Just spent a week in Brazil. Let’s briefly hit the “Will Kevin write about this” checklist:

✔ Newly Industrialized Country 1 2
✔ Have at least one “unstructured” night
✔ Traveling with nobody who knows that this blog exists

Looks like we’re good to go. As a quick disclaimer, it’s worth noting that much of what follows will be observations (and generalizations) based on a grand total of four days and three nights spent entirely in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in São Paulo. This is loosely equivalent of getting the lowdown on NYC from someone who spent a few hours in boutiques on the Upper East Side.


About São Paulo

The largest city in the Southern Hemisphere, São Paulo’s one of those cities where an alien could reasonably conclude that cars are the dominant life form. Conveniently, this means that you never have to wait more than twenty or so seconds to hail a cab — they are actually just everywhere, all the time — but by the same token, once you hail one, you don’t tend to do a tremendous amount of moving. For instance, my last ride in the country was a quick 19-mile trip to the airport on a Friday afternoon, which wound up taking two hours.3

The way that drivers handle São Paulo traffic is in my experience unique, and incorporates both Paris’s total disregard for lane lines and Beijing’s idea that right-of-way is determined entirely by the size of one’s vehicle.4 The latter principle is happily extended to pedestrians in São Paulo, which basically means that cars won’t stop for you. The only reason that people aren’t dying in droves is that the cars rarely break 10 or 15 mph, so they can generally be dodged.

Of course, Portuguese is the main language in Brazil, because colonizing a landmass 92 times the size of your country seemed like a reasonable thing to do back then. Just for the record, the US is only 75x bigger than England.5

When it came to dealing with Portuguese, good ol’ highschool Spanish let me read most of what I needed to, but speaking was an absolute mess. This proved frustrating because I kept thinking that I would be able to communicate in Spanish, and that WORKED about half the time — both for me, and for one of the Mexican guys who I was working with. Basically the routine was to first try English, if that fails try Spanish and hope that the Portuguese version of that word was roughly equivalent, and if that still fails pantomime or give up. You know how, in trials with rats, the absolute best way to get them to keep pressing a lever is to make that lever give them food SOME (instead of all) of the time? Same deal with Spanish communication.  Maybe, maybe this time “cena” will mean “dinner” in Portuguese. Still no? Shit.


Why I was there

I work at Sephora now, and the Brazilian arm of the company is looking for some inspiration from their American product and technology counterparts.

This was all well and good, and like any business trip this meant that the vast majority of my time was spent either in conference rooms or bars. I feel like if I were an entrepreneur in a wealthy São Paulo neighborhood, I would open a bar offering local specialties, and then install a large conference room — perhaps with movable walls — in one corner. For bonus points, I’d put a hotel on the second floor, so that a ‘business trip’ could easily be conducted entirely in a single building.6

To their credit, the bars in São Paulo are wonderful (aside from the occasional awful pour). In most cases, a large section of the bar is open to the outside throughout the evening, and is only canvassed shut when the bar closes for the night. They all broadcast soccer games at all times, unless rowdy Americans demand to watch the NBA finals, go Warriors woo. Sitting in one reminded me strongly of watching the 2010 World Cup in similarly-open-air bars around Houhai, a neighborhood in Beijing built around a lake. That said, I’ll take a caipirinha over baijiu any day.

A year or so back, my friend Jeff introduced me to some of his friends from Argentina, who were doing a tour of the United States at the time. Their trip, as far as I could tell, consisted of nothing but going to Walgreens for makeup, Ross for clothes, then to Target for more makeup. Seriously they went to like ten of each. I remember making fun of them for how silly it was to go to a new country and spend the whole time just buying makeup. Karma’s a bitch. Three times in three days, I found myself spending my non-bar-or-conference-room time in makeup stores. Not that I would be jumping to buy anything anyway, but Brazil’s crazy tariff policy also made nearly everything that Sephora carried substantially more expensive than it was in the U.S. The Brazilian Sephoras that I was checking out were all in some of the most opulent malls I’ve ever seen, like the JK Mall and the “Shopping Iguatemi,” which Google helpfully informs me is the oldest mall in Brazil. Now, going to said malls was a big part of why Sephora had paid for me to be in Brazil in the first place, and I get that, but part of me was just dying to get away from the friggen Louis Vuitton stores and actually see the country that I was in.

Which is why Thursday and Friday were so fun!


Exploring the Jardins

The VP who served as the main social nexus for the group left midway through Thursday, and nobody had stepped up to fill his shoes by that evening, so we were left to our own devices as of around 6pm. I spent about ten minutes on the hotel’s roof (São Paulo can be quite pretty), ten minutes on Google to find somewhere to go, and then I sprinted over to the Museum of Image and Sound a little over a kilometer away.7


Selfie with Vivian Maier / Museum of Image and Sound

The museum was cool enough. I got to learn about some Brazilian photographers and asked a guide what should be next on my list. She told me there was another museum next door (closed), and helpfully neglected to mention that short of the two museums, the street I was on had nothing but car dealership after car dealership in both directions. Since I had no mobile data, I didn’t really have a way to figure out what I was in for, and returning to the hotel just to get on WiFi seemed like a waste of time. Fast forward 40 minutes of wandering, still seeing nothing but car dealerships, and I decide to hop a cab. The guy getting out of the cab that I’m about to commandeer tells me that if I’m looking for food as well as a place where people hang out, I should really check out this great area a “few blocks”8 away. I say that sounds perfect, decline the cab, and redouble the wandering efforts.

