“I am not lead, I lead”. A pretty apt motto for the 11th most populous city on Earth. Sao Paulo is the financial center of Brazil, with the biggest GNP and population in the Southern Hemisphere, making us think of Tokyo, Mexico City and Delhi. It should. It is huge. A massive display of skyscrapers and urban sprawl as you fly over it, a sea of commuters as you traverse the city on the subways, a seedy, unappealing downtown, and frightening crime against the person statistics, one could easily forget that quirky neighborhoods hide out in every direction. The abundance of pocket parks and trees make it more serene than other cities of this size.
We had only two days to explore the city before we joined our adventure travel group in Cuiaba, so we stayed in Vila Madralena, a hip and arty neighborhood with a high degree of safety… at least in the daytime. Also it is a very walkable neighborhood. We learned the importance of this on our first Uber ride that took way longer than using the subway and walking the same distance. 183 miles of backed up traffic is the historic worst in Sao Paulo history.
Every blank wall, offered a mural. Every business with a blank wall had a mural themed to the business. A favorite was at the local veterinarian’s office featuring dogs enjoying a standing pee together.
Trees, power poles, traffic signs sprouted painted plastic bottles recycled as plant containers, and often were wrapped with fabric sheaths, ribbons, and friendly messages.
We had extended conversations with warm and chatty Paulistas, all of whom spoke several languages besides Portugese. The Portugese spoken here sounds just like Italian by cadence and inflection because the earliest immigrants were primarily Italian. 60% of the city residents claim some Italian heritage! Founded by Jesuit priests in 1554, there is little feel of the sacred now, as big business, (including the systematic destruction of the Brazilian rain forests to support cattle grazing), is the driving force here. The city’s GNP is 24th in the world compared with all countries. Due to a later influx of immigrants after the Italians, Sao Paulo has the largest Arab and Jewish population in the Americas, and the largest Japanese population anywhere in the world outside of Japan! Such a melting pot makes for a foodie paradise including excellent sushi (only 43 miles from the Atlantic Ocean), Brazilian meats cooked on skewers for slicing at the table, “Churrasco”, and over a million pizzas a day, produced by six thousand pizzerias. Ciao, bem-vindo!