The other day I met a British visitor here in São Paulo. It was her third day in the city and she was travelling with a government-arranged party, visiting various cities over a two-week visit.
During those three days she had only seen the inside of the hotel, offices, or a chauffer-driven car between the two. She was not in back-to-back meetings, so there was spare time available, but her [UK-based British government] hosts had advised her to not go out alone.
Her hotel was on Alameda Santos. For anyone who knows São Paulo, that’s one block away from Avenida Paulista, one of the biggest, busiest streets in the city – a place always full of life and excitement.
I know that any new place can be intimidating. I remember my first ever visit to Mumbai and despite my initial terror at the incessant activity all around, I still managed to take a walk around the Gateway of India and a few other obligatory sights. When I spent a lot of time working in Singapore I would regularly hang out in Serangoon on Sunday afternoons watching Bollywood films on a makeshift screen in a car park – I was almost always the only white face there, but always felt welcome.
In São Paulo there is the language difficulty for visitors, there is also the sheer size of the place… the city is enormous with the greater area having a population three times the size of London. It’s also a place without the touristic features of Rio – the obvious destinations that appear on postcards home.
But some cursory research would have shown that this hotel was in one of the safest places in the city and just a block or two from the art museum – hardly the mean streets of gangland.
She was immensely grateful as I not only guided her around the city centre, but also took her on the public transport system, and to an edgier neighbourhood to try the local draft beer. It humanised the city for her.
I am going to contact the Consulate about this – maybe I can help them to produce some more up-to-date information for visiting business leaders. It’s a shame for visitors to have the ‘dangerous Brazil’ myth thrust at them even by official advisors. Sure, there has been a wave of murders here recently, but it’s gangs against cops – nothing the ordinary person sees.
I’ve never felt any sense of threat at all while living here, but maybe that’s just from following the same rules anyone should follow in a major city – especially when unfamiliar with the neighbourhood. Don’t stand out too much (Versace suit when everyone else is wearing Vans), don’t hold your iPad at arms length placing a video call as you walk down the street, and if you are out after dark then just make sure you have an idea of what the neighbourhoods are like if you are wandering around a new place.
But then, this might just as equally apply to a Brit arriving in New York for the first time, or a Brazilian arriving in London. Be sensible and you can enjoy a visit to São Paulo just like any other place!