On my way to this supposed mecca of food and human interest, I pass the first non-dealership establishment I’ve seen in like an hour. It is of course none other than a “Budweiser Mansion.” I immediately abandon all efforts to find food and spend the next seven hours pounding Bud Light Limes with São Paulo’s legendary population of bros continue on my merry way. Another mile of walking brings me to a fucking swanky Red Lobster of all places, where I succumb to my hunger and spend the next seven hours pounding Cheddar Bay Biscuits with São Paulo’s legendary population of midwestern housewives or whoever the hell eats at Red Lobster aside from my girlfriend. which although was technically a restaurant, would have almost certainly constituted a personal failure. I maintain my resolve and soldier on. Finally, at long last I arrive at the destination that the cab guy told me about. It turns out to be another fucking luxury shopping mall, boasting a Tiffany & Co and Louis Vuitton right up front, but I’m exhausted and incredibly hungry so I give up and go in and have some sort of weird indian curry with grapes in it for some reason wait whoops that’s exactly what happened and I hate myself for it.

At that point I got a text from the tech lead on my project, a nice guy named Wit who is bored and wants to grab dinner. I told him to meet me near this mall I’m in, but apparently the directions that I gave him to get to the mall send him down an incredibly sketchy street and he fears for his safety so he goes back to the hotel. Queue more running on my end. I met up with him, wandered around some more, and eventually ate dinner #2.

That’s about when I got a text to go meet up with my boss, since he’s somehow wound up at an open bar with the Australian Consul General in Brazil and his entourage. Apparently my boss’s ex-coworker, who is also in São Paulo, knows the Aussies somehow. Not one to refuse that kind of invitation I hurriedly head to the bar in question, just in time for the ”open bar” bit to expire. So I buy a pint and introduce myself to the consul, who says it’s nice to meet me but that the whole group is about to go to another bar to close out the night, and that they really have to get moving if they’re going to make it before the kitchen closes. It is a gentle-but-completely-unsubtle invitation to slam the pint immediately so that I don’t hold up the party. I comply, because Australians. They seem happy about it.

We bar hop, order dinner #3, order a tower of beer, and shoot the shit for the rest of the evening.

Turns out after his stint making satellites with Boeing, the consul (before he was consul) did a lot of exporting to China in the 90s, and he had plenty of crazy stories about doing business with moguls in the Shenzhen special economic zone. I particularly enjoyed hearing about the guy who would order multiple shipping crates of wine at a time, with his only two requests being that a) the invoice gets sent to him in a word document instead of PDF, and b) that 2/3rds of each shipment should be the cheapest possible wine, and the rest should be the most expensive wine he could find. Now I don’t know much about much but I can sure as hell swap silly China stories all day long,9 so we had a great night.

Friday was nice too — after meetings ended early for the day, and we had yet again visited another Brazilian Sephora, we were able to check out one of the big parks in São Paulo that one of the girls from Thursday night had recommended that we see before we left town. As a happy surprise, the park was home to the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art, which was great in its own right, and also critically afforded us the opportunity to get one last round of caipirinhas for the road.

Can’t wait to go back! Think I’ll get the chance in a few months. Photos from the museum below the footnotes.



1: I just learned about this! But I’m looking at the blue ones on this page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newly_industrialized_country and they’re almost all countries that I either have visited or would love to visit. Considering an Indonesia trip this October, for instance.
2: I realize that having footnotes in a blog is more than a little obnoxious. Especially footnotes about footnotes. But hey, that’s never stopped me before.
3: We were thoroughly warned about so we knew what we were in for, but good god. This is the route.
4: Or governmental status, I suppose. My Chinese teacher told me a story once about how he lived above some sort of major government building in Beijing at one point, and there were constantly, constantly traffic accidents outside since all the government officials were used to running red lights all the time, so when there were several at the same intersection accidents were simply inevitable.
5: Special thanks to Mapfight.Appspot.Com!
6: Drop the whole shebang right next to the airport, and baby you’ve got a stew going.
7: A quick aside about sprinting around: it’s the best. You should try it, especially if you’re a) in a place where you’ll never see any of the onlookers again, b) drunk, c) late. Combining the above just enhances the experience.

Substantially faster than São Paulo cabs
Probably more trouble than it’s worth to pickpocket someone who is sprinting around
Walking is for scrubs
Museums close early

You look like an idiot
Brazilian pickpocketers probably much faster than you
São Paulo is really humid

In all honesty, to this day I actually am constantly weighing running vs not running in my head whenever I go anywhere. Convenience vs ridicule, man. It’s rough. Anyway I was by myself in Brazil so it was full speed ahead to the Museu da Imagem e do Som.
8: 1.5 miles
9: See: basically anything else on this blog


Pictures from the Museum of Modern Art:

Pantyhose and ball bearings

Seuss table

It’s art, okay? I can’t caption all these.

Floor made of bathroom scales, accompanied by terrifying video. #art

Pretty hangy thing

Giant newspaper balloons + aforementioned tech lead