Sao Paulo is a city of 14.7 million people and with a metropolitan area of about 30 million people. It is not only the most populous city in Brazil, but the most populous in the Southern Hemisphere. It is a finance and business hub. This was our starting point in Brazil.
Despite its size and significance, Sao Paulo is not a tourism hot-spot. The hotels are mostly targeting business travellers, tourism infrastructure is less developed, and traffic is notoriously bad. Andrejs has an ex-colleague who is a Sao Paulo local, so we asked him for suggestions for what to do there. He said: pizza, pastels and pao de queijo (i.e. Brazilian bread rolls with cheese).
So, in Sao Paulo we ate. I think I ate so many cheese balls in Brazil that I might turn into one. Luckily I offset them a little with fresh fruit.
Andrejs and I both understand some Spanish. So, arriving in Portuguese-speaking Brazil meant that we had to get used to being in a country where we didn’t speak the language at all. This made Brazil feel more distant at first. At the same time, Brazil’s racial diversity meant we blended in easier. A few different locals were left laughing when they asked me for directions and were met with my blank face and English apology. We were frequently mistaken for locals.
And so we explored some pockets of this vast city. It is a city of contrasts— of haves and have-nots — and this was clear without needing to go to any of the city’s favelas. The endless concrete of this urban monstrosity drove home how cold city life can be. In more expensive neighbourhoods fancy houses sit behind impossibly tall gates and walls with security cameras. But, a short walk from the Pinacoteca museum, I saw more human faeces in the street than I can remember ever seeing. (Andrejs said he had seen this in India.)
At the same time, I really enjoyed exploring a city that wasn’t very touristy. We explored lovely parks, random galleries and interesting markets.
Really, my experience of Brazil as a whole was of contrasts. After the mega-city of Sao Paulo, we headed to the relatively tiny Paraty. With a population of only 36,000, it features an old town preserved since colonial times. Historically supported by trade in gold, slaves and cachaca (a type of alcohol), today Paraty depends on tourism.
From Paraty we continued to a beautiful island called Ilha Grande. The island has no cars (with the exception of one ambulance and one police car) and the main mode of transport to and around the island is by boat. We saw beautiful, remote beaches and went snorkelling to see a great variety fish.
We stumbled onto a small group of wild monkeys along a path and saw crabs digging homes in the sand. Along the beach of the main town on the island you could see huge crabs walking around, which some dogs liked to chase and bark at. (The crabs seemed to win in the end, as eventually the dogs tired.)
We continued on by bus to Rio de Janeiro. It is quite a bit smaller than Sao Paulo, with a population of about 6 million, but Rio also has its share of sketchier areas, where the graffiti is omnipresent and taxi drivers aren’t always willing to go.
Sao Paulo may win when it comes to food, but Rio has a lot to offer when it comes to cultural activities. We took cable cars up to enjoy stunning views and visited interesting buildings and churches throughout the city. We of course walked the famous Copacabana beachfront.
I have previously written about a college basketball game in the U.S. where the guest team was ignored and/or booed. This was nothing compared to what we saw at a football game in Rio de Janeiro. The Maracana stadium, which seats almost 80,000 spectators, is the largest in Brazil.
When we went, 95% of it was filled with Flamengo supporters.
In a section behind us sat a small but loud Penarol fan group. This small group was surrounded by security guards — for their own protection, because they were constantly abused. Trash was thrown at them. Flamengo fans swore at them, middle fingers in the air. Adult men grabbed their genitals, urging the ‘others’ to come and fight.
In Brazil there is a strong history of football hooliganism. It has been linked to violent, organised groups of often poor fans. It’s as if it has become socially acceptable to channel anger at being poor and downtrodden into an aggression at a largely arbitrary other — a rival football team.
For football, the result is often violence. Rio news reported on fights both before and after the game we saw. We left the game early to avoid any issues. I remain saddened at the memory of the little girl sitting a few rows ahead of me. She was maybe 12 years old. When a recorded announcement urged spectators not to shout abuse, she turned around and yelled something in the direction of the rival team’s fan block. Then she looked towards her dad for approval. Clearly they learn young…
These aggressive men were very different to the otherwise friendly Brazilians we encountered — both in the cities and the smaller places we visited.
We did also visit the Iguazu Falls, both from the Brazilian and the Argentinian side, but I will have to write a separate post about that. There is simply too much to show. For those of you who are interested in nature, stay tuned!
In truth, we only travelled in a very small part of the huge country that is Brazil. Find Rio and Sao Paulo on a map, and you’ll see we only covered a small sliver. After all, Brazil is enormous. It occupies half of South America! Only four countries in the world are larger — Russia, Canada, China and the U.S. In about three weeks, we only scratched the surface but we encountered a lot of diversity and contrasts — in people, prosperity, and culture.
Clearly I have to go back and see more of Brazil one day. I also have to come back for more cheese balls…