The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Pay no mind to the travel experts — beauty is in the eye of the beholder!

Matador Network published an article last month bemoaning “travel pornography” — in other words, the kinds of photos one often sees in polished travel guides, making an exotic place look so much better than it does in reality.

This is significant because many of us make our decisions about where or where not to go on the basis of travel Web sites, guidebooks and even Pinterest boards — with their slick photography and accompanying reviews.

As the Swiss-born British philosopher Alain de Botton noted in his book The Art of Travel:

Where guidebooks praised a site, they pressured a visitor to match their authoritative enthusiasm, and where they were silent, pleasure or interest seemed unwarranted.

Case-in-point: São Paulo vs Rio

In Brazil the travel experts have influenced and help perpetuate contrasting perceptions about the country’s two biggest cities: São Paulo (where I live with my Brazilian wife) and Rio de Janeiro.

In most instances you’ll read that Rio is the jewel in the nation’s metaphorical crown, the princess; whereas São Paulo is the ugly stepsister that is best avoided at all costs.

To be honest, when I moved to São Paulo just over a year ago, my own first impressions were not much different. It struck me as a place with ugly skylines, overwhelming traffic and polluted rivers. However, as time went by and I got to know the city better, those impressions changed.

And when I recently went traveling around Brazil with a visiting friend from London, I discovered something quite interesting — I was actually becoming as defensive of São Paulo as the natives.

The bad rap on SP

I started to notice this shift when my friend and I encountered other travelers. Anyone who has traveled recently will know that it’s common to meet all sorts. Typically, your first interactions — long before you decide to become best friends and end up downing shots of tequila in some godforsaken bar (even though you’ll probably never see each other again) — consist of small talk along the lines of:

“Where do you come from?”
“What do you do?”
“How long will you be in [insert city, town, country, etc]?”
“Which football team do you support?”
“Who the hell are Gillingham?”

On this trip, when the mundanities came my way, I had to explain why I resided in São Paulo rather than in London. Then I would get the inevitable “Why the hell are you there?” along with repeated denouncements of São Paulo and how it is a city of doom and gloom, a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah:

“I couldn’t live there” | “I don’t like the sound of living there” [delete phrase depending upon whether you’ve actually been to São Paulo].
“There’s too much/many…. [insert one of the following: traffic|pollution|cars|people].”
“It’s not a tourist city, there’s nothing to do or see.”
“It’s just a big, ugly city.”
“It’s too dangerous.”

There is, of course, an element of truth to most of these points. However, don’t these criticisms (apart from the lack of tourist sights) reflect the reality of 21st-century urban life the world over? I mean, isn’t the debate a matter of degrees?

I blame the travel pornography/travel guidebooks. Cities like São Paulo are constantly maligned because no one has taken the time to dig beneath the surface, or because they are not as immediately captivating as their outwardly attractive neighbors (namely, Rio).

Is beauty an illusion?

But whilst anyone can see that Rio is beautiful, it takes a keener to eye to observe beauty or virtue where it is embodied in less obvious forms. You need to become an explorer of the sort James Murray described in his post of yesterday.

Besides, as is the case of many places that are subject to so-called travel porn, Rio may not actually be as stunning as you first thought. It’s often said of that much-visited city that it is beautiful from afar but rather less so when you get up close.

Copacabana, for example, with its world-famous beach, may have once been the home of the glamorous, but today it’s tatty and parts of it, especially at night, are seedy and not massively safe.

And São Paulo?

Well, if Rio is beautiful from afar but less so up close, then I’d say SP is the opposite. As you approach Brazil’s largest city, its skyline advances towards and then engulfs you in its beige blandness, overwhelming and unending — an effect made more noticeable due to the city’s ban on outdoor advertising.

That said, once you get used to it, SP’s vastness actually becomes one of its marvels.

SP at its most splendid

When I moved here just over a year ago, I vividly remember my sister-in-law saying that living and working in São Paulo makes her feel like a “citizen of the world” — like a small part of something big and important.

What she said is true. Whilst I love venturing into the wild, I am more fascinated by cities — mainly because they are man-made and hence symbolize the complexity of the human condition (I’m a typical sociology graduate!).

Returning to our friend de Botton: he introduces the notion of the sublime in his book on travel, pointing out that certain landscapes can provoke sublime thoughts. Places, he says, can “gently move us to acknowledge limitations that we might otherwise encounter with anxiety or anger in the ordinary flow of events.” (He sees this as a kind of substitute for traditional religious worship.)

