July 28th, 2014
When we asked people to give us advice about going to Brazil, everyone always mentioned Rio de Janeiro. “Rio is so beautiful,” they said, “It’s so laid back and fun. Rio is the best.” Just go to Rio. But no one really said much about São Paulo. By all accounts, it seemed like the forgotten city of Brazil . As our cab weaved through traffic in São Paulo’s city center, our virgin eyeballs took in the first impressions of this rarely recommended city.
The immediate overwhelming feeling was bigness. Unlike other cities, it doesn’t have a beautiful harbor, nearby mountains, or any other natural distinguishing features that generally creates a dynamic city vista; just a monotonous city horizon that seemingly spans forever. Twenty minutes into our ride and we’d seen hundreds of similar 25 story apartment buildings littered in all directions, massive favelas, and a peculiar type of graffiti (known as “pixacao”) plastered on every conceivable surface. It was not a pretty city, that was immediately apparent, but we were eager to discover why 20 million people call this place home.
It was winter in São Paulo and the frigid 75 degrees fahrenheit made us appreciate being here during the winter. A quick left and the cab crossed an imaginary line and boom -- we hit Beverly Hills; palm trees, Gucci, Prada, high heels, bodyguards outside every establishment, and fancy high rise apartments. It was gorgeously manicured and hard to believe we were still in the same city we just drove through to get there. This area is Jardins, the safe, high end shopping district of São Paulo and home to some of the top real estate in the city. And thanks to our extremely fortuitous apartment swap deal, it meant we were staying right smack dab in the center of this place. We’d be lying if we didn’t breathe a little sigh of relief.
Our first trek to the local store was a cultural experience to say the least. Galeria Dos Paes is a 24-hour delectable market with every variety of bread, cake, chocolate truffle, cheese, meat, and vegetable one could imagine. The only problem was how we actually order any of it.
We casually strolled in, trying to blend in as much as possible, when we were greeted by a lady who promptly handed us each a plastic card and shimmied us through a turnstile. If the nervousness wasn’t already apparent on our faces, the confusion definitely was! What the hell do you do with this plastic card? We were already confused just trying to remember the correct words to say in Portuguese, continuously rehearsing in our head the few phrases we had practiced before heading out. Nao falo Portuguese. Voce fala Ingles? We don’t know the language and the process of ordering is different? This isn’t good.
We sheepishly meandered around the store, trying to avoid ordering from the tempting meat and cheese counters while covertly observing the behaviors of frequent shoppers and their use of the fabled plastic card. This tactic is a primal instinct that, as travelers, you find yourself relying on more often than not; aka, the monkey see, monkey do technique. After careful observation, the card’s utility revealed itself. It was essentially your charge card while shopping. One small victory down but many obstacles were quickly approaching. Next was ordering breakfast. With our broken Portuguese falling out our mouths -- we must have sounded like a drunk Borat speaking English -- we attempted to order a croissant with cheese. How hard can that be? Instead, we received a shredded chicken salad stuffed croissant that, after one bite, Blake claimed tasted like a tuna salad croissant. Feeling mildly ill after our morning experiment with digestion and overtly conscious of the ignorant American stereotype, we made our way to the checkout counter to pay.
Hoping to get through this next experience as quickly and painlessly as possible, we handed over a credit card with the plastic charge card and prayed the lady behind the register didn’t try to strike up a conversation with us. We mumbled “good evening” in broken Portuguese and the lady smiled and turned to to talk to the cashier next to her. The only word at this point that we understood was “Americano” as she jovially mentioned us in her conversation with the other cashier.
Needless to say, we dreaded our inevitable return to the Galeria dos Paes.
Feeling Much Obliged
Theresa, our apartment owner’s housekeeper, spoke not a word of English and our Portuguese at this time didn't really go beyond “Oi”, “Bom Dia” and “Obrigado” (the latter being the word Abby used 90% of the time for everything). Theresa was a welcome presence during our time in Sao Paulo. Every couple of days she would come to the apartment and speak very fast Portuguese to us and we’d occasionally mumble “entendo” if we understood maybe one word in her sentence. She made us coffee in the morning, washed our clothes and even showed us how to work the ingenious clothes drying apparatus she’d built. One thing is for sure, our experience with Theresa proved that nonverbal communication goes a long way!
