Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Brazil's New York City

Got to Sao Paulo, “the New York City of Brazil”.  As predicted by some Brasilia friends, I don’t think it’s my favorite place in Brazil but it's probably a more exciting place to live than Brasilia.  I did meet a lot of nice people and had a great day walking around the city with Tales, who Henrique connected me with. However, I would not recommend going out of your way to travel to Sao Paulo if you come to Brazil (a sentiment that was echoed by people who grew up here).
Flying into the city at sunrise
 Tuesday was action-packed- my flight left Brasilia at 5 AM and so I got to Sao Paulo just in time to experience its infamous morning rush hour (the city is notorious for having some of the worst traffic jams in the world).  After an adventure trying to hunt down coffee and an even more annoying adventure of trying to get my internet to work in the hotel lobby, Tales rescued me from my frustration at 10 AM.  He’s Sao Paulo born and bred but he spent a year in Ireland (and subsequently did some extensive travels around Europe) and he was a great tour guide.  We share a lot of interests- music, love of traveling, appreciation of Asian culture (he’s into Buddhism), he’s a vegetarian so we had plenty to talk about in the almost 12 hours we spent together.  His goal with the day was to show me the “real Sao Paulo”, the grungier, crowded chaotic side because he said the pretty parts of the city where just like any other.
We started by walking the Avenida Paulista, the “Wall Street” of Sao Paulo and saw one of the famous art museums (but didn’t go inside because it’s mostly European art that you can see anywhere).  We went to the city center, saw the city cathedral (much more traditional-looking architecture than in Brasilia), the “zero-point” of the city and enjoyed being submerged in a sea of people with street musicians, living statues as well as a significant amount of homeless people.  The ethnic diversity of Brazilians was especially dramatic in Sao Paulo- you see Brazilian Japanese, Black-Japanese, Indigenous Brazilians, aesthetic Jews, German descendents (at the couch surfing meeting, we talked to a Brazilian from the South which is the German part- pale with strawberry-blonde hair)… there’s definitely no one consistent image of what a Brazilian looks like.  Not too many natural blondes though- people still stare at me.  You probably have an idea of that if you’ve been seeing pictures of the people I’ve been meeting during this trip.  We went to the municipal theater, Japan-town, this crazy shopping street famous for selling costumes and cheap imported stuff…
My favorite spot was definitely the municipal market- a huge building of various food shops and restaurants (kind of reminded me of Faneuil Hall).  We sampled exotic fruits- passion fruit, dragon fruit (the mysterious looking one from the Farmer’s market), this delicious fruit that looked like a potato, the fruit from cashew trees and more fruit you can’t find in the US.  
Tales sampling exotic fruits at the Marketplace
For lunch, we ate at a restaurant that Anthony Bourdain featured on No Reservations for giant boloney sandwiches.  We split pastel, which is a fried pastry that could be filled with anything but we had palmello stuffing.  This was another must-eat dish in Sao Paulo (where they get as big as pillows!) but apparently it is Chinese in origin. 
We met some Czech people and convinced them to join us for a 360-degree view of the city from the top of an Italian circle building.  Tales was right- Sao Paulo is filled with buildings as far as the eye can see.
View of the city from the top of the tall building
 After that, we went to a richer, nicer part of town to see the “Museo do Futebol” which is below the current stadium.  It was a really fun museum- lots of interactive exhibits (we played foosball, electronic football, shot a goal to see how fast we could do it) and saw all the goofy uniforms, soccer balls and crazy things Brazilians play soccer with (from baby heads to crushed soccer cans to coconuts to bottle caps).  Brazil’s the only country that’s played in every World Cup and they’ve won most often (five times).  They are already getting pumped for the 2014 World Cup.
Tales and I at the soccer stadium- Museo do Futebol is below us
After that, we stopped for some caipirinhas at a fancy bar looking at a park- I had a passionfruit one and he had a watermelon one with Sake (apparently, since their popularity is grown, anything with ice, sugar and fruit can be considered a caipirinha). Tales and all Brazilians really blow me away with their knowledge of their country and its history. Tales was telling me about how Brazilians' laid back attitude and lack of technological skills really goes back to the indigenous people.  Brazil has no natural disasters (earthquakes, tornados, etc.), a nice climate and the Amazon provided all the fish and fruits the people needed so they never had to work hard to control their environment or build advanced structures.  He said when the Portuguese tried to make the indigenous people slaves, they quickly realized that the Indigenous people don't know how to work and eventually gave up and imported African slaves into Bahia.  The country still lacks innovative skills in engineering and technology.  Richard Feyman actually spend some time in Brazil and complained about the education system here- I suggest you read his short reflections here because it's incredibly telling.  He complains that the schools teach students to memorize and they can repeat definitions word for word but are completely clueless to applying it to related content in slightly novel settings.  The latest president started a Scientists without Borders project which provides scholarships for 160,000 undergrads a year to various countries to get training in these areas.  However, people worry that once you expose Brazilians to other countries, it may cause an exodus of the brightest minds- from what I gathered from talking to Brazilians who studied in the US, this was true.  The money would probably be better spent improving secondary education... but Brazil definitely needs to do something to improve its GNP.  It has one of the lowest unemployment rates in S. America which is a good thing but the economy isn't growing as much as it should....
After that, we rested in the grass at a classy park briefly but decided to stop at my hotel to check the address for the weekly CS meeting.  Then we went to the CS meeting, which was awesome- I really wish these happened in Raleigh.  The basement of a bar was reserved and everyone had a nametag for “Established Paulista member”, “Newbie” or “Gringo/gringa”.  I met a ton of amazing people- some people from Brazil- including a film major who suggested I see City of God, Eliot Squed, Neighborhood Sounds and Colleagues (so if you are into foreign films, you can check that out too!).  I spoke to people from Spain, Russia, Ukraine and a Pilipino guy who lives in Singapore when he’s not traveling around South America (we exchanged contact information for when I’m going to be there this summer).  One of my favorite conversations was about people's favorite American words.  The girl from Southern Brazil loved the words "passionfruit" and "ladybug" and thought they were incredibly poetic.  The film critic's favorite word for "eggplant", for a reason he couldn't describe.  How random! It was amazing to speak with world-travellers from such diverse backgrounds and I wanted to stay there forever but I was also exhausted and my legs were about ready to fall off.  So we left there around ten and Tales brought me back to my hotel.
I’ll be traveling to University of Sao Paulo shortly to meet with faculty (I guess) before my colloquium.  It’s the best University in all of South America so hopefully I stay awake for my talk.  I found a couple guys to show me a few last sights, eat dinner with and take me to the airport tonight so that’s a relief.  Tchau!  Wish me luck!