Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Sao Paulo Journal

I’m flying to Sao Paulo from Tokyo via Abu Dhabi, which sounds insane, and it is–it’s a chunk further than flying via the U.S., but significantly cheaper. The entire trip will take 30 hours–one twelve-hour flight, a three-hour layover, and then another fifteen-hour flight.

I don’t remember much about the first flight. I think I slept for ten hours of the twelve-hour trip, which is incredible given that I almost never sleep on planes. It was a late night flight. I woke up starving and just in time to wolf down the curried chicken sandwiches that the flight attendants were passing out. We landed in Abu Dhabi before sunrise.

Abu Dhabi airport was surreal. I kept reminding myself that I was further from home than I’d ever been, in a country I never thought I’d set foot in, but in the airport you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in a midwestern mall. It was a sort of liminal space, everywhere but nowhere, where most of the travellers looked European or North American and the shops served pizza and falafel and accepted currency from ten different countries (just not Japan or Brazil). When the sun came up I could see very little beyond the airport. I could have been anywhere.


Plane number two. Before falling asleep yet again I looked out the window for at least an hour just to stare at the Sahara. It was never-ending. There wasn’t even a wisp of a cloud in the sky, so I felt like I could see every grain of sand. Even the ocean never looked so vast and unbroken. Every now and then I would see a few dark circles, but no other signs of human habitation. Time went by and the desert just kept going. And then suddenly when I looked out my window before drifting off everything was bright green. I remembered descriptions like “sub-Saharan” from geography textbooks, but never were they so vividly revealed to me as on this plane.

Landing in Sao Paulo the evening air feels surprisingly cool. My partner, who’s been there with his family for a week now, laughs and says it won’t stay that way, and he’s right–sleeping will sometimes be a challenge. We drive through surprisingly empty streets–it’s just after Christmas, which means I will miss any real experience of Sao Paulo’s infamous traffic. I don’t complain.

We eat bread, cheese, endless fresh fruit, yogurt, and tea for breakfast in a cheerful living room. I am starving, and I will be starving for the rest of the trip. Later I wonder if it’s because my ability to communicate has been compromised, so I’ve replaced speaking with eating.

We go for a walk down the road to a park. I had no real impression of Sao Paulo before I arrived. I imagined it would be crowded and dirty and run-down. A lot of the buildings are run-down, but the streets are fairly empty (again, probably because a few million people have traveled outside the city for the long holiday). There are botecos, little shops selling pastries and snacks that double as informal bars and hangout joints, on almost every corner. It feels cheerful, maybe because it’s almost always sunny.

The park is full of trees. This is a detail I remember–despite being a huge city choked with concrete, Sao Paulo has much more green than Tokyo. And much more color–even the run-down buildings are painted in facades of bright pink and blue. There’s graffiti everywhere, but sometimes there are beautiful paintings and quasi-photographic artworks on the sides of buildings. In the middle of the park is a little “reading room,” a building with large windows where anyone can walk in and read one of the books on the shelves. There are “pay what you can” book vending machines scattered throughout the city, usually containing classics and religious texts.

I begin to fully comprehend what it means to not really be able to communicate with people. I am afraid to be left alone with my partner’s mother and sister, not because they’re unkind (they’re sweet and accommodating), but because they talk to me, and most of the time I can only nod or smile or gesture, and I’m terrified that they think I’m rude or dull-witted. (Which is worse? Rude. Definitely rude. I could live with people thinking I’m a bit dim, but I *really* don’t want anyone to think I’m rude, unless I’m being rude on purpose, which is rare.) I don’t mind not being able to communicate with store clerks or restaurant staff (I usually don’t have as many problems there), but given that this is my first time to meet a significant other’s family in (my God) 13 years, I want to make a good impression. And it’s hard to do that when you basically have the communicative abilities of a five-year-old.

Mom and sister take me shopping for a bathing suit since I forgot to bring one. It’s nice to have even the smallest bathing suit fit me, where in Japan I struggle to find any suits that fit. I buy a bright blue bikini, the first bikini I’ve bought in seven or eight years. They buy me the bathing suit as a Christmas present and I’m touched. I also look good in it, which makes me really happy.