Our favorite moment with her was the day she made us the famous traditional Brazilian dish called feijoada. It consists of a black bean stew over rice, collard greens, and topped with farofa. The morning Theresa prepared the dish, Abby had just finished a breakfast of fruit and granola when she was beckoned to the kitchen. Theresa went on to show her how to reheat the meal she had just prepared, dish by dish, still speaking in rapid Portuguese that we did not understand. Abby, comprehending Theresa’s motions, nodded and gestured her approval. Part of the explanation included being spoon fed a heaping mouthful of farofa - cassava flour mixed with hardboiled eggs - that is never something you want to eat after a light breakfast. Not being one to offend a cook, Abby willfully swallowed it down and replied “muito bem, obrigada”. Maybe this will be a lesson in how she can learn to gracefully say no in the future.
20,000 Brazilians and One Missing iPhone
We cautiously walked up to the barricade manned by the Police Militar (Brazil’s military police), anticipating an easy process. Hope they don’t know about that one time in Vegas. Only checking bags, the Police presence was actually a welcome relief before entering what we heard would be Brazilian football chaos. Vila Madalena is a neighborhood where bohemians and frat boys roam. During football matches, many of the most popular streets in the area are closed to cars and open to football fan craziness. Excitement overcame us as we approached the pedestrian streets that were slowly beginning to populate with figures colored in hues of yellow and green. This was going to be our first Brazil match, in Brazil, and we were psyched. Earlier, Abby had voiced that perhaps we wear Brazil colors, employing the “When in Rome” concept, but Blake argued that it may come across as inauthentic. We later realized our fatal mistake.
We arrived about an hour before the first game, France vs. Germany, hoping we would have enough time to familiarize ourselves with the area and grab a delicious bite of Brazilian cuisine. Most of the small restaurants and bars had bellowing lines that circled their buildings and we saw that each bar was charging an absurd “couvert” for the chance to catch a glimpse of the game. This practice is pretty normal for bars in Brazil even when the Copa (World Cup), isn’t happening on home turf.
We settle on a subpar place to watch the first game which resembled a cheap Mexican restaurant in the States. We stared at the foreign menu like zombies, trying our best to translate the different items. We settle on croquettes. We know what croquettes are. How can you go wrong? Here’s how: when they are stuffed with an unidentified creamy beef hash (or what you hope to be beef) and you receive ten of them. Ok, we’re learning.
Germany wins and we exit the bar to a handful of proud, celebrating German fans. Now it’s time for the real match. By this time in the afternoon the streets had exploded with people and we quickly came to the conclusion that the best experience for the game would be to watch with the masses in the streets. The atmosphere was electric: green and yellow jerseys everywhere, people waving flags and chanting, booze flowing, and it was still a few hours before kick off. This is a party! There must have been 20,000 people and under thirty of us gringos. It was very obvious that open container laws do not exist in Brazil and everywhere you looked you could see young entrepreneurs hawking cheap beers to the hoards. After a few street beers, we began to take on the persona of two overconfident travelers enthusiastically mixing with the local fans and absorbing the passion this culture has for football.
We settled to watch the game along a street with a huge portable screen setup at the end. Beers in hand, we found a safe spot to the side, still cautious of filming and snapping photos of the environment, but caring less and less after each additional beer. After a raucous Brazilian national anthem, the game began and we saw what Brazilian fans are really like. Here we go!
To put it in perspective, there’s really nothing to compare the experience to in the States. Sure, Americans are passionate about Baseball and American Football, but they just don’t show the type of raw passion that the Brazilian fans do for their only real national sport: Football. We were in the heart of Brazil football culture and it felt amazing. As hectic as the streets became, we relished in the fact that we were properly experiencing Brazil as locals, or so we thought.
Brazil scored a goal within the first three minutes and the crowd absolutely erupted. Chants began, beer flew through the air, and we couldn’t help but look at each other and smile -- this night was going to be epic if they won. This night is already epic! The game continued and Brazil’s future got brighter and brighter. As our false sense of security grew, we stopped listening to everyone’s advice about keeping our cameras and phones in our bags and started documenting everything. It was too hard not to. We wanted to capture this experience no matter what.
