao Paolo’s – murder rate is through the roof as one of the top cities in the world, if there was an award for such things. We found it unsettling, but we heard it from so many locals that it made us a little paranoid, and in some sense, it kept us from fully enjoying our time there.

Note: While we saw a lot of things – some of it, I didn’t include in the photos and for this reason. I don’t feel like taking pictures of people living in poverty is the right thing to do. They’re not a tourist spectacle for my viewing, but are living their lives the best they can. They deserve respect and the dignity to do so.

I also didn’t take photos of people pulling carts (I did take a photo of a cart without it’s owner). Their work is honest work and I felt like it needed to be treated as such. Again, they’re not a tourist amusement.

More on the Haves and Have-Nots

I had been asked to speak at a gathering at the hotel where we initially stayed. We wanted to leave the hotel compound to go for a walk but the security guard at the gate at the end of the drive was having none of it. This we found curious since the area was filled with manicured lawns and homes and buildings of the wealthy. But upon further inspection, each building was surrounded by high walls – some with actual razor wire – and each of them had an armed security guard at the front gate, at a minimum. Some had guards stationed at intervals along the walls surrounding various compounds. All of them standing under umbrellas to protect them from the intense sun, looking menacing to those who might be inclined to breach the defenses.

They all had ear pieces – ala Secret Service – tipping you off that they had counter parts inside, and probably more than one. And the cameras patrolling the properties were fanned out to cover every corner. The message being ‘It may look nice here, but this is a dangerous place’. But we didn’t really understand why, in an area that sold Lamborginis, Range Rovers and MaClaren’s, and we saw them driving around the area, it seemed so unsafe. No one – and I do mean NO ONE – was walking on the street outside. So strange.

We changed hotels halfway through the trip because we wanted to be right in the city. It turned out to be a good move. Much more to see and do. We’re not ‘Lay by the pool’ kind of people when we travel. So the resort got boring pretty quickly.

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The homeless population is exploding in the city. They’re everywhere sleeping rough. Oddly, we encountered almost no pan handling, but more people willing to do the jobs no American would ever do. Selling candy to cars at stop lights, one industrious guy actually put the candy neatly bagged and signed on the side mirror – even containing a price.

But also recycling. We saw a lot of people pulling carts of card board, and one guy with coolers on his cart, stopping at each guard station to sell drinks and snacks on a route he clearly traversed every day. They knew him.

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The average wage in Brazil is under $700 US a month. But that’s not the whole story. It costs a lot to live there. Historically, the taxes in Brazil are quite high and public corruption – we heard this from everyone – has been rampant for decades. So the people of Brazil have been ripped off, essentially. Their roads, infrastructure and public services are broken. You can see it clearly.

Let’s face it, every person in the world wants the same thing. Security for their family. Education to allow the next generation to do better than the last. They want to know that the future is secure – as well as the present. They want to know that if they get sick, their family’s won’t suffer, and they want comfort in difficult times. We are not so different from the average Brazilian.

When people found out we were Americans, they always asked if we ‘Liked Donald Trump’ because in Brazil they see him as a strong leader. They feel their new president is a version of him and the average person is very happy about it. This made us curious. Why would the average person feel this way? So we spent a lot of time speaking to people to understand and this is what we found.

After years of paying taxes and having public officials embezzle the money, and rob the country of its resources, people are desperate for something new. They are so desperate that they’re willing to give up almost anything to get it. And it struck us. We in the US have problems with our country. But the wealth disparity in the US is nothing compared to what it is in Brazil – South America’s largest economy.

In the US, we have time to debate social issues and economic issues. We aren’t starving. But in Brazil, they are. It’s critical, and hope has faded as something they can’t hardly remember. So electing someone they think has a snowball’s chance in sub-tropical heat to turn things around – even though he says things and advocates for things liberal democracies find horrific – well, the average Brazilian doesn’t care about that stuff. They want to eat.

But desperate people, in desperate circumstances, will sacrifice anything and do anything to save themselves and those they love. It’s a timely reminder for me since yesterday was Armistice Day. My family always laughs at me for my obsession with history, especially the 20th century wars. But the treaty of Versailles, after WWI, is what decimated post-war Germany and punished them so harshly for starting the war. And it’s what created such inflation, and desperate poverty in Germany in the 1920’s, that it set up the perfect circumstances for the rise of Hitler and the Nazi’s in the 1930’s. We’d do well to remember the lessons of history, because they’re repeating themselves in places like Brazil today. Hungry people will follow even the most despicable leaders if they’re handing out bread to feed their starving children. This is where aid and good foreign policy matters. Go to Brazil and you’ll understand.

