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Faced with São Paulo, Brazil’s Poverty and Loneliness I Cry Myself to Sleep

São Paulo, Brazil, at night Last week I decided to write a list of top ten “best” things about Brazil because writing a top ten “worst” things would seem cynical; after all, we’re headed into a new year and reflecting healthfully about the past encourages optimism and hopefulness about the future…

And there’s another reason too: you could call it white, middle-class, liberal arts degree, first world guilt. A nagging feeling that any and all criticisms I observe about Brazil are a direct result of my over-educated, over-analytical upbringing conveniently observed from up here on my throne [a commenter called me a “hippie (…) who didn’t understand THE ROAD TO PROSPERITY” (his caps) but I like to think of myself as a “prudentist”: everything in moderation.]

And as it turns out, I’m not sitting in a political science class anymore and can confidently write that as a ten-year plus traveler, and not a tourist, I’ve allowed myself the full range of experiences that accompany long-term sojourns and with that investment of time, the right, as it were, to evaluate a place for good or bad has been earned. Plus I never purported to be an expert, I’m expressing how I feel.

Recently, on Fridays, my husband and I have been celebrating the beginning of our weekends with wine-du-jour paired with an appropriate cheese, a nice salad, and usually a baguette. We sit on the balcony facing each other, wine and food between us, talking about our dreams, the amazing year we’ve had, how happy we are…(c’mon, we’re newlyweds!).

This week we were feeling especially jazzed up because of the impending Christmas holiday week beginning on Tuesday and felt like finding a bar or club to dance at. This is actually the second consecutive weekend we’ve wanted to go out and hear some live music and/or meet some new people.

Last weekend we had the same idea, scoured the web a bit for new venues, then gave up once we’d had too much to drink and were feeling love-happy and sleepy. This weekend however, we were determined to be social and though I wouldn’t say I expressed this explicitly at the time, there was a part of me hoping to find my “people” somewhere out there in this city. A haunt. A place where everybody knows your name. Maybe even just some members of my tribe.

We got in the car around 11 pm and decided that we would hit up three areas of the city: Pinheiros, Vila Magdalena, and Consolação and see which of them begged our company. Within the first fifteen minutes of the drive, cruising around Pinheiros, an area which houses the city’s rich, predominantly white population and some nice restaurants and bars, I spotted a large group of rich hipsters lined up outside a nightclub dripping in the latest fashions and smoking; sprawled out beside them was a similarly sized group of homeless people, including some women and young children.

The moment I glanced the group of street sleepers, a woman, likely in her thirties, sat up from her sleeping position on the sidewalk and hacked into her dirty blanket. We drove on. Our conversation turned to “the situation” here – a topic we often visit without conclusion because it’s a conversation that’s impossible to conclude.

We continued our analysis of “the situation” (…what is “the situation” exactly? it’s the plain, visible fact that hundreds of thousands of São Paulo’s residents are very poor and the other percentage of the population is significantly richer, and we’re not talking about the rich as millionaires, we’re talking about the rest of the people that aren’t poor. The figurative space that a Brazilian poor person sees between themselves and a “rich” person is fields long, unchangeable. It’s desperate and divided…) and as we talk about it, I get angry; that visceral, unstoppable anger that makes the face hot.

And it’s not exactly the poverty problem that’s bothering me, it’s the idea that a person can live in a city of 20,000,000 people and not belong. It’s that there can be this immense concentration of resources, but nowhere to turn; great city streets filled with tiny, individual empires and no one interested in what’s happening nearby. 

And maybe I’m just in a bad mood, feeling friendless, and realizing that big cities are the loneliest places in the world. Maybe it’s just that cold, hard fact. It’s not São Paulo, or Paulistas, it’s simply the nature of the organism.

At any rate, I don’t want to keep looking for fun. I tell Marcelo that it’s stupid to go out and try to fit in. I tell him that we don’t fit in anywhere here. I ask him to go home. When we get home, I cry for a long time.

I cry for all the lonely people. I cry for all the people in their towers, in their traps, caged in walls of ignorance. I cry for the people in poverty stranded across the impossible plain of class that they will probably never cross. I cry for myself because I don’t fit in.

I cry until my head hurts and then I sleep.

Top Ten Best Things About Brazil

10. Traffic- Que? Huh? Yes, I know what you’re thinking, the traffic in São Paulo is a nightmare! Well you’re right, it sucks. But I love how fast and unruly the drivers are here: Lanes are a luxury, lights are an option and speed is a must. This is real driving and it thrills me. Now if only the streets weren’t so jammed…

9. Rules Are Made To Be Broken- there’s always room to bend the Brazilian rules and while this can also be infinitely frustrating, I find it very un-anal and liberating.

8. Service In Clothing Shops- the pretty ladies bring you a beverage, other styles they think you might like, stick to you like white on rice, and lie through their teeth. Perfect.

7. Valet Parking- every mid-level to upscale restaurant here has valet. It’s so awesome to pull up to a place, have your door opened for you, and go straight inside to drink your beer without the hassle of finding a parking spot on the crowded street.

6. Service in Restaurants, Bars and Padarias – No annoying chatter from the server, beer is always fresh and fast, food is served right onto your plate in a pizza place, and NO TIPPING. Padarias alone should become an international phenomenon: all day reasonably priced, delicious food, and you can linger there as long as you bloody well like and no one will drop a bill on your table.

5. Pizza- the pizza here just simply kicks the entire pizza world’s collective ass. It’s almost always forno-baked and over-cheesed. My favorite is arugula and sun dried tomatoes. Heaven on a pizza…

4. Cheese – for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I used to believe that a world of cheese was just a dream…n’uh uh!

3. Feiras and Pastel – outdoor farmer’s markets on the street near our house three days a week. Pastel – deep fried pastry loaded with meat and cheese and served off a truck. Heaven in a pocket…

2. Manoela! – our wonderful maid whose little hands make our apartment clean and beautiful, whose energy makes it a home.

And the number one thing about Brazil:

1. Marcelo Montenegro Lins- fun, tall, dark, handsome, kind, sweet, funny, beautiful, smart, dreamy, determined, loving, tender and sexy as hell…my husband.

Honourable mentions: caipirinhas, weather, beaches, and Brazilians in general.

Carmen King is a freelance writer and Canadian expat living in São Paulo. You can read more by her here: http://thenewbrooklin.blogspot.com.

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