Brazil’s two biggest cities are very, very, different. This is a an argument which never ends here, and one which I couldn’t help but jump into – Vincent
By Dom Phillips
Clichés abound in Brazil, and it’s not just we foreigners who throw them around. One is that life in Brazil, be that in terms of romance, work or national politics, resembles a soap opera, with all its dramatic twists and turns. It’s a cliché. It’s also sort of true. But it’s also much more dramatic than that.
Another is based in the fierce yet friendly rivalry between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the country’s two biggest cities, and the jibes residents of both fling at each other. Recently I’ve been hearing this from both sides: after four and half years in São Paulo, I moved to Rio earlier this year, and have been finding out which of the clichés don’t stand up.
“Ah, paulistanos, they’re stressed all the time, they don’t know how to relax, they just work. They’re so formal, they don’t know how to enjoy life,” a carioca (Rio native) quickly explained to me on arrival. “Cariocas are more relaxed.” You hear this a lot in Rio.
“The trouble with Rio is that cariocas are lazy. You can’t rely on them. They’re always inviting you to their home, but never give you the address,” a Paulistano gently informed me before moving. “And they have no culture,” another added. “But…” a third whispered conspiratorially, “I would live there too if I could.” You hear all of this in São Paulo.
São Paulo could be Brazil’s New York, a dense, intense and immense urban jungle whose forward–thinking residents play as hard as they work. It is the engine room of the Brazilian economy. This is one popular cliché, and it is true in many ways.
In this version of events, Rio then becomes the country’s Los Angeles**: a lazily chaotic beach city, big on samba and beaches, characterised by sexy, tropical glamour. But which, with the Olympics and World Cup looming and its associated programme of infrastructure works, has suddenly found a dynamism that is putting São Paulo to shame. That’s also mostly true.
But each city, in a sense, is defined by its economics and architecture. And the images each has of the other relate, as if each was a mirror, reflecting different images of the same reality. São Paulo is where the banks and car factories are; where the money is generated and spent. Rio is where TV Globo is based, where it makes – and sets – those famous soap operas, and is home to Brazilian cinema and those famous beaches.
São Paulo is posh restaurants, avant garde galleries, and underground discos in city centre car parks. Rio is beer in plastic cups, rice and beans, flip–flops on the cobblestones, samba and sunsets.
But the trouble with clichés is that the real world, and real people, are much more complicated. Paulistanos will tell you it’s a nightmare to work with lazy, chaotic cariocas. But they themselves are nowhere near as organized and productive as they would like you to believe. And there are plenty of stressed–out, overworked cariocas who would like to spend more time at the beach.
Rio is where the big companies in Brazil’s booming oil industry are based, such as state oil giant Petrobras, along with minerals giant Vale. These are all very serious players. São Paulo has samba, and it’s better than Rio gives it credit for. Rio has its underground discos in city centre car parks, but the DJ will definitely play samba at one point.
Paulistanos invite you to their houses because there is no beach. But they also know how to enjoy themselves. In Rio many people live in tiny apartments, the city has plenty of nature and outdoor space, and plus it’s about three degrees warmer, so cariocas prefer to meet in public.
The implementation of armed police bases, called UPPs, in some of Rio’s dangerous favelas has created a sensation that the city is less dangerous than it was. This is partly true.
But that doesn’t mean the city’s problems have disappeared: in the last fortnight alone I’ve been told about two violent crimes – a house invaded and its residents tied up and robbed by armed masked men; and a guy robbed at gunpoint coming out of a bank. While the drug violence problem just seems to have been partly shifted to the Rio suburbs. But crime too is also on the rise in São Paulo.
In focusing on the clichés, both cities miss out. A lot of cariocas won’t go anywhere near São Paulo because they think the city is ugly and polluted, which is true. But all of them are missing everything that São Paulo has to offer in terms of a vibrant cultural life.
Whereas paulistanos love a weekend in Rio, but tend to stick to the city’s South Zone which, beaches and nature aside**, is actually its least interesting area. They complain about Rio’s clichés then do their best to live them out when they visit the city. Perhaps they’re so desperate to escape their infernal megalopolis they live in that by the time they get to Rio they just collapse in exhaustion on Leblon Beach. Or is that just another cliché?
[Editor’s note: – Vincent]
What’s more interesting is the similarities, not the differences, between both cities. They’re like two very different children born of the same parents, both competing for attention. Both are as modern and competitive, as hard–working and lazy, as clever and dumb as each other. Actually Rio is much more like the rest of Brazil, especially the North East, only much more beautiful. And São Paulo is a giant megalopolis with everything that entails, a city that is unique not just in Brazil, but in South America.
And both are unmistakably Brazilian cities, two misshaped peas in the same pod, and you will never understand anything about Brazil if you don’t get to know both. And appreciate that the smart, ugly sister and her beautiful lazy sibling is one cliché that doesn’t hold up.
**[[Editor’s note: As an American, and native of Los Angeles, I don’t like this analogy. To me, São Paulo is New York and Los Angeles combined, and Rio is a sort of over-sized Miami, if it were also where the emperor used to live. São Paulo reminds me more of LA than NY, with its chaotic sprawl. And getting to LA’s beaches from downtown doesn’t take much less time than it does to get to São Paulo’s breathtaking jungle retreats from o centro.
And, when I come to Rio, I go straight for the beach. Nature in Rio is breathtaking. Most of the other stuff, though nice, is better in São Paulo. Do cariocas come to São Paulo and try to go swimming in the Marginal Pinheiros? Someday, I’ll have to write my own SP-Rio comparison. — Vincent]]
— Both photos above by Dom Phillips, taken on an iPhone and embarrassingly sent through an Instagram filter —