As suspected, Brazil won the game. We hugged each other and smiled at those around us, trying our best to mimic words of support they were exchanging with each other. This is about the time when Blake took his last iPhone picture of the Brazilians celebrating. As we exited the area with the crowd, Brasileros shouted “gringo!”, pointing at us and having fun in their drunken revelry. We weren’t sure if “gringo” was derogatory, but it felt like an orderly cheer and seemed pretty innocuous, which it is. It couldn’t have been more than three minutes later when Blake realized that his iPhone wasn’t in his pocket. Oh, no. The feeling of excitement quickly turned into despair as we instantly realized it was long gone. There was nothing we could do. Stupid f-ing gringo. With everyone celebrating around us, frustration overcame all of our emotions as it dawned on us how overly confident we had been. Later that night, feeling like the gringo he was, Blake brooded about his foolishness and promptly went into the bathroom and shaved his beard. We weren’t in Brooklyn anymore.
Brooklyn Flea in Sao Paulo
You can tell a lot about a place by its various markets. Farmers markets -- with their exotic fruits, meats, fish, and spices -- all provide great insight into local daily life. Likewise, craft and flea markets give you a glimpse into the local gems and coveted items that hoarders, masked as vendors, have stowed away for years. Benedito Calixto, Sao Paulo’s small, but acclaimed flea market is no different. Anticipating the artifacts we may find, we packed light hoping to come back with a few unique Brazilian treasures. Unfortunately, most of what we found resembled the same old things we could find at the Brooklyn flea market back home. Slightly bummed that we couldn’t find anything interesting, it was still cool to see the hodgepodge of vendors, local people, tourists and loiters enjoying the energetic ambiance. We couldn’t help but notice the similarity between the Paulistas in awe of vintage sunglasses just as much as our hipsters would be back home in Brooklyn.
Something we were both very unaware of was the importance of coffee to Brazil’s history. Brazil is by far the largest coffee exporter globally and has been for roughly the last 150 years. It produces an astounding 30% of coffee worldwide. With this new found knowledge in hand, we realized that it would be a sin not to go find a cup of Brazil’s finest. We settled on Santo Grao, which literally translates to “holy grail”. The setting is a bit trendier than what we were looking for, but it provided a delicious cup of strong, dark roasted coffee. Santo Grao prides themselves as being a pioneer in the gourmet coffee movement in Sao Paulo and sends its tasters all over Brazil to find the perfect beans to roast. You could literally get your coffee prepared in anyway you see fit here, from espresso, to plain “cafe com leite”, to coffee with amaretto and coffee that’s more like a dessert than actual coffee. They even had our first sighted iced coffee in town. The more we travel, the more we realize the infrequency that iced coffee is offered outside the US. Opting for a more traditional cup and an organic espresso shot, we sat and watched the Paulistas go about their day.
Friends in Foreign Places
Our extremely fortuitous apartment swap came with a very unexpected, yet amazing connection to a couple that bore a strange and familiar resemblance to our friends in Brooklyn. Luna and Ga (Luna being the sister of the guy we swapped apartments with) are two radiant beings who took us under their wings as if we were life-long friends. Meeting them introduced us to a side of Sao Paulo we never would have seen. They invited us to a house party where we danced to Brazilian music late into the night, showed us to a cool dinner spot with eclectic modern cuisine, and took us a cool new underground bar that operated out of a record store after hours and spilled smoking hipster Paulistas into the hallways of a mall. One of the best parts of meeting these guys was learning a ton about Sao Paulo life, it’s culture, politics, and music.
One of the last nights in the city, we had one of our most memorable experiences in Sao Paulo. Luna and Ga invited us to Casa De Francisco, a charming and intriguing turn of the century building that in recent years was converted into an intimate little music venue and vegetarian restaurant. Some of the best Paulista musicians the city has to offer come through this joint and we were excited to finally get a taste of authentic Brazilian music.
We entered through an unassuming door on a residential street that, without local knowledge, we definitely would not have found. It had the vibe of a speakeasy in East Village only with a more refined, yet subdued atmosphere. We settled into one of the ten or so tables that all pointed towards the small floor-level stage at the front, and ordered our food and drinks. This is going to be sweet. Ga is a musician and had played the venue a few times giving us a little insider knowledge about the joint. His main tip was that you had to order everything before the music started so as to not disrupt the focus on the music after it begins. With that in mind, we anticipated our beer order and waited for the musicians to take the stage. An hour later, we were lost in the tranquil and captivating rhythms of the trio in front of us. With less than 50 people in the room, the venue felt like it became smaller and smaller until we were all a close family listening to our friends serenading us. It was an evening that made us reflect on, in the moment, what we were experiencing and why we are doing this trip in the first place. It is these types of moments that the power of travel allows you to see the world as you may never have before. What a night.
