Thursday, December 03, 2015

South America (Brazil) - Day 14 - 19 (morning): Sao Paulo - Art, soireés, hospitals and theft

We arrived in Sao Paulo in the late afternoon and checked into the LimeTime hostel in the Vila Madalena district. This is probably the most bohemian area of the city, with loads of street art, nightclubs and bars dotted around – it is also one of the safest places to stay.



The dorm itself wasn’t a patch on Leo’s place, but it had just about enough space for our stuff. We grabbed some empanadas (pasties with different fillings) from a local bar, had a beer and then caught up with Charlotte’s brother Virren back at the hostel. All of the staff were great, including Alessandra, Edem and Gabriel, and they certainly knew how to throw a party. We’d arrived on a Tuesday which just so happened to be the day where you can drink caipirinhas for free for two solid hours…so we did. Then followed a few games of beer pong, at which Gilly and I remained undefeated. I'm pretty sure we're getting a plaque put up in our honour there. On the downside, it did mean we didn't drink as much beer as we could have done, but then fame does come with a price.




At 10pm Virren suggested going up the road to a place called Nossa Casa. We were advised that this would be a little more “alternative” to other places we may have experienced. He wasn’t wrong. The main room of the place was hosting some Portuguese erotic poetry readings by locals - a sarau erotico yopará. I have no idea whether these were any good or not, since the extent of my lingo could be summarised by asking people for directions and whether they spoke English. However, things then went even more liberal, as around fifteen people from what looked to be some sort of theatre group formed a circle and started chanting. And then they took their clothes off. They spread out amongst the rest of the audience, making eye contact and smiling, and then one naked girl must have spotted something in Gilly’s face (amusement, fear, who knows?), took her hand and beckoned the pair of us along with a group of naked participants and some other selected clothed people - clearly new to this - off to a room. 

At this point I had literally no idea what to expect other than being told it was a “sense experience”. Were we being indoctrinated into a cult? Would my clothes be burned off in some sort of ritual? Would I have to fight someone to death in order to be crowned leader of the group? None of these things, as it turned out. Instead, we all formed a circle (naked and clothed people alike) and were then prompted to massage the shoulders of the people to our right. Some of the group also massaged their neighbours’ backs and legs. Then we turned and did the same to the people on our left. When everyone was feeling less tense(!), individuals were invited into the centre of the circle and were asked to close their eyes, cross their arms over their chest and fall backwards. They were then caught by the circle and gently pushed from person to person within the circle. After about twenty seconds of this, the naked people chanted something whilst making gestures indicating falling rain with their arms up and down the individual’s body, before kissing them from foot to head. 

As I type this, I understand how utterly bizarre it might seem, but it was weirdly beautiful. At no point did it feel voyeuristic being there; indeed, it felt almost like an honour to have been invited in to experience it. When I fell back, I literally let myself go limp and trust in the group – and it was fine. Another girl who was also a tourist found it a little more difficult to relinquish control and put faith into being caught, but she wasn’t judged by them, just gently guided around the circle. When the whole thing was over, everyone clapped and cheered. Neither Gilly nor I knew what we’d just experienced, and we probably won't experience anything like it again, but it certainly opened our eyes to another part of Brazilian culture. The most inspiring part was that it was a completely inclusive event, open to people of any gender, race or sexuality. Despite Brazil's many shortcomings, it is certainly a progressive country in many areas.  

The next morning I needed to go to hospital. My ear wasn't getting any better despite the medication I'd been taking, so an expert opinion was in order. My insurance company wouldn't allow me to go to a private specialist first, so my only option was to traverse the public health system. I had visions of being stuck in some packed waiting room for the entire day, whilst multitudes of people who didn't speak English prodded at me. In actuality the hardest part of the experience was finding the right building. Clinicas is a university hospital complex a few stops down on the tube from Vila Madalena, and it is huge. There are separate buildings for everything - gastroenterology, radiology, osteopathy, and so on. The first building I identified had a sign which I translated as "walk-in". This turned out to be correct, but I missed the import word criança and after wondering why the majority of people were holding screaming kids, I sheepishly made for the exit. Advice from someone at the next building managed to get me to the main public walk-in centre, and after making it clear at the desk that I was a gringo with little grasp of Portuguese, I was led to a waiting area sharpish where there were around 30 or so other people. I got a ticket to be seen by reception, who got me to fill out details and then gave me another ticket to be seen by a doctor. I managed to finish an audiobook I was listening to, so the waiting time wasn't all bad. Eventually I was directed to a room where a doctor with a fairly good grasp of English poked my ear in various places, consulted with an older doctor, and then informed me I had inflammation - specifically two inflammations in different areas. I was given a prescription of three different drugs (two oral, one ear dropper), and I was done. I found a pharmacy in the subway, paid 60 reais (11 quid) for the drugs, and was back at the hostel within four hours. Say what you like about Brazil being a less developed country, but I couldn't fault my experience at the hospital. 

