I was digging through my notes and found this piece of travel writing from a business trip a couple of years ago that I had totally forgotten about. I had arrived early for a week of meetings and found myself, unusually, with time on my hands to explore. São Paulo is a megacity and from my hotel, all I could see were tower blocks and antennae disappearing into the smoggy distance. The business district had very little to offer for a sightseer but I couldn’t let that put me off.
São Paulo. A local bar.
Sunday, in one of the rare low rise areas in this business centre. I look inside and see children laugh at the joy of being centre of attention, friends put the world to rights and call others to see what they’re up to later, young women gesture intently and pull back their hair or point at each other as they talk and eat. There are groups gathered at the outside tables and someone juggles oranges, while someone washes down the sidewalk. Couples ignore each other while they tear their food apart or kiss hungrily without pausing for breath. The traffic thunders through the intersection behind me; there is a water shortage but enough petrol to put thousands of cars on the road and dozens of helicopters into the sky.
The food beckons and smells rich with garlic so powerful that it reaches the other side of the street. The waiters smile and compare notes and reprisals as they dance between the bar and the tables in their whiter than white tunics with frothy beers in small tumblers, replenished without asking. I take a table. There is the chatter and clatter that marks out any great restaurant, because the atmosphere brings out the best in people. The sounds are peppered with a lone, jarring, American accent as he tells her how great he is, mistaking volume for passion, instead of listening to her. A football match plays silently on a screen like a big green cartoon as the local team wins half-heartedly.
The waiter brings me the idiots menu and still don’t understand what’s there and I’ve forgotten everything but “Agua” and “Obrigado” and smile and nod and wonder if it’s okay to say “Bem” or “Bom”. Instead, I stick to my best Idiot English and he brings the frothy beer. I have a wonderful view from the corner of the room, close enough to the open doors to hear the world roar past and to take pleasure in the jokes that I cannot understand. My food arrives and I have ordered enough to feed a small army.
A few minutes into this carbfest it grows dark outside and a rainstorm bursts out of nowhere. I am glad, the prophecy was that if I wandered alone I would be mugged or get wet. Wet is better.
Cleverly placed plastic sheets appear like magic and screen the patrons on the pavement who can still sit in the relative cool and stay dry. They are oblivious to the downpour.
I make only a small dent on the many dishes and eat until I am so full I can barely move. I settle the bill, embarrassed that I have no small change to make the tip meaningful. The waiter seems to understand this part of my Idiot culture and is philosophical but returns to the bar to plot his revenge with the others.
I know that I should head back across the road but I am, as always, distracted by the television, a Sunday evening extravaganza that looks like a dizzy blend of pop music, travel journalism, celebrity interviews and about a hundred scantily clad dancing girls, all presented by a man who looks like he’s very close to his fifth heart attack. Even without the sound on I know that it is a concoction of sheer brilliance and the girls smile and hope for that man to drop dead on camera to make it all worthwhile. It will give them a moment of fame that being groped by him has yet to provide. Keep smiling.
I can’t stay.
I have to run the gauntlet, dodge the many cars and muggers. There’s something very tempting about the cooling rain and I don’t have far to go.
And I had the foresight to bring a hat to Brazil.