Monday, June 15, 2009

Sao Paulo? Not as dangerous as you may think.

Reading the State Department travel advisory or most guidebooks, one could easily get the impression that Brazil in general, and Sao Paulo in particular, is a very dangerous place.

I don't doubt the claims of daylight robbery, or that the murder rate in Brazil is four times as high as in America; the people who write such things know their business. But I can say that I, having gone to the world's third-largest city on a typical weekend of Spontaneous Tourism, didn't encounter any of that danger.

Some of that can be attributed to planning. My wife and I stayed in an upscale hotel a few blocks from Avenida Paulista, widely known to be the safest place in the city. I kept my camera hidden when not in active use, divided money into small portions carried in various places, and kept my wallet in a less predictable spot than my back pocket. Our passports stayed secure at the hotel.

We also took the guidebooks' advice in trusting the Metro subway system but shunning the packed buses that regularly cruised the streets. Getting to and from the airport, we opted for taxis.

But that was basically it. We walked the streets of Jardim Paulista, the Centro, and the area around Parque Republica with confidence and had no trouble.

And we had a fabulous time! We devoted Saturday to Avenida Paulista, including a delightful exhibit at the Museo de Arte Sao Paulo (MASP), a stroll through Parque Trianon and coffee at the Casa da Rosas, a Versaille-style garden. The national cocktail, a caipirinha, is made with crushed lime, ice, sugar, and a rum-like liquor made from sugarcane, and we enjoyed several at the hotel bar before dinner.

Sunday was entirely different. Coincidentally, we chose as our weekend to visit Sao Paulo the same weekend as the Gay Pride parade, a massive event that last year drew some 2.5 million people and probably had even more in attendance this year. There are no "open container" laws in Brazil, and it's an odd sight for an American to see thousands of people wandering around swigging from bottles of wine, beer, and liquor.

We were there for the start of the parade, around noon, in the midst of the crowds. That was, in fact, the one security incident of our trip: Gwen's wallet was stolen out of her purse. But that's a risk at any event that masses seven figures in terms of attendees, and it was a lesson learned that will help her next time. In the meantime, it's easy enough to replace a wallet when there isn't much of value inside of it.

But we did break away from the parade at that point, and jumped on the Metro. We toured the Museo de Arte Sacre (sacred art), visited the Cathedral de Se and historic railway Estacao de Luz, and ended up in Parque Republica by around 4:00 p.m. At that point, we made our way back to the hotel and headed to the airport.

People often ask, why would you go to another country and stay only for a weekend? This trip provides the same answer to the question that I give each and every time: because on Monday morning, I'll have spent my weekend in Sao Paulo, while the person asking spent his or her time sitting at home.

This was a great trip.

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