Friday, July 16, 2010

Friday Travel Journal: São Paulo, Brazil: Part Two

Rush hour trains in São Paulo, Brazil (photo by Luis Bastardo)

The next day, we set out to explore the city. São Paulo is a huge, skyscraper-filled city, the financial and business center of Brazil, although also filled with museums, churches and parks, which offset the "concrete jungle" feel somewhat. It is fairly easy to navigate the city on foot or using public transportation, but by car, it's a nightmare. São Paulo has some of the worst traffic in South America, with six million cars in the capital alone and traffic jams sometimes extending more than 130 miles (this gridlock is only surpassed by Caracas, Venezuela, whose roads and highways are basically parking lots). Unlike Caracas, São Paulo has some solutions. To mitigate the congestion, there is an excellent public transportation system and São Paulo also has the world's largest helicopter fleet, employing 820 helicopter pilots, and utilizing, at last count, 420 rooftop helipads. It is much easier and faster for a business person to hop a ride on a helicopter from rooftop to rooftop to get to a meeting on time than to try to make it across town by car. Another reason for this futuristic mode of transportation is security. Many executives or the upwardly mobile fear that they could be potential kidnap victims to be held for ransom, big business in Brazil.

A cityscape of São Paulo, showing several helicopter landing pads (photo by Luis Bastardo)

After visiting several churches and monuments, we ended up in the financial district and decided to visit BOVESPA, the Brazilian Stock Exchange. Having lived in New York City for many years, I had my doubts as to whether they would let us waltz on in and start snapping photos. For almost ten years, since September 11th, the New York Stock Exchange has been closed to visitors for security reasons, so I was sure that we would be stopped at the door, strip-searched, reported to the authorities and sent on our way. But no, to my surprise, they welcomed us with open arms, letting us wander around the stock exchange unaccompanied, allowing us to snap flash photos and partake of the snacks and drinks for employees. They even gave us 3D glasses and invited us to watch their 3D film on BOVESPA.

  Ready to watch the 3D stock exchange movie (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Later that evening, we were walking back to our hotel in the neighborhood of Jardins, a few blocks from the Republica Metro Station, chatting and joking about our day, when all of a sudden we looked up and realized that we were the only heterosexual couple for miles around. The streets were filled with amorous couples, leaning against trees, dancing, drinking and generally having a good time. It was if we had accidentally wandered onto the streets of Key West.

Sim: I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.
Luis: We're the only couple not making out. Not to mention the only straight couple. Could we be anymore conspicuous?
Sim: Well, we could be on fire...
Luis: I'm going to ask that policeman what's going on.
Sim: Ok.
Luis: Excuse me, sir, is it Gay Pride Day today?
Policeman: No.
Luis: Was there a parade?
Policeman: Nope. 
Luis: Are we celebrating something? Protesting something? Marching for same-sex marriage?
Sim: (checking out all the love connections happening) Doesn't look like there's much marching going on...
Policeman: It's like this every night. 
Luis: EVERY night? 
Policeman: Every night. 
Sim and Luis: Wow. 

Gay Pride Parade crowd of 3.1 million courtesy of Wikipedia (link below)

Turns out that São Paulo, despite its buttoned-down, conservative business image, is an extremely gay-friendly city (who knew?) There goes yet another one of my preconceived ideas about Latin America, that machismo and traditionalism rule society. São Paulo boasts numerous gay bars, hotels, discos, restaurants and even a gay shopping center on Frei Caneca (aka Shopping Gay Caneca) which is very popular. The São Paulo Gay Pride Parade in June is the largest in the world, starting in 1997 with only 2,000 participants and attendees and growing to attract more than 3.1 million visitors in 2009, surpassing even the large and well-attended Gay Pride parades in Sydney and New York. The parade is supported strongly by local, state and federal government and politicians who vie for coveted positions atop Gay Pride floats or for speech-making opportunities to advance their political careers (the mayor of São Paulo opens the festivities every year). In addition, the event is financially supported by Caixa Econômica Federal, the national bank of Brazil and Petrobrás, Brazil's mammoth petroleum corporation (more or less the equivalent to the North American company, Exxon). For more on the parade, see the links below.


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