Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Second thoughts on São Paulo

First, I should apologize again for not taking any photos of São Paulo.

Second, I don't think I got it right when I noted that São Paulo is bland because it's just a little bit of everything. While running on Praia do Flamengo in Rio on my penultimate day, I came to another conclusion.

All of Brazil has a flavor. In the Northeast, there are lovely beaches and historic colonial towns and the history of a sugar cane boom mixed with the stain of years of slavery. (And in many cases, the Afro-Brazilian culture that came from slavery.) The South has its European immigrants, the efficiently-run cities full of (relatively) well-educated citizens, and the legacy of agriculture. Rio de Janeiro is unique, and was the capital for almost two hundred years. Brasilia is Tomorrowland. The North is properly tropical, centered on rainforests and rivers.

By contrast, São Paulo doesn't really have a flavor. In the national stereotype, people who live there work hard, are rich, and are dull. Parts of São Paulo look like any other large city in the world, especially in Zona Sul. My cousin Chris made this observation as we walked down Avenida Paulista, the Wall Street of Brazil. Aside from the structures at Masp and Fiesp, the Avenida would not be out of place in New York, LA, or Chicago.

In sum, Sampa is generic. It doesn't have anything that makes it stand apart from the rest of Brazil, except that it's big and rich. It's flavorless.

That being said, I'll probably live there again. To begin, it has the best universities and the best libraries in the country.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Winter travels: São Paulo and Manaus

For four weeks, we lived at the center of it all. The expensive, expansive, hectic, maddening and refreshing center of Brazil, São Paulo.

Specifically, I splurged and rented an apartment in an apart-hotel in Moema, a neighborhood on the south side of the center, only a few blocks from Parque Ibirapuera. I had limited time to find and reserve a place, and many places to be. The apartment ended up sheltering Bethany and my cousin Christian as well, so maybe it wasn't a terrible expense.

In reserve order, the ugly, the bad and the good of São Paulo.

The Ugly

Moema is, after Jardins and whichever neighborhood is currently trendy, the third-nicest neighborhood in São Paulo. Or at least it should be; it's certainly expensive enough. (Note: Due to circumstances, it was once necessary to search for lunch in Jardins. I consider myself lucky to have escaped after losing less than R$20.)

We lived five blocks from an Applebee's, and six blocks from a Starbucks. This combination might exist in Barra da Tijuca (and maybe in Brasilia), but otherwise nowhere else in Brazil. (Perhaps nowhere else in South America.)

On every corner, and in front of every decent restaurant, stood valets willing to park your car for around R$10-R$15 for the duration of lunch or dinner. Even the gym up the hill had valet parking. Admittedly, there wasn't much open street parking, but this is true in San Francisco as well. I can proudly say that I ate lunch regularly in most towns for less than it costs to park one's car in Moema.

Bethany and I went to a local joint to eat burgers, fries and Cokes for the 4th of July, in our best ironic manner. We chose a place called America Pasta & Burgers instead of Applebee's. The bill totaled R$88, and we never ate there again.

The above examples illustrate the ugliest part of São Paulo's wealth and inequality. In the finest neighborhood, the rich spend large amounts of money to enjoy a standard of living on par with that of the United States. For the quality of products and services, prices are outrageous. And the streets are stale and soulless. There's very little public space, because everything has to be held behind gates or under vigilant watch or hidden. (Granted, there is more public space downtown.)

Last December, while we walked around Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas in Rio, I commented to friends that I wouldn't mind retiring to a high-rise apartment in Lagoa. Valmore questioned this, noting that he envied the United States, where everyone has a small single-family house with a yard and a fence; why would I want to move to an apartment? His point was taken, though I did later see upper-class single-family homes (most memorably, near the park in Campo Grande) in Brazil. The major distinction between single-family homes in Brazil and the States is that the former are almost always behind guarded walls.

In short, the rich of São Paulo can indeed lived charmed lives, but they pay exorbitant amounts to do so, and to keep that world protected. (This is already widely known; I'm just relating my encounter with it.)