Given our unexpected free time, we took the afternoon to explore "Batman Alley", a nearby avenue which is filled with graffiti. They ranged from "meh" to fantastic, and some of them were huge murals covering entire buildings.











It seems that our newfound love of craft beer has opened up a world of possibilities, and we keep stumbling upon different places selling it; Vila Madalena was no exception, although we baulked at paying six quid for a bottle of Brewdog's Dead Pony Club, and instead went for a local pilsner which was more in line with our budget. For dinner, we celebrated a successful hospital visit by going to Gardenia for a lamb burger, seafood risotto (which actually turned out to be seafood with quinoa), and half a bottle of Argentinian malbec...just to get a taste of what we'll be experiencing next month.


The following day after a lovely breakfast at Pao, we headed to Avenida Paulista, the biggest shopping street in the city. Our main aim was to get some cash exchanged into dollars ahead of our move into Argentina. The Argentinians have two currency rates - the "standard" rate, and the black market rate known as dolar blue which is both illegal and essential. Currently for one US dollar you can get 9.69 pesos on the standard rate, and 14.60 pesos on the black market rate. That's over 50% more - it's a no-brainer. Despite being illegal, the dolar blue is printed in national newspapers each day and in Buenos Aires it's apparently common to see people on the street selling pesos for dollars and the police simply ignore them. With this in mind, we set out to buy as many dollars as we could on our cards. We hit a snag when we found that cambios (exchange bureaus) don't let you buy dollars direct - they only exchange them for Brazilian reais. Every cambio we tried was the same story, so we resigned ourselves to withdrawing our daily limit on all of our cards and getting a fairly measly rate in dollars; it will be beneficial in the end though, as the savings we'll make exchanging dollars for pesos will more than outweigh any losses on the cash we originally exchanged.

Taking a metro, we passed a huge Father Christmas at a mall - apparently he now has a labrador - and then visited the FIESP, a free art gallery nearby which had exhibitions on carnival dresses and history. It wasn't particularly riveting, but it killed an hour. Since we were in a fairly busy area, we headed to a mall for a big selection of restaurants and opted for a Lebanese in the form of Almanara and then had a walk around the nearby park which seemed to be a place where couples met to smooch on benches. At 5pm we headed over to the MASP - another art gallery which happened to be free between 5 and 8pm on Thursdays. Good timing! One exhibit was all about the art which was vandalised by the suffragettes as part of their movement to obtain the vote - it was fascinating to see their reasoning behind the paintings they attacked (namely, those where women were portrayed by the artists as being in "typical" female roles at the time - sewing, cleaning, housework, and so on). It made me very interested to watch the recent Suffragette film. A walk back to the metro saw us take in some acrobatic Brazilian dancing, with people bending their spines in ways that shouldn't be physically possible.









That evening we decided to find an authentic samba club, and as luck would have it, one was around the corner from our hostel - Ó Do Borogodó. It was filled with locals and the environment was packed and sweaty but we got a taste of Brazilian nightlife and had a bit of a boogie (well, as much as we could given the lack of room). We were pretty tired though, and after an hour or so we were thinking of calling it a night...until we got back to the hostel and found that the entire group were heading out to another club. So, one energy drink later, we found ourselves in Quintadinha club with the LimeTime crew, an English guy called Jack and a couple of French guys - Leo and Louis - who had arrived that day. Apparently there was a very famous Brazilian DJ at the club that night. He wasn't playing anything, just sitting in a corner looking pretty sad whilst a single security guard glared menacingly out at people who got too close. You have to wonder at the normality and freedom that you lose when you become famous, and whether the cost is worth it.




Despite not knowing what time we got back to the hostel, we were up and ready to check out the next day to move to a different area of Sao Paulo: Vila Mariana. Our new digs were at Olah Hostel, which provided a private room for the first time since Ilha Grande. It's the little things that make the difference; apart from the privacy, having your own room usually means you get fresh towels and more space than you know what to do with (in our case: empty all of our backpacks everywhere so we can't find anything we need).

After settling in, it was time for more art, this time in the form of Parque Ibirapuera which hosts numerous museums and galleries. Getting there was an ordeal in itself, since you have to cross multiple dual carriageways in order to get to the entrance - the park seems to be aimed at drivers rather than pedestrians. Still, we avoided getting run over and headed to the Museu de Arte Moderna (MAM). It had three galleries which focused on a) rocks, b) shells and c) a random room made out of bullet-ridden cardboard, containing platters of sweets (most of which had been eaten). We didn't last long there. Next up was the more interesting and instead went to the Museu de Arte Contemporânea (MAC), which unlike the MAM was free and had eight floors of stuff. Typically, the best installation was on the ground floor which had a giant sofa-cat. However, the top floor provided incredible panoramic views showing just how huge the city of Sao Paulo is. A wander around the park also took in an auditorium and a dome designed by Oscar Niemeyer, an architect who lived to 104 and is revered by Brazilians with almost religious fervour. He certainly likes his curves. Outside the MAC was a promotional coffee stall offering free coffee. My friends know that I have never got around to liking coffee (other than mocha, which doesn't count), but since I was in the country of coffee I thought I'd give it another go and ... it was surprisingly OK. That may have been because I dumped an entire sachet of sugar in it, but still, it was drinkable. I don't see myself being converted to a 5 cups of joe a day any time soon though.











