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revisiting são paulo

While the bulk of my Brazilian past resides in Eldorado I do have a reasonably extensive history with São Paulo proper, too. During my three and a half year stint as a volunteer at ACER I made regular forays into the city.

This trip between the periphery and the centre is so expensive and logistically complicated that many people who live in communities such as Eldorado never venture into São Paulo.* The one and half to two hour journey goes something like this: catch a rickety crowded bus from Eldorado to the terminal in Diadema, from there change to the trolley bus which will take you to Jabaquara, São Paulo’s southernmost Metro station. Once on the Metro system you can move faster and with a change or two of Metro lines, or perhaps an additional bus, you can get to pretty much anywhere in the city but it’s going to set you back at least R$6 each way. To put this in perspective, the minimum monthly wage in Brazil is under R$800 reais and many people are earning far far less.

Like most people who do make the trip regularly my motivation was primarily financial – the city is where the money is. Teaching English to the São Paulo’s wealthy business elite in the city’s endless sea of skyscrapers bankrolled my more heartfelt work in Eldorado. The city centre is also where you are going to find all those trappings of middle-class life – you know, bookshops, cinemas, swimming-pools, art galleries, parks, restaurants, that kind of thing – that are so easy to take for granted if you have the good fortune to be born into them.

As with revisiting Eldorado, I find that returning to São Paulo is a little uncanny. It’s as though I had just slipped away for a matter of minutes.

(*The reverse trip from the centre to the periphery is unthinkable. Few people living in central São Paulo would dream of an outing to the outlying communities. Fear is a common denominator but the reasoning is quite different.)

Of the three and a half years that I worked at ACER in Eldorado, I spent most of the time living on site but on two occasions I shared flats in the city. On my visit to the centre of São Paulo, I stay with Marie Ange, my old flatmate, in the same flat we shared ten years ago. She is still there and still hard at work on collaborative creative projects with some of the world’s most dispossessed and marginalised people.

The crazy fabric eating cat is a new addition to the household, however. Do not leave your clothes unattended around this feline. He eats them.

PTs red flags are waving on the streets in the lead up to the deciding vote of the 2014 election. I was in Brazil for PT’s historic win, headed by Lula, in 2002. The jubilant optimism of 2002 has been replaced in 2014 by more divisive and bitter politics. Dilma’s PT government is plagued by accusations of corruption – a condition endemic in all Brazilian politics – in a relentlessly hostile media.  And while absolute poverty has been reduced in many parts of Brazil the wide sweeping social changes that will meaningfully reconcile the uneasy parallel universes of Brazil’s rich and poor and thus reduce the deadly chaos and violence in which all Brazilians live seem as far out of reach as ever.  I wear a PT sticker but only because the alternative seems far worse.

São Paulo skyline and traffic remain unchanged. This is one of the greenest areas of São Paulo.

It’s a classic…

…modernist…

…landscape but the clean architectural lines don’t bear much close scrutiny. The disarray that lurks around São Paulo’s periphery also encroaches on more privileged parts of the city. A lengthy drought coupled with chronic mismanagement of the water resources* has resulted in water and power cuts across the city. While the poorer areas are the hardest hit by interruptions to services, wealthy suburbs are also being affected. (*Yup, the water service is privatised. Watch the free market work its magic, yet again.)

Dissatisfaction is far more prevalent than easy solutions. The Banksy style stencils are indications of a significant but unheeded voice that opposed the World Cup in Brazil. The feeling among a section of Brazil’s population is that the resources spent on celebrating sport would have been better spent elsewhere.

Government by bread and circuses: football outweighs housing, health, public transport.

But for all its troubles São Paulo is a one of the world’s great cities, a universe unto itself, with a diversity and vibrancy to rival places like London and New York. São Paulo is home to the largest Japanese community outside of Japan, not to mention large populations of Italians, Syrians, Lebanese, Koreans and all the post-World War II European migrants. And then there are Brazil’s contemporary and historical African connections – represented by groups of Angolan and Nigerian migrants as well as the huge population of native Afro-Brazilians.

São Paulo is a place where you can easily dine on any cuisine in the world that you wish and indulge in any kind of culture that interests you.

The 34th Sao Paulo Bienal is showing during my visit. The first exhibit that confronts you on entering the Bienal Pavilion is a work that attempts to map culture in its entirety…

… including a detailed cartography of tourism which I find quite entertaining. Overall, however, I don’t find most of the work in the show very inspiring.

But I venture across the road to visit some other art installations including a giant audibly purring cat that made me smile…

… and a labyrinthine work …

…that you can enter…

…and explore. The twisted branches gradually transform into urban style constructions. All in all, it’s a somewhat intriguing meditation…

…on natural and built space.

Over the other side of São Paulo in a less salubrious inner city neighbourhood I visit a few more galleries, including one housed in the building formally used by the Department of Social and Political Order of São Paulo State, one of the most brutal political police forces active in Brazil during the military regime. These rooms, where people were detained, tortured and killed, are now home to the Memorial da Resistência de São Paulo where permanent and temporary exhibitions focusing on human rights abuses and encouraging social resistance to them are shown.

The exhibition on show when I visit is a moving memorial to members of Chile’s disappeared. Over a hundred images represent the individuals in a group of young people – mostly students – who were arrested on a single day of Pinochet’s reign of terror and never seen again. The collages and text provide fragmentary clues to the largely unknown fate of these people.

One of the most haunting parts of this exhibition is participatory performance piece. A man sitting in the centre of the room is silently working on something. Wordlessly he draws me into his labour and together we fold and glue…

… until we have constructed a blank white mask. The process is disturbing. I am overwhelmed by the futility of trying to reconstruct what has been lost here. When the task is completed he holds out a box…

… containing names. I must choose one – either red, for the dead, or blue, for the disappeared. Once I have made my selection the anonymous mask is labelled …

… and beside the man’s work table the ghosts gather, blank and faceless, disembodied, negated. But named and remembered.

And just in case I hadn’t already managed to ingest enough culture the 38th São Paulo International film festival is on, too, so I can hang out at stylish cinemas cafes sipping expensive coffees in between screenings.

But for all the undeniable style and sophistication to be unearthed in São Paulo, it is this image that somehow sums it all up for me.

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