Urban Decay: My trip to São Paulo

If I had to use two words to describe São Paulo they would be urban decay. São Paulo is a dark and foreboding metropolis rife with crime, grime and rampant urban decay. Imagine, If you will, a world where all the people choose to live locked up inside the walls of a prison because it is safer than being outside. São Paulo is a city of gilt cages. Everyone lives behind bars.

My first impression of São Paulo is one that I still haven’t been able to shake since arriving here. Churches are prison encampments complete with barbed wire and security guards. People live like prisoners in their own homes and are placated by television and soap operas. Since being here I have discovered Silvo Santos and I have yet to decide whether he is an agent of the devil. Here I have experienced a level of poverty that I have never experienced before, one that is mixed with a heady cocktail of violence and fear. On reflection, I have seen many places with worse living conditions, however, the sense of fear of the outside that people here live with makes it feel much poorer by far. The most immense, intimidating and depressing thing of all is that the city goes on as far as the eye can see. There is no end to this bleak, concrete metropolis. There are few trees here on the streets and it seems that some people must live the majority of their lives without seeing any form of nature whatsoever. I can’t help but draw a comparison between São Paulo and Gotham city. In my wildest imagination I couldn’t imagine that this conception of the city as bleak, concrete and never-ending could be real and here I have found out that I was wrong. Perhaps the creator of Batman visited this city at some point. Perhaps even more depressing is that there are people who live in this city who have never seen the limits of this place. Writing this I have an urge to travel to where the city ends as a kind of cathartic process. I want to see that it does end.

People here live in a variety of miniature prisons. If you are lucky enough to be very well off you can live in an apartment that is part of a complex. These apartments seem something akin to holiday complexes and come complete with tennis courts, gyms and twenty four hour security. Here, the bars are only on the outside of the complexes. The walls are high enough that no one can scale them and the gates to the outside have a two tier entry. The guards allow you through the first gate once you have identified yourself via CCTV and then come to personally greet you in a sort of holding pen to check you are legitimate before allowing you into the complex and escorting you to your destination. If you are, for want of a better word, middle class you can afford to have your own mini encampment. A nice large house where you can lock yourself away from the degradation outside. These houses are almost always deceptively big. From the outside they look like nothing more than a garage door but inside they are very expansive. Windows and light, are the sacrifice in these houses. No one wants their house to have portals to the outside world and so the appearance of the houses is akin to a rabbit warren. Safety is the number one priority. If you are less fortunate you live in an apartment that actually is a prison having just as many of the confining features: bleak high grey walls complete with barbed wire; giant security doors made of steel that can only be opened by card; bars on the windows and doors and if you are lucky there is even an “exercise yard” aka playground made of stark concrete. It is all very post apocalyptic.

Aside from my observations on housing, which I have to say have dominated my thoughts here, I also have to comment on the rampant consumerism that pervades the entire city. Shopping, shopping, shopping, shopping. People here are shopping mad. In contest to the general degradation everywhere the shopping centres are like shining beacons of light of modernity amongst otherwise crumbling and graffitied buildings. And – they are EVERYWHERE. I have never seen a city with so many shopping centres and I have never been to a place where going to these shopping centres seems like a primary form of entertainment. Here you will see people going for a meal in the shopping centre, watching television in the carefully placed seats inside electronic shops, playing computer games inside stores, going to the cinema, getting their hair done, going to the bank. Everything is within the walls and confines of the shopping centre. They are glittering, modern and all encompassing. At the weekend these shopping centres are full of people aspiring to be something else. What if you feel that you don’t want to conform to the same mould as everyone else..you are different! You are unique! Well, of course there is a special shopping centre for you as well – Galeria do Rock- one that consists of tattoo shops, band t-shirts and record shops. The two sides to this city , extreme poverty and extreme wealth, are also manifested in retail when you visit Paulista Avenue and 25 March Street. When asked by the Paulistas here where I have been these two places are at the top of the checklist and what do these two places have in common? You guessed it – retail. Interestingly they are two experiences on the complete opposite ends of the spectrum. Paulista Avenue is all glitter and expensive stores and Street 25 is a rabbits warren of Chinese run stores and dodgy black market goods. If you need some questionable electronics, cheap Chinese made underwear or in fact anything you could ever imagine ( and some things that you didn’t even know you needed) then this is the place to find them.

