There’s a sharp breeze, everybody’s in coats and boots, and people are keeping to themselves. Next to me on the metro there’s a guy with a Mohawk and broad-gauge earrings rocking out to heavy metal inside his giant headphones. A group of teenaged hipsters in neon pants and Nikes slouches around one of the exits, while a Japanese couple sits at the opposite end of the car.
There’s not a Havaiana (Brazilian flip flop), sun-kissed face, or sand-sprinkled foot in sight and, more than ever before in Brazil, my light skin and green eyes aren’t making me feel at all out of place. We’re definitely not in Rio anymore.
A sluggish bus took six hours to transfer a couple of friends and me from Rio de Janeiro to São Paulo. From beach-jungle paradise to major metropolitan city we went. São Paulo (or “Sampa”) is not only the biggest Portuguese-speaking metropolis in the world; it is also the biggest city in the southern hemisphere.
Unlike Rio, whose people are primarily of Portuguese, Italian, African and Indigenous Brazilian decent, São Paulo is shaped by an impressively global array of humans. Add to São Paulo’s cosmopolitan mix the lack of consistently perfect weather and beautiful beaches and you find that the city has produced, over the centuries, a fascinating, diverse culture that is nonexistent elsewhere in Brazil.
Evidence of this can be found in what brought me to São Paulo in the first place: a music festival. Rio de Janeiro’s music scene is mainly comprised of genres with roots in six-month-old American top 40 charts as well as in Brazil – usually Rio – itself. If absurdly mainstream American pop isn’t the backdrop to your night out in Rio, then you’re probably dancing the night away to Samba, Pagode, Funk Carioca, or MPD (Música Popular Brasileira).
The place to find rock, alternative, experimental, electronic, and independent music is the more international music scene of São Paulo.
The demand for these genres shows in the lineup of the SWU (Starts With You) music and art festival. The likes of Killer on the Dance Floor, The Apples in Stereo, The Crystal Method, MSTRKRFT, The Mars Volta, Rage Against the Machine, a Sublime Cover Band, Regina Spektor, Joss Stone, Dave Matthews Band, Kings of Leon, Avenged Sevenfold, Incubus, Queens of the Stone Age, Pixies, Linkin Park, and DJ Tiësto made the trip to São Paulo the weekend of October 9. Along with many Brazilian musicians, they performed through three days on multiple stages. Interesting, interactive artwork—a maze made from garbage, an abandoned bus overtaken by illuminated trees, a sparkling Ferris wheel—speckled SWU’s enormous Coachella-reminiscent plot of land outside the city.
A Statistical Comparison
With a metropolitan population of over 11 million people (and a municipality of close to 20 million), São Paulo is the seventh-largest city in the world. Rio (with a metropolitan population of over six million and municipality of over 14 million) is the world’s 26th largest.
Demographically, São Paulo reminds me of New York, my home. People from the state of São Paulo are Paulistas; people from the city of São Paulo are Paulistanos. “Whites” comprise 70 percent of Paulistanos. But unlike the 50-percent-white population of Rio (of Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish descent, mainly), immigrants from Germany, France, Greece, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, and Scandinavia also make up a big part of the Paulistano mix. São Paulo is home to more Jews than anywhere else in Brazil. It is also home to more Japanese people than anywhere outside Japan. And let’s not forget to mention the immigrants and descendants of immigrants from China, India, Morocco, Armenia, Lebanon, Syria, and Cuba who inhabit Sampo.
Much unlike Rio, the city is also home to immigrants from neighboring countries Bolivia, Peru, and Argentina. Those from Bolivia and Peru, especially, serve as inexpensive labor fueling the city’s textile industry. Walking around the streets of São Paulo is, needless to say, a spicy break from Rio’s Black-Brown-Tan-White spectrum.
Eating in São Paulo
Where all these superficial demographic data really take tangible hold is in gastronomy. And here I do not hesitate to denigrate the cuisine of the Carioca in relation to that of the Paulistano. In Rio, if you don’t want to spend a fortune at a touristy “ethnic” food restaurant, you’re basically going to eat one of three dishes: the classic beans, rice and meat combo, pizza, or yakisoba (a confused attempt at a Japanese/Chinese noodle dish). These are all pretty good (especially the meat, if you eat meat), but for anyone used to the variety of New York and California, they get old. In other words, the quality Mexican, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Italian, and Mediterranean food (not to mention bagels, burgers, and vegetarian options) at a Santa Barbarans’ fingertips are easy to take for granted, until you leave.
