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Brazil

Day 63: São Paulo

Michael Palin - BrazilThe Amazon Basin occupies forty-two percent of Brazil's land area. Yet its combined population is less than that of New York City. The southern and south-eastern states of Brazil comprise only sixteen percent of the land area, but sixty percent of its population. Forty million people live in São Paulo State alone. Almost one in five of all Brazilians.

Being in São Paulo means being surrounded by other people, all the time. As far as the eye can see there are streets and blocks and highways and traffic. Planes and helicopters are constantly crossing the skies above. I now know what Marlene Dietrich meant when she famously said, 'Rio is a beauty. But São Paulo...São Paulo is a city.' Rio is defined by natural landmarks – the sea, the curving beaches, the mountains of Corcovado and Sugar Loaf – but São Paulo has nothing like that. There is, it seems, nothing here but the human race, in enormous numbers.

Difficult as it is to imagine, there was a time, 450 years ago, when São Paulo was very small. Two Jesuit priests, pursuing their quest to bring the local Indians to God, had slung their hammocks here, beside a small river. Not far away, bigger rivers had cut gaps in the high plateau, providing glimpses of the mysterious and possibly fabulous interior of this new land. Missionaries were joined by adventurers less interested in souls and more interested in shiny minerals. These bandeirantes, as they became known, found São Paulo a useful base for their expeditions, and a permanent settlement grew up beside the River Tietê. It wasn't until the late nineteenth century that São Paulo became something more than just another provincial town. The increasing world demand for coffee and the start of mass emigration from an overcrowded Europe coincided here. Industrious and ambitious Italians, Portuguese and Spaniards, having made some money in the coffee plantations, stayed on to set up businesses in the city. Their success attracted others, among them Japanese, Jews, Lebanese, Greeks and Koreans. By the mid 1950s São Paulo's population had reached over two million. But the immigrant boom was far from over. In the forty years between 1955 and 1995 the population of Brazil grew, staggeringly, from fifty-nine million to 172 million. São Paulo bore the bulk of this increase, and today it's the largest city in the Southern Hemisphere and the eighth-biggest in the world. No wonder there is a whole area of the city called Imigrantes.

To find why so many people seem happy to live here, you have to avoid making sense of the city itself and look instead at the fine detail. Halfway up a steeply sloping road in the middle of an anonymously built-up area is a building you might easily walk past without a second look, except that the brick walls are all sprayed silver and the staff all wear black. It was once a cutlery factory, and has now been intelligently restored to house one of Brazil's most successful fashion designers. And her son. The work of Gloria Coelho takes up most of the building, but she is in danger of being upstaged by her precociously successful twenty- one-year-old son Pedro. Under the name Pedro Laurenço, he's one of Brazilian fashion's best-known names abroad. He's had four shows in Paris and his clothes sell in twenty outlets round the world. I meet Pedro as he works in a light-filled room at the top of the building where he's designing his new collection. He's fresh-faced, with short dark hair, big dark eyes and a quietly impressive grasp of both fashion and business. His English is immaculate. As he toys with a line of red ribbons and swatches of fabric, and then pins them onto one of his models, he's the personification of the work ethic. And that, he says, is what makes São Paulo so different from Rio.

'Rio's good for vacation, but São Paulo is good for work.'
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 63: São Paulo
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: São Paulo
  • Book page no: 262

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