As the plane flies in over SP you immediately realize that its massiveness which has been echoed to you over and over again is actually quite true and initially super exciting/overwhelming. The highways leading away from the airport can take you to all corners of this massive city and eventually so will I.
I’m staying in a hotel in Itaim for the first month (or as long as it takes me to find an apartment). Now for a brief history for those who know nothing/next to nothing about SP. There are approx 19 million people here making it the largest city in South America. For all my homies back in NYC, you are surrounded by a scant 8 million people so for comparison purposes you just moved to Old Macdonald’s farm. It’s a tropical climate in the GMT and in the southern hemisphere. So I’ll be at the beach on Christmas and you’ll be wearing incredibly hideous Uggs and trudging through black NYC slush. But I digress… Feel free to simply google Sau Paulo to educate yourself further on it’s facts and figures but know that the real deal is as follows: 1) Brazilians are in love with their country 2) Brazilians love to party 3) Brazilians are incredibly warm and friendly.
So back to the hotel. Hear me out on this because living in a hotel for a month can’t be that bad- right? It’s really not but imagine for a moment you are confined to 3 rooms in your house, one of them being the bathroom. Now keep imagining this scenario and then cut each room you’re picturing into a third and imagine living in that space for a month. Now keep picturing this- stay with me here- imagine you have but one closet and it is only 12 inches wide. Imagine you have a minibar fridge, a hotplate, a microwave, and a TV where the only channel in English is CNN and the presidential election is next month. Now if you don’t want to kill yourself yet I suggest you pack up your things and move to SP. I know what you’re thinking- champagne problems, but I just want you to understand the situation as much as possible.The silver lining here is though SP is technically a 3rd world country, it definitely doesn’t seem that way as I’ve been to my share of 3rd world places.
So as I mentioned I am (for lack of a better/less pretentious-sounding phrase) well traveled. I pitched my own tent and slept in the middle of nowhere on a safari in Kenya, I navigated my way through overwhelming cities in India, and managed to not get run over by motorbike traffic in Vietnam. I slept in a hammock while floating down the Amazon and was taken aback by the temples of Angor Wat in Cambodia. I did not know the language in any of these places but that handicap did not hold me back from experiencing some of the most amazing moments I will ever get to take in. However, for whatever reason, it is far different to be passing through on a fleeting adventure then to up and move to a country for at least a year where you don’t know the language.
It’s worth mentioning that I’ve had the luxury of a private tutor teaching me portuguese twice a week for the past 3 months. I have a grasp of the language. I know plenty of vocab. I can greet you, ask you how much something costs, and I can even tell you which room I’m staying in at my hotel so I can eat free breakfast every morning. However, as soon as I step outside and into the city, I become this shy, unsure of myself person who is almost a prisoner to my fear that someone will ask me something and I won’t understand. Wow that seems silly when it’s written out. I completely understand how ridiculous this is. I’m fully capable of simply replying “desculpe, euo falo poco portugues” (i’m sorry, I only speak a little portuguese) but somehow it’s different. I pride myself on being an independent person and so far my experience in the city has been with Joseph and/or with a local. On Tuesday (day 4) I could take it no more and ventured out on my own. It was only fitting that my very first solo adventure would be to the closest shopping mall. (:
Iguatemi Shopping Mall is not your average mall even for somewhere in the states. It’s this over-the-top fashion oasis with super bourgeois touches such as the VIP lounge where you can check in your belongings while you shop, concierge services, pre-paid electronic parking tags, touch-screen store locators, high-speed Wi-Fi, and digital TVs in the food court. Iguatemi also has extra-purified air, with special filters for pollen. So while some 55,000 people live nearby in a favela ironically named “paraisopolis” (portuguese for paradise) the uber wealthy come to Iguatemi to shop at the likes of Louis Vuitton, Botega Venetta, and Dior. It was here, among the unnecessary shoes, bags, and party dresses, that I rediscovered my independent self!
Simply making it to the mall without getting kidnapped or hit by a car would have been enough to please me. However upon arriving I was able to find my way to the restroom where I had a basic conversation with someone who happened to comment on my shoes. We soon discovered that we had more in common than a love for glittery ballet flats as she had lived in NYC for 2 years!! A quick shift to English brought us up to speed and I instantly knew this short conversation was a reward for pushing myself outside of my comfort zone. My liberating shopping trip continued as I navigated the massive and fancy shopping mall and felt even more in my element. After an hour or so I was starting to get hungry. The thought of ordering food was terrifying for me as the ever-present language barrier loomed over me mixed with my ever-present issues with food. I felt so insecure thinking about trying to communicate what I wanted to eat and even if I did manage to get something, where would I eat it? What if people think I’m weird because I’m here alone and eating alone. (Note to readers: I’m completely aware that this is an irrational and quite frankly odd fear but that doesn’t make it go away). I took a detour through the food court to stealthily check it out but kept shopping because I couldn’t gather up the courage to stop anywhere. A half hour goes by and at this point I need to eat something or my language barrier is going to be between me and the paramedic who takes me away after I pass out from having low blood sugar. I walked purposefully towards what looked like a middle eastern food place and the cashier greeted me. She began speaking in portuguese and my heart started to beat faster and I could feel my face flush. But I am smart! I am independent! I am completely capable!!, I told myself. I look at the young girl behind the register and gave her my biggest smile. “Desculpe, euo falo poco potugues”, I said. She smiled as well- just as big- and showed me a picture menu on the counter. I managed to order falafel and even give her the correct amount of reals (pronounced “hey-eyes”). Next, I sat down and waited for my number to be called and imagined giving myself a pat on the back. I did it!! About 5 minutes or so later a buzzer went off and my number popped up. I walked back to the counter to pick up my food and then found an open seat. As I was chewing my falafel and dipping it into the tahini sauce I realized that it tasted like nothing I’ve ever eaten before. The best falafel is my father’s who learned from his mother (the absolute best) but the point is this falafel made me happier with every bite; with every dip in the tahihi; with every bite of the pickled cauliflower. Now a few hours later while I’m sitting at home and the fried food has had time to settle uncomfortably in my stomach, I realize the falafel was really not that great at all. The amazing taste, in fact, was the taste of achievement; The taste of my own tiny, somewhat silly, personal accomplishment. And I am absolutely certain that the mall falafel will never ever taste that good again.