This appeared in The South Asian Times yesterday.
Sao Paulo looks like any other metro in India at a first glance. It’s a concrete jungle. Houses in every color you can imagine, construction sites as messed up as any others you might have seen in India, clothes hung to dry in the balconies of high rises, two wheelers, street hawkers and people; lots and lots of people. Its enormity easily makes it one of the largest metros in the world and sky scrapers make it Mumbai-like, difficult to spot where the downtown is. But once you enter downtown, you know it; graffiti covered walls unmistakably set up stage for those crime stories you might have heard about the country. Traffic is so dense that it isn’t uncommon for those with heavy pockets to move around in choppers. Known as the fashion capital of South America, Sao Paulo definitely has a lot of color; in fabrics, on people and in general. Also hard to miss is the love for soccer in the natives; from spotting it on the country’s flag to spotting it in the eyes of bouncy teenagers, it is ubiquitous. If you’re traveling from any cold country, weather is to die for in February; warm and humid, just the way I like it. The biggest challenge though is the language. Not a word of English; I mean it. Luckily, I figured out nine magic Portuguese words that helped me get veggie food, travel through metros, ask for things in my size while shopping and bargain hard. The locals are a warm lot so just a few words in their lingo do the trick.
Before I could get enough of Sao Paulo, I was on the road to Rio. Rio De Janerio; just the name has such an intoxicating ring to it. I’d forgotten notes from my history class and presumed Rio to be the capital of the country. Wrong. Brasilia, the capital, is known for its futuristic buildings and is a relatively new city. Back to the Rio story. They say sometimes the planetary configuration is such that no matter what you do, you end up doing things wrong. I did, several times over. It all started with a harmless decision to drive a distance of 230 miles in a country where I didn’t speak the language. Everything that followed was a thrill. Enormous tolls (forty Reais each way), indecipherable highway and street names, no exits for miles and stick shift rental car with no GPS added up to quite a bit of adventure. Driving inside Rio took that adventure several notches up. The city is carved out of mountains and has a breathtaking landscape. The gorgeous view of Christ The Redeemer (Cristo Redentor) statue made on the peak of a tall mountain hits you just as you enter. It’s easy to spot areas of poor-quality housing and slums that are usually located on the city's many mountain slopes, juxtaposed with middle-class neighborhoods. For driving to my hotel, I had to count my blessings. Endless tunnels with several parallel highways made me feel like I was trapped in a cob web. I feel highly indebted to Google. If not for their iPhone navigation, my imagination fails me on where I would have landed up. Even if one hasn’t seen Blame It On Rio or Cocktail, one has definitely heard about Copacabana. It’s one of the most famous beaches of the world located in Rio and boy did I feel like I was on cloud nine! Swimming in the bluest waters with the hottest bodies in the warmest weather is a sin one must commit.
The most sinfully inviting thing about my trip was the Carnival. For most of the week, samba is the call that brings people together, with daily parades setting off from various locations. One can either see it in grand samba dome or participate in one of the authentic street celebrations. A common misconception is that Carnival is a Rio thing. But one can practically go to any city and be a part of it. Sao Paulo carnival is just about as grand as Rio’s, with hundreds of majestic floats with mind boggling set up, samba dancers of all ages and at all stages in life with creative costumes, topless beauty queens with glamorous feather wings and sparkling heels preceding every float, beats that make even the laziest feet dance and lyrics that you can sing along with despite the language. It’s all about celebrating the spirit of the people. A spirit that lingers on in the air even after the carnival is long over. A spirit that is so contagious that one can’t help but get painted in. A spirit I’m bringing back with me. Chow chow.