We drive to the countryside for a family New Year’s Eve party. The landscape reminds me of Texas, but much greener. It could almost be the English countryside. There’s a pool at the house and we go swimming with lots of children and adults and I’m given copious amounts of caipirinha and batida de coco. There’s wonderful food for lunch, polenta with tomatoes and roasted chicken with rice. I sit with a group of children, one of whom practices his English with me. “Does she understand English?” one of the younger children asks his father. “Yes, she only understands English. Just like you only understand Portuguese.” I can tell this blows his mind.

Other than the occasional bit of English practice, in Brazil I never have conversations that center around my foreign-ness. Visually I’m not exotic, and there doesn’t seem to be any assumption that I’m fundamentally different from my hosts. It’s a nice change from Japan, where conversations that frequently come back to “What do Americans think of…?” can get tiresome.

Apparently everyone wears a white shirt on New Year’s Eve. I didn’t know, and I’m wearing black. But no one seems to care.

At midnight we count down the seconds and then the fireworks start. They last for fifteen or twenty minutes, just fireworks from people’s private homes. They’ll continue intermittently for the next 24 hours or so, sometimes so loud that I could swear bombs were going off.

There are long stretches of this trip where the two of us just retreat somewhere quiet and read, occasionally reading something aloud to each other. I love this, because so often trips are over-planned. I like the opportunity to just do nothing. He’s reading books on Hebrew and programming, and I’m reading a trashy romance novel called Mr. Impossible. I’ve sort of developed a tradition of reading trash literature when I travel. Unfortunately the stories have become a little dull and repetitive, so I might need to switch to pulp sci-fi.


There is very little for tourists to do in Sao Paulo. It may be the first foreign city I’ve visited where I never line up to buy tickets for some historical attraction and never encounter large tour groups or tour buses. Still, we manage to find things to do. We go to a large cathedral with huge, vaulted ceilings, the kind I haven’t seen since I visited Westminster Abbey as a teenager. There’s the faint smell of incense. The place is quiet, especially compared to the rest of the city. Though I don’t have much use for church these days, it reminds me that I did once enjoy the somber, meditative quality of some Catholic services.


We go to Ibirapuera Park, which might be my favorite place in Sao Paulo so far. It’s huge and green and incredibly well-maintained, and it’s free! I could sit in it for hours and just enjoy the breezes coming off the lake.


After that we gorge ourselves on really good burgers and Ovaltine milkshakes at a popular restaurant in the tony neighborhood of Jardins.


Much of Jardins looks like Beverly Hills–huge houses hidden behind enormous walls, lots of trees, wide boulevards, high-end shops and restaurants. It’s shocking to think that just the day before I was passing by a slum where goats were tethered to metal poles that held up flimsy pieces of plastic that passed for roofs.

On our last day we go to Embu das Artes, a craft village just outside the city. It’s ridiculously hot, and while I don’t expect places to be air conditioned, it’d be nice if there were more fans. With cousins we go to a restaurant with truly wonderful food–fresh pasta, coxinhas, and grilled vegetables and meats, which more than makes up for being drenched in sweat.


At the airport that night we have one more thing to check off our list–boyfriend wants to get a “cheddar melt,” a special McDonald’s burger that’s only on offer at McDonald’s in Brazil. Luckily there’s a McDonald’s in the airport, so we wait in a rather long line and pay for some overpriced burgers, fries, and milkshakes. I have to admit, they taste really good.

There are long hugs and farewells. As we move through the security line I can see family still waving and blowing kisses at us right up until we turn the corner out of sight.

The trip threatens to end on a sour note when a group of truly obnoxious men boards the plane to Abu Dhabi shouting about how drunk they’re all going to get. But through some sort of divine intervention (or, I like to think, a spiked drink delivered by a calculating flight attendant), their ringleader passes out only an hour after take-off and spends the next fourteen hours curled up in a silent little ball.



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This entry was posted on February 1, 2014 by in Uncategorized and tagged , .
Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

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