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Day 66: São Paulo to Santo

Michael Palin - BrazilI prepare to leave São Paulo with mixed feelings. The size and scale of the city and the relentless roll and rumble of its traffic – on the ground and in the air – can sometimes give a sense of being trapped in some machine. At the same time I felt quite at home here. The neighbourhood round the hotel in Iguatemi, albeit quite a smart end of town, is not entirely anonymous. Contrary to Isay Weinfeld's experience, there are plenty of shops and cafés about. There are streets in front of the high-rise curtain on which I found bookstores, clothes shops, museums, health clubs. From outside São Paulo looks terrifying; but in the same way that smog seen from a distance seems to disappear when you're in the middle of it, so it is that once you've committed yourself to this monstrous place, the city rewards you with a stickily protective embrace. You can be what you want to be. As a result I can see how São Paulo has grown into one of the great sanctuaries of the world, receiving, housing and employing twelve million people in less than 150 years. It is a slightly soiled Promised Land, but a Promised Land none the less.

As we head south to Santos and the sea the city seems reluctant to let us go. It takes two and a half hours to cover the 100 kilometres (sixty miles) to the coast. A massive traffic jam tails back whilst above us the sun is blotted out by a low haze that quickly turns to fog. As we make our way down through the Serra do Mar we're hemmed in by walls of trucks bound for the port, their air-brakes hissing and wheezing as they inch through the mist.

And things get no less hellish when we finally descend into Santos. Industrial plant, stacks of containers, rusting trucks on a railway track and all the mess of a dockside wasteland combine with the constant squeak and roar of heavy vehicles. Then, in a sort of replay of Rio, we're into a long tunnel from which we emerge into somewhere quite different, a recognizable residential city. A long avenue takes us to a wide beach with palm trees swaying in the wind and a bay with islands silhouetted against a stormy sky.

Santos itself is on an island and it has a long history. Its safe bay and the abundant water and shelter from the surrounding mountains made it a natural settlement. There is evidence of human activity going back 5,000 years. The Portuguese colonizers first made a base here in 1535 and later it became rich as an entrepôt for the coffee trade, connected to São Paulo by a railway built, financed and designed by the British. 'They brought a British aesthetic...a neat little railway that wouldn't look out of place in Surrey, Cumbria or Lanarkshire. Boilers came from Cornwall, carriages from Manchester and locomotives from the Avonside Engine Company. When the first trains started running [in 1867] they burned high-grade coal from Newcastle.' Thus Josh Lacey describes it in his book God is Brazilian.

The railway didn't survive for long and the picturesque coastline around Santos earned a reputation for severe industrial pollution. Petrochemical plants became a national scandal after mutant births at nearby Cubatão in the 1980s.

But the big stucco facades with blue louvred shutters on the sea front wouldn't look out of place on the Corniche at Nice, and it's clear that this part of Santos remains a flourishing holiday destination. Tonight, though, it just looks weather-beaten and as we eat a paella at a sea-front choperia the storm that has been brewing out to sea moves in and for two hours the heavens open with terrific force.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 66: São Paulo to Santo
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: São Paulo
  • Book page no: 280

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