A long, sleepless bus ride through rural Brazil deposits me at a bus station in the north of Sao Paulo, where I squeeze past the skinny Brazilian woman whose fleece blanket kept tickling me all night, sending me into a tactile panic about mosquitoes, bed bugs, and the like several times an hour. Thankfully, there is a direct metro line to Republica Square from the bus terminal, where I hope to be sitting and drinking coffee in under an hour. This goes as planned, and the cafe I find also sells coxinhas, a strange teardrop-shaped pastry filled with shredded chicken meat. My coffee-and-coxinha breakfast is delicious, and I wait to charge my phone before exploring Republica Square.
In the park, a man is getting arrested for some reason, and no one seems surprised or even interested. I also walk past an enclosure where a magician is doing tricks to techno music, for the entertainment of a kindergarten or first grade class. On my way to find an unoccupied bench, I walk by people in their late twenties and early thirties standing a few yards apart, giving the vibe that they know each other but don’t want to seem like it. They’re not looking at phones. In fact, they’re not doing anything. It seems they aren’t trying to look out of place, and just trying to blend in. I am doing the same, as I am clipping my fingernails into a bush, and don’t want anyone to notice.
Somewhere along the line, and in some cultures but certainly not all, clipping your nails became a dirty thing. I agree, it is a dirty thing, but a thing I have to do nonetheless. My problem is, I never notice that my fingernails are too long at the right moment. It’s always when I am in public that I look at my hands and realize I need to clip my nails, and stat. It’s like an itch: when it needs to be scratched, it needs to be scratched. As I clip, I start wondering what these folks are all doing. I see two people walk up close to one another, not making eye contact. One of them passes something to the other and I’m curious what drugs make people deal in this calm, cool way. They aren’t shaking, so I’m thinking it isn’t too addictive, and quite frankly I can think of a million better places to be dealing drugs than a park with police at every corner. I finish clipping and walk over to the enclosure to watch the magician, who is just wrapping up his act, and sit down on an empty bench. Then, I see the two mysterious figures peeking into the enclosure, and I realize they are parents waiting to pick up their kids. Obviously, I don’t have any kids myself but I can imagine how hard it must be to have scheduled pickup times that run late, where you are basically forced to wait with other parents with whom you have much in common through your kids. Imagine the pressure at having to socialize with these other tired people who just happened to be having sex the same year you were. Absolutely dreadful. If I was facing that every morning and afternoon, I’d make myself look like a criminal too. And a dangerous one at that. Or maybe a prostitute.
Brazilians have been nothing but welcoming and friendly to me so far, which is why I didn’t expect such overt covertness in a public park. Every interaction I’ve had has been nothing but joy at having a American Ruby League Duolinguist in their presence. Perhaps big-city wariness plays a part, too. Sao Paulo is the largest city south of the equator, and this comes with its own problems. While Sao Paolo is certainly one of the safer cities in Brazil, this often does not spark confidence in many travellers due to the sheer number of Brazilian cities that, for instance, have the highest murder rates. During the daytime, I feel perfectly safe, and am only slightly deterred by all the people wearing backpacks in front of them to prevent theft, and the occasional street prostitutes openly waiting for customers on street corners and in parks.
I spend a couple of hours on the Sao Paulo free walking tour, a three-and-a-half hour tour of buildings, dates, and parks, all of which are broadcasted via a microphone and sound system strapped to our tour guide’s hip. Naturally, I do not make it the whole tour, and leave at half-time to explore the city’s many parks, libraries, and cafes on my own.
At night, my Uber to the airport is operated by, perhaps, one of the more interesting drivers I have ever seen behind the wheel. Prior to my trip, I had read a few articles about Uber in Sao Paulo. While crimes committed against passengers tend to be fairly uncommon, Uber drivers are frequently hijacked, especially in lieu of Uber’s decision to allow drivers to pay cash in the city. This is meant to target more riders who perhaps don’t have credit cards or bank accounts. As a result, Uber drivers carry cash and are more likely to be victims of armed robbery.
My driver, who strictly follows the route to avoid making me fearful, also makes sure to drive fast through the obviously dangerous neighborhoods. Looking at his reviews, he scores a fairly average 4.5, and all of his complaints are about speeding. It is interesting to be in a situation where exceeding the speed limit actually is the safest way to drive. I am reminded of the line from Bruce Springsteen’s eternal song “Johnny 99”:
“Down in the part of town where when you hit a red light you don't stop
Johnny's wavin' his gun around and threatenin' to blow his top”
My suburban Connecticut existence has largely kept me from such place, although I run more than a few stop signs in my day and am far from leaving a bad review from my stoic driver who seems more afraid of me than I of him. I give him five stars for the experience.
At the airport, I check in extremely early for no reason other than the fact that it is late and I don’t want my Uber to get hijacked heading to my 12:40 am flight to Lisbon. With all of the time I have I sit in the airport Olive Garden and eat endless salad and breadsticks, to the point where the waitress starts ignoring me for fear that I will consume their entire stock of cheap iceberg lettuce and vinegar. I finally get the check, pass through immigration, and board my flight, popping a sleeping pill with hopes of waking up on the glorious continent of Europe, where you can actually flush your toilet paper.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.