São Paulo: The City of Contrasts

AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills
By Njoki Wamai

Meu nome é Njoki. Como você está? Obrigada. I thank my seatmate for a quick Portuguese language lesson and memorize the introductory lines one last time as our plane from Oliver Tambo Airport in Johannesburg lands at Guarulhos Airport in São Paulo. 

I quickly glance beyond the terminals and the airplanes lined across it as the pilot welcomes us. I wonder what the city has in store for me beyond the annual human rights meeting I am here to attend.

My thoughts are interrupted by the cabin crew’s announcement to disembark. The November sun embraces us warmly. The glossy advertisements from international banks and mobile phone companies compete for our attention at the arrivals terminal, reminding us that Brazil has found its place among the big players. I meet my hosts after the luggage hall and they lead me to the taxi rank for a forty-minute ride to the city.

The large motorway from the airport to the city introduces visitors to São Paulo and I notice the stark differences between favelas interspersed with cranes and bulldozers making way for construction of the next skyscraper or industrial park. The motorway gives way to recently constructed bridges and overpasses and we soon find ourselves at a hotel next to the famed São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) in the very heart of the city on Avenida Paulista, the 3 km shy avenue that boasts of hosting the most high end shopping brands anywhere in Latin America. This avenue has come a long way as an economic hub of Brazil and indeed South America’s economic nerve centre. It is here where Italian, Portuguese, Japanese and German workers, who had emigrated to work on the coffee plantations, built mansions from their coffee farming and trading activities on top of the ridge. After the abolition of slavery in 1888, the Luso-Brazilian authorities, fearing that the freed African slave population would surpass European groups, offered incentives to Europeans to emigrate with greater citizenship rights compared to the indigenous Indian-Brazilian population and the African-Brazilians. This policy set a precedent of inequality that successive regimes continue to face to this day.

While sitting inside one of São Paulo’s skyscrapers on a hot sunny afternoon, I could not help but notice the stark similarity between the concentration of skyscrapers on Avenida Paulista and Manhattan, New York City’s concrete jungle, as I heard the buzzing engines from helicopters flying near. My Brazilian colleagues confirmed that the number of helipads and helicopter traffic in São Paulo was even higher than that of New York City. I saw restless business executives and traders who shuttled between the São Paulo Airport and their high-rise offices on Avenida Paulista, walking towards their offices in executive suits, hiding the city’s vibrant nightlife away from casual observers. One evening, after spending a few days in one of these skyscrapers at the São Paulo University deliberating on how Non-governmental Organizations can better engage the United Nations, we discover the city’s enchanting night life that lies in sharp contrast to the competition in the city characterized by its concrete skyscrapers that compete for space and recognition internally and also externally, as the B in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) acronym signifies. Brazil cannot be ignored as an emerging world power and São Paulo is its engine.

Our first stop was a bar at the heart of the city, the Brahma Bar, at the corner of São João and Ipiranga Street in República, which boasts of being the cultural and financial centre of the city. The Brahma is one of the oldest bars in the city, having provided a meeting place for bohemian types like artists, intellectuals, politicians and musicians since 1948. Its décor takes you back to the mid twentieth century with chandeliers, bronze railings, velvet curtains, carpets and a piano true to the Victorian period.Its huge chandeliers hanging from its high ceilings illuminate its big bronze framed windows and walls embraced by the red velvet curtains, while the city’s famous live performing musicians compete for attention from the patrons as they discuss politics. The Brahma is a great place for classic samba, being home to one of the oldest groups, 60 year old Demônios da Garoa. It has several rooms with different performances, making the venue unique due to its varied menu. A great place to try the typical Brazilian food: feijoada, which is basically a beans and fries meal. As we leave Brahma for the samba quarters of Vila Madalena, a man waves a placard, asking for kisses in Portuguese. My Brazilian friends oblige, while I reluctantly walk away, coming from a culture where handshakes are the norm with limited kissing as a form of greeting, especially with strangers. Embarrassed by my obvious coldness, I quickly start appreciating the warmth of the Brazilian people and look forward to the next stranger’s kiss.

We eventually get to Vila Madalena, the samba capital of Sampa (the popular name for São Paulo). Vila Madalena’s maisonettes present a sharp contrast to the skyscrapers in the rest of the city. Their terracotta coloured roof tiles give the area a homely, relaxed feel as we walk past scores of samba bars and restaurants with patrons leisurely dancing to the beats of samba. Our hosts quickly walk us through a few samba bars before settling for a favourite one called Samba. I quickly get into the rhythm from the African beats I know and soon after drowning a few caipirinhas (Brazil’s national cocktails made with cachaça, sugar and lime) I start dancing gaily under the samba beats and jingles. “Another caipirinha!” I shout above the din in the samba bar. At that time, Barack Obama had just won the primaries and anyone with a slight connection to Obama, no matter how remote, was seen in a different light and my friends reminded the band to announce there was a Kenyan in the house. Shortly, I was hugged and adorned with kisses for this by happy patrons of the club.

Despite having never met these strangers in the samba bar, I feel a certain inexplicable connection with them when we dance and when we talk in spite of my limitations in speaking their Portuguese language. I meet many Brazilians and am struck by the mosaic that is the Brazilian people, characterized by different nationalities and different colours (brown, black and white) but one people, originally from many countries (Angola, Italy, India, Japan, Germany, Lebanon, Nigeria and Portugal) of the world all dancing to one Brazilian samba beat. Some few African-Brazilians probe me further about my country, Kenya, probably to see if they could link their distant African origins with my country. We continue dancing till dawn when the samba band retires after a long night, and we crawl out of the bar. To our surprise it’s sunrise.

São Paulo is one of those places that evoke magical memories, where the magic has evaporated but I still carry the memories with me. There are few places in a busy city where one feels a certain inexplicable connection with their soul. São Paulo in the night is one of those places. Once again my thoughts are interrupted by the pilot as he welcomes us on board out of São Paulo. I feel a sense of loss which one feels when leaving a special person or place. I take one last look out of the window and clutch my samba music and bottle of cachaça tighter, wishing I could rewind time. Wishing I had known and read about all those little treasures of São Paulo, but also appreciating the friends I met who revealed the magic of Sampa.


4 March 2011


This piece is dedicated to the CONECTAS.


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills


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