I will admit that my first day here made me a little more nervous about finding my way around than I wanted to let on. I kept telling myself that I’ve been fine navigating all sorts of other major world cities, even Seoul, where I couldn’t read signs or talk to anyone, but that didn’t make me feel any better. I think a major difference with Sao Paulo is that I’ve heard from so many Brazilians how careful I need to be—don’t use your iPhone to take pictures, don’t wear sunglasses on your head, be wary of people walking too fast or too slow, always carry R$20 so that the homeless people won’t shoot you. It’s enough to make anyone feel a little bit paralyzed. In the midst of North America’s summer I had also blissfully forgotten that with the winter season comes early darkness. By the time I woke up from my nap/haze on Saturday around 6pm, it was dark outside, and I was petrified of venturing out alone.
Things shifted yesterday though thanks to my Airbnb host, Tammy. I had hoped staying in an Airbnb might be a great way to meet people, get to know the city and maybe even make a friend. For once, I was not wrong. Tammy has lived in Florida as well as London, so perhaps she understands what it’s like to be a foreigner in a strange new place or she is just a really understanding, patient person—probably both. Yesterday morning she brought me to a nearby bakery, and she made sure to point out again the direction we had come from to get there, even though the apartment is nearly visible from the bakery. These are the types of kindnesses I seriously appreciate but am usually too embarrassed to ask for.
Tammy’s apartment is in a high rise located on what looks to be almost a back road, but it’s actually in a neighborhood in the center of the city (Bela Vista) and just half a mile away or so from Avenida Paulista, Sao Paulo’s answer to Saks fifth and Michigan Ave. Stela told me that I can find any cute brand name article I could possibly desire on Paulista and then simply go to the cross street Rua Augusta to buy the knock-off. Walking along both these streets with Tammy yesterday though, I never would have guessed that there is shopping on either of these streets. There were no shop windows, few pedestrians, and it was hard to believe on a sleepy Sunday morning that this was the center of the city, never mind a major shopping district.
Tammy and I walked along, my eyes darting around nervously, while she ambled down the street, occasionally taking out her iPhone to take a picture or text a friend. I asked her how she felt so comfortable taking pictures with a fancy phone and whether that makes you an easy target as I’d been warned. Tammy said she might be almost too unconcerned, but she’d never had anything bad happen to her. When she had previously lived in Rio, the Cariocas asked her how she could live in such a dangerous city as Sao Paulo, whereas in SP the Paulistanos asked her how she could possibly live in Rio. These reciprocal perceptions are probably worsened by the fact that Cariocas and Paulistanos neither like nor trust each other.
I’ll admit that I think I’ll always be pretty wary of Rio, not just thanks to Cidade de Deus. However, with regard to Sao Paulo, I’m realizing that much of the advice I had been getting is from Brazilians who are not from Sao Paulo or, in many cases, any major city. I think some people might feel like they have to be SP experts just because they are from Brazil, when of course it would be impossible to know everything about such a huge country. Call me ignorant, but please don’t ask me which parts of Baltimore to avoid. SP is certainly a huge city, with its fair share of violence, but I suspect it is not quite as scary as some people have made it out to me to be, and I also think that hiding inside Tammy’s apartment all day is not really a life.
To the uninitiated at least, Av. Paulista looks like any major city thoroughfare on a Sunday. People were dressed casually, running, ogling the Elvis impersonator, walking their tiny fluffy dogs (Tammy told me apartments don’t usually let you have a big dog, so it seems even the big macho guys have tiny fluffy pups), and just generally soaking up a nice sunny day in the city. We also ran into a protest that was something like a parade or party. At the time, neither of us knew what it was, but Tammy pointed out that the people marching were holding flags for every cause imaginable, from gay pride to protests against government corruption so it didn’t seem to have a clear cause. When we met up with Tammy’s friends later in the super-hip Vila Madalena, we all remembered that it was Brazilian Independence day, and apparently general protests are not uncommon accompaniments to the customary Independence Day military parades . When I tried to look up information later about the protest, there was almost no information on Sao Paulo’s peaceful iteration, which seems to have paled in comparison to the World Cup protests and strikes earlier this year.
What struck me more than the protests was the fact that my Brazilian friends had forgotten it was Independence Day. If my poor recollection of Brazilian history serves (“Brazil on the Rise” is interesting if you seek an extremely abridged and arguably biased version of the country’s history and culture), Brazil gained its independence from a Portuguese prince who had fled to Brazil after the French invasion of Portugal and decided he simply did not want to return home. In fact, the word “fico” (I’m staying) is famous throughout Brazil for this reason. Perhaps the US has a different sense of pride on July 4th because we feel we “earned” independence through violence and war? I’m sure, given that it’s election season, I’ll gain a better understanding of Brazilian politics and patriotism this fall (er, spring?). For now though, thanks to Tammy, I feel more confident knowing that I’ll be able to navigate this concrete jungle a little better before all that craziness begins.