When Brazilians aren’t shopping they are eating. Eating is the second national pastime and before I arrived here I was thoroughly looking forward to good, simple, fresh food that had so much been lacking in Australia. I have to say that I have so far been disappointed. My main complaint is that I want to know where all the vegetables have gone?? I have scarce even seen a vegetable here with the exception of mandioca, which is my view is more of a carbohydrate like a potato. Everything here contains cheese, cheese, cheese, mortadella, cheese and well…cheese. When I was in Germany I thought that I might have a cheese overload but at least there the cheese was of good quality. Here everything is processed and it seems to difficult, or expensive, to find things that aren’t. I am very aware that my experience of São Paulo cuisine so far has been tainted by my boyfriend’s limited palate and so I am writing this with the hope that someone can correct, or modify or give me some hope that there is something beyond this in Brazilian food because my expectations before I arrived were very high. My hopes have been dashed. In the spirit of enthusiasm though I have tried lots of new foods – Pastel, coxinha, bolinho de carne basically all of which involve meat and cheese being fried in a different manner. We also made a trip to the municipal market in São Paulo which seems to be more of a tourist attraction or destination for the middle class of a weekend. It is the Brazilian equivalent to the Bondi markets on a Sunday in Australia…or maybe a garden centre in the UK. Here you can find a variety of rest fruits and vegetables displayed in beautiful pyramids and, shock and horror, people who can speak English. The market is also home to one of the most famous and touristy cuisines in São Paulo – The Giant Mortadela Sandwich – and yes, I did just give it capital letters. This sandwich does what it says on the cover. It is a giant sandwich of Mortadela with, of course, a small helping of cheese to make it complete. Just looking at the sandwich alone is enough to give you a heart attack. Of course, after some persuasion, I had to try it. I had half – I failed to finish. Sandwich 1- Danielle 0. Of course, there are plenty of Brazilians here who can finish not just half of the sandwich but the whole damned thing. It is scary and highlights another unexpected aspect of Sao Paulo. Obesity.

Now i’m pretty sure that no official statistics have been done on the obesity problem in this city because outside of America I have never seen a place so populated by people who are overweight. It is unexpected because the official stereotype of the Brazilian is a hot svelte girl with good assets everywhere else and this is just not the case at all. Obesity is a serious problem here – I think partially due to the food and partly due to the fact no one here walks anywhere due to safety concerns, partly due to peoples’ addiction to soap opera. Imagine Hollyoaks, then imagine that the Hollyoaks plots became four times as ridiculous, then imagine the Hollyoaks actors and actresses became about twice as attractive and half as clothed. Welcome to Brazilian soap opera. At a cursory glance Brazilian television appears to be sixty percent soap opera, thirty percent sport and ten percent awful generation game style gameshow. Each of these television shows are accompanied by a group, usually about ten or so, half naked dancing women. Their purpose is simply to prevent the men becoming bored with the television show and I can’t help but think of my friend Rachele who introduced me to the Italian television dancing girls. Here, it is much more rampant and mirrors the intense machismo culture that exists here in this country. Women still cook and clean while the men group together in the lounge to watch sports and ogle aforementioned half naked dancing girls, only emerging from their den to eat and then perhaps have a nap before doing the same again. Men in the street here stare – that’s just what they do and it is clear to see that it stems from the way they are trained to see women from a young age.

On a slightly more positive note the highlight to my trip here in Sao Paulo has undoubtedly been my trip to Santander Bank or the old Banespão. Yes, that’s right. The bank. The bank in the middle of Sao Paulo is one of the tallest buildings in South America. From the top of the building you can see the huge scale of the city below. Of course, the experience is accompanied but the somewhat routine security procedures as you are led by police through and up to the highest point of the building. In comparison to the dizzying nights of the observatory of Shanghai this building is a miniature, however, it is perhaps one of the only place in Sao Paulo where you can get a real perspective on the grand scale of the city. It is not breathtaking but rather a sobering reminder of the scale of the city and it’s problems.

As you might have guessed, on leaving Sao Paulo I am left with a slightly distinctive bad taste in my mouth. Here I have gained five pounds, lactaphobia, a resigned tolerance of traffic Jams, some new underwear from a swanky shopping centre and a love hate relationship with Silvo Santos.

