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Letter from Brazil

I´m writing from the balcony of a 22nd floor apartment in downtown São Paulo, Brazil. Through craigslist I lucked into a co-habitation arrangement with an incredibly friendly Brazilian woman called Sandra who, as a world traveller herself, prefers not to live alone but to open up her apartment, and life, to other travelers. Sandra has found that she gets along best with foreigners and is delighted when I tell her about the city of Athens, about Neutral Milk Hotel and about WalMart. We are alike in that we both get great pleasure from discovering how people and their attitudes change as they move over the surface of the Earth.

São Paulo is so different from Athens. As the largest city in South America, with a population of 20 million people, it is sometimes compared to New York, and aestheically that works, because there are newsstands on every corner, bridges and tunnels covered in graffiti, midnight traffic jams and an apparently endless plateau of highrises. When I first arrived in Brazil, not to São Paulo but Rio de Janeiro, I was afraid to go out after dark. I could not speak Portuguese. The streets are not arranged on a grid. There were homeless people lying on the sidewalk of almost every street. The police carry machine guns, and everyone I had talked to about the city warned me of the city´s thieves that were waiting around every corner.

However, to base my perception on the scary things I´d heard about Brazilian cities would be like judging the ocean based on what I´d seen on Shark Week. Without doubt there are predators out there. But what about the little old ladies bringing home groceries at 9 p.m.? Or the groups of goofy teenagers drinking soda in the park? Or the young women pushing strollers, walking alone, walking dogs alone, midgets walking alone? Other gringos walking alone? It has taken me a few weeks, but I no longer feel that death or grave peril are just around the next corner, and by making a habit of carrying very little of value, I feel that I have little to lose. Adaptation is the key to this kind of travel.

But if the whole point is not to lose my money or my life, why bother at all? Because overcoming that hurdle is just the beginning. Having accepted that there are sharks but that they can generally be avoided, I can now actually get in the water and see what´s under the surface. Behold the expansive coral reefs!

This past weekend was the Virada Cultural here in São Paulo, a humongous arts festival that lasts for 24 intense hours. Sandra invited her friend Luciana to join us for the festivities, and I prepped for the evening by going grocery shopping on Saturday afternoon. Almost all stores were closed on Saturday, but on the way to the grocery it seemed that every house had good smells and beautiful music coming trhough the windows. We dined on french onion soup, beets, french fries and beer, then headed out to the virada, which means “turn†or “shift.†The Cultural Shift.

I must not go into too much detail, but in those 24 hours I encountered many wonderful things. They include the following: a big old man in a Hawaiian shirt playing his long white beard as a musical instrument; a beautiful young woman drumming on the surface of a wash-tub of water accompanied by the bearded man playing a grand piano; a brawl among 10 or 12 teenage guys dressed all in black; a crowd of tens of thousands singing along with Os Mutantes who are like The Beatles of Brazil; a show of pole dancers on a public stage enjoyed by many, women, children and, yes, men; an entire city center blocked off for pedestrian use only; people kissing everywhere; a population that reflects interracial mixing since its earliest colonial days; Seun Kuti, son of legenary Nigerian musician Fela, singing and dancing exactly like his father; a tiny old woman in a large crown holding a colorful pinwheel high above her head; a newscaster for the largest local newsstation making her way through the crowd, followed by a cameraman who was passed a joint that he smoked, dropped on the ground, picked up, hit again and passed back; not one other person I could positively identify as American; hundreds of American brands and even more American rock band t-shirts; a clown juggling two pins and a ball; a long-necked unicycle; Luciana first dancing then making out with Rudolfo Valentino a long-haired Peruvian actor and director living and working in São Paulo; a young bespeckled, bass-playing economist named João putting his arm out to protect a group of people from the brawling boys saying “this is violence;†a classical piano concert taking place in a beautifully lit plaza at 4 o’clock in the morning; a helicopter landing on the gardened roof of an office building, from which a man in suit and tie emerged; a group of homeless people camped out under a tree cooking beans, rice and something else that looked delicious over cans of sterno; public intoxication of a level and scope that reminded me very much of gameday.

This could have been New York, right? Our American cities are also laden with cultural events and odd characters. What I see as the critical difference is that all this culture, literally hundreds of shows happening during the same 24 hours, was entirely free. There was no wristband for admission, no tickets sold. Anyone who wished to see Os Mutantes could walk up to the front row if they were willing to nudge past hundreds of thousands to get there. Was money being made? Yes. Lots of it. Restaurants were booming. The night clubs out of control. Vendors of freshly steamed corn on the cob were selling out. And the guys walking through the crowd with coolers of beer above their heads? Good lord. They must have made a killing. Then, following close behind them were people filling trashbags with aluminum cans to cash in at the recycling plant. Leaving a can on the street in São Paulo is better than putting it into a trash can, because no one will have to dig through garbage to find it. The same goes for cardboard, glass or any recylcable. It´s a sign of poverty, for sure, but it also helps keep the city clean.

Making comparisons is an inevitable practice of travelers. I keep finding myself thinking “Wow, this would never happen in the U.S.†But, to be fair, most of what I saw during the virada does remind me of home, just as a different distillation the same desire for people to gather en masse, drink beer, hook up, expand their minds and listen to awesome music.

(To be continued… )