Get Your Glam On

Trip Start Jan 15, 2006
Trip End Sep 05, 2006

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Flag of Brazil  ,
Tuesday, March 14, 2006

We have just finished two days in Sao Paolo and got a glimpse of upper class life in Brazil. After driving through miles of rough, dirty neighborhoods (I don't believe these were the infamous favelas, they were more likely Brazil's 'middle class') we arrived in an oasis of serenity in the heart of Sao Paolo. Kia was game to try one of the swank new Ian Schrager type hotels, but one look at the prices gave me a heartburn. I told her, "Honey, maybe we better save some money for shopping."

A less experienced husband would likely never dare attempt to distract his wife with the dreaded 'S' word, particularly in a city famed for its high-end boutiques. Pay attention... there was a method to my madness. At the hotel, I suggested we go straight to lunch in our grubby jeep clothes (this will be important later.) After dining, I casually suggested a stroll along the Rodeo Drive of Sao Paolo. Kia was looking forward to seeing what was available.

Fortunately for our budget, I knew that almost all of the boutiques would be closed on Sunday afternoon. This should be the shopping equivalent of firing an unloaded gun. Unfortunately, however, Sao Paolo has recently opened one of the most exclusive (and likely expensive) shopping experiences on the planet. This boutique creates an air of aloofness by using the techniques of a hip Manhattan nightclub, complete with a velvet rope, burly bouncers and clipboards with supposed lists of who is cool and who is not. The storefront is blocked by fancy wood paneling so those on the street are left wondering about the hidden treasures and hip celebrities inside. Kia and I looked at ourselves and agreed that we did not want to face the potential humiliation of rejection in our dorky traveling clothes. We stuck our noses in the air and walked straight past. A shopping victory was mine!

Last night, we went to one of the chic new hotels and had a total LA experience. We rode through a neighborhood of beautiful mansions that would not look out of place in Pacific Heights and ended up at a gleaming edifice of sleek modern architecture. We confidently strode past the musclebound bouncers (this time I wanted to get in) and took the elevator up to the Skye Bar (a complete knockoff of the one at the Mondrian in LA). We tried several types of caipirinhas (watch out, they are stronger than they look) and watched the beautiful people longing on couches by the pool. The rich live well in Brazil.

On a serious note, Brazil seems to be far more insular than the other countries we have visited to date. Despite being almost the only people in the world to speak Portuguese, few learn a foreign language. Despite having beautiful beaches, the tourist infrastructure is barely developed. At the canyon we visited in a national park, none of the attendants spoke either Spanish of English and none of the materials were in any language but Portuguese.

I am not sure if it is linked, but there are also very few internet cafes and hotel access is quite sporadic. We have had much better luck in the remotest towns in Chile than we have had in Sao Paolo or elsewhere in Brazil.

In Brazil, there seems to be limited penetration of foreign consumer goods. From my days in business, I recall that importing products to Brazil is quite tricky. Most companies are forced to set up local factories in Brazil. Once these are successful, it is very difficult to take any profits out of the country.

I think this attitude may be a mistake. Brazilians seem to believe they are in the same economic boat as China and India, two countries with booming economies that are notorious for playing a little 'hard to get.' Unfortunately, Brazil has a less attractive potential market (15% of the population size of China) and does not have that much that the world wants to buy. India has a large population of English speakers with excellent technical skills and China has an efficient manufacturing infrastructure with very low cost labor.

Economic growth slipped from about 5% in 2004 to about 2% last year. I think these guys are going to have some trouble. The contrast between rich and poor will also cause a significant headwind. Argentina doesn't have beggars selling Chiclets in the street, nor does it have the rampant crime that occurs in Brazil.

In Curitiba, our hotel warned us not to walk 6 blocks to dinner at 8PM on Saturday evening. There are guards and cops posted everywhere. Theoretically, we were in a bettter part of town. On the highway we saw a couple of trucks that had armed escorts. This must be an enormous economic drag.

(The rich/poor problem is Brazil does not, in my mind, translate to a similar analysis of the US. In the US virtually everyone has access to food, shelter and a job. Almost everyone who is 'living off the grid' has chosen to do so. Crime continues to be relatively low.)

I am writing this from our hotel room in Rio. We made the drive safely. Kia has turned into a very good navigator, an accomplishment that has pleasantly surprised her. The city and beaches are beautiful. I will write about Rio in a day or two after we learn more. Off to the beach.
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