Saudades de Sao Paulo

Tuesday the 22 Nov was my last night in Sao Paulo. I’d had intentions to go run with Quark on Monday or Tuesday for the last time and say goodbye to the coaches who may not have been eloquent in explaining things to me in English but understood very well the language of running. To me, the three months I trained with them was worth more than my half marathon training for 16 weeks earlier this year, where I ran many miles but gained nothing on speed. Right now I am completely sold on the run less, run more strategy.

Tuesday was a hugely stressful day as the US consulate decided to mail back my passport after visa renewal at the last minute possible. I tried running but I was too pre0ccupied with the passport to zone out of the initial discomfort when you begin running. So once I got my passport back on Tuesday at 3pm, I went back to the hotel. As I walked in to my room, I let the nostalgia engulf me. I walked around my room, flicked on the Telecine channel and began finishing packing. After that, I decided to go run one last time around my beloved neighborhoods of Vila Olimpia and Itaim.

I started off by turning right on the corner of Rua Alvorada (where our hotel was, a street packed with enormous number of memories) onto R. Cardoso Melo and ran east. As I ran, every street corner, every block was crammed with some memory of life in SP. I thought back to my first run on my first weekend. I’d mapped out a route on the map but was afraid to run with the map in hand lest I get mugged (haha, seems so naive now). So I’d written the directions but without any idea of distance I of course got completely lost. I was amazed at how I knew that very same route by heart now. The streets that seemed so alien and crossed each other in weird ways that was only possible in SP now felt like home.

I turned left on Baluarte (the street that I had been looking for and never found on that first run) and ran up to Pellegrino. Countless taxi rides were taken to Parque Ibirapuera on Monday and Wed nights, after work to go run with Quarke. The taxis would often take that route, which was packed on weekday evenings and I ruminated on the uselessness of being stuck in traffic for 20 minutes to go run inside a park. This was back in the day that people warned me that the area around the park was dangerous and I should only cross it in a taxi. Since then I’ve run to and walked to the park at least 4-5 times and it’s been perfectly safe because actually, the area around the park is where all the millionaires live.

From Baluarte I turned left on Pellegrino instead of the right towards the park. I ran on the tree-covered median walkway until Pellegrino became Faria Lima. On Faria Lima, I thought about the first walk to the Extra grocery store with Amanda on a lazy Sunday. We walked about 30 minutes from the hotel to the Extra, always cautious about not trying to seem like we’re foreigners, sneaking glances at a small map. At Extra I bought too many things to eat in my room (needless to say, I tried it a few times but it reminded me too much of my first year in grad dorm, trying to heat up instant noodles in the microwave. I decided I was not going to be that pathetic and went out to eat every time). Amanda and I took a cab back and hailing a cab on the street that day was in my opinion, a huge risk we took. The cab was unmarked and I was so nervous until we reached back to the hotel.

From Faria Lima, I turned left onto Juscelino Kubitschek. Ah, JK! The busy thoroughfare, always packed during busy hours (read 6 am until 11 pm) is the street where the EY building is located. Thought about my first cab ride on the day I landed to the office. The cab driver didn’t know where it was and I was worried he was taking me for a ride. Anyway, it took 20 minutes to find the building but the cab ride was about R$16 (or roughly $11-12) which is still cheap for a cab ride for 20 minutes. And then the sequence of events that followed ran through my head like a movie in fast forward – going to the office, meeting my team, meeting Marina who became one of my greatest friends in Brazil, meeting my expat group for dinner that night and wondering how they knew so much about Brazil and whether I would ever catch up with all that information on what to do where, how to pay, how to ask for food, how to talk to a cab driver etc. etc., all the memories with all of the friends I had made in SP, the weekends by the pool, the nights out in clubs and bars, the lunches at work, the dinners in the neighborhood, the shopping trips with the girls – everything clear like it happened yesterday!

I thought about how  my portuguese was pretty much at zero and today as I vacation my last few days in Brazil in Rio with my husband, I find that I can help us navigate pretty well through the maze of restaurant menus and cab rides. I’m still lost at words more than the 100 in my vocabulary but it’s way better than not knowing anything.

I finally turned on JK onto Funchal and was on my daily walk home from work. This street was FULL of memories of the countless walks I took with my friends either to or from work or to the numerous bars and restaurants. Passed by the mall where I got my cell phone plan with vivo, Hooters (where we used to go to watch American sports and eat awful American food, the worst chicken wings I have ever eaten), Seo Gomez boteco where we sometimes met to watch the Corinthians play or just drink choppe (where Christine and Rob argued endlessly about the stupid flip cam while Big Rob and I watched), turned right on Lourcenco and ran up Cardoso Melo again – passed Shoestock where I went shopping with Christine a few times and we had some great conversations in between shoes and belts.

