Gringa in Sampa – Sao Paulo, Brazil

Just say Rio and vivid images of half-naked samba queens and Copacabana G-strings instantly fill the average mortal’s mind. Just say Rio and the ladies fall prey to hot fantasies about the tanned bodies of sensual lambada dancers. Just say Rio and all think of a place where exhibitionism is a municipal norm rather than a public offence.

Now say Sao Paulo and … well … minds go blank.

Sure thing, Sao Paulo ain’t no Rio. The commercial capital of the South American swinging giant, Sampa, as it’s known to the locals, boasts nerve-wrecking traffic, air pollution you can eat with a fork, endemic poverty, a skyrocketing crime rate, and shameless corruption. Population estimates range from 12 to 18 million, with more than half of those “numbers” crammed in favelas, shantytowns on the outskirts of the cross-shaped urban sprawl. Feels like for every Amazon tree that falls, a skyscraper goes up in Sampa.

So granted, as far as sightseeing goes, Sao Paulo can’t hold a candle to Rio, or Salvador, or Fortaleza or… well, fine, most cities. But then again, I take that back. Great sightseeing is all a matter of definition and Sampa most definitely has no shortage of “exotic” sights.

For one thing, the racial mix of Sampa stands unrivalled in Latin America and allows for all colours and sizes to be of native stock. Meaning that even a stereotypical big blond gringas such as myself could blend in with the average Sampa crowd … that is, if she were willing to forgo all culturally induced personal dignity and subscribe to Paulista street fashion. Let me explain.

Tudo fora” (literally “all out”) gained international recognition as Brazil’s universal fashion motto, however regional interpretations do vary. Indeed, while any respectable Carioca translates “tudo fora” into the world-renowned “show it all off”, Paulistas (i.e. Sampa dwellers) gave free course to the full power of semantics and somehow turned it into “let it all hang out”.

“Voluptuous” (read: the “jellier” the better) female potbellies hanging under cut-off tops and over skin tight low-waist jeans were thus made into an urban beauty icon. Although “blessed” with all required attributes to be on the receiving end of this most unexpected form of worship, somehow squeezing my full-bodied self into overly tight jeans to let my snow white barriga hang over and out for the world to see seemed like just too high a price to pay for the sake of cultural integration. But that’s just me.

Aside from an exposed overgrown barriga, other Paulista female fashion essentials include clear plastic bra straps, sold on every street corner in summertime, and toeless pantyhose. These latter were the answer to an existential Paulista woman’s problem: a Paulista (because most work in an office) can’t go without ‘hose, but neither can a Brazilian go without sandals, and the point of wearing sandals is to let your toes out. “Tudo fora“, remember?

Leaving fashion aside, the cheapest and most entertaining of treats in Sampa is undoubtedly a public bus ride. So, if you’ve got a few hours to kill and a spare buck, head over to the nearest “plataforma” (a block-long covered bus stop built in a short middle third lane and which can only be reached by walking a 100 feet on a 2-foot-wide stretch of concrete between two lanes of madly incoming bus traffic).

Once there, hail down any incoming bus (this is done by extending your arm and pointing to the ground in front of you). If you’re lucky enough to get a driver on a good day, the bus will grind to a stop within a few feet of you. If you’re the only one getting on, don’t linger, cause the driver will madly take off as soon as you set foot on his dusty baby, not to mention that he won’t bother closing the door behind you until he’s driven a couple of blocks further.

The driver on a good day may address you a “tudo bom“. If so, be a good gringo and return the greeting with a smile (tudo bem, simply tudo, or tudo joia – my personal favourite – should do it).

If you find the driver refusing to take your money, it’s simply because there is another guy called “cobrador” sitting a couple of seats down on the right of the bus ready to trade you a ticket for 1,15Rs and let you through the unbelievably stiff turnstile. He most probably won’t have change, but Paulistas are surprisingly honest when it comes to money, so fear not, your change will be passed on to you as soon as the cobrador gets some from other incoming passengers.

Make your way to the back of the overcrowded bus where you can expect there will be a bit more room. Gals, don’t go thinking being a “lady” gives you the privilege of a seat, Brazilian men are no gentlemen (at least not the ones riding public buses!), you’ll see women carrying infants in their arms standing while almost all seats are taken by young men, half of them sleeping with their mouth open.

Now enjoy the show as this is the best window onto Paulista life: the fashion, the body language, the noise and the intensity (the LP writer is NOT exaggerating when he says Sampa “motoristas” drive their accordion bus as if it were a motorcycle).

Then the inevitable will happen: you’ll get stuck bumper to bumper in a tunnel. After a few minutes you’ll be breathing pure exhaust, and start wondering whether those men are really sleeping or simply comatose… Be patient, moving forward and out of the tunnel, “fresher” air will eventually come in through all windows, either because they are open or non-existent.

To get off, try following the crowd out the back door. Otherwise, a few screams and energetic body language addressed to the cobrador a couple of blocks ahead should succeed in stopping the metal beast.

Note that anyone agile enough to slide through the 12-inch space left under the new and stiffer, full body height electronic turnstile that put half the cobradores out of a job can ride for free. All teenagers do it, and drivers couldn’t care less. I seriously considered that golden freeloading opportunity, but remained unconvinced of my ability to make it to the “other side”. I came to the conclusion that my problem would not be one of agility, but rather of size: certain curves of mine might not allow me to make it all the way through. I just wasn’t gonna risk being stuck lying under a locked turnstile on the floor of a public bus making a free tudo fora show.

But here again, that’s just me…