The quest for a ticket
“I’ve been here for three weeks. I’ve seen like three games already”, explained our recent subway acquaintance, a New Yorker who could have passed for a Brazilian if it weren’t for his Yankees cap. We were already thirty minutes outside the center of Sao Paulo, and by the looks of it, the sprawl of the city wasn’t about to end anytime soon. As the subway worked its way towards the last stop on the line — the World Cup Stadium — we noticed the infrastructure of the city becoming worse and worse. High rise apartments and malls transitioned to favelas and narrow streets. In the week since we’d arrived, we hadn’t spent much time outside the center of Sao Paulo and now we were finally witnessing how the majority of people live around here.
“So you guys have tickets for today, yeah?”, Blake inquired. Everyone around us did.
We came down to Brazil during the World Cup to catch the excitement and experience the fever that is “La Copa”. It wasn’t the only reason, but we timed it so we’d be there for the last two weeks. Of course we wanted to see a game; but without any tickets, and few leads, we knew it would be a longshot. But that didn’t stop us from heading out to the stadium anyway to see if we could get lucky. We’ve both been to enough concerts and festivals to know that there’s always a chance, especially when you put out good intentions and don’t worry too much either way about how it ends up. At the very least, we’d see the stadium, get some good people watching in, and see a different part of the city.
The subway doors opened at the last stop and we were in it. Thousands of excited people everywhere. We didn’t really know where to go, all we could do was rely on the instinctual drive to get out of the mess of people to where we could actually breathe. As we funneled towards the subway station exit it became a claustrophobic nightmare; people so packed together that any sense of personal space dissolved. Hmm, this might get a bit out of control. Even if we wanted to turn back, there was no way we could. The herd of people were moving forward and so were we. Ten long minutes later, we finally found the space to take more than a few steps and took our first deep breath in what felt like hours. We smiled at each other, thankful that strangers were no longer our human jackets, and continued on our quest.
Within a few short minutes it was apparent that our chance of finding a ticket was not going to be easy. Without a ticket, we couldn’t get past the first in a series of perimeter checkpoints designed to keep people exactly like us from crowding the area around the stadium. The plan was foiled. Time for a new plan! And since scalping was illegal and fake tickets were everywhere, we then relied on our good old friend Karma to guide us.
We parked ourselves about 50 feet from the subway entrance and promptly put our fingers up in the air. As streams of fans from Argentina and Holland rushed by, all decked out in their team’s jerseys anxious to get into the stadium, they looked peculiarly at the two Americans pointing towards the sky. Anyone who’s been to a Phish show or big festival in the states knows exactly what that means. Who’s got my miracle?! But in Brazil, the gesture might as well mean “Ask me a question!” Our first inquisitive prospector was, in fact, a policeman. Thinking we were about to get in some trouble, the officer, an older man with a gentle face, kindly asked us in Portuguese what we were doing. After openly explaining to him in English that we were looking for tickets, he pulled out a stack of them and warned us about the litany of fake tickets he’s seen. Even though he explained that scalping tickets was illegal, if we were going to buy any that we make sure that the number in the top left corner read “62”, the number of the day’s match. Even more deflated, we thanked him and moved on. This isn’t going to happen. After half a dozen more questions from people about the meaning of our extended fingers, and only 10 minutes to the game time, we realized the sad, but inevitable truth that today was not going to be our day.
As the starting whistle blew in the stadium a few hundred meters away, our empty subway car passed by the game and we headed back to the center of Sao Paulo to find some place to watch the match.
We watched Brazil get destroyed in a gay club
It’s hard to find a good sports bar in the neighborhood of Jardins. Staying in this area was nice for it’s familiarity compared to New York, but it’s known more for its upscale restaurants and high-end fashion stores than a good place to watch a football match. The one good place we read about —O’Malley’s — had a line out the door a full hour before the heavily anticipated Brazil vs Germany semi-final match. Knowing the importance of the game for Brazil, and not wanting to repeat our experience in Vila Madalena, we wanted to a find a fun, safe, atmosphere to watch the game with other Brazileros.
We had been in the line for twenty minutes and it didn’t move an inch. When the face of the manager appeared and slowly explained to everyone that they were at capacity, we asked him about suggestions for another good spot nearby. Taking the advice of the local Irish bar manager seemed like a pretty reasonable idea to us!