And finally, turned the corner onto Alvorada again. I was hot and sweaty now and it was going to begin raining. I walked into the hotel and it began pouring immediately almost on cue. I wish I’d been out running in the rain because it would be the city’s beijao to me. I went up to my room, stood on the balcony for what felt like hours and let the rain soak me. I watched the SP skyline turn color from pink to grey in the twilight rain and I knew I would miss this city very, very deeply.

Running São Paulo

In between the non-stop eating and drinking that I did in Brazil, if it wasn’t for my running I’d be going back to the US looking like a toad. Instead I think I did just fine – great balance of taking in all that Brazil had to offer – the beaches, the food and the caipirinhas with my running (and super easy workload). Sometimes the running and the partying clashed and usually the running suffered i.e. I still ran but they were helluva painful runs.

All of that running culminated in some serious PR this past weekend when I ran the Fila night run. Training these three months with Quarke completely paid off. Their training program really worked. The training always involved short, intense workouts over the week followed by a longish run over the weekend but I never ran more than 10K. This felt so much better than when I was training for the half marathon, constantly being plagued by aches and pains. I figured at the pace I run, running those many miles does some serious damage to my body.

I had a few friends come to cheer me but I really missed Bharath. He’s been absent for one triathlon I did because he partied too much the night before, but he’s always been there at the finish lines for most of my races. The race was a bit chaotic but this is Brazil. The start line was packed and there was no sorting by pace times. So, it didn’t matter if you were slow or fast, if you weren’t at the start early enough you were going to lose time getting past a ton of people and I did. I started slowly and set the timer going on my watch hoping to be able to check pace. The kilometers were not really marked. The race course was nothing to write home about – winding through the streets of the city in a not-so-pretty neighborhood. I did miss running in Austin and thought about Travis Heights. At some point I picked up pace. The course actually went up the flyover/highway two or three times over 10K and sometimes it was the slowest place to pass because of the walkers. Not to mention the trucks that blew fumes into your face when you were trying to breathe. Some parts of the course were really dark and it was hard to run fast because of the streets were a bit uneven. And I was always trying to dodge slower runners who somehow always decided to run in a line across the breadth of the street.

My saving grace was my buddy Lindsay’s music collection called “It’s gonna be a long night” with the best pop music. Helped to tune out all of the annoyances from the race course above and I was able to pace decently. However, I turned on the first 5k and I was at 35 minutes and I realized I wasn’t going to make my 1 hour time. So I picked up pace big time. I ran harder and at several points I thought I should walk to the water stops. But I knew at the pace I was running, I wouldn’t have been able to pick it up again if I stopped. So I decided, let’s see how much we can push. And push I did. I thought about everything that could possibly make me run. I said, this race is for the gratitude of having spent 3 months in such an awesome country, gratitude for the friends I had made and the experiences I had had. I thought of all of the people who I’d met over the 3 months who had come to matter to me deeply and I ran. For the third time, I ran over the damn flyover, nearly dying because I was breathing too hard. Took the time to recover on the downhill which was the 9k mark. Turned the corner and picked up pace again but I was not fully recovered at all. At the 400m mark, I thought I would pass out. I said to myself, give me something to run to the finish to. And then, Katy Perry’s Supernatural came on. Oh my god, I found new-found strength in my legs. When I saw 200m, I began my usual sprint dash to the finish line. As I crossed it, my heart nearly exploded but I crossed at under ~0:59:35. I couldn’t believe it. I’d actually made it way before I’d expected to AND beaten Bharath’s time of 1:02 (which meant I was getting the iPhone 4s when I get back).

I couldn’t have asked for a better race experience to sum up my 3 months here. I feel grateful towards a lot of forces that played in my life to get me here. I learned a lot about myself and my ability to adapt to change and different circumstances. I learned that I’m not always good at it but I can try and I can manage. And I managed with a whole lot of help, so this race performance is dedicated to all of the people I met and loved in Brazil – my whole SSTEP gang – Jess, Christine, Robertinho, Amanda, Rob, Chris, Natasha, JS & David; Everton, Lindsay, Marina, Marcelo, Rodrigo, Igor, Ryan, Arjun, Adri, Nathalia, folks that I met later but not the least – Neenu, David & Jonathan, my coaches João and Rodrigo, my HUSBAND who I missed immensely through these months (even though he won’t believe it). And finally thanks to Katy Perry for getting me through the finish line, stronger than ever.


Brazil is a country of paradoxes. It feels like it’s in the middle of this momentous change, where lifestyles here are stangely often Westernized (read Americanized) and yet very Latin at the same time. My observations in this post are of course limited to the Brazilians I have met through work so let it be known it’s not representative.

Brazilians drink to good health – the word is Saudé! every time you raise your glass of Choppe or Caipirinha. Saudé translates as health, and when you think about it, really there is nothing else you’d rather drink to. Because, health is everything. Yet the hard working Paulistanas can’t seem to manage to find time to really focus on health.

For one, if you thought the women down here all look like Gisele Bundchen, you’re in for a rude shock. They look, very, well, normal. (The great bods are in Rio).

