Scenes from Sao Paulo – First impressions of Brazil

It was a week since I reached Brazil and it had just not sunk in. Many locals told me that the reason I really did not feel ‘like I was in Brazil was because I had landed in Sao Paulo, which was not considered particularly Brazilian. I did wonder why the hell people would say something like that about a city with 15 million people who spoke Portuguese and drank Capirinha. I guess it did not take very long to figure out why. On day 1, a Brazilian friend wanted to take us out to eat authentic Sao Paulo food and guess what she was referring to – Pizza. I’m not joking. I’m definitely not lying to make the blog post look more interesting. I am damn serious. Sao Paulo is known for Pizza. Who would’ve thought. Then and there, I knew that I was in Brazil, but in a city not very Brazilian.

That made me only more eager and anxious to start experiencing anything remotely Brazilian around me. We were lucky to be staying with a Brazilian family instead of a backpacker hostel. Oh.. don’t mistake me.. I love backpacker hostels. I think they give you a wonderful perspective of any city… but, still an outsiders perspective. Staying with locals is something else totally.

The family we stayed with were the Vannuchis – Renata and her daughter Luanda. We had met Maira, Renata’s elder daughter in India and that is how we managed to find this lovely family. Luanda and Maira are both on Couchsurfing, the one travel exchange site I totally vouch for. Renata’s sociology background coupled with Luanda’s interest in Samba, their cook Denise’s Brazilian recipes and their paying guest Cecils American perspective of Brazil was a fantastic starting point for us.

When we landed in Sao Paulo, we spent nearly 2 hours in the airport trying to exchange our money, get a map and buy a coffee. Normally, that would have taken us 15 minutes. I am still trying to figure out why it took us that long… Lost in translation to an extent. After experiencing a ‘shortage of payphones in JFK’, we were pleasantly surprised to see tons of payphones in the Sao Paulo airport. After a bus ride down a highway called the Ayrton Senna highway (which actually looked like the Ghatkopar Thane belt on Eastern express highway), we reached a metro station called Tatuape, from where we took a metro to Clinicas. Clinicas is one of the largest public hospitals in Sao Paulo and is pretty close to where our friend Luanda lived. Luanda asked us to wait in the street corner of Dr. Arnaldo and Theodoro Sampaio, next to some pretty flowers. After looking out desperately, we found a couple of bushes and wilting red flowers and thought that was the meeting point. Only after a whole 10 minutes of looking really lost, we noticed an entire lane of flower sellers across the street. How could we have missed that….. Phew! We ran across the street with our heavy backpacks and perched ourself right next to the first flower vendor. Just in time for Lu and her mom to drive and pick us up.

Reaching home, I was really happy to drink my first cup of home brewed Brazilian coffee. I learnt in 2 minutes how to operate that machine. That was a very important part of the trip for me. (My only interaction in a Brazilian kitchen)

Luanda had already made plans to take us to experience Sao Paulo. To ensure we experienced adequate Brazilian stuff, she took us to the nearby ‘Feira’. Feira is a fair that happens in the weekends with live music, food stalls, art and craft stalls… a flea market in many ways too. Feira Benedito Calixto, the fair we attended, was alive with Chorinho music, a particular type of Samba music. There are thousands of musical styles and hence, its very difficult to understand the nuances. Try explaining the difference between Dandia, Garba, Bhangra to a Brazilian. That was pretty much how I felt when I heard different Samba styles. I could live with the fact that there was great music going on in the background and I had no idea what it meant or what instruments they used to make it sound so awesome. Luanda gave a live commentary about the music styles and that was an amazing induction. (Check out videos of Chorinho and Samba here – You need a facebook login).

After trying some super sweet Bridgadeira (a chocolate flavoured condsensed milk mousse like thing) with Laranjinha (little oranges), an oily Pastel (like an elongated cheese stuffed spring roll), we were all set to forget about Food and head out to dance. Lose some of those calories in a Samba place. Does wonders for the calf muscles and the waist.. so I was told… Not really seeing the impact yet : (

The Samba bar we went to was in Plaza De Roosevelt. Everything that begins with R is pronounced with a H in Brazil. So its Hoosevelt… All our life we have been calling people Ronaldo and its actually Honaldo…. I heally had to practice : )

The samba bar was a local bar with people from all socio economic backgrounds. Luanda explained to us that it was a place where people sang ‘Popular Samba’. The younger generation however liked to listen to ‘Samba Rock’, which is pronounced as ‘Samba Hocky’… I was really impressed with the billing system at the bars in Brazil. When you enter a bar, they give you a little menu card like thing with your name on top. The bartenders mark on the menu card everytime you buy stuff. When you leave the bar, you have to pay everything together and get the menu card stamped. Only on showing the ‘paid’ stamp are you allowed to exit the bar. This makes life so simple in terms of splitting the bill between friends, keeping tab of how much you are drinking… I loved the idea. Simple and effective. And as you walk by tables, you can see really filled cards – shows the Brazilian drinking potential.