The Bad

In many cities, I've met people who say "Oh, the traffic here in [my city] is getting to be as bad as São Paulo." It's an interesting point of reference, because I didn't find traffic to be too much of a problem in SP. (See above point: this may be due to the fact that I lived in Moema. I admit that traffic did once make us late to the SPFC-Avaí game, but we didn't miss much.) The bus system is not too bad, the metro is speedy, and I don't own a car. (Really bad traffic is in Salvador. F--- you, Rótula do Abacaxí.)

But if the traffic isn't bad, the air pollution is. My eyes stung from time to time, in the same manner that they always sting when we crest the hill up near the new Getty Museum and enter the LA Basin.

And every driver was, of course, sitting in his or her own car, most without passengers. As my mother asked in Salvador (not rhetorically), "Has the government done much to encourage carpooling?" Ha! Crazy lady. The current government is trying to put more cars on the road as fast as they can, with special tax incentives and discounts.

There are some kinks of developed world life not worth imitating, as São Paulo develops.


The Good

But the integrated bus and metro system was great! And two museums, the MASP and the Museu da Língua Portuguesa were lots of fun! And Rua Augusta is a good bohemian/alternative break from the blandness of Zona Sul. Chris especially liked Augusta, aside from the very disappointing Mexican restaurant at its peak.

And yes, one does get the feeling of being in the center of the world. You can take a bus in São Paulo and pass the corporate headquarters for, say, the maker of a brand of urinals that's all over the country. Or the headquarters of a beverages company whose juice you drank long ago at a dark bus station in Goiânia. You can go to the Tietê bus terminal and literally find a bus for anywhere in Brazil. Every touring show or band or exhibition will pass through. (50 Cent played while we were in town, and the Bodies exhibit was open at the MAM. Tickets for Mr. Cent's concert started at R$200, which seemed steep for a hip hop artist who hasn't been relevant for five years.)

And oh, the park. Parque do Ibirapuera, as previously mentioned, has a 6000 meter dirt trail around its perimeter, with three water stations and two bathroom stops, varied terrain, and plenty of shade. There are running routes in Brazil that are more scenic (Aterro do Flamengo, Rio), longer and with more bathrooms (Parque da Cidade, Brasília), shadier (Parque Mãe Bonifácia, Cuiabá), with cleaner air (Praia do Calhau, São Luís), or with more fun wildlife (Parque das Indígenas, Campo Grande), but Ibirapuera wins the all-around prize.

It took two tries to figure out how to manage the course while running clockwise (the direction without signs), but two or three loops could be combined and cut into almost any distance. I think I topped out at 18 km. I don't remember.

Sadly, the park is a slight break, but not a complete break, from the smog and exhaust of the streets.

There was also a fruit market on Saturday up the hill in Vila Nova Conceição. And tofu and yakisoba noodles in local supermarkets. (And peanut butter, but only the Peter Pan sugary type.) We never had very good Japanese food, but did find some good pizza after a search.

Finally, interviewees in São Paulo were just as friendly and helpful as those in other states were. I picked up a little of the paulista r in my accent, which I've retained to the present, but I still find José Serra's accent a little over-the-top. (In a funny coincidence, only after a visit to the Museu da República in Rio did I realize that one of my interviewees was the spokesman who announced Tancredo Neves's death in 1985.)


The Uncategorizable

São Paulo is not soulless. It is just too splintered and diverse to be categorized. I'm sure that if I traveled for the sake of experiencing specifically art, fashion, food, music, architecture, history, or any interest, I could really dig deep into one part of the city and be richly rewarded.

However, in taking a little bit of everything at once, I must admit that I found São Paulo to be bland. Sure, it's the most populous city in the Americas, but it lacks the romantic feeling of "here I am!" that one gets in Manhattan. Even on Avenida Paulista, or in the park, or at the monuments or at Praça da Sé or Praça da República, there's little romance or style in the city. I blame this on the car. In Manhattan, one sees (and gets bumped and shoved by) the multitudes on the streets and the subway. Here, there are crowds on the subway, and people on the street for lunch, but it's all just so mind-bogglingly spread out that it doesn't feel dense. (Disclaimer: Anhangbaú metro station did feel dense at Tuesday, 8 AM.) Many people just get in their cars and pass you by.

