Sabbatical 2012 [Days 18-20] São Paulo – Big Tokyo of South America


This time, our flight was on a real Gol flight. The plane was substantially cleaner and newer feeling, with LED mood lighting, grey seats instead of vomit-green, and … magazines in the seat backs! What luxuries.

We descended over São Paulo, South America’s largest city by population, and I was amazed at how vast and dense the city was. It was a neverending sea of skyscrapers and midrise apartments for as far as the eye could see. The only time I remember feeling remotely similar was landing in Mexico City, or maybe Phoenix. They were both quite different, though. Mexico city is squished into a valley between mountains, and feels pretty medium dense. Phoenix is gargantuan in the land that it takes up, and is expansive disgusting block suburbia that goes on forever… or at least until they decided to stop building the water grid. The population is nothing in comparison.

São Paulo from the sky looks nearly fake, like somebody copied and pasted the same city blocks over and over and over again to form an enormous metropolis.

That it was.

More Money Problems

It was time to get some more Brazilian Reals from an ATM. This time, they actually put the ATMs in a somewhat decent location in the airport. Good! Go up to the ATM, swipe the card in the slot, pull it out…. uhm. Try pull it out…. Try even harder to pull it out…. Its stuck. FANTASTIC.

So the next 15 minutes is spent trying to figure out how to get my debit card un-stuck from the ATM machine, which seems to have a little pin in the way, blocking its extraction. I try giggling it, I try to get attention of anybody in the airport who looks at all official. I try calling the phone number on the ATM – except the payphones don’t really let you call, and I have no idea how to really make such a call. I’m frustrated. After Iguazu’s stupid ATM issue I was about to rip off somebody’s head. Alex took 10 steps back.

Finally, a family of about 6 people used the ATM next to me, and saw that I was having issues. It turns out that they were from Buenos Aires, en route to New York or something. 3 little girls, a mom, dad, and maybe an uncle or something. They all hovered around as getting my card out of this evil ATM became their number one priority. Finally, Alex hands over his pocket knife to the guy (yes, we gave somebody a knife at an ATM in Brazil). At this point, either security is going to come over and resolve the problem, or we’ll resolve it ourselves.

It turns out that this guy seems to have some experience getting cards out of ATMs. With two quick flicks of the wrist, he had that little pin out of the way and my card out of the machine. Security never bothered us or even seemed to care.

We all rejoiced in victory as I got money out of another ATM, and I thanked them and we wished each other safe travels.

Another stupid money problem overcome.


We booked a hotel at the Mercure Pamplona. So far, it was probably the overall nicest traditional hotel that we had stayed at. The beds were quite comfortable, and it had a desk right behind the beds. The way it was set up kind of made it feel like the desk was some kind of mission control center for the beds, though. Either way, it was clean, the showers operated properly, the staff was friendly and helpful, and after spending an hour trying to get onto their network, I finally figured out some strange workaround to whatever wifi issues they were having. Or they had just fixed it while I happened to be trying. Who knows.

Bruno – Alex’s Friend

Alex had a friend from his school in Saudi Arabia who was happy to greet us and show us around. It wasn’t really the ideal timing, though, as he had just arrived from an international music tour the day before, and had to pack for a trip to some other south american country (Ecuador? Bolivia?) for a wedding the following day. We were really sandwiched in, but Bruno was awesome and took us out to dinner at a great Middle Eastern restaurant in a swanky part of town. Then we got ice cream at this cool place that had giant old-school metal milk jugs for chairs and delicious local flavors. He pointed out some other good Italian restaurants, a good place for coffee for Alex, the coffee snob, and then took us to a cool bar/restaurant that had an amazing view of the city.

During our drinks at that bar, we realized that we were all quite tired from our various travels the day before. Alex and I had just been speed-hiking through the jungle in Argentina just hours before (really? that was the same day?) and Bruno had been in Europe not too long before either. Yet, the excitement and fun just kind of masked all of the logical reasons to want to crash into a bed, and we stayed up and talked for a while anyways – until it was finally time to depart and say goodnight.


São Paulo is known for being a cultural epicenter of Brazil, much like New York is to the USA. Its a huge megalopolis, but many great things come from it. One of the most important things is the food that is available. In fact, this is what one of my co-workers from Brazil said. “São Paulo – not too much to do there unless you like food. Then you’ll really like it. Eat a lot of amazing food”

Well, he was right. And we did. For whatever reason, São Paulo has a lot of Italian influence. I guess Italy has had its fair share of gastronomic imperialism on the world anyways. Much like New York pizza is coveted in the US, São Paulo pizza is regarded as the best in Brazil. We were quite excited to give it a try.

Beyond Italian, São Paulo has the largest Lebanese population outside of Lebanon, and the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. Combine that with the amazing local foods of Brazil, and you have a mecca for amazing combinations of ancient recipes from foreign lands with new flare. I was giddy with anticipation for what I’d get to eat.