A couple of tips to handle your first time in a Samba Bar –

1. Move from side to side and sway your hips even if you cannot Samba.. As you are doing that, work your way to the front…

2. If you cant sing and you feel inadequate, learn the ‘la la la la’ part of the song, which is easy.. makes you feel like a local atleast

3. Try to look somewhat feminine (All the pretty women made me feel like an ugly lost tomboy)

4. Be prepared for unwanted attention (if you are Indian). I had 3 guys kiss me on the cheek suddenly. Don’t make eye contact and just tell them ‘Sou Cazada’ which means ‘I am married’. Some guys will still shamelessly hit on you. Then, you say ‘Para’ which means ‘Stop’.

5. With respect to drinking, you dont have to drink the entire beer bottle as the bars serve one bottle and give you many glasses (like chai glasses). You can share the beer with friends. So, just say this at the counter ‘Uma Brahma e Dois Kopas’ confidently. Thats asking for 1 Brahma beer and 2 glasses. (ofcourse, you can choose other beers like Skol but frankly, all of them taste like water.. Kingfisher Zindabad). When you are ordering things, its very important to look confident. I did not look very confident and that was one of the moments that a wierdo actually caught me off guard and kissed me on the cheek. Be alert all the time.

6. Once you get your drink, say Cheers the Brazilian way – ‘Saude’. (pronounced as Sauji..)

The second day in Sao Paulo was spent walking around with Luiza, a proud Paulista for sure. Paulistas are people from Sau Paulo. She loved the city and you could feel that the
minute she started talking about the city. We met her at Livraria Cultura, which is a large bookstore in Avenue Paulista, the lane which resembles Cuffe Parade or Nariman Point. She gave us an express tour of Brazil through the books in the bookstore. That was the first time we met anyone who showed us facets of a country through the books. Right from dance forms to types of fruits… popular movies to off beat artists… We walked with her for 5 hours, covering Avenue Paulista, the street fair outside MASP (museum of Sao Paulo) and Bella Vista (Italian neighbourhood). We tried tons of local snacks like Pao De Queijo (cheese bread), Empada (like a chicken puff in a cupcake format), Coxinha (soft shelled samosa like thing with chicken) and Esfiha (Pita bread with cheese or anything you want).


Having spent so much time just doing day to day things, we decided to venture out into the City centre on the third day just to see the tourist stuff. We took a bus to Teatro Municipal and walked for 2 hours around the neighbourhood and pretty much detested what we saw. Prety old buildings were ruined by ugly graffiti and the entire neighbourhood felt unsafe and poor. Though it was the commercial area, there were many homeless people and hippies, making the walk slightly uncomfortable. Adding to the discomfort was the unbearable heat. It did not take us too long to figure out that we were happy visiting non tourist neighbourhoods.

We quickly rushed back to where our friend lived only to head out in the night to a lovely Samba Bar in Vila Madalena, a lively neighbourhood. This Samba bar was very different from the one we visited earlier. With music, which was a pace between the slow and fast Samba, crowd which was much younger than the other bar, unusual paintings in the walls, it felt like a university hangout.

Luanda introduced us to some of her friends, one friend who I remember dearly – Andre. In a one hour conversation, he translated an intense Samba song, discussed styles of Samba, shared his thoughts on America and drank a beer with me. Another friend, who I will call ‘bearded white shirt guy’, amused me with his knowledge of the scene from a Bollywood film, where the heroine shows her ankle seductively to the hero on the night of their wedding, by slowly sliding her saree up. He felt that every Indian woman covered themselves from head to toe, till they get married and found that fascinating. Little does he know… Later, Mr. bearded white shirt guy was all over a girl and in all the fervour, managed to topple a glass of beer on us.