Pollution

As a general rule, the air there is not too bad. Especially compared to say, London – whose air is regularly considered well above what is safe for humans to breathe on a regular basis. So there, they have the more western (non-developing) nations beat. But there is another side entirely.

On the way to the hotel from the airport, we drove across the two main rivers of Sao Paolo. The Tiete and Pinheiros rivers flow throughout the city. They were historically a source of fresh water and fish for the people of the region, but they’ve been so polluted with sewer and industrial waste that now they are dead rivers. Driving by them, the smell was sulfuric and it almost hurt to breathe in the fumes.

The banks of the rivers are lined with trash, as were some of the major thoroughfares we traversed. But I have seen worse in other countries. And for a population that size, I frankly would have expected more.

A View of Myself

In all this, it made me take a look at myself. And I wasn’t happy with what I saw. As I said before, I was asked to speak at a gathering at a luxury hotel. So I brought clothes that were appropriate for the occasion. The same as I would have if I had been asked to speak at something in NY or LA. But I wasn’t in NY or LA, I was in Sao Paolo. And after driving through the city and seeing what we saw. And then looking up some of the statistics on the country, I didn’t feel good in the clothes and accessories I had brought.

Among so much need, it felt obscene to be wearing shoes that could pay a family’s expenses for two months. Or carrying a handbag that would pay the salary of an average Paulista for 6 months. Looking in the mirror, before I headed out to give my talk didn’t make me proud. It made me want to cry.

It might sound a little dramatic. That’s OK to think that. I get it. I came from the luxury retail business. My job was to make rich people feel like opening their wallets and shelling out big bucks for name brands that they could proudly walk down the street with and show off to their friends. I bought into it too. But the absurdity of it and the hubris (my own) was right up in my face. When I was done with my obligation, I couldn’t wait to get out of that stuff, and I never wore it again or carried that handbag, on the trip. Thinking of it makes me sad sitting here.

Street Art

I was in London’s East End several years ago with my friend, Eric Olsen. Eric is a person who always makes me think differently. He has his MFA and his sensibilities have always challenged my own perspectives on things. Eric is a truly unique individual and it was in Brick Lane that he helped me see graffiti and street art in a new light.

Some truly world-class street artist display their work on the buildings of Brick Lane and the surrounding Tower Hamlets. It’s the first time I saw a Banksy in person. And Sao Paolo is festooned with amazing street art. Sorry Valencia, but these guys put you to shame. I’ll let the photos below speak for themselves. Some are sanctioned by the Prefeitura de Sao Paolo – others are more organic. Enjoy.

Ibirapuera Park

The ‘Central Park’ of South America is Ibirapuera Park and it’s in Sao Paolo. It’s a national treasure and it’s easy to see why. Complete with a large lake and a small creek, the park is lush and is safe during the day. You can rent bikes and there are runners galore. It’s a gathering place for festivals and is the host of the Afro Brazil Museum.

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The history of modern Brazil includes slavery – just like in the US. Captives from Africa were imported into the country to work on plantations and mines. They took care of colonial children and are one of the foundational populations that make Brazil what it is today. And in the faces of people on the street you can see their legacy, everywhere.

The photos below are from the museum celebrating the contribution of Africans to the life and culture of Brazil.

Unlike in the US, being brown in Brazil isn’t an historical stigma. It’s a point of pride. When people looked at me, they knew I was not from Brazil. It was the first time in my life I’ve ever been called a ‘Gringa’. Certainly, to my face. I was warned by others that once they understood I wasn’t Brazilian, it would endanger my safety. But in the park, where I heard this, I didn’t feel unsafe. I just smiled. What else could I do? I am what I am – just like everyone else.

Cuckoo for Coconuts

Everywhere, especially the park, stands selling coconut milk drunk straight out of the shell, or blended with other tropical juices, are every 100 yards. Men deliver and replenish the coconuts to the stands on bicycles with large baskets piled with green coconuts, who looked to be owned by the same company.

The guy working there taps the coconut and, either drains it into a larger container with a funnel, or puts a straw in it and hands it out to the customer. I took a few pictures so you can see what it’s like. Its not touristic but a staple food and drink.

The photos below are more of the park and a few of the statues and artistic features on display. It’s a lush space amongst the urban sprawl.

I’ve been to big cities in Asia. The skyline from our second hotel, looking out over the vast expanse of the city-scape left me in awe. It’s not the most beautiful of skylines. It’s not easily identifiable like those of NY or Paris. But it gives you the sense of how large it is. I took some photos below so you can see what we saw when we woke up at sunrise and when we pondered what it might mean to live every day in such a large place.

