Thursday, March 20, 2008
Ugly and Dangerous and Totally in Love: Sao Paulo Part I.
I decided to come to Sao Paulo for a few days vacation on a whim. The airport was a necessary connection on my flight between Manaus and Rio, and extending the trip by a few days cost me nothing extra. My uncertainty about this whim was only reinforced by the reactions of numerous other scientists who had visited the city - 'what on earth are you planning on doing there?' ; 'there's nothing to do' ; 'it's just a really big, dangerous city' ; and the most popular response, a skeptical 'why???'.
As I say, it was a whim. Perhaps it was the fact that several Brazilian post-docs and graduate students I had met live in Sao Paulo, so I had a place to stay. Or the description of Sao Paulo and its mortadella sandwiches by Anthony Bourdain, the typically irreverant but always interesting food journalist. Or the fact that the NYTimes Travel section wrote that Sao Paulo is 'the ugliest, most dangerous city you'll ever love'. Who could resist that endorsement??
I certainly could not, and I am just so incredibly glad that I went ahead with that whim. I have completely fallen in love with this city. I've been here for three days so far, and they have been three perfect days:
I spent a day wandering with friends through Liberdade, the Asian district. Liberdade is a mixture of Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, and probably many other cultures. The street lights are hung on huge red arcs, and store signs are written in characters. We found some mouth-watering steamed buns filled with vegetables in a Chinese bakery, not to mention my first views of the expanse of cement high-rises and exposed power lines that characterize this city. The view carries as far as the eye can see - limited only by the urban haze.
From Liberdade, we progressed to the Parque de Ibirapuera - the city's answer to New York's Central - or Vancouver's Stanley - Park. The city was out - running, walking, skateboarding, rollerblading, playing futebol. But the park is also filled with art: no less than three modern art galleries, not to mention a sculpture garden of alternatingly grotesque (an impressionistic rendition of a spider about 5m high with
spindly organic legs) and beautiful and just plain bizarre (a metal tree) pieces.
After a lengthy walk in the park, we deserved a nice dinner - which is easy to find in the Avenida Paulista district. Actually, good food is easy to find anywhere in this city, as evidenced by the grilled salmon, fancy cakes, and extensive array of sushi I have managed to eat so far.
But the gastronomic highlight so far has been the Mercadao Municipal. I managed to find it this morning - after getting lost only a couple of times coming out of the Luz metro stop. The Mercado - apparently the 'new' one, because it was built in the early '30s - is filled with stalls with mounds of cheese, tropical fruits, olive oil, wine, and fish. Probably because it was the day before Good Friday, most stalls were selling piles of salted bachalhau (cod). People were checking the fish for quality and flavour, and I was solicited by an amazing number of vendors to buy their fish. I almost did, it looked so interesting! I settled for a pastel do bachalau for lunch - a fried empanada-like pastry filled with salted cod and flavoured with green onion, salt and pepper. To be honest, the texture of the pastel was a little tough, though the flavour was superb. The memorable part of the pastel was the experience: sitting at a counter and being handed was papers by fellow customers to soak up the grease, watching the barman pour chopp (draft beer) by making each glass of beer at least half foam with a special swirling technique, and chatting to my neighbours (who were convinced I was from Spain based on my incredibly bad Portuguese!).
But where the Mercadao was the culinary highlight, I think my experience last night was my overall highlight: going to a small nightclub with excellent samba music with the couple I'm staying with (one of whom is a musician who was called up to sing with the band before we were allowed to leave). The music was excellent (muito bom!) - a simple enough beat that I could follow along my partner without too much difficulty, but complex enough to appreciate as in its own right. The band was large, and included numerous singers and instruments - even an ordinary plate and spoon was used as the main percussion for one song! The club was located in a brick room, and stuffed to the gills with well-dressed Paulistanos - everyone moving to the beat, drinking beer and enjoying life. Quintessential Sao Paulo.