Thursday, 6 April 2017

The Amazing Race 29, Episode 2

Panama City (Panama) - São Paulo (Brazil)

My feelings about São Paulo are considerably more mixed, and in some respects more favorable, than you might infer from some of my past mentions of the megalopolis.

On the good side, São Paulo is one of those urban agglomerations that is so large, so important, and so distinctive (in some respects) that a visit is essential to a well-rounded picture of the world. You might realize that São Paulo is the most populous conurbation in the Southern Hemisphere, but did you know that is also essentially tied with New York and Mexico City as the most populous urban area in the Western Hemisphere? Despite that, it's utterly, astonishingly, off the international tourist map. When foriegners think of a Brazilian city, they think of Rio de Janeiro, even though greater São Paulo has more than twice as many people as Rio, and an even greater share of economic power. There are lots of foreign business visitors to São Paulo, but few foreign tourists and especially few foreign backpackers.

Local people ("Paulistas"), whether rich or poor, are unlikely to relate to you as a "tourist". Because they have few occasions to deal with foreigners, ordinary Paulistas of all classes are also unlikely to speak English or understand any foreign language other than possibly Spanish, which they will typically answer in Portuguese. Brazil is its own self-contained world, and the language barrier is high.

Many of the reasons for the lack of foreign tourists in São Paulo are related to "class war", which in Brazil is more than a figure of speech. Street crime is epidemic and often violent, unlike in some parts of the world where it is largely confined to theft and other property crime. Of the places I've been, only the USA and South Africa have rivaled Brazil for the risk of violent crime against ordinary foreign tourists.

São Paulo sprawls, and upper-class Paulistas (i.e. those who, like their counterparts in the USA or among white South Africans, call themselves "middle class" even if they are in the top 10% of national wealth) get around mainly by private car. Except for the limited number of destinations served by the Metro system (which is priced out of reach of the poor), urban public transit is slow and uncomfortable at best, dangerous at worst. Like Los Angeles or Gauteng (metro Soweto/Johannesburg/Pretoria), the urban areas with which it is most comparable, São Paulo can be impenetrable without a local host to drive you around and introduce you to the many parallel worlds being lived by different classes of people behind different walls, whether those of the favelas or those of the "gated communities" of the rich.

All that said, the Paulistas we met were wonderfully generous, hospitable, and open to us about their lives and the city they love. We couldn't have asked for more of a welcome.

Travel can be at its best when looking at foreigners and foreign places enables us to better understand ourselves and the places we call "home". São Paulo is sui generis, but it also focused my attention on relationships of class and urban geography that influence the terrain of travel in many places while often being hidden from tourists' notice.

In that anthropological sense, and as a mirror in which to look at the way class shapes cities in the USA, I've never been anywhere as thought-provoking as São Paulo. I highly recommend City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo, by Teresa P. R. Caldeira, which makes these comparisons between São Paulo and Los Angeles explicit.

Link | Posted by Edward on Thursday, 6 April 2017, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)
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