Brazil is a true melting pot of cultures from around the world. SP has the largest Japanese population, second to Japan itself, in the world. Vancouver, Canada is a distant third. No one we spoke to knows why they found it such a hospitable place to resettle, but you can get amazing sushi in the city.

There is also a huge Italian segment of the cultural soup. And speaking of soup, I ate some of the best Italian food I’ve ever had at a place close to our hotel. And the building was pretty spectacular too.

Driving and Traffic

I’ll be taking my driving test here soon. But would I ever consider driving in Brazil? NEVER. Here, it’s the traffic circles that intimidate. But in general, people are polite and understand and obey the lines on the road. In Brazil, they don’t seem to be able to see lines. ‘3 lanes? No, I see 7.’ And motorcycles and food delivery services whip and weave between cars. I had to close my eyes in every taxi or Uber we took. Looking meant an upset stomach. Jeff just stopped saying ‘Did you see that?!’. Cause he never would have said anything else.

People on the Street

In Valencia – and in Europe in general, a lot of people smoke. But you don’t see it or get a sense of it in Brazil. In that way, it’s more like the US, but even more striking. You don’t smell it walking or get a whiff of it sitting in a cafe, anywhere. Not sure why but we both commented on it.

I did witness something disturbing that I’ll only briefly comment on. There was a bunch of people looking up at a building near a cafe where we were sitting. I told Jeff I wanted to go see what was going on so I walked the block and then looked up to what they were starting at. A woman was on a girder on an abandoned building. She was threatening to jump and the rescue workers were in full repelling gear trying to talk her down.

An older lady in a housekeeping uniform stood near me. I looked over at her when I realized what was going on. We both had tears in our eyes. Mothers recognize each other. It transcends culture, religion, language. She came over and hugged me. She spoke to me in Portuguese but I said I didn’t speak Portuguese – in my Spanglugues. So we just stood there for a bit. The police came over and told me in English what was going on – I guess I am an easily identifiable Gringa. I couldn’t stay there and watch what might not be a good outcome, but I sent up a silent prayer that she’d take the help they were offering. I could only imagine the despair she was feeling to get to that point, but she was someone’s daughter or mother or friend, and it broke my heart. I was happy to have the hug from the lady who offered it.

The final evening, before coming home, we were hungry for snacks. In Valencia, and in the US, grocery stores are open late. So out Jeff went at dusk to get us some water and something to munch on. He came back with nothing but a perspective on street life at 7pm.

First, the people at the front of the hotel, bellmen and concierge, asked him where he was going when he left. Jeff told them he was going to take a walk – and they didn’t look happy about it. If he had said that he was going to the store they would have told him it would be closed – as he was about to find out. But he didn’t.

He walked around the block to the store we knew was there but the woman was closing it and told him ‘no’ waving her hands. So much for snacks. But what really struck him is how the street had changed from day to almost night.

‘The trolls crawled out of their holes.’ He told me. ‘It’s scary out there right now.’ He said when he got back to the room.

All the residents were gone behind gates and there was a voo doo guy on the sidewalk who had set up his stuff complete with a skull with a fire burning in it. He was chanting something or other and Jeff didn’t stick around to find out what it was or to give him a chance to direct it his way.

He was freaked out at the guys who were coming over the wall from the green space that bordered the street. He quickly made his way back to the confines of the hotel. 7pm was the edge between safety and the things we were warned about – and it was just a block from the hotel.

Going home

When we left to come home, we both said we knew we’d be back. We haven’t scratched the surface of either the city or the country. I still feel like it eluded us while we were there, but not entirely. So much to explore and understand. Ate a proxima, Brasil.

Sometimes, getting there is Half the Battle

OK – I couldn’t resist. We took separate flights to Sao Paolo – for reasons I won’t go in to, the consequences of which I’m still paying for. But we did get here. I knew it was going to be interesting when I saw a Franciscan monk get on the plane in full robes and a 3 foot cross embroidered on his chest. When he passed by my seat praying, I didn’t take it as a good sign. Then as they were closing the doors a woman ran on waving a lamp shade. Not a small one either – a VERY large lamp shade. And it’s not like she didn’t have two pieces of hand luggage and a roller bag with her. I just shook my head.

