A Spanish actress once said she loved Brazil because everything floods whenever it rains and everyone acts normal.
Of all the crazy cities in Brazil, São Paulo tops them all.
I have lived there on and off for the past 20 years (I now live in upstate SP), and the city both amazes and disgusts me: a strange feeling of joy and sadness.
São Paulo is the only city in Brazil with just about everything to offer. Great neighbourhoods, amazing music shows (I once saw Chaka Khan in a small theater, as I would in London), museums (art mostly, the historical ones are rather lame), stores where you can find anything (most of which are conveniently cluttered into neighbourhoods, such as electrical appliances – Luz, Korean and Chinese goods – Liberdade, Clothes – Bras, Lapa, etc), and the home base of most Brazilian companies and multinational subsidiaries.
The problem with São Paulo is the chaos and ugliness. São Paulo is not a beautiful city. Built in a basin it is victim of overwhelming smog (which hovers over the basin constantly), flooding (every time it rains), punch-in-the-stomach traffic (everything is concentrated in the centre, with no overhead or surrounding road structure), litter, bad road repairs and paving (you have to look down when you walk to avoid falling or tripping), and an ever-worrying increase of homeless people.
People in São Paulo go about their daily lives with little concern for their surroundings. Like most European cities, São Paulo is one of the few cities (if not the only city) where you can walk around without being noticed. This is specially appealing to foreigners, who feel safer when no one cares where you come from or where you are going. The issue of crime, however, is another matter and basically depends on where you live. In my opinion, the SP police are the most effective of Brazil. They are omni-present and fast, albeit the customary Latin American roughness of law enforcement.
In Bom Retiro, a neighbourhood near Luz, there was an area called Crack-o-landia, which was home to most crack users in São Paulo. This place has recently been “interditado” (closed off to prevent people from entering) resulting in a swarm of homeless crack users all over the city. The funny thing is that no one cares. The mayor kindly asked the homeless camping in the city´s green areas to move under the bridges so he could do his road reforms.
The other day the Rodoanel Mario Covas, a highway/ring road built to alleviate traffic in the metropolitan area of São Paulo, suddenly collapsed. It seems there is a beam missing. There were only three supporting beams instead of the four beams needed. This is a normal so-what type of event in Brazil. Things collapse and life goes on.
A British friend once said he loved Brazil because you always had juicy stuff to tell people back home. His mates in London, he said, never had anything to say, life was always the same. He, on the other hand, would chat for hours about the crazy stuff he had seen on the news, at work, in the street.
Another friend says she loves Brazil because you really have to struggle to stay afloat. Life is not served on a platter, like in the “developed world”. You have to figure everything out by yourself, with no instructions. She said it made her life more “alive”, which is similar to the feeling I get living in Brazil.
São Paulo is FULL of little secrets. If you have the courage to walk around, get the subway, walk into curious little places to see what´s going on, you will surely find your own havens in São Paulo.