Flying in on approach into São Paulo, Brazil’s Guarulhos International Airport is like looking at a graphics chart on Bloomberg News. Flat land for miles, and for miles tall, skinny skyscrapers punching upwards in staggering heights. And, at the bottom, squeezed somewhere in between every possible inch, groupings of tiny red-tiled roofed houses, juxtaposed at all angles - all this before the dense concentration of skyscrapers. In this vast sea of human dwellings, it becomes evident this is what it looks like to house 19 million citizens in South America’s largest metropolitan city, a city painfully devoid of greenery flying in on approach.
Our monolith crew bus - we could have fit three wide-body crews on this bus - pulled up to our hotel after an hour’s drive from the airport to the city’s center. Almost every scene out of the bus window was a sterile view of cars zipping along ribbons and cross ribbons of highways. Downtown São Paulo, and more skyscrapers. Not as many, not as tall, but the distinct look of business. Our crew hotel was located in the middle of the business district, with one small, but busy, outdoor café across the street, a couple of blocks off the busy Avenida Paulista, and Trianon Park. The view from my high-rise hotel window was confirmation of why São Paulo is the engine of South America’s economy. Sexy Rio de Janeiro and staid São Paulo. Where’s the Brazilian passion in a city of steel and concrete?
Our crew made reservations for dinner at one of São Paulo’s most famous restaurants, A Figueira Rubaiyat (“fig tree”, and an 11th century Persian poet, respectively). Looking out the taxi window as we made our way down Rua Haddock Lobo in the Jardim Paulista area, life was finally revealing itself on a warm summer, Saturday night: locals walking their dogs, cafés and small restaurants spilling over with paulistanos (São Paulo’s citizens) out front, luxury stores like Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior indicating it was their customers who lived behind the beautiful, walled structures lining the residential area.
Stepping out of the taxi, looks can be deceiving as what seemed like a decent sized tree greeting us at the entrance of the restaurant was really a fruit tree of magnanimous proportions. Swathed in a welcoming, warm, gold light, it is easy to breeze right into the open entrance and head straight for the bar area (where one of the restaurant’s rocket-fuel caipirinha’s is enough to knock you out flat) or the hostess desk, but that would be an injustice to such magnificence. The fig tree quietly dominates from above all the patrons of the evening, feasting on butter soft steaks that are from the cattle raised on the owner’s private farm, with its sweeping extension of branches and leaves. It was someone’s birthday this night, and the celebration under the fig tree was with balloons, song and a cake with sparklers for candles. The fig tree in its own way is a national treasure, and maybe a back door view to what the natural landscape of São Paulo was before millions of people took it over.
From the airplane, to the crew bus, to a city taxi driving deep into the heart of São Paulo, peeling back layers of South America’s largest city one segment at a time, in the midst of modern day structures of steel and concrete, survives a beautiful fig tree.