São Paulo’s enormous Japanese and Chinese populations, in particular, make sure the Paulistano eats well. My friends’ and my weekend in São Paulo ended delectably: a Paulistana friend of a friend brought us to the Japanese district, Liberdade, which also has many Chinese. She, whose family is Chinese, brought us to one of her favorite Chinese restaurants, where we shared serving after serving of dumplings, jasmine tea, and even a plate of pig stomach lining, replete with all the right condiments. We also wandered around the plaza and chilly streets of Liberdade, where streetlights mimic traditional, round, paper hanging lanterns of Japan.
I cannot convey how refreshing and pleasurable it was to enter a Japanese market in Brazil, where I stocked up on oolong tea, various little candies, and cock sauce (Sriracha). Actually, it pretty much paralleled the excitement of having gone to an Italian market the previous day, where many little shops offered high quality olive oil for cheap, as well as selections of olives, oils, vinegars, cheeses, and spices that I haven’t seen outside of France and Italy. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to find the acclaimed Arab and Lebanese food. And I missed out on Paulistano pizza, which, much like New York and Chicago pizza, is according to locals the best in the world.
Physical Differences: How the Landscape Shapes the People
While any view of Rio de Janeiro is filled with a spectacular conglomeration of jungle-blanketed seaside mountains, a panoramic perspective of São Paulo is relatively monotonous. Its area, more than 1.5 million square kilometers (almost 600 square miles), is saturated by endless tall buildings in all directions, for as far as the eye can travel on a clear day. It’s got by far Brazil’s largest collection of skyscrapers. In place of natural scenic beauty, São Paulo has many beautiful parks, which are almost unheard of in Rio. São Paulo, 2700 feet above sea level, covers a hilly plateau 35 miles northwest of Atlantic port city of Santos.
Now, put any demographic differences aside and the physicality of the Paulistano still differs from that of the Carioca. I attribute these differences to the beach culture that so shapes a day in the life of a Carioca. I imagine that summer and weekend day trips down to the beaches are a common Paulistano treat. But in Rio, at least in the southern zone, where I live, the beach is inescapable. Everything is close to it. For me, it’s a ten-minute walk from school. Any few hours’ break from responsibilities finds people at the shore. Before and after work, Cariocas are drawn there to meet, relax, exercise. Holidays and weekends might as well be called “beach days” If the lack of effort it takes a Carioca to get to the beach makes for a relatively tan, fit population, then the contrary is the reason for all the trench coats, boots, and metal music in São Paulo.
I imagine that to the native Brazilian, the difference in accent between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro is about the same as between Long Island and the countryside in New York. And I imagine the Carioca accent to be the more extreme (like that of Long Island). In fact, Cariocas are responsible for creating the Portuguese language student’s worst nightmare: the use of strictly slang conversational vocabulary made impossibly fluid through apocopation.
Paulistanos are easier to understand. Not only is their accent more similar to that of an American accent (they pronounce “r” like “r” instead of “h” and “t” like “t” instead of “ch”) but, at least to my English-as-a-first-language ears, it seems they enunciate more clearly. The Paulistano spoken language is less slang-riddled, less improvisational, more rule-following.
People from Rio love to rip on the Paulistano accent and people, calling both ugly. They characterize São Paulo as a polluted city with terrible weather, full of pale, stressed-out jerks constantly rushing to get to work on time. For their part, Paulistanos talk about Rio as if the drug trade in the favelas defines the city as a whole. They see the Carioca as lazy, rude, and cheating, with skills most defined in swearing and tanning.
They both have their points.
As much as the two populations differ, they do share one distinct quality: their near-religious obsession with futebol (soccer). As far as I can see, the Carioca-Paulistano rivalry is as much about futebol as about culture.
This is reinforced by the multi-level futebol competitions in Brazil. Statewide championships pit teams within each respective state against each other, while the nationwide championship is between each state’s best team. It’s hard to say whether Flamengistas (the fans of the Rio team Flamengo) would prefer to see their team lose to Botafogo (a rival Rio team) or to a team from São Paulo. Indeed, either is terrible.
As for me, I can’t say which city I prefer. I do know that I’ll be going back to São Paulo shortly for another music festival. On my agenda are finding Lebanese food, visiting museums, and enjoying live, experimental electronic music; things that simply do not exist in Rio de Janeiro.