September 21, 2012 9:36 pm

Expat lives: Worth the paperwork

FT correspondent Joe Leahy looks back at his first 18 months in São Paulo
Joe Leahy©Gabriel Rinaldi

Joe Leahy in front of the Octávio Frias de Oliveira bridge in São Paulo

My first contact with Brazil happened in India. To get a correspondent’s visa for Brazil, I needed a police report saying I had committed no crimes.

This had to be from my last place of residence, Mumbai. But India would never have let me stay in the first place if I had a criminal record, so there was no procedure for providing such a document. Inquiries with the police drew blank stares. The idea was so outlandish, no one even honoured it with a request for a bribe.

Caught between two of the world’s most Kafkaesque bureaucracies, I appealed for clemency to the Brazilian local consular officials. “I hope you have a great time in Brazil,” the deputy consul general said after he waived the police report and issued my visa. And so I have had and still am having, 18 months later.

I did not know what to expect from São Paulo. After 17 years as a correspondent in Asia, which aside from Mumbai included stints in Hong Kong and Jakarta, I was used to shifting around. But this would be my first move to another region since I left home in Australia in 1993.

Movies about Brazil always seem to concentrate on Rio de Janeiro’s favelas or Ipanema. Latin America’s biggest megalopolis barely registers in the international image of Brazil as a land of beaches and carnivals.

One colleague told me São Paulo resembled a North American city, just a bit shabbier. I learnt that with a population in the greater metropolitan area of about 20m, São Paulo’s economy is bigger than that of Chile. Just before I arrived, British racing driver Jenson Button narrowly escaped a machine gun-toting gang as he was leaving the city’s Grand Prix track.

I landed at Guarulhos airport, eyes wide as the taxi whisked me along the “Marginal” – a spaghetti-like multi-lane highway that tracks the fragrant Tietê River. We passed cyclists getting their afternoon exercise on expensive bikes, oblivious to the favelas. Skyscrapers rose up in clumps from the landscape as we neared my hotel in Itaim, a fancy inner-city district.

Visitors can find the sprawl of São Paulo overwhelming. Yet it can be surprisingly compact. There is Centro – the historic downtown; Avenida Paulista, a business area to the south-west; and Avenida Brigadeiro Faria Lima and Avenida Engenheiro Luís Carlos Berrini (pronounced Beh-heen-ee), even further south-west, where most of the investment banks are.

Between Av Paulista and Av Faria Lima is Jardins, literally “Gardens”. Most of the more desirable areas – Higienópolis (old money), Paulista-Republica (edgier), Pinheiros-Vila Madalena (hipster), Vila Nova Conceicão (expensive, near the city’s biggest park) – lie around this Centro-Berrini south-west axis. For me, São Paulo’s crumbling downtown is the most beautiful area, a post-apocalyptic mix of crack dens and magnificent old buildings and parks, harking back to São Paulo’s “café aristocracy”, when coffee barons ruled the land.

The joy of São Paulo is that you can live virtually anywhere. Decentralisation means there is usually no shortage of apartments near your office.

Initially, I thought of buying. But since the real estate market and Brazil’s exchange rate were skyrocketing, I decided prices looked frothy and opted to rent instead. Sale prices remain high, at an average of R$8,876 (£2,714) per sq metre for an apartment in Jardins, up 120 per cent since 2008 according to www.zap.com.br. Rentals are R$45 per sq metre, up 45.2 per cent during the same period.

I had tried to study Portuguese before I left Mumbai with a Mangalorean who had in turn learnt the language from a Goan. But she seemed more interested in the conjugations of my personal life than those of Portuguese and I did not get far.

The minute I landed in Brazil, I realised I was adrift in a sea of Portuguese – no English anywhere. Even the supermarket checkout girl was terrifying, barking unintelligible questions every time I ventured to buy as much as a bottle of water. Later, of course, I learned she was only asking whether I wanted a receipt or a plastic bag.

For those with Anglophone children, schools can cost more than Eton. Indeed, São Paulo in general can be so expensive that many expats buy everything, from toothbrushes to peanuts, in Miami or New York.

The other thing the foreigner quickly learns, if he survives long enough, is that São Paulo was built for cars, not people. Pedestrian crossings are for population control. Only gringos risk their lives by insisting on their right of way. And in a city without adequate public transport, never try to cross town during rush hour. If you do not like it, get a helicopter.

At first I thought Brazil’s biggest industry was security. But it is in fact bureaucracy. I spent six months sleeping on an air bed with polystyrene packaging for furniture while waiting for my stuff to clear customs.

Since then, I have found myself leading almost a village life. My apartment, which is at the end of Rua Oscar Freire, just before the street morphs into the city’s version of London’s Bond Street, is within walking distance of most of my friends’ homes.

Paulistanos, as citizens of São Paulo are known, are friendly in spite of their reputation in Brazil for being snobs. My favourite event so far is the Virada Cultural, when Centro closes to traffic for 24 hours of music and art.

And São Paulo is cool. On Rua Augusta, skaters speed down the steep hill towards Centro, passing graffiti-covered bars crammed with grungy revellers. The food is good. Aside from fine dining, there is the kilo restaurant, where you pay by the weight of your plate, the padaria, like an espresso bar with good sandwiches, and the churrascaria, or steakhouse – not for vegetarians.

When the city’s serried skyscrapers start to close in on you, there is the litoral, the coast, where the mountains plunge into the sea. And Rio de Janeiro is a short flight away, although Paulistanos will tell you to beware those scheming Cariocas, as people from Rio are known.

The good news is your Portuguese gets better. I’m not even afraid to go to the supermarket anymore. There is only one thing worrying me. My visa extension is only six months away. I’m running out of time to do the paperwork. I’d better get on to it.

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Buying guide

Pros

● Big, dynamic city that never sleeps

● Friendly people

● Rio de Janeiro is not far away

● Access to adventure and amazing culture, Amazon, Salvador, the Andes

Cons

● Need a helicopter to beat the traffic

● Prices come with an extra zero

● Armoured cars not essential but nice to have

● Need earplugs when trying to sleep during late-night football matches

What you can buy for ...

$100,000 A 50 sq m, two-bedroom apartment in a decent development in Osasco, at the end of the metro line

$1m A 123 sq m, three-bedroom apartment in Jardim América, in the city’s central and Jardins district

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