Sushi was my absolute priority. Alex found a place that was very close to the hotel called Azami sushi. I called to make a reservation, asked if anybody spoke English, and was passed to somebody who spoke incredibly fluent Spanish with an Iberian accent, and he said they only had bar space. Perfect!

Side-note: I’ve been a vegetarian for the past 8 or 9 years. The only animal food I have ever missed or craved has been sushi. I missed out big time on not eating it on my trip in Japan, and so I decided on this trip that I would break the rule and begin eating seafood for the month to be able to try local dishes and delicacies. It has been a good decision so far, but I look forward to returning to a strictly vegetarian diet on returning to the States.

We were walking down the street of the restaurant, following address numbers, and Alex finally said “it … should be here….” and we looked around and only saw some house looking place next to a tall condo, next to another tall condo. No sign, no sensation of being a restaurant in the least. Finally, a guy standing outside said something in Portuguese that seemed to question whether we had a reservation, and I said yes, and we were invited into the home.

It didn’t take long to realize we had the language barrier issue again, so we were introduced to one of the sushi chefs, Luciano. This was the guy I talked with on the phone. Thick castillian Spanish that seemed to be unaffected by his time in Brazil in the slightest. Was he Japanese? Luciano? Brazilian? Spanish? Who cares, the guy could communicate to us in various languages and was an expert at putting fish on a plate in the most fantastic creations I’ve ever had in my life. We agreed to a reduced menu – partly because the full menu involved a steak that I wasn’t going to eat, and the price was quite up there. But you know what? I’ll never remember that money, but I’ll never forget how amazing that food was or the overall experience.

I believe when I was having a piece of fish with a passion-fruit sauce underneath, that my eyes actually began to water. I worried that food may never be this good again, and that I had been ruined.

The next morning, Alex and I went to the coffee place that was recommended (though Alex had already gone the morning before when I was feeling sick) and he tried a flight of various local espressos. I think he felt about the same way that I did with the sushi – ruined, spoiled. Coffee may never be that good again. Heck, even I ordered a macchiato of my favorite of his flight offerings. I don’t even drink coffee!

We got Italian food that was also superb. And we were excited to try the famous pizza on our last day before our flight – except one thing. All pizzerias seem to be closed for lunch! What a bummer. We walked around, asked several people where a pizza place is, but they all seemed to indicate that it was somewhat absurd to try to go to a good pizza place for lunch, so we gave up and got more Mediterranean food. Not bad.

Finally – I hate the word ‘gastronomy’. I like what it stands for, but the word itself conjures up images of gastro-intestinal diagrams, Pepto-bismol tablets, constallation charts, and the Nasa Logo. Lets work on a better term, shall we?

Other Notes

Considering the size of São Paulo, the portion of the city that we were in felt safe, clean, and people were quite friendly. Service was delivered with a smile – unlike in Rio de Janeiro.

Walking the neighborhood wasn’t quite as interesting as the other cities. To me, the architecture all felt quite uniform and uninspired. It reminded me of Tokyo – lots of mid-rise to high-rise buildings that all had the same basic concrete structure. There were a few interesting designs here and there, but its nothing like the States where we make visual big deals of any buildings over 15 stories.

The terrain of the city was unexpectedly hilly. At times, it was so steep that it reminded us of being in San Francisco. They manage to completely hide this with the grid structure, though, as the map makes it look like the land is perfectly flat and all roads are at 90 degree angles to each other. Well, the roads are at 90-degree angles where they intersect, but they go up and down and leave the buildings to deal with construction however they must. At one point when we were in the taxi to the hotel, I was mid-sentence in saying “they need an upper and lower Michigan Ave like in Chicago to deal with the traffic” when we actually dipped below street level into a tunnel. I guess they were one step ahead of me.

The night view from the roof of our hotel looked like something surreal. The sky was lit so much from the city lights that photos look almost like they were taken in daylight. It seems unnatural, fake, dream-like. I imagine that the film ‘Brazil’ was heavily inspired by this city – perhaps the only inspiration to the film as it has nothing to do with Brazil whatsoever.

Final Thoughts

I’m glad we went to São Paulo to experience it. I can say with confidence that it is not a city I could live in. Like Tokyo, it is simply overwhelming. Taxi drivers still don’t fully know their way around the city, and probably never could. It is literally beyond counting the number of buildings and residents. It is impossible to ever feel like you’ve “conquered” the city’s offerings – or even broached such a stance.

Some cities just get to a size where they seem to completely lose control of growth.

If consumption is your thing – being food, fashion, arts, or other shopping – then this is a great city. It comes with a price – both monetary and in peace of mind. At least, for me.

Lastly – if you’re homeless, you can’t afford a horse. Probably because you spent all of your last money to commission this statue of yourself.

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