|Highlights of Gavin's tour of São Paulo on the eve of the World Cup opener. Next, he's on to Salvador for his first match!|
After starting my day at 3:00 AM in Stuttgart, I finally arrived in São Paulo at around 5:00 PM local time and was able to get a little rest. The next day—yesterday, my first in Brazil—I had only six or seven hours to burn in São Paulo before catching my flight to Salvador, so I decided to hire a tour guide to show me around the city by car.
My guide, Diego, arrived promptly at 8:00 AM at my hostel. After introducing himself, he said to me, "I hope you don't mind, sir, but I looked for you on Facebook so I know what you looked like, and I really enjoyed your blog post about your trip!" I laughed and said that wasn't a problem, and we started our trek around São Paulo. Diego was a lifelong "Paulistano" who also dabbled in freelance journalism and public relations and I was curious to see the city from his point of view.
São Paulo is a huge, sprawling city. While it seems like skyscrapers just shoot from the ground all around (à la New York or Chicago), there are actually still some buildings relatively intact from the
city's beginning in 1544.
Its population of 12 million—with 20 million in the larger metro area—makes São Paulo the largest city in the Americas. Because so many people live and work in the city, traffic jams are inevitable, and in São Paulo they seem to pop up around every turn. "Isn't there some sort of public transportation besides the bus?" I asked Diego. He just laughed and showed me a map of the São Paulo metro imposed on a map of of São Paulo. That made it clear: the largest city in the Americas has a rail network equivalent in scale to the Baltimore Light Rail.
In the half-day tour, we criss-crossed the city on a quest to see as much of São Paulo as possible. Highlights included:
Iberapuera Park: The largest park in São Paulo contains seven museums and a plethora of graffiti (much like the city of São Paulo as a whole). While the graffiti I saw was rather expressionist (unlike the unambiguous anti-FIFA graffiti seen elsewhere) some of it still had political undertones. "I wish the city would have more art like this," Diego told me. "It would bring some beauty to all of these concrete buildings."
Liberdade: Along with a sizable Italian population and a heavy African contingent, São Paulo has the largest concentration of Japanese people outside of Tokyo, and they dominate this area. While they might be more concentrated in certain parts of the city, Diego explained, they are very much Paulistas and contribute much to the "melting pot" that is São Paulo.
Praça da Sé: The center of this very religious city is home to the Catedral de São Paulo. While the majority of São Paulo's residents are Roman Catholics, Diego mentioned that other religions were growing in numbers, and even took me to an upscale part of town called Higienopolis, where a large Jewish population resides. At the cathedral, I explained to Diego that I went to a high school called St. Paul's (São Paulo literally translates to "St. Paul") so I needed a photo in this spot, which he happily obliged.As we walked through the Praça da Sé and the República district and reached the Theatro Municipal—São Paulo's opera house—I met my first group of protesters. Luckily this demonstration, which Diego said concerned child labor in Brazil, was not nearly as large as those in Brazil's recent transit strike, but the leader still gave an animated speech to a cheering crowd.
"Now he is talking about Dilma," Diego remarked. Dilma is Dilma Rousseff, the embattled president of Brazil, who has come under fire for investing so much of the public budget into the World Cup. Yesterday, she herself delivered a speech ahead of the World Cup, asking Brazilians to show the world what good hosts they are.
"What is he specifically saying about her?" I asked.
"He says that Dilma speaks of a different Brazil than the one everyone else sees."
While this view may be common among Brazilians, it's also true that the protests leading up to the tournament have slowly diminished. (The São Paulo metro strike, for example, recently ended without much fanfare.) While it seems most people have resigned themselves to World Cup's inevitability and adopted a "we might as well enjoy it" attitude, this could also be a calm before the storm. (The group Black Bloc has promised many protests during the World Cup.)
We finished our day with a visit to the Pacembu Stadium (home to the Brazilian Museum of Football) and cruise down the main thoroughfare of São Paulo, the Avenida Paulista, home to many businesses, restaurants, bars, and one of the last rainforests in the city of São Paulo. I bid adieu to Diego, even more tired than the day began, but happy that I got to see a portion of the largest city in both Brazil and the Americas.
* * *
On the eve of the opening match of the World Cup in São Paulo, I felt the sense of World Cup fever slowly building as the hours passed. Brazil's iconic yellow jerseys were prominent in many shops and on the streets, and the Brazilian flag adorned many buildings throughout the city. The FIFA Fan Fest was also nearing completion in a park nearby the Praça da Sé.
There was also a growing contingent of Croatian supporters making themselves heard in the city as the day progressed. (They will face Brazil in the tournament's opening match this evening.) Because the city is hosting the opener, today is a bank holiday in São Paulo, and as a Paulistana said to me as I left for the airport: "You are leaving before the real party begins!"
While I would love to experience São Paulo at night, with the backdrop of the World Cup opening match, I know this party will not be limited to just São Paulo. As I boarded my flight to Salvador, a crowd of Chileans and Aussies were having an impromptu cheering competition while boarding an adjacent flight to Cuiabá. (The Chileans handily drowned out their Aussie counterparts.)
No doubt about it, the Cup is about to start. The opening match can't get here soon enough!