There's also no center. The city is too big to concentrate on any one plaza. Not all roads lead to Praça da Sé or da República, or to Terminal Bandeirantes. Corporate office parks are in Chácara Santo Antônio, a good 15 km from where their daily occupants and masters (probably) live in Jardins. Hence the helicopters.

For that reason, with apologies to all readers, I never took a photo in São Paulo. Of anything. It never dawned on me to do so, even when visiting monuments and museums. I don't have a good explanation why.

Will I be back? Rapáz, seria quase impossível continuar estudando o Brasil sem voltar pra Sampa. Of course. And I'll give it another go. (But not that Mexican place, Tollocos. That stunk.)

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It occurs to me that my reports on places always include complaints about one thing or another. I'll never be satisfied. So let me refrain from detailing my thoughts about Manaus.

It will suffice to say that I prefer Belém to Manaus, and that Manaus will need a lot of work to become an adequate host city in 2014.

It was nice, however, to get back to the familiar signs, sights, and smells of regular Brazil. And we ran into Alceu and his family (visiting from Fortaleza) on the plaza of Teatro Amazonas. The plaza is a lovely public space.

And while I met more than one paulista who explained to me (in SP) how Brazil feeds almost parasitically off the wealth that São Paulo produces, I also met two Amazonenses who explained that the industrialization (and coffee boom) of the Southeast was financed by tariff duties on rubber, and so the rest of Brazil owes Amazonas a debt.

As two small momentos of Manaus, here's a picture of Albert in front of Teatro Amazonas, and a stuck turtle at the Bosque da Ciência.





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I have a flight for San Francisco in four days.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Feeling the gravitational pull of São Paulo



I'm in Porto Alegre, after a very long bus ride from São Paulo.

It feels a little out-of-place to be back in the more developed part of the country after several months in the Northeast and North. (Brasília doesn't count. Brasília is Tomorrowland at Disneyland. My friend Bernardo has a good post on the subject, and I think he's pretty much right: Brasília is the dream of upper class Brazil and its chosen self-image: clean, ordered, hierarchical, and proper. Everything in its place, and the poor out of sight and out of mind. For the record, as the bus left Brasília, it stopped in the towns on the periphery, which were very much cities of the interior in the Centro-Oeste. Not poor, but not gleaming and ordered either. The staff who clean, serve food in, stand guard in, and bring people to the shiny Ministérios live there. Brasília is Tomorrowland - with respect to social ills here - like Alagoas is Realityland.)

In any case, I've been to Porto Alegre before, and I'm glad to be back. It's a nice, compact, walkable town with crisp, cool weather and friendly people. I don't stand out as an exceptional gringo, which means only that fewer people watch me pass.

In the land of red meat, I'm back to eating mountains of vegetables and fruits. Hooray for buffet restaurants that have mango, papaya, pineapple, bananas, caquis, and tangerines!

Two observations led me to write this post:

1. Greece right now looks like Argentina in 2000. In a previous life (read: when I was in Brazil three years ago), I was interested in currency crises, and what politicians do to speed them up or prevent them. A post on how austerity measures are just a temporary stop-gap measure without real economic recovery - which means that they usually fail - and how bondholders are trying desperately to avoid paying the consequences for their actions, is here. (Warning: poor writing.)

2. As I mentioned above, I stopped in São Paulo to go apartment hunting. I stayed almost exactly thirty-six hours in the city, but I must say that I'm excited to be moving there. Frankly, I'm excited to be finished with road trips and a new city each week. São Paulo, however, has a big city vibe, a host of things to see and do, and Korean restaurants! I'm not a terribly big fan of Korean restaurants; I just mention them to illustrate the wide variety of cuisines that await. Such a variety of cuisines is not found in other, smaller towns like, say, Rio de Janeiro.