A local recommendation saw us eating at Veloso that night, a nearby place famous for its coxinhas. These are essentially croquettes filled with meat (usually chicken) and served with a dipping sauce. We got there at about 6pm and the place was absolutely rammed; we thought we'd try our luck anyway, and were told that the current wait for a table was at least 2 hours. The disappointment on our gringo faces must have sparked something in the door staff as they told us to wait, and thirty seconds later came back and asked if we were happy to eat at the bar. Of course we were! The joys of being a foreigner. We scooted past several bemused groups of people and proceeded to munch on crispy, doughy chicken goodness, along with rice balls and some magnificent fresh fruit caipirinhas.




Since we enjoyed the Rio free walking tour, we decided to join the Sao Paulo version for a trip around the downtown area the next day, starting at Republica square. It had a mass of market stalls for us to mooch round whilst we waited for the tour to start. Our guide Raffa was very enthusiastic, ending pretty much every segment of the tour with “This way, right over here, there we go!”, whilst crossing the street at the lights was always punctuated with “It’s green for us, there we go!”.

We took in many of the important structures in the area, including Niemeyer’s Copan building – an entire self-contained mini city in itself which has its own postcode – the municipal theatre, the library, and the imposing Sé Cathedral which contained an organ with so many pipes that it was only allowed to use 10% of them in case it affects the structural integrity of the building! After a decent per kilo lunch at Leiteria Regina, we set off on the second part of the tour. Apparently there are over 6 million cars in Sao Paulo, and a radio station entirely dedicated to the traffic. That’s some serious congestion. We also saw the tallest building in Brazil, which is disappointingly ugly.











Patricia Piccinini had an exhibit on at the Caixa building which we visited after the tour - it was my favourite art installation on our trip to date, a mish-mash of human/creature hybrids made from silicon, human hair and other material to produce disturbingly lifelike forms which challenged our preconceptions of what we consider to be "monsters". It was beautiful and grotesque, but then that was the point.










That evening we tried to go to Sushi Isao in Japantown, as we'd heard good things about it. I've never been massively into sushi, but the idea of an all-you-can-eat buffet appealed, as it would allow us to try bits of everything. It wasn't to be though; we arrived at some sort of sushi weekend festival where the cost would have wiped out our day's budget, so we looked around and stumbled upon Sushi Lika. I'm glad we did - it was the nicest sushi I've ever eaten (out of the three times I've tried it). The chefs knew exactly what they were doing, everything was prepared with care, and the food itself was divine. We had a platter of different sushi and some octopus sashimi for half the price of our original destination and loved all of it. Perhaps I didn't fully appreciate it the first couple of times I tried it, but I'm definitely a convert after this experience.



Sadly, our last day in Sao Paulo will always be one that casts a shadow over our time in the city. We took a train to Liberdade in the morning to look at the Japanese market stalls, and also stepped into the bank to get some more cash out ahead of Argentina. Neither of our debit cards worked. This was odd, since they were working yesterday. We decided to head back after lunch, but Gilly first managed to find a canvas bag which she'd been after for some time (since I'm generally the one carrying the cards and cash). Unfortunately, less than an hour after she had put her purse in the bag, it was pickpocketed. We have no idea when or where but they didn't get much, just a driving licence, 90 reais (about £14) and a debit card. Luckily, they didn't get her phone. This has the first time we've been a victim of crime whilst travelling, and it left an awful taste - it also meant that we are now reliant on my debit card for overseas purchases. not a great situation.


Getting back to Olah hostel, we called Norwich and Peterborough and found out that the reason our cards didn't work in the bank was because Gilly's card had been flagged up as having fraudulent transactions on it. Looking at our statement, we saw multiple ATM transactions from Miami, taking over £600 from our account. It seems that even before Gilly's card was stolen, it had been cloned some days before (exactly when, we're not sure). We were incredibly lucky that my card hadn't been affected. In order to use a cloned card, you need both the card details and the PIN - somehow, the thieves had managed to get both. Perhaps it was a dodgy ATM at a bank (Tom from our Paraty trip had experienced almost the exact same situation), and Norwich and Peterborough were confident that it happened at a bank, which was concerning. Can we no longer trust ATMs in official bank buildings? Paranoia immediately set in, which may be for the best when handling any sort of cash transactions in future.

Needless to say, Gilly's card was cancelled, the fraudulent transactions were refunded, and we now had to keep a sharp eye on my wallet. To top off a miserable day, it was absolutely bucketing down with rain when we needed to get to the airport so, sodden and downbeat, we trudged onto our flight to Florianopolis. We thought that might have been the end of our run of bad luck, but no, more was still to come...

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