Let’s start with the meals. Brazilian meal times are the opposite of American. Well, on weekdays breakfast is equally sidelined. For Brazilians, the most important meal time is lunch. And this is true on working days,even on days when you’re breathing down a fire hose, when you know you’re not going to go home until midnight. In the US, if you were that busy, you plan to bring/order lunch, eat at your desk and bang away on the keyboard so you can get out a decent hour and go home, to your loved ones or your couch. But here that’s not an option. You have to go to lunch with your team, and you have to spend two hours eating – one Brazilian even told me, it doesn’t matter how long it takes to eat lunch, the amount of work I have to do is constant and large – so I might as well enjoy lunch!

Eat what you may ask? A full meal, with disproportionate representation of meat, fat and carbs (oh, they love their cheese here) and very litte vegetables. Lunch is not a sandwich or a salad as most people in the States would opt for, so that they don’t fall asleep at their desks. No, Brazilians will pull out the stops at lunch – it’s a large piece of grilled meat (or several, if you go to those all-you-can-eat places), rice, beans, small salad, a drink, dessert and coffee. Of course coffee, because without that coffee you’d be sleep-walking back to your desk. And several more cups of coffee through the day to keep you awake after the soporific, humongous meal! Come to think of it, Brazil is the only place you’ll get absolutely stuffed on sushi thanks to rodizió.

And then you walk back after a lunch at a very slow pace because you’re half asleep or you really dont want to get back to work. Or sometimes you take a taxi, lest it be more than a 10-12 minute walk. And sit at your desk for the next 6-8 hours. Some of the people at work do make an effort to go to the gym or play soccer, but many of the junior people work until 8 – 9 pm (have to make up for the time lost at lunch and innumerable coffee breaks) or go to university for various numerous professional degrees they keep studying for. In the States, woe upon you should you schedule calls after 6pm. In Brazil, it’s totally normal for folks to go to client meetings and return to the office at 7pm to continue working. So, no time to work out on a weekday for sure.

And then comes the fact that São Paulo is not really a walk-friendly city. You can walk, at the cost of your shoes. No shoes (especially those purchased here) can make it beyond 3 months if you choose to walk. I spent R$291 on 2 pairs of shoes and they’re both broken.

However, the city does put in an effort for its citizens’ saudé and plenty of people will be seen using these. SP’s central areas have a bike lane which is dedicated ONLY on Sundays. So on Sunday mornings scores of recreational and more than recreational bikers take to the streets, often with kids in tow and use the dedicated bike lanes for about 5 hours of the morning. The city is also dotted with several parks, the largest one of them being Park Ibirapuera with a 3k paved loop around well-landscaped trees and little ponds and lakes. The park also has a dedicated bike lane. On weekends, especially on a sunny day, its absolutely packed with runners or families enjoying the outdoors. However the “beautiful” people can mostly be spotted in the mornings on weekdays – it’s almost a causal relationship – they’re good looking because they run in the morning but because they run in the mornings they’re beautiful. Eitherway, it’s GREAT eye candy. Definitely incentive to wake up early for a good run before work. The city also has other parks and this is not only great but necessary because, not everyone can afford the uber-expensive gyms in town (north of R$300 per month) and not everyone should hazard running on the streets because the auto traffic barely obeys auto rules, so forget about pedestrian safety.

And not everyone can run on the boardwalk along the Atlantic Ocean in Rio.

Rio is a city that couldn’t be more different from SP. For one, its GORGEOUS! SP has its own charms but for all purposes it’s a concrete jungle. No its the definition of the concrete jungle. Rio on the other hand has beautiful beaches and when there are beaches to be enjoyed in great weather, you need to have beach appropriate bodies. If you’re Brazilian you won’t be caught dead in gringo bottoms, the Brazilian bikini bottoms or the male “Sunga” (= speedos) covers not much more than a thong . So naturally, there’s some pressure to keep fit because you’re as often likely to be seen in beach wear as in office wear. I had a chance to run in Rio when I visited and it will forever be one of the most gorgeous runs I’ve had. I ran from Botofogo till Pão de Acucar’s lift and then ran up the hill next to Sugarloaf along the rocky Atlantic coast.  Absolutely breathtaking. Needless to say it was not a timed run because I often stopped to admire the view.

So, overall – like in most developing countries, good health and fitness has income-elastic demand in Brazil. It’s expensive – in terms of time and in terms of money. The labor laws mandate that companies provide additional compensation to employees for lunch (so everyone has a lunch card and a groceries card with a stipulated amount per month) so no incentive remains to skimp on lunch. In the US, we pay for our own meals but gym memberships etc. are not as expensive as here, relative to income levels. Add to that longer working hours and commute times. So it’s difficult for the average Paulistana to look like Gisele Bundchen. But if you want to party, come to São Paulo.  They work hard and definitely party harder. Naturally, a lot of opportunities to raise your glass to Saudé here!