To celebrate the impending move to São Paulo, in homage to a travel series for dumb people with more money than sense, I present


36 Hours in São Paulo

São Paulo is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way from Staten Island to the Bronx, but that's just peanuts to São Paulo.

Friday

8:00 a.m.
1) BARRA FUNDA.
Arrive at the western bus terminal in the city, after a thirteen-hour bus ride from Campo Grande. Feel glad that no one sat next to you and that making another guest appearance at an English language school in Campo Grande on Thursday afternoon didn't make you miss the bus.

Barra Funda is one of three (four?) long-distance bus terminals in the city. You can't buy a ticket for Porto Alegre because those lines are run out of another bus terminal in the city. Barra Funda mainly covers trips to areas west and northwest of São Paulo.

9:00 a.m.
2) JARDINS IS PRICEY.
Get to your hotel (Formule 1 Jardins) and have them tell you that you can't check-in until noon, and that it will cost you extra to stow your luggage for four hours. Immediately regret not booking at another hotel. Put in a text message to the real estate agent recommended by a friend, informing her that you're in São Paulo.

10:30 a.m.
3) SÃO PAULO IS BIG.
Decide to meet the real estate agent at the apartment visit by walking from Jardins to Moema. Arrive late, sweating despite the temperature around 55 F. It takes a long time to walk anywhere in this city, which may explain why few try. Note the bus lines, supermarkets, and Burger King nearby. Resolve to continue to not eat at Burger King.

Balk at how pricey short-term rentals in São Paulo are.

4:00 p.m.
4) WORLD CUP.
Watch the World Cup in your room, after a late R$9.90 all-you-can-eat lunch. Be glad that São Paulo restaurants seem to be cheaper than restaurants in Rio de Janeiro.

Do laundry in the hotel sink. Think about how you have a well-developed, if not perfect, system for hotel room laundry. Buy dinner at Carrefour next door, along with a chip for a São Paulo cell phone number.

Saturday

6:30 a.m.
5) IBIRAPUERA.
Thankfully, the apartment will be near the large Parque de Ibirapuera in São Paulo that has a 6 km dirt trail loop. It feels like an escape from the city in the same way that Central Park does. In both cases, some parts of the park run right along busy streets while other parts are quietly hidden behind trees and next to lakes. Both parks also have museums inside their boundaries.

Go running there.

3:00 p.m.
6) USA-ENGLAND.
Watch the World Cup match in the hotel restaurant with another hotel guest from Ghana who once lived in London. Chat about how cold this part of the country is.

6:00 p.m.
7) TIETÊ.
São Paulo's main long-distance bus terminal is the largest in Latin America. It is remarked that you can get from Tietê to any other city in Brazil by a more-or-less direct route. Buy a ticket for the eighteen-hour ride to Porto Alegre.

8:00 p.m.
8) POA.
Chat with a teacher from Porto Alegre and his family. Board the bus, where there's a copy of Estado de São Paulo in every seat, and remember how much nicer bus rides are in the Southeast than they are in other parts of the country.

Arrive in Porto Alegre at 3 PM on Sunday. The bus had delays because the anti-lock brakes were causing problems. The Serra Gaúcha is winding, green and looks like central California in the springtime, after the rains.

Oh, and that image at top is a planetarium at the Centro Cultural Dragão do Mar in Fortaleza.

UPDATE: Or if you like over-paying for shit in order to feel like an insider, there's always the original guide.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Passing back around: Cuiabá, MT

I'm back in Cuiabá, a city I have previously described as "ugly" where "aesthetics are not necessarily a high priority." I stand by that assessment.

I'm back to see if I can't conduct follow-up interviews and round out my knowledge of these cases. So far, I've been only mildly successful. At this point in the trip, however, I'm satisfied with mild success.

It has been cooler here than it was during my last visit. That time in Cuiabá was probably the hottest visit "on the road," second only to the time around Christmas in Rio when it hit the low 40s. Cooler weather, which failed to last until Friday and won't endure through the weekend, can't disguise the fact that this is still not a pretty city.

