Friday, November 13, 2009

Rich pickings

Going home time from St Paul's School, Sao Paulo

You can tell the nannies because they wear a uniform of white slacks and tops and contain a high proportion of indigenous Indian or African slave-descendant genes. The mothers breeze by in designer jewellery and the overall atmosphere is tense. One of them, clad in a flowing leopardskin print robe slit high up to the thigh and of fairly mature years, totters by on her high heels having presumably already partaken of several caipirinhas this afternoon. This is the national drink, consisting of fermented cane sugar juice mixed with mashed lemon and more sugar and crushed ice - rocket fuel, broadly indistinguishable from the fermented cane sugar bio ethanol they put into their cars. In my bag is a kit for making it, a leaving present from the school.

You would expect mothers collecting children from school to be overall a pleasant experience. Half the people here have their ears glued to mobile phones. Most of them seem stressed. They are watched by men in black suits and shades standing arms crossed on the sidelines. All of them have memories of kidnappings. A kiosk run by another man with darker skin sells popcorn, pop drinks and ice lollies on the sidewalk while the nannies or mothers tow kids towards a never-ending parade of chauffeur-driven 4x4's or land cruisers, all obeying Henry Ford's mantra: any shade as long as it's grey, silver or black, and the windows are smoked.

The queue of vehicles is maybe half a mile along and conducted through a parody of suburbia in the shadow of walls topped with razor wire and electrified fences, bristling with security cameras, the sidewalks dotted every 200 metres with kiosks populated by security guards, paid by a collective of all residents and operating a secret code of whistles; which they displayed last night when I walked through the estate back from the town centre, inadvertently straying into this area. The whistles transmit down the line the nature of this unusual pedestrian, a rare species of invader, this time quite harmless.

It's warm and muggy and to this northerner it seems an incongruous time to be seeing Santa Claus, fairy lights and snowmen materialising on the streets as Christmas approaches.

This is my final day in São Paulo, at least until later next week and I have finished work. Later, I sip a beer outside a bar on Rua Joao Cachoeira. On the other side of the road the same migrant family in the same disused shop front that was there a week ago when I watched some official taking their details. More darker skinned people, mostly children, ignored by the thronging crowds on the streets. One of the boys changes his shirt from a wheelie suitcase. Their clothes at least seem quite new.

Smokers are few, and so are the smiles. I'm glad I'm leaving tomorrow.

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