As our plane approaches Sao Paolo, my face is pressed to the window. Dark, bush-covered mountains give way to smooth green farmland, then to scattered settlements with fine threads of road, then to a narrow ring of low-lying suburbs cut with streets and freeways. The high-rise begins abruptly and continues. On and on it goes, mile after mile, row upon row of mammoth high-rise buildings, colossal concrete slabs, lined up like tombstones in a giant graveyard. If there are streets, cars and people in the narrow crevasses between them, they are lost, fathoms deep, in shadow. I’m struggling to imagine life down there, in that vast, harsh, unrelenting, cement and steel landscape. I’m struggling to imagine how Sao Paolo works as a city.
According to many Paolistas, it doesn’t. Not really. It functions, rather, as series of “villages”, ranging from the chic suburbs of the fabulously rich at one end, to the favelas, or shanty towns of the poor at the other.
Although hemmed by high-rise and highways, Alphaville, where we stayed, is very much a village. At its heart is a core of narrow streets and pocket handkerchief piazzas. Tiny shops sell local crafts and clothing. Equally tiny restaurants and cafes serve international cuisine, but with a Brazilian twist and with a home-made look and flavour. The people of here are village people, watchful of strangers, but solicitous rather than suspicious. In the café where I stopped for a coffee, on my first day, the waitress brought me cake because it was “impossible to drink coffee without it”. Every day thereafter, she served my “usual”.
The “big stuff” is relegated to the fringes of Alphaville. There are malls like the pristine Flamingo Mall which has exquisite home wares and furniture shops, boutiques with Brazilian designer clothes and a dedicated Havaianas store with every conceivable expression of the famous “thong”, including soles painted with racing cars and tops decorated with diamantes. There is even a sprawling shopping centre, the glittering Tamboure, where the big Brazilian chains sit side by side with global giants like C & A and where the Carrefour “grande surface” supermarket is so vast that the staff glide around on roller skates
Also on the fringes, discreetly hidden among the apartments and office buildings are the clinics where the jaded of the wide world come for “rejuvenation” at a good Brazilian price. Many recuperate at the Radisson Hotel, sticking to their rooms and living on room service until they emerge radiant for the triumphant return home. Quiet, discreetly lit and staffed by kind, gentle and extremely caring people, the Radisson would be the perfect place to heal.
For me it was the perfect haven in this megalopolis, with its reputation as the most dangerous city in the world. The staff became my friends. My Portuguese was taken firmly in hand by the doorman. The front desk was always open for a chat. The concierge steered me away from the minefields of Sao Paulo and showed me its marvels.