That being said, the people are wonderful. I regret that I didn't get in touch with more of them, but my time here is limited. (Thursday was also Corpus Christi, which meant that many people have taken a four-day weekend.)

In any case, I encountered two notable sights.

First, I went running, and found my way up to a track open to the public but maintained by the Brazilian Army, and to Parque Mãe Bonifácia, a shaded park with a few kilometers of running paths. These two great running destinations are only about two hundred meters from each other, in the same neighborhood. I have to run one kilometer to get there.

On my way to and from the park, however, I noticed the following street sign:



This choice of colors strikes me as incredibly poor. Sure, the pale green is the official green color of Cuiabá, "the Green City." In my mind, however, they could not have picked a worse contrast, or have cluttered up the street sign more. I have no idea how drivers at night are supposed to read this at any speed. The use of white-on-blue and big names for streets in Fortaleza (and supposedly São Paulo) is a much better idea.

Oh, and that's the town symbol, with a touch of soccer ball because this will be a host city for the 2014 World Cup.

Second, I'm staying at the same hotel as I did previously. The neighborhood is changing slightly. The motorcycle shop across the street went out of business, and it looks like the car rental place next door is going to follow. But it's not all bad news. Down the hill, a boxing gym has opened.



This gym is only noteworthy in that the name is a transliteration of the English word "knock-out," as it would be spelled by a Portuguese speaker. Literally, one would say the word "knock-out-chee," with the stress placed on the last syllable varying according to where in the Lusophone world you happened to be. The word "blacaute" is used similarly for power outages.

It made me smile.

In two weeks and a few days, se Deus quiser ("God willing"), I'll be in São Paulo, home of the Museum of the Portuguese Language. I can't wait.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Do You Like Concrete? Brasília, Distrito Federal

I came to Brasília in search of nationwide data and to test a few hypotheses about federal-state relations. I can say that I won't leave completely empty-handed. I would call my week moderately productive, and I'm almost certain that I'll have less productive weeks among the next few.

I'm still tired of travel, tired of being in the field, tired of the same routine and of the same loneliness. Yet I march onward. I go running a lot, though I fear that my shoes are barely going to make it to July 3rd. (I left my new pair for Bethany to bring down then.)

Brasília, the capital of the future. Or at least a very 1950s version of the future, built for the automobile, mass urban housing, and dramatic gestures in urban planning.

Brasília, for the uninitiated, is laid out in the shape of an airplane, with the body comprising the Monumental Axis, the Esplanade of the Ministries, the Congress, the Supreme Court, the Presidential Palace, and (somewhere) a McDonald's I falled to locate. The wings of the airplane are devoted to zoned residential and commercial areas.

Everything is laid out according to a system of acronyms and numbers. I stayed in the South Wing, at superblock 705, off street W3, in CRS (Residential Center South, I think). I went to a meeting in SRTVS Quadra 701, or Sector Radio and TV South, Block 701. There are separate areas for hotels and hospitals.

There is a logic to it all, which one learns gradually. I don't actively dislike Brasília - though I actively dislike the fact that a decent hotel is out of my budget range, given that hotels are limited to Hotel Sector North and Hotel Sector South - like others do. I just think it could stand for some re-development and new planning after fifty years. It's certainly not a pedestrian-friendly city, despite the fact that cars stop at crosswalks (not always guaranteed elsewhere). Brasília would receive a Walkability Score close to zero.

To get an idea, of just how spread-out and car-friendly it is, see the following photos.





The last picture is of a diorama that's in a small underground museum near the presidential palace.

These photos are all taken within the airplane, an area known as the Pilot Plan. There are other outlying areas, but almost none are adjacent to the Pilot Plan. One has to go down a long road to reach the next developed areas. This movement out of the Pilot Plan is surprising. Normally, in Brazil, as one leaves a big city, one encounters suburbs and smaller developments that are poorer and more run down that is the center of the city. The poverty level seems to increase as you move farther from the city center, until at last you're in the countryside.

