As night falls over Sao Paulo, my Brazilian companion laments her government's recent decision to abolish daylight savings time.
Because the clock no longer goes forwards or backwards in Brazil, darkness falls on this December evening around seven and she feels robbed of a southern hemisphere summer evening hour. What strikes me however, is that as the lights go on around the city, its extraordinary vastness becomes even more apparent.
We're standing looking over South America's biggest city from the Bar Obelisco on the rooftop of the Museu de Arte Contemporanea da Universidade. Situated in the city's famous Ibirapuera Park, we're somewhere in the middle - and no matter what direction we look, the city does not end. There are mountains in the distance but for miles and miles around there are just buildings.
The population of Sao Paulo and its environs is estimated to be up to 25 million people - and that's "estimated" because many of the residents of the favelas, the poorer areas, are undocumented.
When you say you're going to Brazil one of the first things most people comment on is the safety aspect. My new friend, Yara, was born here and knows Sao Paulo's reputation for being dangerous. However, she says she has found it to be just as safe as any of the European cities in which she has lived.
"There is more crime in the favelas, that's true, there is poverty and all of the problems that come with that in any city, but the crime statistics for the favelas skew the overall picture of the city. I often walk home at 2am and I have never had a problem." She agrees you have to be careful, but adds that the only time her bag ever got stolen was in Barcelona.
The one thing no one disputes however, is the traffic. I will never complain about congestion in Dublin again. The trip in from the airport takes the guts of two hours on a Saturday morning but that is nothing apparently. Seventy per cent of the population lives in the west of the city and according to our guide, those who work downtown average a commute of three hours each way on a bus, metro, tram combo. It does mean that getting anywhere can take time and it is important to factor that in.
It is simplest to pick an area at a time and explore within a traffic- defying radius and I can say that walking around the centre proved to be as safe as anywhere I have been. One thing that struck me again and again was the number of Brazilians I came into contact with who had lived in Ireland. As a generic foreigner, the people treated me politely but anyone who discovered I was Irish was full of chat and help. I got Joyce quoted to me and allowed into an exhibition despite having forgotten my passport (you must carry your passport on you at all times.)
It is a city of contrasts with the favelas on one side and great wealth on the other. The Ferrari store in the wealthy Jardins district of the city sells more Ferraris than in Italy and there is lots of high-end shopping. It's the centre of business for Brazil, home to its stock exchange and all of that business and finance happens around the 3km-long Paulista Avenue which also bisects part of the Jardins district. It is interesting to see but the shopping and business districts of any city are rarely their most interesting parts.
My taxi driver from the airport had an amazingly English name. This was thanks to his English grandparents who immigrated in the 1950s. Brazilian culture is the ultimate melting pot and this is what makes it such a fascinating country. There was a population of millions among an estimated 2,000 native tribes in Brazil before the Portuguese arrived around 1500. With the Europeans came disease and war that decimated the local population, some tribes became extinct while many others assimilated with the Europeans.
By the end of the 20th Century there were an estimated 200 tribes left, with a population of about 300,000. In the last census, 817,000 Brazilians classified themselves as indigenous. However, there are still thought to be 67 uncontacted tribes in Brazil, albeit not in Sao Paulo where the mix of cultures is evident everywhere you look and nowhere more than in the food.
As home to the largest Japanese community outside of Japan the sushi in Sao Paulo is really good, but the native foods are delicious. The fresh fruit is nothing short of mind blowing, each day starts with a gorgeous selection of beautiful, tasty in-season freshness of papaya, acai, guarana, the grape-like Jabuticaba, passion-fruit which they call Maracuja, it is just wonderful. The cuisine too is delicious if quite heavy. There are lots of high-end eating experiences to be had but again high-end is rarely the most interesting end. Tuesday and Saturday are feijoada days, according to my Englishly-named taxi driver, and the stew of black beans, beef and pork is hugely popular through the region. Sao Paolo has a rich (and very safe) street food tradition and the pastel, the deep-fried savoury puff pastry filled with cheese or pepperoni is ubiquitous. So too are the acaraje, made from black beans and fried, then opened and filled with meat or fish. And absolutely everywhere you find the pao de queijo, the baked cheese breads that are popular for breakfast. It doesn't sound very Brazilian but the mortadella sandwich is another Sao Paulo favourite, and these are so enormous they are like a family meal but the winner has to be the coxinha, fried breaded pastry filled with chicken.
It is really not diet food and they do use a lot of palm oil. Palm oil has a bad reputation because so much of it is grown in Indonesia and Malaysia at the expense of rain forests. There is a move in Brazil to cultivate the oil palms ecologically, using existing farmland. Cattle ranching is the biggest driver of deforestation in the Amazon but it is relatively low yield so the theory is that replacing it with palm oil would protect the Amazon and increase revenue.
Local street artists are given free rein in Beco de Batman, a warren of lanes full of local artists' work. More formal art is celebrated in Sao Paulo's museums where collections of both European and South American art can be found. They close on Mondays however; Mondays I am told are for shopping and eating.
It is also home to work by one of Brazil's most famous sons, architect Oscar Niemeyer, six of whose fine exemplars of modernist architecture live in the city. The first you pass on the way in, the Anhembi Sambadrome where Carnaval and other major outdoor events are held. The most famous of Niemeyer's works in the city is the Copan Building because its wave shape reflects his love of curves instead of angles.
He also designed the OCA, an exhibition hall built in 1951 to commemorate the city's 400th anniversary. The dome-shaped building was called after the traditional indigenous home, Oca and is one of several buildings inside the wonderful Ibirapuera Park which was also designated for the city's anniversary. Open from 5am to midnight every day it's meant to be the most visited park in South America and is a vibrant place but still offers space and tranquillity. Birds and plants common to Brazil seem exotic to us and it makes a stroll in the park seem more like an excursion. That can be amplified by a visit to the botanic gardens where the exotic feels barely contained.
The Sapucai River runs all through the city. A tributary of the Rio Grande, it too feels exotic. However, the gigantic population means water that could be swum in just decades ago is now highly toxic. One animal that seems to thrive on it is the Capybara who look like giant guinea pigs walking along the river bank.
Sao Paulo is an extraordinary place. It is not a two-week holiday destination but it is absolutely worth a visit on a bigger trip.
Mercad o Municipal
The Mercado Municipal on the Rua Cantareira in the old centre of the city is the best place to get an overview of food and drink in Sao Paulo. Try the coxinha, fried breaded pastry filled with chicken.
Beco de Batman
Beco de Batman, or Batman's Alley in the Vila Madalena area has been for 40 years the place for street artists to show their work. The walls are repainted over months to allow space for different artists.
* TAP Air Portugal fly from Dublin to five destinations in Brazil, including Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, via Lisbon.
* The Dublin to Brazil flights include a full on-board service of Portuguese food and wines, plus 23kg of check-in baggage.
* TAP also offer the option of a stopover in Lisbon of up to five days at no extra cost, so you can explore the Portuguese capital before continuing on your Brazilian adventure.
* Brazil itself has more than 4,000 airports should you wish to explore further.
* Prices start at €753 return from Dublin via Lisbon. TAP are also offering a full ticket refund, by issuing a one-year validity voucher that can be used on any other travel to any destination. For more details, see www.flytap.com
NB: This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.
Sunday Indo Living