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Day 64: São Paulo

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No self-respecting tower block is complete without a helipad.
Michael Palin - BrazilSão Paulo is a helicopter city. As traffic mires the megalopolis in endless congestion, the rich and successful take to the skies, flying from building to building without ever having to touch the ground. No self-respecting tower block is built without a helipad and it's been estimated that there are some 400 licensed choppers making 1,700 flights a day across the city. Some might think they're over-reacting, others just point to the chronic inability of São Paulo's road network to deal with the demand. In 2009 Time magazine reported a traffic jam 200 miles long.

One habitual helicopter user is Wilson Quintela. He has made a fortune from rubbish. His company, Estre Ambiental, motto 'Lixo é Só O Começo' – 'Waste is Just the Beginning' – was founded in 1999. It now has 5,000 employees, manages thirteen landfill sites, in Argentina and Colombia as well as Brazil, and in the last financial year made a profit of 1.2 billion reais (£37 million). Wilson Quintela is evangelical about waste management and despite being one of the busiest men in Brazil he's agreed to take me out to see how he's dealing with the 40,000 tonnes of unwanted matter that is collected from São Paulo every day.

We glide surprisingly easily through the morning traffic to a tall, four-tower complex called the Condomínio São Luiz. It's a vertical city. A managed executive environment inside which, beside the offices, are attendant banks, bars, restaurants, gardens, laundries, physio and massage facilities and, of course, a helipad. In close proximity are residential apartments and everything else you might want, including schools, hospitals, hotels and shopping centres. Everything is clustered together for safety and security. It's like a medieval castle, but instead of the drawbridge there are road ramps, high spiked fences and a battery of CCTV screens, all co-ordinated from a well-staffed reception area. The message is, in an admirably polite way, that out there, where you've come from, is dangerous. And where you are now is safe. We have our photos taken and our passports thoroughly checked before we are escorted through the barrier and up to Estre's floor.

Here all is space and light, and with the spotless laminated white tables reflecting big blown-up photographs of trees and animals you could be forgiven for thinking that this was the HQ of some enlightened national parks agency rather than a waste disposal business. This is quite deliberate. The fact that the office is an obsessively clean environment mirrors Quintela's philosophy, as do all the books and pictures conveying images of man and nature in harmony. There's not a discarded tissue in sight.

Wilson himself is the antithesis of the buttoned-up businessman. He's a deeply tanned, middle-aged man wearing jeans and an open-necked blue shirt revealing a tasteful gold amulet sitting snugly on his chest. He's in good shape and is relaxed and disarming as he greets us. He's also very busy, and after brief introductions we follow him into the lift and ascend, past floor after floor of accountants, to the rooftop helipad. It's a bizarre world up here where all these buildings reach the sky. It's like being in the rainforest canopy, except that the trees are man-made. Even up here, forty storeys above ground where you'd think no one would notice, the architectural details of the penthouses are full of twirls and flourishes, as if they were mansions built at street level and then jacked up into the sky.

The helicopter is due to arrive any minute. Wilson checks his watch and looks off into the distance. I ask him if he uses them because of security fears at street level. He shrugs and shakes his head. His life is spent on the move and, like many of his ilk in São Paulo, he uses company planes and helicopters to save time. Then he turns to me, frowning.

'But my children have to go to school in armour-plated cars and that's crazy!'
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 64: São Paulo
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: São Paulo
  • Book page no: 268

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