Although we planned to spend almost the entire summer in Salt Lake City, we ended up nearly constantly on the move. No complaints here – I love the chance to explore new places! I knew almost nothing about São Paulo, Brazil, before tagging along there for a week while my husband had a work commitment. I’d never even ventured into the Southern Hemisphere, and knew not one word of Portuguese.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve heard it said that we learn best when we’re out of our comfort zone – for example, functioning solo in a new culture when we don’t know the language. And boy, did I learn a lot.
I explored the city primarily on foot, with the occasional Uber ride. Traffic is intense all over the city, at most times of the day and night. As with any new place, it’s important to grasp the rules for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians to avoid collisions and retain sanity. Here’s what I noticed from my travels on foot around São Paulo.
- When the signal turns red at an intersection, all of the motorcycles will move to the front of the line to get a head start..
- If on foot, check that a car isn’t whipping around the corner first before entering an intersection. They will not stop for you.
- When the coast is clear, pedestrians run like crazy to cross. The lights are short, and again, no one will wait or stop.
The exception to busy traffic? During World Cup matches, when traffic died down to just a few trucks here and there, as most folks stayed home or swarmed to local bars to catch the game.
City of Juxtapositions
The divide between rich and poor is pronounced in Brazil. Homeless encampments squat just a few blocks away from gleaming hotels. In the Old Town Center area, graffiti mars buildings at eye level, but a gaze upward reveals beautiful architectural details. Amidst heavy traffic, lush islands of serenity like Ibirapuera Park and Trianon Park provide a quiet escape. Modern structures stand side by side with buildings from the 1500s and 1600s. On one short stroll, I overheard at least six different languages in conversations: Portuguese, French, Spanish, English, Chinese, and Italian. The contrasts all around me felt jarring at times, but also eye-opening.
World Cup Fever
Enthusiasm for soccer competitions in the USA is muted at best, even more so because the USA team didn’t make the World Cup finals this year. The day after we arrived in São Paulo, the city transformed into a sea of yellow and green, the normally busy traffic slowed to a trickle, and bars filled with fans to watch the Brazil vs. Mexico match. We chose a local bar and joined in the fun, as it erupted in cheers for two goals – and also anytime the referees made a favorable ruling, or the goalie made a save, or the ball moved a few feet in the right direction, it seemed. The final score: 2-0, Brazil victorious! For hours after the match, fans in various states of intoxication wandered the streets celebrating.
A few days later, we joined an even larger crowd at a different bar for the Brazil vs. Belgium match. This time, the outcome was not so fortunate for Brazil, though one goal did result in the usual amount of triumphant vocalization. I was reminded of Philadelphia, my home town where the Eagles recently won their first-ever Superbowl, and Washington, DC, my current city where the Capitals won their first-ever Stanley Cup this June. No matter where you’re from, it seems, you share in the exuberance when your favorite team succeeds, and in the disappointment when they lose. Fandom is universal.
A week in São Paulo offered just a snapshot of the diverse, beautiful, complex, vast country of Brazil. My wishlist for future visits could fill a lifetime: driving along the Costa Verde with striking coastal views to the Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City) of Rio de Janeiro, beaches in Ubatuba and waterfalls in Ilhabela (Beautiful Island), hiking in the mountains of Serra del Mantiqueira, experiencing cultural festivals in Salvador de Bahia, taking a boat ride into the Amazon jungle, and checking out some of the array of UNESCO heritage sites all over the country.
One last note: I did much of my traveling through the city solo on foot while my husband attended work meetings. I’d heard a lot of warnings about crime and the need to be vigilant, especially as a female solo traveler. As a result, I carried very little money with me and avoided public transportation. I never felt unsafe or threatened in Paulista, Jardins, or Brooklin, the upscale areas of the city that I visited on my own. I saved the somewhat sketchy Old Town Center for a time when I had a travel companion, but again felt safe walking around there in the daytime. Like any city, especially one in an unfamiliar place, it’s a good idea to be cautious and stay alert.
All told, I loved the chance to expand my comfort zone in Brazil. My first visit to the Southern Hemisphere will not be my last!