I have had the bonus of being sent to Brazil in the last few weeks for business meetings. There are some advantages to working for an international company. The meetings I am attending are/were – I am still here as I write – in Sao Paolo and Brasilia. The cities could not be more different based on my admittedly limited experience when I have could escape from my hotel and while both places have problems as far as I am concerned there have been things to enjoy. I feel the need to share impressions of both, starting with the better known.
First a bit of personal background. I have never been to anywhere in South America or Brazil before so this was all new to me and I was not entirely sure what to expect. In the back of my head I was wondering if my brief experience of the Philippines (a couple of days in Manila) might be somewhere near the mark due to there also being a mix of historical European influence mixed with something indigenous and unique and I think there were a few things that struck me as similar. But I certainly found lots of things that were new to me.
Sao Paolo is a mass of humanity. Apparently, it is the largest city in the Southern hemisphere and I can quite believe that. As I arrived and the pick-up took me to the hotel the city seemed to sprawl around me, starting out with very low grade housing and gradually getting more substantial as you approached the centre. It was very clear to me from the outset that poverty is rife here and over the time I was there the number of people who were living on the streets was much higher than I had experienced before and was quite effecting. When you walk through London you see plenty of homeless people admittedly, but here it was groups and on every corner, especially in the old centre of the city, which is naturally where I gravitate towards considering my interest in history. The centre did not disappoint me. There was no particular thing that I would point to – the massive cathedral, while impressive, is relatively modern, and the little seventeenth century church nearby, which was empty and quiet was far more memorable. But I enjoyed walking around the city very much and I was wondering why until it dawned on me that it was not the buildings, but the people. The sheer number of people, the noise and kerfuffle, from the hosts of young people twittering around to the shouts and the whistles of the men trying to persuade drivers to park in their specific private garage (it took me a while to work out what all the shouting was about). The atmosphere is rich, even if parts of the city are not. I also found most of the people to be friendly and helpful. This is a place where people live – which was quite a shock when I got to Brasilia, but more on that next week.
The one concern was that I felt I was getting wall to wall warnings on the levels of crime and petty theft from everything I read or everyone I spoke too; and to be blunt, it is overkill. Of course, you need to apply common sense and be aware of what is going on around you, but in public areas I do not think the risk is much more than in parts of London. In fact, I am probably more at risk back home due to complacency through familiarity. Most people, no matter how poor they are, are decent and not a threat. At times, I was too much looking over my shoulder having had the risks drummed into me to fully enjoy the experience of this city, which is a shame. But in the end as I flew to Brasilia it was the overall impression of a place, rather than a specific monument or site that would remain with me.