On the way over to another nearby spot, we met up with an American guy in the same boat and decided to band together to figure out our plan of attack. Deep in cordial greetings with our new friend, we all barely noticed the swank establishment we were walking up to. After a two minute line and a $20 cover, we made our way up the plush wooden stairs and into the venue. We quickly realized that this definitely wasn’t a sports bar. The first sign was the thumping drum and bass coming from the massive speakers hanging from ceiling. Okay, not the type of music we expected, but we can deal. Second, a huge sheet was hanging against the back wall with a badly kerned and slightly out of focus projected picture of Brazil warming up for the game. With Blake’s background in video, you could see that we was visibly annoyed at the amateur setup, but we were just happy that we had found a place to watch the game with other Brazilians. The clientele was definitely upper class, with many of the guys wearing designer jeans and nice shirts and only a few wearing Brazilian jerseys or any yellow or blue memorabilia. Understanding that we were in a more fashion-conscious area of town, we didn’t think much of it. We carved out our little area to stand and ordered beers. Budweiser or Stella. Okay, so we’re in a club.
The game started and the crowd in the makeshift sports bar started to come alive a bit. There were some whistles and vuvuzelas, and some passionate cheering, but it was entirely different energy compared to the last Brazil game we watched on the street. Even though their star player, Neymar, was out with a broken back, Brazil started out strong and there was hope that they might have a fighting chance against the methodic German team. Go Brazil! Hope quickly turned to despair when Thomas Muller from Germany scored the first goal in the 11th minute. Uh oh, this isn’t good. Visibly upset, the Brazil fans sank in their seats, praying that the goal was just a fluke. Above the despair, a crazy — or just stupid — German fan jumped up and down screaming, excited that her team was one goal closer to the finals.
With not enough alcohol in our systems to watch a blowout, Blake ventured to the bar to get another couple Buds for the American observers of this weird scene that was unfolding. As he was waiting at the bar, Germany scored another goal. Now, the crowd was almost silent, and the few jersey-wearing fans were visibly distraught. And the stupid German girl was just going ballistic.
One minute later, another goal. This is bad. It felt like someone sucked all the air out of the room and the energy went from hopeful to shocked. Everyone knew it was over and that same German girl was celebrating like she just won the lottery. By the time Blake got back with beers, Germany had scored a record four goals in six minutes and the game was essentially over even though 60 long minutes were left in the game.
It’s at this point in the game where we started focusing less on the spectacle that was the Brazil vs. Germany match and more on our surroundings. Many of the die hard Brazil fans left in disgust, and those that remained painted a much better picture of the establishment’s clientele. An overwhelming majority of them were males, very good looking, cleanly shaven, and wearing really nice clothes. The conversations being exchanged were overly flirty, with lots of hugging and even some kissing. Still, it was a club and that didn’t really surprise us all that much. Then our new American friend returned from his experience in the bathroom and revealed the obvious, yet unrealized truth of our situation. We’re in a gay club. That makes so much more sense!
Not that gay clubs are bad in any respect, it was just not the place we expected to watch a football match in Brazil, let alone watch Brazil get embarrassed by their opponents. The whole thing was just entirely surreal and culturally very interesting. Little did we know, but at that very same time, hundreds of videos of the game were being uploaded to PornHub with similar titles like ‘Young Brazilians get f**ked by entire German soccer team’. How apropos.
The sense of...
It was about 3:30 in the morning when we gallantly returned to Gallery De Pais to get some late night munchies. What was first a scary and even a little embarrassing experience was now almost too easy. We anticipated the charge card from the lady, whizzed through the turnstyle and went straight to the counter to order chocolates, in confident Portuguese. Why yes we will have those delightful little treats. Abby’s sweet tooth is a thing to be matched and she wasn’t going to let a different language and a weird system of ordering get in her way. We stocked up on snacks and went to the cash register, making small talk to the the lady and, this time, not afraid of the outcome. We had come a long way.
After eleven days in São Paulo (or Sampa as we came to know it), we felt good about our time there and looked forward to returning. After one missing iPhone, two new friends and a host of fun experiences, we now had much better sense of what makes this city special for the 20 million Paulistas living here. Sometimes the more unattractive a place seems to outsiders, the more preserved it is for the people willing to give it a chance.