After a solid three weeks of sleeping in a different New Zealand location every single night, Carla and I were looking forward to our longest break yet in New York. We had planned on a full ten days of relaxation before beginning the longest chapter of our pretirement in South America. Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. The last leg of our trip home was cancelled, giving us an unexpected Valentine’s Day getaway in (where else?) San Francisco. Just like we had done only two months earlier, we walked through the San Francisco airport wondering how much unexpected time we would be spending there.
With no open seats to New York in sight for a couple days, we were determined to enjoy the weekend. That meant renting a car and doing our best to spoil Valentine’s Day for our friends Julia and Dave. Despite our best efforts, we failed to ruin it. They had a dinner party planned and were cooking enough paella to satisfy a small Catalonian village. Dave’s legendary cellar provided the proper amount of delicious red wine to accompany such a feast (that is, nine bottles for six people). While our memories might be a little fuzzy, I’d imagine we were very glad to be “stuck” in San Francisco at the end of this Friday night.
We spent the next day hanging around the city with Julia, Dave and his kids Cole and Sam. Their new puppy Daisy kept us entertained, even when last night’s wine didn’t want us to get up and play with her. That night we met up with one of Dave’s friends for a drink at an awesome little bike / beer / coffee shop on Divisadero that confirmed, again, how much I like San Francisco. Before we knew it Sunday rolled around and we were airborne again.
Our week in New York was packed with dinners, drinking and reunions with friends we hadn’t seen for months. Downtime was spent hanging around coffee shops and maybe even working on the blog a little bit. My sister Rachel (and her roommates Leah and Nicole) were kind enough to let us crash at their apartment in Williamsburg for the first few days, then we moved over to our friends BJ and Susan’s apartment in Prospect Heights for the last couple nights. The biggest surprise of 2014 came this week as well. I had breakfast with my boss from my last job and was unexpectedly offered a job back with the company. Not only that, but the position was in London. I walked all the way from Midtown to the Village that snowy morning in a state of shock… I hadn’t thought about working in so long that I didn’t know what to think. It was certainly nice to know that I had the option to be employed again without going through the long and difficult hedge fund interview process. I was also very happy at my old job, so it was great knowing that they wanted me back. On the other hand, Carla and I had both rediscovered our love for New York during our nine months of travel and were very much looking forward to living there when our travels were done. I will always remember wandering through a snow-covered Bryant Park that Wednesday morning, looking up at the skyscrapers and knowing London was calling from across the Atlantic.
We were very excited when the time came to start our journey to South America. Carla’s friend Yoni, who works for United, came through in a big way to help us get buddy passes for the flight to Sao Paulo. Not only did we save money, but we landed a spot in business class for the 10 hour flight. After a few glasses of wine and a comfortable sleep, we arrived in Brazil in style.
My friend Nathan moved down to Brazil a couple years ago and has an awesome apartment with a private roof deck in the heart of Sao Paulo’s nicest area. We stayed with him during our four days there and he introduced us to his local group of friends, which made the visit that much more interesting and enjoyable. Our first night in town we got together with his friends and spent the evening the Brazilian way—sitting outside with icy buckets of beer and small appetizers. Despite being a wine producing country, locals enjoy nothing more than a few ice cold beers on hot, humid nights (the bar refrigerators all have big signs saying something like -3 degrees Celsius to prove the beer is colder than frozen water). Bars look more like big beer gardens than cozy pubs and groups of people gather around large tables to socialize in the open air. Cheaper local places look more like indoor / outdoor diners where families and friends stake out a table for a long night of relaxation. Much like you’ll find in New York, Nathan’s friends were from all around Brazil and other parts of South America but had come to Sao Paulo for work. That Wednesday night dinner was a great crash course in Brazilian culture as we mostly tried and failed to get more calories from food than alcohol.
As for the food, what most people eat on a daily basis was a little disappointing. The deep-fryer gets a lot of use, and a very common snack is pastel de queijo, which consists of crispy fried dough filled with cheese and sometimes meat. Sao Paulo being a pretty international city, everything from burgers to pasta to sushi is available, but the rich local food is still number one. One of the most popular fast(ish) food restaurants is a place called Baked Potato and they specialize in (you guessed it) baked potatoes smothered in a creamy sauce and/or sour cream. Another common item I hadn’t seen before was shrimp in a very rich, creamy sauce over rice. That one tasted pretty good but I don’t know if I could make it a daily routine.