After take off, the English guy in the seat across from mine got into a serious argument, and almost fisticuffs, with the Spanish guy sitting in front of him over some perceived slight. I just thought ‘This is what that monk was praying about’ and just a little bit of ‘Where’s the lady with the serious lamp shade when you need her? Cause I’d like to hit this British guy over the head to shut him up so they don’t turn this flight around’. But she was in the back somewhere. Finally, his co-travelers settled him down. With the help of the flight attendant, they explained that just like your Dad told you and your siblings fighting in the back seat of the car ‘Sir, we will turn around and head for home if you two can’t get along.’ No one wanted that.

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We both landed in our respective planes in Sao Paolo – different terminals, of course. My flight went straight south from the Iberian Peninsula. Jeff’s flight went over Africa most of the way and crossed over the Atlantic at the narrowest possible point between Africa and South America. But we met up and got into an Uber. I mean, how long can it take to get from the airport to our hotel? Well, in a city of 12 million people (and 32 million in the greater Sao Paolo area) it can take 2 hours. No kidding – TWO HOURS.

But we were lucky and got Denis, the most amazing Uber driver ever, who drove us in his red Chevy Celta (Never heard of that model before? Me either). Denis regaled us of tales of Sao Paolo and Brazil in general, it’s history, it’s politics, the best places to go. He told us where we might ‘or most probably would’ get killed if we walked at night, and how to hold our wallet, purse and cell phones so as not to be victims of muggings or the like. He informed us how not to get ripped off by taxis, shops or restaurants. We loved Denis –  we actually formed a bond with him. But you can’t argue with the price $27 for a two hour Uber ride for two people. Unbelievable.

Then we pulled into our hotel, with a guard at the gate of the long driveway, into one of the most beautiful hotel drives I’ve ever been to. The grounds are amazing and I would pit the service and ‘that special something’ the staff has – it’s a spark of magic – against any 5+ start hotel in the world. Truly exceptional. Sure, you see pictures on a website when you book a place, but you don’t really know what it will be like. This place lives up to the photos. Check it out if you’re ever staying in Sao Paolo. Jeff’s hotel snobbery has been fully assuaged and tomorrow should be nice so we can have breakfast on our terrace. I’m almost forgiven for his air travel experience (or lack thereof) and the class he flew today as a very tall person.

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And then my ‘Only you’ moment came as I knew it would. But it’s good I got it out of the way early. Whew! Jeff sent me to get him a Coke – I still owed him for the flight. We were jet lagged and I had already drunk all the still water in the mini bar. So down I went to the lobby. But then I got stuck in the elevator after the doors made a terrible metal grinding noise, not quite closing. I started pressing buttons.

‘Surely, it’s been hours I’ve been stuck in here’ I thought, sweat pouring from my brow as I looked at my cell phone for validation on my rising stress level. It had been less than a minute but it seemed like more than an hour. I looked at the bell on the panel, but thought I’d give the frantic-random-button-pressing one more try before pushing the actual panic button. It worked after a few minutes. The elevator made a horrific sound and then dropped a foot. I wanted to scream but it was only me in there.

Then it started going down and finally, the doors screeched open on the bottom basement a few floors down – the hotel laundry. I got off the elevator and I wasn’t getting back on. Pushing the buttons for the other elevators didn’t work because this broken devil one was just sitting on that floor, like a goalie. I crept down the hall, looking for an exit or stairs, when I heard voices. ‘Hola?’ I called out tentatively – luckily it’s the same in Spanish – cause I looked it up on Google translate on the plane.

I could see myself from the outside. This is the point in a horror movie where the guy in the hockey mask with the ax comes out of a cloud of steam. The one where the audience is thinking ‘What’s she doing? Don’t go down there!’ Finally, I saw a door and heard voices. When I walked in they looked at me like I was an animal at the zoo. A gazelle who wandered into the lion’s cage – I didn’t belong there.

‘Ingles?’ I asked. They pointed to one guy. I explained that I had a problem with the elevator and asked if he could help me get back up stairs. He took me through the parking garage, the spa and finally to another elevator. My blood pressure had finally dropped. I got to the room and Jeff had taken his shower and was looking refreshed. Clearly, I seemed out of sorts and had no beverages in my hands. I told him my tale. He shook his head.

‘So I guess I’m not getting a COKE.’ was all he said,

‘Don’t you get it? I could have been killed.’ I was aghast at his lack of empathy – no matter what seat I put him in on that flight.

But he was unmoved. ‘You’ve been gone less than 15 minutes.’

So I decided a nap was in order. Being awake for 28 hours and learning that not only could I be killed outside these gates, but by the elevator in the hotel, was just too much for me. Where’s a fully robed Franciscan monk, muttering under his breath, when you need one?