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Postcard from Sao Paulo, Brazil

The most tempting way for a visitor to describe a city or country is to examine its contradictions. While my inclination is to avoid this predictable approach, it’s unavoidable in Sao Paulo and Brazil, where almost any generalisation becomes a paradox.

The road traffic is chaotic and crowded, yet there is a fantastic underground metro that is modern, cheap and quick, and it connects with a vast bus network often with dedicated lanes. Taxis are a slow alternative. Up above, there are helipads everywhere, at last count about 450 compared with only three on Manhattan Island. Even some modest residential apartments have their own helipad, and there are more air traffic movements in Sao Paulo than any other city in the world.

So is transport a disaster in Sao Paulo? Depends how you go.

In this crazy city with up to 20 million inhabitants during the day and a bad reputation for street crime, there’s a strange version of 'she’ll be right, mate'. Brazil was awarded the World Cup rights in 2007, and it’s as if they spent the first few years celebrating the coming party without really planning for it. It was expected that this city’s largest stadium, the Morumbi, with capacity for 67,000 people (it was once 120,000 before the seats went in) would host the opening game. Then at the end of 2010, FIFA rejected the stadium due to lack of guarantees about improvements. It was decided to build a new stadium for the local team, Corinthians, and this is the one currently being used. It looks great on television and the actual visiting experience is fine, but it does have a bit of an unfinished feel about it. Completion was close run with a few deaths along the way.

Here's a grass roots example. Our friends have operated a factory which has manufactured equipment for the food industry for 30 years. Recent years have been tough, and they were considering closing, having reduced staff from 40 to 10. Then in February this year, they received a massive order from a major Brazilian company for delivery of equipment before and during the World Cup. They would be severely penalised if they missed the deadline. It required almost around-the-clock work and an increase in employment to around 50, and they have had a frantic few months barely able to go home before starting again. They are obviously grateful for the job but so frustrated that it was left to the last minute.

Food in supermarkets is relatively cheap, with meat half Sydney prices and beer 50 cents a can, and there's great coffee in a cafe for $1.20. But restaurant prices for anything medium level and above are eye-popping. A good local restaurant near where we are staying has a dish of five prawns for $130. DOM, the restaurant of star chef Alex Atala and ranked 4th in the world in 2012 on the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list, costs at least $250 a head without alcohol. Most places have an additional cover charge and service fee. Let's not bring these to Australia. 

It’s another contradiction. Away from the few streets that make up the main financial district, the pavements and infrastructure like electric wiring are in a worse condition than in a small Australian country town. It would be an embarrassment in an Australian city, and our hosts remind us that Brazil is still a third world country. Yet on a street where a pram can disappear in a pothole sits a restaurant with a fixed price menu of $80 a head, valet parking and no room to move inside.

Brazilians are so welcoming and eager to help that the longer we stay here, the less concerned we become about our personal safety. The police presence is intense, and the wallet has returned to the back pocket as we stroll around at night. But lest we think we’re home, the Australian Government sends regular reminders to anyone registered on its Smart Traveller service, and the latest says:

“We advise you to exercise a high degree of caution in Brazil because of the high levels of serious crime. The incidence of violent crime, including muggings, armed robbery, home invasions, kidnapping (especially express kidnappings) and sexual assault, is significant. Carjacking is also common, especially in major cities. If you are attacked or robbed, do not resist. Thieves are often armed and you could be seriously injured or killed. Avoid wearing jewellery and expensive watches … Dress down and carry minimal cash and credit cards.”

Football is a serious matter, but even I doubt it’s worth getting killed for.  

Two hours before every Brazil game, there’s a mad rush on roads and public transport as work closes and people try to reach home or meet in their favourite café. At kick off, the activity on the street is much quieter, but at each Brazilian goal, there is a cacophony of horns and trumpets as people rush to their balconies to share the joy.

Brazil’s Neymar is the undoubted star, and his agent has made big in the build up to the games. His image is everywhere, and the fact he is playing superbly and scoring goals makes him bigger than Beckham, Messi or Ronaldo in this part of the world. One Brazilian even told me a story which I’d heard years ago about Ronaldo – that if he had a tattoo of Jesus on his chest, it would do more for the profile of Jesus than Neymar.

Sitting in a lounge chair in Australia, no doubt the impression is gained that the host cities are going World Cup mad. I have been in Sao Paulo for the last week, and other than when Brazil is playing, it would be easy to think the games are on in another country. It’s not only the predictable ‘life goes on’ or ‘not everyone is fascinated by football’ reasons, but Sao Paulo is not a tourist town. It’s not like London, Paris or Munich. It’s as if the city overwhelms the event just as it overwhelms everything else. There is not even much street decoration, other than in the centre of town or along the main Avenue Paulista.

This is a financial, business and industrial town, with no major river running through it and the beaches are an hour away. There is little in the way of soaring architecture or old buildings, as the Portuguese only established the colony in around 1600 and it was relatively poor for a couple of hundred years. It simply does not have anything like the history of a major European city. Sure, the food is great, there are plenty of museums and there’s a healthy feeling of activity, but that’s Sao Paulo rather than the World Cup. It would be hard to recommend Sao Paulo to a tourist with a world of alternatives a flight away.

No doubt other cities, especially party town Rio and smaller places like Manaus and Recife, feel the impact of hundreds of thousands of tourists, and to date, the country has decided to be a great host and enjoy the sunny weather and excellent football. The protests have lost momentum and are unable to motivate people who have just celebrated the latest Neymar goal. A World Cup is always a time for celebration when the host nation does well, and it will build over the next two weeks, especially if Brazil does well.

But I can’t help thinking that as every game from now on is sudden death, it’s a party where the music can suddenly quieten and the beer flow reduce to a trickle. If Brazil is eliminated, there will be a lot more ‘business as usual’ than people expect. Of course, Brazilians will watch the games, they love football and they want the world to have a good time, but the streets, businesses and factories won’t close, and their minds will turn to that other question which is currently in the back of their minds: what happens when everyone goes home?

My friends in business are surprisingly pessimistic, and after the party is over, they wonder what will happen to the spanking new stadiums and how the overdrawn credit card will be repaid. It’s like they’ve been given an dose of happy gas which will wear off with little more than a decent afterglow and a large dental bill.

We visitors will have fantastic memories of Iguazu Falls, Machu Picchu, Rio de Janiero, Sao Paulo and Brasilia, and the standard of football has been wonderful, but every Brazilian we speak to laments on the terrible public education and health system and poor infrastructure, and asks how many hospitals could have been built instead of a stadium in Manaus which will soon be overgrown by weeds.


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Postcard from Brazil


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