6 Comment

  1. Fernando Pinheiro says: Reply

    Ao ler vosso texto e morando neste ” caos ” que descreve sobre minha São Paulo; só posso lhe dizer que não somos diferentes das grandes metrópoles do mundo. Quando A gastronomia que você criticou, acredito que o que lhe faltou foi um guia bom; pois ele iria te levar para saborear as diversidades multiculturais de nossa cidade. è a primeira vez que um turista critica a gastronomia de São Paulo; e pelo vosso comentário lhe faltou foi informação. Quanto aos comentários preconceituosos sobre moradia, não vivo em uma prisão, temos problemas de viol~encia como qualquer grande metrópole do mundo e não é todo o povo que assite novela e futebol. Você precisa sair mais à noite e conhecer um novo mundo que se abre cheio de opções de diversão para qualquer que seja o gosta. Teatro, show, bares, boates, boites, cinema ou um silmes happy hour,

    Na verdade, o que percebo em vosso frustação é que lhe faltou companhia. Da próxima vez arrume um guia e se não gostou de São Paulo, ou lhe faltou bolso ( USS) ou lhe faltou inteligência.

    Um grande abraço de um grande paulistano


    1. Hi,

      Thanks for the comment. Of course my article is just my opinion about the city and others will find a different experience. I have lived in Beijing and Sydney two very large cities and have travelled to many more large cities around the world and I can tell you that all large cities are not the same – each one has different qualities (good and bad). Of course São Paulo has good qualities too but that was not the focus of my article here. My comments on housing were not intended to be derogatory – it is just an observation as I have never seen houses like this before in any other city and having never lived in one until now I found them very claustrophobic. I travelled to São Paulo with my boyfriend, who is himself a Paulistano, so the company wasn’t so bad here ^_^ Of course I experienced a choice of the restaurants and entertainment that are available here, as in every big city in the world, but my focus was on an experience of everyday life and not merely on the expensive tastes of those who can afford to burn a hole in their pocket every night of the week 🙂

  2. […] I faced the giant mortadella sandwich in Sao Paulo….. […]

  3. Sasha says: Reply

    Hi, that’s a pretty interesting article. I was actually planning on visting Sao Paulo for a few days on my tour of South America now I’m not so sure.

    Judging by your article I take it you wouldn’t recommend it as a place to visit. Did the city have any redeeming features such as good parks and museums etc?… and if you don’t mind me asking; did you feel a sense of unease when walking around? As a female traveler travelling alone I’d hate to feel like that when it came to visiting the city.

    Sorry about all the questions I’ve been planning it for so long I don’t want anything to go wrong.

    1. admin says: Reply

      No problem 🙂 Yes, there are some nice parks. We went to Parque da luz and Ibirapuera which was very pretty and also to some museums such as masp and mam. We visited the banespao where you can see a panoramic view of the city which is pretty incredible. Also visit the mercado municipal as it has some great food. In my article I focused on a more negative view of my city.

      It was my first time in a city in South America and I was pretty shocked! I wouldn’t recommend it as a place to live but to visit for a few days it is interesting. I think there are nicer places for tourists but if you are going anyway then take a couple of days to explore the city. The only place I felt insecure was cathedral da sé because there were lots of drugs addicts and scary looking people going around. On the other hand it is very well policed but I wouldn’t go there alone.

      If you have any other questions feel free to ask but I’m no expert…I was only there for around two weeks and I had a different purpose to my visit rather than the usual tourism.

    2. Alexandro Rodrigues says: Reply

      Well, I think the fact that you are european made your article seems a litttle bit arrogant as all europeans are when they visit other around the world. Latin America, Africa and Asia are totally diferent worlds! Of course, you could be very shocked if you are not open or prepared to live and face new situations…

      Unfortunately, many points that you said in your article are correct. Some historical notes for you understand the complexity of this city: São Paulo was the city in the world with the faster growing in the 20th century, without any urban planning. Because that, the urban chaos that has schoked you is true.

      I currently live in New Zealand and always when anyone ask me about my city, São Paulo, i said: if you are open to live a new experience, go! São Paulo there is not the beautiful landscapes like Rio. No beaches, no modern buildings or imposing historical places.

      São Paulo is singulair! All the bad points about the city you ready sad. Let me tell you a bit about the good points, because I can’t imagine me travelling for somewhere and spend my time just looking for the bad points…

      Believe in me: São Paulo City has one of the best cultural, gastronomical and nightlife experiences around the world. Just cities like New York, London or Paris could provide the same experiences that you could have in São Paulo. But, unfortunately, you prefered spend your time pointing and judging a different world… Sorry for we not be Scotland… because this we are happy!

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