Brasília, by contrast, has among the highest wealth and development scores of any city in Brazil. And for twenty-one of its fifty years of existence, it was the site of a military dictatorship. Hence there are almost no visible slums on the outskirts. When traveling out of the city (by newly-built metro or by car), one immediately jumps from city to countryside. In Brasília's case, one jumps right from the buildings into the red-dirt cerrado, the high savannah in the middle of the country. I wish I had photos of this, but alas I was negligent in not bringing my camera along to that interview.

On the first Sunday in town, I took a walk down to the presidential palace in hopes of seeing a tour. I wore long pants, but didn't sweat too much. Although the termperature still hovered around the same 31-32 C it was in Fortaleza and Salvador, the air here is much drier. I almost miss the humidity. Almost.

Along the way, I passed the new national library, which has nothing on the old national library on Avenida Rio Branco in Rio de Janeiro. (Reminder: When Brasília became the capital, all those federal public sector employees had to move out of Rio de Janeiro. Poor them.) Coincidentally, it's named after a former governor of Rio, a master populist.



I also passed the newly-opened National Museum (the hemisphere resembling Saturn) and the Cathedral. The latter bears a striking resemblence to Space Mountain at Disneyland and Disney World, also pictured below. That's not by accident. They were built in the same era (well, Space Mountain in the 1970s), and were both designed to showcase the future of architecture. Space Mountain doesn't have stained glass.






Beyond the Cathedral lie the Ministry buildings. Each building has brass letters outside declaring which Ministries it contains. I imagine that somewhere there is a collection of giant marquee brass letters, ready for the moment the next president rearranges the ministries or creates new ones.




Also, nothing says "bureaucracy" like big concrete slabs, row after row.

The Ministries are also one of the redeeming features of Brasília, in that many of them have restaurants that are open to the public. The restaurants function mainly to feed public employees, of course, but visitors are welcome after 1:00 PM. And the food is cheap!

I visited the restaurants at the Ministry of Agriculture (R$9.46 per kilo, but no credit cards accepted) and at the Ministry of Communications and Transport (R$10.00 per kilo, credit cards accepted), the latter twice. Normally, food is R$17.99 per kilo if it's affordable, over R$20 per kilo at most places in Zona Sul in Rio, and R$30.00 or more at the mall. By contrast, the Ministries are a steal. I would like to personally thank the Brazilian people for subsidizing three lunches for me. I ate 1.38 kilos on my second visit, and 1.02 kilos on my third visit. (Go ahead, convert that to pounds.) Normally, I eat around 0.6 kilos for lunch at a restaurant, and pay more.

Numbers above fixed. Thanks to Amy in comments.

And on my walk I encountered my good friends at the Ministry of Foreign Relations! Hooray!




The building is rather beautiful. It may be a little nicer than the old Palácio Itamaraty in Rio (which I have also visited; see the posts about my visa mix-up). The contrast is between colonial and modern styles.

[On reflection, my best friends are the Federal Police; it was their mistake and slip-up that allowed me back into the country, and thus did not send me toothbrush-less and computer-less back to Argentina.]

Other bureaucratic buildings on the east end of the Axis, like Itamaraty, are more beautiful. I saw the Ministry of Justice building and wanted to jump into the fountain for a swim.



And of course there's the famous Congress. I was surprised by how close I could get to the building. The security-mad United States wouldn't dare let one duck under the awnings and walk on the grass.








At the end of my walk, I was sorely disappointed. The Presidential Palance, the Palácio do Planalto, is under refurbishment and was closed to tours. Oh well.




In conclusion, Brasília falls right about in the middle, out of all the cities I've visited. I'd come back, though I'd try to drive hard bargains to stay at a nicer hotel. I will say that I did enjoy the cheap food, and running in the Parque da Cidade.

Now to return to the Mato Grossos, but briefly.

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Oh, and the United States can best be represented by a bacon cheeseburger. Obvio. (The US burger is available on Fridays. Other days are McAlemanha, McBrasil, McArgentina, McItália, and McEspanha.)