Seven am in Sao Paulo– it’s cloudy, a little rainy and very cold. May through August is winter for the southern hemisphere, and I definitely was not prepared for the chilly temperatures when I left the plane.
Sao Paulo is at once very familiar and totally strange. For those who have spent time in Miami or L.A, the basic layout will feel familiar: a sprawling tropical urban wonderland. You’ll find a mix of skyscrapers and tiny houses crammed together on steep roads. Everything is graffitied to within an inch of its life, and the traffic is a nightmare beyond any and all imagining. All in all, it’s my kind of city. Something new around every corner, a metropolis that’s almost more like a whole other world than just another city. You can find anything you want here–if you look long enough!
My first few days taught me a lot about the city and its people. First off, expect to be speaking Portuguese and only Portuguese from the moment you step off of the plane. While there is English signage and many pop up English language schools all over the city, most people don’t, or won’t, speak English. This goes for taxis and Uber here as well; while both are incredibly affordable and safe, make sure you’ve written your address down, and a few basic phrases if you’re not comfortable speaking yet.
Also, people are very friendly here. Saying hello on the streets, making casual conversation while waiting in lines, it’s very normal, and everyone does it with a smile. If someone offers you help with something, don’t be afraid to accept straight away! Brazilians don’t play games of niceties; if they don’t mean it, they don’t say it. Generosity and hospitality are strong features I’ve noticed here, and it definitely makes being in a new place more comforting.
All that friendliness can be a little overwhelming at first, though. Ladies, don’t take offense when everyone calls you by pet names and kisses you on the cheek to say hello! It’s just a cultural difference, and really means no harm.
In my first two weeks in Sao Paulo, I stayed in a neighbourhood called Morumbi, which is located very close to Metro Butantã and the USP bus station. While there are many places in Sao Paulo to be cautious of, I never feel unsafe here. Of course, I try not to walk alone, and really don’t walk after dark, but all in all, Morumbi is a very quiet neighbourhood. Most of the people who work and live here are students or others who need to be near the public transportation hub.
A last note about my first impressions of food, as that is a lot of people’s biggest concern when abroad. I have celiac disease and lactose intolerance, which means no milk and no wheat. I was a little concerned about whether food would be an issue here, but to my surprise, it’s even here easier than in the States! In Brazil, all foods are labelled with potential allergens, so you never have to guess with what you’re eating. Also, most of the regional food is rice or corn based, heavy on the meats and vegetables. If you’re trying to avoid carbs, you’re out of luck. Rice, potatoes of all kind, and the Brazilian mandioca are high starch, high carb foods that are omnipresent in all dishes here. Same goes for soy; it’s used as a base or filler in a lot of foods, and everything fried is fried in soy oil. Also, if you’re thinking you’ll find things like maple syrup, graham crackers, peanut butter, or even chocolate chips, think again. A lot of typical American snack foods or ingredients are either very expensive or nonexistent here.
As I finish up my second week in Brazil and my first week at university, all I can say is: I’m in love.