Exploring São Paulo

I imagine this is how the Donner party felt.

I looked at the foot of my bed and I see a blanket. A blanket. This is the first one I’d seen since February. Would I need a sweatshirt tonight? The temperature outside is 20 degrees, but it’s in Communist units, known in the scientific community as celsius. That equals 68 degrees in Freedom units. That explained the wool blanket; the thick material gave me confidence I could make it through the night in this sub-arctic wasteland.

To live here would be tempting God’s mercy; to build a city would be a true testament to man’s arrogance.

An hour ago I was on a flight from sunny Fortaleza in Brazil’s Nordeste, its northeast region known for natural beauty, relaxed attitude, and warm beaches. Now I found myself in Guarulhos, a 1,500,000 person suburb of São Paulo which looks like urban sprawl and smells like car exhaust. Not only was man arrogant enough to build a city here, it built the biggest metropolis in South America.

As luck would have it, three of the top four attractions I hoped to see were closed on the day I planned to spend in Guarulhos. Instead I went to a large park downtown and then played the Google ghetto challenge to get back to the hostel, where you walk somewhere with google maps but take the shortest route instead of the recommended route. It’s sometimes good, sometimes bad, but rarely boring.

A staircase in Bosque Maio, a park in Guarulhos, Brasil

“Where did you learn Portuguese?” someone at the hostel asked me.

“At first in Salvador, but more recently in Fortaleza. Why do you ask?”

She explained to me with the sneering condescension only found in people who consider what they aren’t to be an important part of their identity that the Nordestinos are uneducated and it can be heard in their accent.

“Night. Noite. Is it noi-chee or noi-tay here?” I asked her


“Saudade. Sow-daw-gee or sow-daw-day?

“Saw-daw-day. You speak like a Nordestino.”

“Arrogante. Aho-gone-chee or aho-gone-tay?” I asked her. She left the room.

I arrived in São Paulo proper the next day and found myself in a fashionable, expensive, and expansive metropolis. Skyscrapers turned the sky sterile, serious people in designer jeans  do the same to some metro lines. Many people here assume I am German, which is a step down from the Fortalezans who think I’m an Argentine but a step up from simply being the gringo. It’s always a pleasant surprise when I can arrive somewhere and speak the local language without people getting frustrated at me; the ultimate insult is when someone rolls their eyes and asks in broken English if it would be easier if we spoke in English. Not in São Paulo though. Here I can speak Portuguese.

After walking downtown for several hours, practicing Portuguese, looking for English books in bookstores, and soaking in the sights, sounds, and smells of somewhere new, I get a familiar feeling. I can’t make out the letters on the street sign twenty feet away. I can’t differentiate faces. My legs are wobbly. My seizure warning signs are all firing at once. I duck into the nearest restaurant, unfortunately McDonald’s, and make my way to the front of the line, ordering by picture since I can’t focus on reading the menu. To my delight, McDonald’s here serves Mexican food, and my burger is made of actual meat and covered in pico de gallo and guacamole. I eat the entire meal and wait for my head to readjust itself; eating and resting always help. So I wait for my head to calm. And I wait. And wait. Instead, my stomach is begins to feel like I just walked for four hours and ate a full McDonald’s meal. My head still feels the same. So I chug water as I wait longer.

I didn’t find much Calvin and Hobbes, but I found plenty of Calvin e Haroldo

After I’m comfortable walking without collapsing, I leave the trendy Paulista street and head to Rua 25 de Março, a street well known for discount shopping and large crowds. I duck into a bookstore focused on cults and conspiracies when a red swastika catches my eye, as red swastikas tend to do. Without thinking I pull out the Portuguese version of Mein Kampf and wonder what alternate dimension had I wandered into. Next to it is a readers guide (!) and several other books about the third reich and fascism in general; the shop owners were unusually insistent that I delete the photos on my phone. “O gringo chega e…” (The gringo comes in and…) the blond man mutters to the pale woman with blood-red hair next to him, likely descendants of the large German group which migrated to Brasil and Argentina in 1945 to escape the Nuremberg Trials winter. As I left the store I saw a DVD in the window advertising World War II from the German perspective. I couldn’t leave fast enough.

The next day was better. I wandered more and watched the racial makeup of the neighborhoods and metro stations change the further and further I got from downtown, then realized that I had been walking aimlessly with a smart phone and pocket full of money for hours. I hadn’t been robbed and I hadn’t even been sunburned or sweat through my clothes. I passed Mexican restaurants and several art museums, then rode a subway which could get me across the city quickly, cheaply, and safely. Fortaleza, my version of paradise, lacks these things, just as it lacked the diversity of the Japanese, Arab, and Italian faces I see all around me. The dusty first impression had been washed out of my mouth.

Maybe I should stick around.

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