I did not like where this day was going. In just a couple of hours I lost my phone, laptop, a nights’ sleep and a clear plan of what to do on my first day in São Paulo. And I was definitely not staying another night with this host.
It all started when I arrived close to midnight the previous night. The summer rains had lasted for most of the day and my bus from the countryside was hugely delayed. São Paulo is situated on a plateau behind a modest mountain range, shielding it from the heat that characterizes the nearby coastline. It has a well-deserved nickname as the city of drizzle (one of many bestowed upon it by its multitude inhabitants), and once more I was happy to have packed my dutch umbrella as I searched out my hosts’ apartment. She opened up and led me into a sparsely furnished apartment with a high sight over the city. About twenty square meters served as living room, kitchen and my ‘bedroom’, housing me, my host and two juvenile cats who wasted no time trying to claw my backpack and bite every free strap.
We sat down and she offered me some water as she told me I was to be her second Couchsurfing guest, as she had enjoyed hosting an American guy the month before. “As a matter of fact”, she said, “I’ll give him a call right now.” What followed was a call, on speaker-phone, that made me decide not to stay more than one night and doubting whether I should even spend the one. The American started out by doubting whether they should be talking at all, since she obviously had feelings for him after “what had happened”. She vehemently denied this, adding that whatever had happened between them in the past, she had nothing but platonic feelings for him now and surely it would be a waste of their strong bond not to be in contact at all anymore? He relented (poor sap) and started telling about his depression, lack of money and friends and his moving back into his mothers house. She laughed at his jokes enthusiastically, even when he clearly wasn’t joking. She could relate, she said, because she had had various mental problems herself: multiple unnecessarily detailed anecdotes from her time in high school followed, as did the casual remark that the last time she’d laid of the meds she a had met a guy whom she’s married and divorced in about six weeks’ time, prompting her to remark airily: “I guess I am just a crazy girl like that haha”.
I had been trying to look immersed in my book all this time since this conversation, though held on speaker phone and just two meters away from me, was clearly a very personal one. Never once was my presence as silent participant mentioned. After about an hour I decided to call it a night since this was obviously going to be a long call, and I fell asleep on the couch with the disturbing details of the phonecall feeding my subconscious.
Not for long though, as the two overly playful cats used their nocturnal playtime to find out how bouncy this new presence on the couch really was. Jumping to and fro, they kept me awake with their antics, always managing to knock something over or make some sudden noise just as I was about to fall asleep again. When I woke up in the morning, feeling exhausted, I noticed my phone hadn’t been charging at all. Worried, I set up my tablet to find out where I could get my phone checked. When I returned from a quick shower, turned out the two mischievous kittens had taken out my magnetic charger and chewed it to bits! With my last remaining connection to the digital world on about an hour of remaining battery life, I frantically started writing down addresses, phone numbers and clumsily drawn maps in my notebook. I left my host a note saying that, although totally appreciative of her hospitality, this was not really how I saw myself spending the next couple of weeks.
Later that day, as so often happens in life, fortunes had turned. I had received help from many strangers in the streets, a local girl actually lent me her old smartphone and I played a very nice samba gig in Bar do Baixo, a great place to enjoy live music any day of the week. To top it all off, my new host turned out to be a great choice. So good in fact that I was to spend the rest of my time in São Paulo with Fernão, a funny, friendly and fun piano teacher living in the student neighbourhood of Butantã. He has a spacious apartment in an apartment building with (as is common in Brazil) a doorman who is there to open op for you 24/7, an internal parking lot, sauna, basketball court and (best of all) a swimming pool! I quickly installed myself in his small guestroom: my little home in the vast city of São Paulo! Whenever we had time together, we went drinking, playing music (I actually played with his band once in a restaurant) or into the city. Within a few weeks we had become fast friends, and I hope he will one day take me up on my offer of hosting him in the Netherlands.
São Paulo is a city comprised of many different cities, and I believe few locals know them all. I spent most of my time in the ‘center’, of which the neighbourhoods of Pinheiros, Vila Madelena and Jardins held the most appeal. There are so many little bars, clubs and cellars with live music I started worrying about my health as I turned up later and later at home every evening, talking to friends and family in the Netherlands who had just risen as I was going to bed. I felt a bit like a Paulistano after a while, moving with the unpredictable weather which goes from pouring rain to sunshine in a matter of minutes, taking the subways and striking up conversations about the carnival, politics and the weather with locals and roaming the streets in search of places to play and to spend the evening. Special thanks to João Henrique Vedana, with whom I played in Utrecht and who gave me the tip to go to a hidden cellar session between midnight and sunrise in an old hippies house. Surely one of my favourite places in the city!
I finally saw my hero Yamandu Costa live in a great theater with a string quintet, an evening that made a deep impression on me. His playing is so rich, informed by so many different styles and artists yet always so playfully, undeniably his. An exceptional example of someone who combines instrumental and musical mastery with vision and his own artistic voice. The same day I had upgraded my guitar in the music street of São Paulo since I wanted a semi-acoustic guitar to play gigs and sessions, and with the people I met at the concert we immediately went for an inspired jam session in a nearby park.
Which is harder than it sounds, because São Paulo is a loud city. Quiet places are pretty hard to come by. Restrictions on sounds do not seem to exist. People on a quiet bus who listen to music on their phones or speakers out loud. In the middle of the night if need be. Motorcycles that seem to be built to pierce your eardrums whenever they roar by. Cars with huge speaker systems rolling around the neighbourhoods, advertising some new washing detergent at crazy volumes. And then there are the blocos, the carnival parties where music is blasted at you from all possible angles. I am glad I brought my ear protection: I seemed to be the only one.
And that is the thing about Brazil I talked about with Fernão a lot. Brazil is loud, filthy and lively. Few regulations, and fewer still that were enforced. Whenever we saw something happening that was obviously not right (a father teaching his toddler to take a piss in a flower bed in our local swimming pool or a guy driving like a maniac with a bottle in his hand) his answer was consistently “It’s the Brazilian way”. And truth be told, this seems to be the essence of what guides people here. Taking pride in being able to do what you want in this wild country that somehow works, where people manage to be friendly and open somehow. Somehow they manage to live and party, despite my rough calculations confirming this should be impossible given the wages and cost of rent and food. Somehow they all manage to be friendly, despite partisan tensions ripping at the social fabric (more than ever since the Bolsonaro government came to power) and crime being rife. Somehow they manage to be optimistic, despite the economic progress being sluggish, the government deeply corrupt and inequality soaring. There is a certain pride to be found in being able to live and thrive and survive despite all this. This is Brazil in a nutshell, in this crazy, multicultural megalopolis where life is all around. As the cities’ official motto states: Non ducor, duco. I am not led, I lead.