Every so often, it’s good to travel outside of your comfort zone. Or even outside of your hemisphere.
With that in mind, I found myself in São Paulo, Brazil, last month, journeying on my own for several days.
São Paulo is a big, sprawling, unfathomable megalopolis, one of the largest cities on earth. It is polluted and traffic-congested and extremely cultured and endlessly fascinating.
There are parts of São Paulo you’d have a hard time escaping from with your life, or at least with your watch. There are other parts of the city you’d have a hard time entering without a multi-million-dollar apartment lease and a security card displayed in the windshield of your Ferrari.
It has more people than any other urban area in the Southern Hemisphere, more restaurants than any other city in the world, and a multicultural citizenry that includes the largest population of Japanese people outside of Japan, a seven-generation-old Italian community, and a Jewish populace with its own distinctive landmark: A huge, Torah-shaped cultural centre that houses a museum and sits atop its own metro station.
Oh… and everyone speaks Portuguese.
And no… I don’t speak Portuguese.
Visiting a new and distant place – seeing the sights, soaking in the culture, and tasting the food – can be an exhilarating experience. That certainly was the case for me. I grew blisters on top of blisters on my feet exploring for hours what was, in the end, only a small slice of a city of 20 million people.
But it was a slice that had some of the most interesting urban architecture I’ve ever seen (Torah-shaped building included). São Paulo contains block after block of generic high-rises interspersed with the occasional structure possibly designed by Martians.
And the food? Non-stop delicious. Two handy tips about eating in Brazil: If you’re hungry, you’ve come to the right place, with single portions big enough for a family of four. But if you’re a vegetarian, you might consider taking a break from that. Beef is big in Brazil. A “vegetarian” meal could mean chicken or pork.
If you do take a break… try the flank steak.
At the same time, I have to admit that travelling alone in a massive and unfamiliar city, halfway across the planet from home – where you know nobody and can’t understand what anyone is saying to you – can also feel disorienting at times.
In three days in São Paulo, I think I spoke maybe ten full sentences out loud to other human beings. I learned how to say “thank you”, “sorry”, and some other key words in Portuguese. Between that and pointing at items in restaurant menus, I got by.
Here was the most disorienting thing that I experienced:
After a couple of days exploring the city center, I decided to venture further afield. I hopped on an inter-city bus to visit a small colonial town right outside São Paulo city limits. After an hour-long bus ride, where it never really felt as if I had left the endless sprawl of the city, I hopped off at my destination and was greeted with… loud gunfire.
Or so it seemed.
I had no idea where I was or how to get to where I was going. I figured the best bet, of course, was to follow a route that took me away from a possible shootout. I was nervous, disoriented, 7,000 km away from the nearest person I knew, and frankly… lost. As I walked under a bug-infested grove of trees, I remembered that I had neglected to get my Yellow Fever shots.
Every five minutes, the explosions sounded. And they seemed to be moving in the same direction I was going.
After about a half an hour, satisfying myself that the obvious lack of panic in the streets probably indicated something more benign than a barrage of bullets, I headed toward the sound of the blasts to investigate.
Turned out that it wasn’t a firefight breaking out, but rather an election campaign. Brazilian federal elections take place next month, and an afternoon of setting off loud firecrackers every few minutes as his caravan wandered through town was one local candidate’s way of soliciting votes.
I shook the guy’s hand as I passed him. One of his supporters handed me a campaign pamphlet.
Yes… it was in Portuguese.
What else could I do at that point? I headed straight to the nearest churrascaria and buried my nerves in a flank steak built for four.