Of course, one of the culinary highlights of Brazil is the famous Brazilian steakhouse. One night Nathan and his friend Thelita took us to one of their favorites for dinner, but we soon learned that real Brazilians will usually only show up at these places for Sunday lunches that last all afternoon. The waiters come by every few minutes with a different kind of meat that you can either accept or reject, and they don’t stop until you can’t eat another bite. The cuts were all delicious, and ranged from standard cuts of steak to things like lamb or chicken hearts. There is also an all-you-can-eat salad / appetizer bar that would make an excellent meal in itself. One thing that Brazil does very well is dessert. When you think you’re finally done eating at the steakhouse, the waiter shows up with a cart full of the most decadent cakes you’ll ever see. While intentional or not, it’s probably good news on the public health front that these do cost extra. We found a little room to split a couple pieces and did not regret it. That night the restaurant was mostly filled with other Americans disgusting enough (in Brazilians’ eyes) to eat that kind of a feast before bed, but that didn’t stop us from waddling out stuffed and satisfied.
Another night Nathan and Thelita made some delicious pasta from scratch and we dined al fresco on his beautiful roof deck. Complete with a small pool, little white lights and views of the city all around, we quickly fell in love with Nathan’s outdoor space. Many hours that week were spent lounging on his couch or hammock while sipping beer, smoking Cubans and catching up.
During the days while Nathan was in the office, we took his recommendations for neighborhoods to check out. We quickly learned that there really aren’t a lot of touristy sights in Sao Paulo, which has exploded in size over the last fifty years (the population now stands at over 20 million) and is more focused on keeping up with growth than catering to tourists. However, there are some very interesting neighborhoods if you know where to look. The first one was Vila Madalena, which has a tropical Bohemian vibe and is home to some of the best street art in the world. These murals (it would be insulting to call it graffiti) are truly outstanding and walking the streets is like being in an open-air museum. The photos below are just the tip of the iceberg. We walked around several other areas that showed fascinating clashes between traditional Brazilian housing, shops and restaurants and more high-end international establishments that wealthy locals love.
Another aspect of Sao Paulo that was interesting to see up close was the Brazilian way of dealing with the (sometimes) fast-growing economy and the (always) fast-growing cities. A currency that is much stronger than the economy, along with high taxes, means everything is relatively expensive in a country where the vast majority of people are still relatively poor. Nathan’s neighborhood of Itaim Bibi is full of non-Brazilian restaurants, US chains and American-style malls, but prices are easily higher than you would find in New York. Most stores in the mall are brands we would all recognize, but the majority of people (who wouldn’t spend $1,000 on a bag) go there to be in a nice, air-conditioned place and swarm the Baked Potato and the rest of the food court at lunch time. However, people who can afford it seem happy to pay up for goods that can differentiate them from the average citizen. Unfortunately, from what I hear Brazil still lags behind more developed countries in terms of economic and social mobility. Many of the developments in neighborhoods like Itaim Bibi are just there for an entrenched upper class while other parts of the cities (such as Sao Paulo’s still sketchy Centro) are left behind. The public transportation system is just OK and there are few green spaces for people to relax in poorer areas. This is balanced out by rigid populist politics that help out the lower classes but hinder the country’s growth. Like everyone saw with preparations for the World Cup, Brazilians tend to “figure it out” when they need to, and the country keeps growing in fits and starts.
We spent our fourth night in Sao Paulo getting physically and mentally prepared for something we’d been waiting for all year—Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. We planned for a six hour overnight bus between the two cities, and the festivities would begin immediately when we arrived in Rio at 6:30am. The Sao Paulo bus station was packed with people, many of them waiting to take the same trip as us. In a country with so many people and so few passenger trains, the Sao Paulo bus station is like the city’s Grand Central. Thankfully the bus ride was as calm as the station was hectic and we caught a few hours of sleep before testing our bodies with an internationally renowned 52-hour party.