For most people, the sight of a desert, canyon or rainforest is enough to elevate them to the sublime, helping to put their daily woes into perspective. But for me it has taken an encounter with a mega-city like São Paulo.

And then there’s that street art!

Whenever I start feeling this way — that SP has put me in touch with something sublime — I begin to appreciate the beauty in the things around me. (I’d missed those things before because of feeling overwhelmed.)

For example, I became acutely aware of the quantity and quality of São Paulo’s street art, which I think must rank amongst the finest, if not the finest, anywhere in the world. You can find fascinating street art everywhere and if you exclude pichação (wall writings done in angry protest), then on the whole it enhances one’s enjoyment of the city’s neighborhoods.

In my view, the street art alone is a good enough reason to visit São Paulo.

But if street art doesn’t take your fancy, rest assured the city also offers plenty of good food, culture and entertainment. Indeed, I cannot think of a place I’ve been to in the continent with as wide a range of quality museums and art galleries.

At weekends you can go for a walk in Parque Ibiraquera (SP’s Central Park), watch a top South American football team, catch a film at an IMAX or, if culture is more your thing, go to a play, opera or ballet. And if you’re a music fan, you’re in luck. Artists who tour South America usually have São Paulo as one of the first dates on their itinerary.

The thing about São Paulo is that whilst it can be intimidating and is perennially frustrating, it’s also pretty cool. As displaced actress Marlene Dietrich once said:

Rio is a beauty — but São Paulo, ah … São Paulo is a city.

And for me, there’s something rather exciting, not to mention awe-inspiring, about that.

STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post.

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6 responses to “Pay no mind to the travel experts — beauty is in the eye of the beholder!

  1. giddayfromtheuk March 17, 2013 at 7:10 am

    Regardless of where I choose to travel, I prefer to check out photos and reviews taken/written by ‘regular’ travellers. I went to Krakow last year and while it’s great to see ‘the sights’ I love trying to capture a particular moment like the shadows of the statues on St Peter and St Paul Cathedral as I arrived for an evening concert or local interactions in not only the main square (Rynek Glowny) but the back streets as well. I also think reviews on site like TripAdvisor are a really great balance against the tourist sell/guidebooks for places to stay and things to do.

  2. ML Awanohara March 17, 2013 at 4:39 pm

    @Andy
    I find it interesting that so many countries have rival cities, with most foreigners flocking to the city that has the reputation of being more cosmopolitan, beautiful, cultural, etc. In Japan, Tokyo easily wins the race over Osaka; in the US, NYC has many more expats than Chicago (fyi: we’ll be featuring an ex-expat of the Windy City who wrote a book about its hidden charms very soon!), and in the UK, it’s London that’s a magnet to foreigners (vs I guess the big Northern cities of Birmingham and Manchester, which get quite a few the displaced).

    I don’t know the stats but I’m also assuming Shanghai wins over Beijing.

    Kym (@giddayfromtheuk), does Australia have that, too — Sydney beats Melbourne?

    But is this an artifact of travel porn, or is it more the history of the place itself, being more open to foreigners? Is it easier to be a foreigner in Rio than in São Paulo? I’m actually very curious to hear why your sister-in-law said that SP makes her feel more like a citizen of the world. Would a non-Brazilian necessarily feel that way??

  3. andyhpmartin March 17, 2013 at 6:22 pm

    I think it’s probably easier to be a foreigner in SP – it’s called South America’s New York for a reason. For example, if I want to find my favourite beer from London I can do so pretty easily. .

    In Brazil they say that SP works so that Brazil can play, and as a city SP has the 10th largest GDP in the world (and over 12% of Brazil’s total GDP). It’s the most cosmopolitan and happening city in South America, hence why my sister-in-law said what she said.

    • ML Awanohara March 17, 2013 at 7:27 pm

      Okay, but if it is easier, then why do all the travelers you run into say things like: “Why ever would you want to live there?” Are they implying that if they had a choice they’d live in Rio? Does Rio have more expats, more of an expat community?

      • andyhpmartin March 18, 2013 at 12:17 pm

        I don’t think either Rio or SP necessarily have large expat communities (compared to English speaking countries), but given SP is the financial power of Brazil more people are likely to be in SP for work than Rio.

        As for travel, Rio has the reputation and, as I said, the obvious natural beauty. SP has a less obvious appeal in comparison.

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