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A gringo in São Paulo

Gringo/gringa = person not born in Brazil, irrespective of their origin, skin colour, religion, etc; foreigner

When somebody mentions Brazil, the majority of people think of warm weather, never-ending beaches, football or the Carnival. For me, a Romanian who visited Brazil twice, lived in a Brazilian household and volunteered in a NGO, Brazil means all these things and even more. This post talks about my experience in the largest city in Brazil and South America by population.


I have always been fascinated by travelling and knowing more about other cultures. When an AIESEC opportunity to volunteer in São Paulo came up, I couldn’t say no. I decided to go because I was curious about what is behind the headlines we get in Europe about a world across the ocean. Since Romanian, my mother tongue, is a Latin language, I thought picking up Portuguese, lingua franca and official language, won’t be too hard (if you thought it is Spanish check your knowledge!).

The children I worked with as a volunteer

First impressions

I landed in the São Paulo International Airport and shortly met my host family. Carla, Luis and their daughter Luisa welcomed me, asked me how my trip was and immediately proposed us to go out exploring. We went to the Mercado Municipal, a central market which is a famous landmark of the city. I saw unique fruits and vegetables, and got to try many of them, as the sellers give out free samples (and my host family were keen on me trying everything!). After that, we visited some extended family who was working in the 25 de Março area, the main shopping street of the city and possibly of Brazil. If you imagine something similar to Paris’ Champs-Elysee, with designer stores and elegant shoppers, this is not the case here. Here you can find anything and everything. In terms of products, you can find clothes, electronics, household items and food. The range of prices and quality goes from low and imitation to authentic global brands. In this area there are many deals made with people from other states of the country (Brazil is a federal republic).

Brazilians love shopping and it shows. In this neighbourhood, you will find both “lojas”(shops) and street vendors; the main differences I noticed being who approaches who: shopkeepers generally wait for you to come inside and say what you are interested in, while street vendors ask you directly if you want to buy their products. Discussing with my host family I understood that this city is the real economic capital of Brazil. Despite not being on the seashore like Rio de Janeiro or hosting the government like Brasilia, their population increased a lot throughout the years, many people from other parts of the country and abroad moving here to find work. This resulted in a multicultural urban agglomeration of around 20 million people. There are many superlatives that make it a truly important city.

View from Avenida Paulista, the main avenue in the city centre

Volunteering in a poor neighbourhood

My volunteering experience involved working 4 days a week in an NGO supporting the community of Itaquera, in the Eastern side of São Paulo (SP, as the locals call it). ABC Aurora works by empowering children and women to learn more and strive for better lives for themselves and their families. My project involved doing inclusive sports activities with teenagers aged 10-14. The teenagers would come to the community centre, before or after school, have a hot meal and then spend time learning new things, playing sports or just socializing. It kept them out of trouble, as the neighbourhood was known to be a low-income one, where drugs and violence make part of their daily lives. I was amazed by the fact that, despite their hardships, they were kind to each other: sharing sweets and candies and organizing themselves to play in turns for example when we didn’t have enough paddles.

Teenagers playing table tennis on a made up table

The kids were keen to communicate with us, the international volunteers there. I wanted to be able to talk to them as well. Luis, my host dad, just like the kids, didn’t speak English either and that prompted me to put an effort into learning Portuguese. After 2 weeks of daily Portuguese sessions with Luis where he would overly articulate words for me and would play a game of “point and say” and using half of my phone’s battery on Google Translate and Image Search, I managed to learn enough to get by. Many words were similar to Romanian and that helped tremendously. Also, the accent of SP keeps something of the Italian influence of the city and sounded clearer to me than the Rio de Janeiro’s or Portugal’s accent.

A story of different realities

Having learned some basic phrases really opened up the experience for me. Brazil doesn’t excel in statistics about people speaking English, so speaking even basic Portuguese is important. I was able to have random conversations with people while waiting for the bus or while out in bars and clubs. Soon I became a translator for the other volunteers who didn’t speak Portuguese or Spanish (people speaking Spanish were quick to learn, the two languages being very similar). By speaking to more people, I managed to learn more about the life people have here. All the people I interacted with had patience and tried to understand what I was saying despite me not talking correctly. People went out of their way to help: a bus driver gave me free rides after knowing I did volunteer work.

Unfortunately, I learned some sad facts. The inequality in SP is more apparent than in Europe, as there are many people who live in improper conditions, while many others live in extreme luxury. This condition is bound to continue for the generations to come: a wealthy individual can pay for private education and private health care for his/her family, which translates into less health problems and a better career prospects for the children. Living in a central area condomino( = apartment/flat/house with 24h electronic security; can also provide facilities like free gym, pool, kids playground), doing holidays in Europe or the States, being able to enter into any bar or shop, are all signs of wealth for the the paulistanos(= people born in the city of São Paulo; people born in the state of São Paulo are paulistas).

Typical Sunday afternoon on Avenida Paulista: car traffic is stopped; some people go for a stroll, while others sell drinks over ice – informal economy is the only way of making ends meet for many people in the city

Final impressions

Despite their difficult lives, the people of São Paulo find reasons to smile and celebrate. The long hours spent working and commuting in this gigantic metropolis might seem to wear them down, but they like this fast-paced life, something not understood by their fellow countrymen from other regions. The smiles of paulistanos can light up your day and if you befriend any of them, you will know you have somebody there caring for you. This city stays forever in my heart and I cannot wait for the next time I will be able to visit it.

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