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Travel

Sleepless in Sao Paulo

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WHERE DA PARTY? Avenida Paulista is Sao Paulo's equivalent of London's Oxford Street, where people eat, drink and browse

You can't help but feel sorry for Santa Claus hawking cheap socks on Avenida Paulista. He is sweating buckets as he chases people, asking them to buy his stuff. Though it's been drizzling for days, suddenly the sun has come out and the busiest avenue of this megalopolis is steaming like a sauna. But the man dressed as Papai Noel (that's what Santa is called in this part of the world) is wearing a heavy furcoat, woolen trousers and big boots. It's summer here but the mood is quite wintry, with fake snow in parks, skyscrapers shining with lights in the shape of snowflakes and animated polar bears and Frosty the Snowman greeting people in malls. 

But since it's Natal (Christmas in Portuguese ) and time to party, no one - not even the tourist disoriented by the sight of snow in 32 degrees - is complaining. It's that time, when Paulistanos, as the city people are called, have beer for breakfast. The day also ends with beer in the biggest and richest city in the world's largest Catholic country of 200 million people. And then there are parties to attend, shopping to do, decorations to put, and compete with Rio de Janeiro in organising the "best Christmas in South America", not just in Brazil.

Marlene Dietrich once famously said, "Rio is a beauty. But Sao Paulo. . . Sao Paulo is a city". The Paulistanos understand quite well what the American actress meant by that;they know that they don't have silvery beaches, green hills and blue waters like Rio. Some people even call it a concrete jungle of streets, blocks, highways and endless traffic. But the city - perched on a plateau some 800 metres above sea level - has charms of its own. And it's floating on cash. As one drives on the roads snaking through wooded hills and rich condominiums, you realise how green and rich the city is. With its large parks, excellent metro service, street bars, open-air restaurants, pizza corners, huge malls, big football stadiums, theatres and opera houses, there is never a dull
moment in this city of 12 million people.

And it's during the holiday season - from Christmas to New Year - that the whole city comes together to put up a fantastic show to claim the crown of being the best city in South America. The competition is tough. Not just Rio, but Buenos Aires in Argentina and Santiago in Chile too are known for their beauty and culture. But none has the bustle of Sao Paulo, especially during Christmas. The city is buzzing with activities: there is Natal Iluminado, a riotous display of lights across the city;all the 31 boroughs have set up Christmas squares, where choirs performs every evening;all the main avenues are lit with millions of red, green and blue bulbs;and thousands gather at Ibirapuera Park Lake every evening to watch a light-and-sound show with dancing fountains in the backdrop of 200 trees decorated with one million snowy lights. With all offices, residential buildings and football fan clubs organising parties for their members, many people get invited to multiple gigs every day. "I love this great city, " says
George Matthew, an Indian who's been living here for more than 20 years. "During Christmas time, every day is a party. People here know how to enjoy life. "

In the heart of the city, people party throughout the year. In between downtown and tony row houses is the area of Baixo Augusta, known earlier for streetwalkers and sex clubs. In the past few years, with Brazil's economy booming and the city government on a clean-up drive, the area has turned into a proper nightlife zone with gay-clubs, lounges, trendy bars, eateries and teenagehangouts. Thousands of tourists can be seen cramming Avenida Paulista - Sao Paulo's equivalent of Oxford Street in London - watching the decorations, drinking and eating in bars and then taking a walk through Baixo Augusta. There are so many people out on streets that one has to wait in line to get a can at 3 in the morning. "The city has amazing energy and spirit. I have been here one week and have not slept much. Nor do I want to as I don't want to miss any action in the capital of South America, " says Greg Simon, a business executive from Manchester. "The Christmas decorations are the best I have ever seen".
Sao Paulo was a little hamlet of local Indians some 450 years ago, when two Jesuit priests arrived here. They were followed by people looking for gold in the mountains and river valleys nearby. Till the late 19th century, it was a small town. But then it became a hub of coffee trade, and with hundreds of thousands of migrants from Europe and Asia - Italians, Spaniards, Jews, Japanese, Lebanese and Koreans - flocking to it, Sao Paulo became a big city with big boulevards and tall buildings in a matter of decades. By the mid-1950 s, Sao Paulo's population had reached two million, and today it's the largest city in the Southern hemisphere, with more than 19 million people living in the Greater Sao Paulo area.

It's a mega city which runs the engine of Brazil's economy. It's the financial capital of South America. With Brazil and other countries of the region growing at a good rate despite the economic slump elsewhere, Sao Paulo today is a boom town where the rumble of traffic never ceases and the rich and powerful never touch the ground. There are some 500 licensed choppers here which make 2, 000 flights a day across the city. The city may be divided between people living the penthouses and those in modest houses, but they know how to celebrate together in public places which are open to all. On Sunday, as local team Corinthians beat Chelsea 1-0 in the final of the Club World Cup in Japan, the entire city exploded with shouts of joy, fireworks and trumpets. The victory sparked an impromptu festival with thousands of Corinthians fans flooding Avenida Paulista. They sang songs and drank beer till late evening, breaking only to go to other parties. "The year is ending and we want to catch up with all friends and colleagues. I am running from one party to another because I don't want to miss any fun, " says Julia Mendes, 23, who works with a telecom firm. "Corinthians win has given us an extra reason to enjoy more. "

The Sunday hangover is not yet over and people are already swaying to music and beer at Christmas parties. Those who don't have anywhere to go hang around at Avenida Paulista, where a massive bridge with animated Papai Noel and other Natal characters, rests over the eight-lane road. This is where more than two million people are expected to turn up for music concerts on the New Year eve, the party that will finish in the early morning of January 1.
In Sao Paulo, sleeping is not an option.

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