But Archimedes wasn’t always a happy man and even the casual visitor would understand why when they saw the state of the roads. In a country where superlatives need to be redefined to fully grasp conventional ideas like distance and population, the traffic in Sao Paulo City is simply amazing. If you aren’t inspired to visit the city for anything else, go to see the incredible traffic jams and be prepared to be amazed.
The first impression one gets of the traffic in Sao Paulo is that something like this could never have been planned and that the roads must have grown organically. The second impression, and one that is best formed from the back seat of a taxi, is that there is no way anyone sane would ever want to drive here.
Imagine multi-lane highways, flyovers, bypasses, tunnels and ring roads all coming together in a symphony of chaos. Then, people this landscape with twice as many cars as you initially considered possible, driven by highly strung speed freaks who all have the radio pumped up, the windows down and their hand on the horn. Well, that is not Sao Paulo – it’s nowhere even close to the chaos of this place.
Quite frankly, it’s indefinable and even a short taxi drive across the city can leave a grown man crying. Of course, this only actually happens on the rare occasions when the traffic isn’t impossibly snarled up – like 3am on a Saturday morning when the traffic situation can safely be downgraded to mildly terrible. I spent more time in the back of taxis stuck on Avenida Paulista than I did in my hotel or at meetings. The person who links each cab to the internet with video conferencing facilities will make a million in the first week alone judging from the number of calls I made and received along the lines of:
“Where are you?”
“Me too, the traffic is a nightmare.”
“Oh, sorry, shall we reschedule the meeting for next week then.”
But, despite its frustrations, the thick cloud of pollution which hangs over the city, the blaring car horns and driving which makes that famous scene in Gladiator look like a Sunday school picnic, I have to confess that I love Sao Paulo. I don’t quite know why, it must be something with the improbable energy of the place and the fact that I felt that I lived more in one day in Sao Paulo than I do in a week in the small village where I live in Cambridge.
The only real problem I have with the city is that there is much too much to see and do. I ended up not really doing anything as I spent so much time trying to work out whether I wanted to see the Museum of Sacred Art or the Museum of Modern Art more.
Even going to lunch was a problem as Sao Paulo must have the widest selection of great places to eat in South America. If you want simple Brazilian food then you can’t swing a cat for restaurants (however, that’s perhaps not the best analogy to use), but if you want something rather more outlandish such as Mongolian barbecue, deep fried Chinese chicken, sushi, tempura, a Portuguese stew or an all singing all dancing buffet fit for a king, then Sao Paulo is for you.
I lost count of the number of restaurants I tried in the week I was there, but I had to go out and buy a new suit halfway through the trip as the old one had mysteriously shrunk. And the Paulistas love to eat, and eat big. My problem was that all my potential clients wanted to take me out and force-feed me steaks the size of paving slabs. This was good the first couple of times it happened but after the third steak in a day, even my digestive system begins to break down a little. I think it’s something to do with Brazilian government officials not being allowed to claim for any meals that include alcohol on expenses and so they try to woo potential clients with half a cow instead of the normal bottle of decent brandy I tend to favour.
It was after one memorable meal – which had actually begun as a late lunch, slowly degenerated into a fully blown dinner before maturing into a midnight feast – that I had a revelational moment, one of those rare moments which seem to justify all the long hours hanging around airports, dealing with stroppy cabin crew and being away from home so much. I was crawling along the magnificent Av. Paulista in the back of a taxi when the driver, for no discernable reason, decided to take a short cut and swung a wild left down a narrow side street. After a series of deft manoeuvres we emerged onto a relatively unclogged highway. The sun had just set and most of the city, due to the terrible energy crisis, was in darkness. The only sign visible along the highway was a forty-foot blinking neon sign that said, “NON STOP EROTIC BINGO”.
By the time I had digested this information we were already a long way down the road and it was too late to turn back and investigate. Later, I did manage to pick a friend’s brain on this crucial matter. She told me that indeed I had not been mistaken and that there was indeed a chain of non-stop erotic bingo halls dotted about the city. She seemed less keen to take me to one and rather coy when I asked her what exactly went on there. “It’s just like normal bingo you know, Philip. Now please grow up and get me a beer please.”
Of course, I didn’t know and unfortunately ran out of time on this particular trip in which to find out – but I am sure it wasn’t full of purple rinsed golden agers like bingo halls are back home. Perhaps one day I will get the opportunity to return to Sao Paulo and find out more about this important social phenomenon. I really hope I do.