Surprisingly Sane: São Paulo, Brazil, Jan. 11-14, 2007

For me, São Paulo was a case of like at first site. My husband and I had to dash across the city earlier on our trip. David and I had little more than an hour to get from one bus terminal to the next on our way to the waterfalls of Foz do Iguaçu from the one-time gold-rush town of Ouro Preto.
We’d have been lost without the information desk at the first terminal. The staff had printed instructions ready for using Sao Paulo’s subway to get to the other bus terminal.
If that seems a small thing to you, you’ve may have never seen a customer-service person snap over and over again when people approach repeatedly with the same outrageous question, such as where do you pay for items.
We had a short wait on the subway platform before a train arrived, filled with clean cars.
We had to change trains at what looked like the São Paulo’s busiest station. We wondered how we’d get through the crowd, lugging his 40-pound orange-and-gray duffel, my 27-pound black backpack, our two daypacks and a shopping bag carrying my two straw hats.
The train stopped and the doors opened…on one side of the train. Once the people got off the train, the doors on the other side opened to let people on. I had only a few seconds to marvel at the rationality, the civility and the sense of that subway design before another wonder caught my eyes.
There stood on the platform a vending machine for books. There were paperbacks on philosophy, mixed with ones about software. Below is David waiting for the subway, noted the painted lines that generates neat queues.


São Paulo seems to have relied at least partly on the hustle of the people for its success. It grew into one of the world’s largest cities without having a harbor in its midst. It doesn’t have a big beautiful bay, as Rio does.There is a saying about how the people of São Paulo work so the rest of Brazilians won’t have to.
It kind of looks that way. Rio is filled with women who look like the one immortalized in “The Girl from Ipanema,” long and tall and lovely. You’d be surprised how many young
men there look like the late Doors singer Jim Morrison in his Lizard King days, only much more handsome.
Lots of people in Florianópolis look like they taken every step to improve on the looks they were born with, even when those were quite good. It reminded me of Miami’s South Beach.
People in São Paulo seemed more low key about their appearance, while still often looking attractive.

When it comes to architecture, São Paolo has odd spots of real beauty within some real ugliness. Buildings from the early 20th century, heavy with decorative carvings, are almost lost in blocks of the giant concrete-box construction so popular in its later decades.

It’s odd now to remember that São Paulo once seemed intimidating.
The center was lively with people, including a surprising number of evangelists, during the day. At night, we felt safe on the subway. We stuck to more crowded streets while walking, following the same reasoning that has us take D Street NE and avoid E Street NE at night in our own neighborhood, Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Hill.

On one of our daytime walks, we stumbled across a renovated city park. We were in an area dominated by garage shops that repair cars. We were looking at tires and silvery auto parts, joking about how slim our chances were for finding a civilized little cafe.
Five minutes later, we’re in one of the prettiest spaces I’ve seen in a city — complete with an outdoor cafe. The cafe had iron tables and chairs, not the white plastic furniture you see a lot. The coffee, served properly with steamed milk, couldn’t have been any better.
It felt like the scene in the Disney movie,”Mary Poppins,” where Mary, the children and Bert step into his chalk drawings. We left the grit of the auto-parts district and crossed a busy street and there we were.. in this park with a giant gazebo with a kind of Ottoman look to its roof. Roots of what looked like century-old trees had grown curled around those of their neighbors at their bases. There was not a word about this park, Jardim da Luz, or Garden of Light, in our guidebook. I’m glad of that. One of the real pleasures of São Paulo was the finding beauty here and there, and Jardim da Luz was the jackpot.

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