Sao Paulo: Navigating a Hypercity

Five Easy Steps to Getting Your Arms Around Cities with Populations of Twenty Million or More

By Mary Jo McConahay

Kissing on the street in Sao Paulo.
You won't walk alone in a hypercity like Sao Paulo, Brazil, where more than 20 million people live.

Despite having traveled in more than eighty countries, I froze last year when planning a trip to Sâo Paulo, pop: 20 million. It wasn’t the number itself that stopped me -- who can count to twenty million anyway? But descriptions called the largest urban conglomeration in South America a hypercity, a term new to me, evoking images of chaos, attention disorder and suffocating density. I got nervous.

Today’s hypercities, up to a dozen of them around the world depending on who’s counting, are only the beginning. A United Nations report says many more “will emerge during the next few decades.”

Travelers, we should make plans. I’m on my second visit to Sâo Paulo now, and through the lens of this enormous Brazilian megalopolis, I’ll start by sharing my sure-fire steps to master any hypercity in the world.

Walk it.

If you haven't hit the streets for six hours the first day, you are not trying, and don't deserve to own even a small town. You may knock off one hour if your hyper is Mexico City, elevation 7,350 feet.

(More than a mile high -- the body takes a day or two to adjust.) For Mumbai and Shanghai, where the pollution index hits “hazardous,” wear a mask.

In Sâo Paulo, I like to start with café da manha in the bakery on the ground floor of one of the city’s signature buildings, the curvy Centro Copan designed by Brazil’s legendary architect Oscar Niemeyer. Outside, a right turn leads immediately into a cross section of Paulistas in the Praça

Walking around for at least six hours is the best way to get to know a hypercity, and bring it back to a reasonable scale.
Walking around for at least six hours is the best way to get to know a hypercity, and bring it back to a reasonable scale.

Republica, where artists, families and students walk green paths and office workers hurry to the underground metro.

Going Vertical

Streets nearby, some pleasantly closed to cars and buses, lead past gems from the past like the National Theatre, the old postal headquarters now an art exhibit center, and a few standing buildings in colonial style tempered by New World simplicity -- all built before Sâo Paulo “went vertical,” as a Paulista friend puts it, with highrises.

Yes, I have walked in a favela, the poorer, working class districts clinging to hills surrounding many of Brazil’s major cities, where residents are prey to drug lords and becoming the collateral damage of turf wars.

But I was accompanied by a local hip hop artist who was entré and protection at once. Is it necessary to see the poorest rings of a hypercity to know it? Fundamental, I’d say, because the day workers who live there and the underground economy that goes on -- makeshift, sometimes “illegal” work -- feeds the rest of the city like rivers feed the sea.

Some local agencies offer “favela tours.” Two travelers told me over a B&B table they are glad they took one, and found residents welcoming. Others can’t bear the idea of going on an organized tour to see how the very poor live. You decide. For my money, unless you have a trusted escort or can volunteer a while for a church or other program that works in a favela, I’d say save it for another trip.

Ride it.

Riding the subway in Sao Paulo Brazil.
Riding the subway in Sao Paulo Brazil.

Hypercities are hyper because they are magnets for the rest of the country, where people find work. Taking the same set of buses and metros locals use to get around gives time to consider faces, clothes, reading habits, entertainment devices and customs of the ordinary population who make a hypercity tick, the more intimate view unvailable from a sidewalk cafe.

I did not believe top Sâo Paulo executives commute by helicopter until I saw the choppers coming and going at rush hours from skyscraper roofs along Paulista Avenue. As a journalist I’ve been in landing zones during wars when air traffic was almost as heavy.

Down-to-earth commuters take buses and the metro system. Buy half a dozen tickets instead of just one: there’s no discount for multiples but with a metro ticket in your pocket a more expensive taxi is less tempting. At one busy station, Luz, I decided to face the density nightmare and got off with the crowd to change lines.

I found myself thrust among ten thousand persons flowing in streams about five across in half a dozen directions. Woe to the one who stops or turns, I thought, but personal space seemed respected and if you were in the right stream you were poured efficiently into the right car. Or, like me, you conquered your fear and experienced the consciousness of being in a herd of sheep.

Chop it up.

Newsstands are everywhere in Sao Paulo, great places to ask directions, get snacks, or just have a moment of silence.
Newsstands are everywhere in Sao Paulo, great places to ask directions, get snacks, or just have a moment of silence.