Hanging out so much with the locals and having learnt to pronounce R as H, we felt pretty much like locals. By the way, I forgot to mention that my travel partner Neesha does 2 things better than anyone else I have met – Cook and Learn languages.

I will talk about the language first. When we got into a bus, I would say Ola and Obrigada (Hello and thanks) and she would say ‘Voce pode meu mostrar onde … blah blah’ which meant something like ‘Can you show us where to get off the bus’… That was the extent of her knowledge vis a vis mine. I felt really worried that I was not learning much. But, later on, I just decided to console myself by acknowledging the fact that we both followed different techniques. She would learn the language with proper congugation, gender, etc. I just said 5 words and expected the other person to put it together in a sentence. For eg: Neesha would say ‘I need to go to the Paulo Freire institute and learn more about the education movement. I need to take a bus there now. Can you tell me how to get there.’ I would say ‘Go, Paulo Freire, Education, Learn, Now, Bus, How’. After trying this out a couple of times, I eeven picked up speed with this technique. So far, I am doing good. Maybe I will learn to say the connecting stuff in a few months. By that time, Neesha may even be writing music in Portuguese.

The other thing which she does bloody well is cooking. She does the cooking. I do the eating.To make up for the fact that I cannot cook, I clean the dishes. In this past 40 days of travel, I have washed more dishes than I have in 5 years of living in Bombay. Horrible me. Spoilt me. Atleast, travel is making me more domestic. Coming back to Neesha’s love for cooking, she has been spent a lot of time with the people who cook Brazilian food and took express notes of recipes, spices, etc. What amazes me even more is that she has been doing that in Portuguese. She knows how to say Avacado and Artichokes in Portuguese. I can barely recognize those vegetables.

Deviating from cooking, I need to give some useful information…. The Sao Paulo transport system is pretty damn good. We took the bus everywhere. If you get the transport card, which looks like a credit card, you can load it with money and use it as a smart card. The advantage of this card is that within 3 hours, you can take 4 buses and pay only for 1 bus. If you don’t have the card, you have to pay 2.4 reals for every ride. Also, if you take the metro and then take a bus within the next hour, you can pay 50% fare for the bus. Get the card from any metro station when you get there. The other important thing to remember is to swipe the smart card just before you get off the bus (when you take the first bus) so that you have maximum time to take the other buses within 3 hours of swiping. Transport tips only help you save money.

Amidst all the samba, brazilian food and hanging out with locals, we did what we love most. Visting and playing in the Capoeira school in Sao Paulo. Sao Paulo Cordao De Ouro School is to Capoeristas what the Vatican is to the Christians. You can imagine how excited we were attending a class with Contra Mestre Kibe, who is one of the best teachers. Mestre Suassuna was traveling and we could not meet him. However, we met so many capoeristas in the class, crazy and lovable. That was enough incentive to make up our mind about visiting Capoeirando, the big capoeira festival in January. I was personally a little worried that the school would be very large as it was the headquarters.. that there would be tons of people who would be such advanced players that we would feel left out.. that it would be a little impersonal….. I was terribly wrong. It was like visiting family. I guess that says it all.

We left Sao Paulo for Rio after spending a week. People will tell you that Sao Paulo does not really have much tourist stuff to do and hence, not to visit the city. We agree and disagree. Agree that there is not much tourst stuff to do. Disagree that you should not visit the place. Infact, the only reason we liked Sao Paulo was because of the opportunity to experience local stuff which was non touristy.

And hence, we would only give one recommendation for Sao Paulo…… Go with the flow and hang out with the Paulistas.. you won’t be disappointed.

PS: Check out the Sao Paulo photo album link on the sidebar…. you need a facebook login to access that

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3 thoughts on “Scenes from Sao Paulo – First impressions of Brazil

  1. Enjoyed this so much. Your eye for detail and your way of explaining everything, pronunciation included, was so satisfying. There’s not one question I needed to ask, because the answers are already there. Neesha and you seem to complement each other perfectly as travel partners..each doing different things.

  2. Fantastic post 🙂 I´m gonna be a lazy blogger n point to this from my blog! I´m also in Rio, with the same number. (Trying calling u last week but u were out… we did a CS photoshoot for Veja magazine!!) Staying with a French couple with our Carioca hosts, about 40 mins from downtown. Hope our paths cross sometime here! Saude!

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