Residents don’t see their hypercity as an amorphous blob but a series of neighborhoods, or many small towns woven together. As a San Franciscan, for instance (yes, I know it’s not a hypercity), I frequent Nihonmachi, my city’s Japan Town, once home to typical Japanese houses and a Japanese population bigger than today, but still a destination for Japanese shops, food, cultural events and thousands of products.

Looking for a comfort level in Sâo Paulo, went to Libertade, a neighborhood where Japanese settled a hundred years ago.

There I met a 35-year old woman from Tokyo who recently had come to work in Brazil. “This doesn’t look like Japan today at all,” she said, smiling. “I feel like I’m in a time machine, back in the 1970s.”

But I also met Japanese-Brazilians who had never been to Japan, who seemed to take the Torii gates and “Japanese” facades of local banks in easy stride.

A librarian told me he had relatives in San Francisco, a very Asian city, which gave us something in common right away. Brazil is a nation of immigrants, with more Japanese anywhere outside Japan, more Lebanese anywhere outside Lebanon, neighborhoods of Syrians, Germans, Italians and more. Every hypercity has ethnic neighborhoods -- think Chinatowns -- or even smaller footholds where outsiders can feel instantly at home depending on interests, like a cluster of photo galleries, or Sâo Paulo’s off-off Broadway neighborhood around lower Augusta Avenue. The hypercity goes down easily when taken in small pieces.

Shop it up.

Centro Copan, the most famous building in Sao Paulo.
Centro Copan, the most famous building in Sao Paulo.

An anthropologist once told me women buy stuff to deal with culture shock. It’s calming, he said, to walk in and out of stores, hand over money and walk out with a package -- a familiar routine even in a strange context, “the beginning of understanding.” He did not say what men do.

In Sâo Paulo, I do not understood the fascination with Oscar Freire Street, the city’s magnet high fashion avenue. F. Scott Fitzgerald may have said the rich are different from you and me, but in the upscale neighborhoods of Jardins and Vila Olimpia, they appear to wear the same brands.

In Sampa, as Brazilians sometimes call Sâo Paulo, it may be more fun to hit Praça Republica on a weekend, where women sell flowing skirts and skimpy cotton dresses more comfortable in hot weather than brands from Paris and New York.

On Sunday mornings the street where I stay in Sâo Paulo, R. João Guimarães Rosa, becomes a genuine farmer’s market with hanging slabs of fresh meat and lusciously colored piles of fruit, but also with artisan work. Elsewhere, weekend vendors offer turtle shell drums, wooden carvings and other hand-made goods from far corners of Brazil. If you must have those big name brand clothes, however, check out consignment shops -- in Sâo Paulo some are off Oscar Freire Street itself.

Eat it up.

Street scene in Sao Paulo, Brazil, photos by Mary Jo McConahay.
Street Scene in Sao Paulo.

This one might seem obvious. In Brazil you don’t have to consume manatee flesh or turtle eggs, which are on few menus outside the Amazon anyway, but everyone knows local dishes are the best. What the hypercity traveler must know, however, is also when to eat. The late lunch and post-meal siesta may prevail elsewhere in Mexico, for instance, but in its hyper capital the pursuit of money does not sleep, at least during the day.

Most hypercities are also what urbanists call Alpha cities, centers of the global economy, perhaps in more ways than the countries where they’re located. That means hyperworkers eat globalized “lunch,” often quick, not the more traditional midday feast, and no naps.

Keeping time in mind, you can grab lunch specials of several courses unavailable in the evenings, and in Sâo Paulo, for instance, pick your servings, weigh the plate, and pay by the kilo -- cheap! And remember: Wednesdays and Saturdays are when to find the traditional feijoado, the filling and delicious dish of dark beans and small pieces of slow-cooked meats that takes so much effort to make it’s usually offered just twice a week.

Finally, if the culinary choices in a city of twenty million are overwhelming, don't be embarrassed to walk in to a McDonald's -- or its equivalent. Locals aren't.

I have not been to all the world’s hypercities, so can’t speak for them, but I’ll add a sixth step for getting your arms around Sâo Paulo. Save its fine museums for a day or two. As you find your bearings, the art of the streets is intriguing enough to feed the soul.

Mary Jo McConahay is the author of Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest (Chicago Review Press)

Read an excerpt on GoNOMAD.

Visit Mary Jo’s GlobeWatch blog.

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