I’m no geographer or cosmologist, but I’m certain that the light in the Southern hemisphere is different to the light in the Northeast of England. It has a flat, sharp quality; a deep intensity that seems to me to illuminate with particularly unflinching exposure. It feels concrete and palpable, something to touch, resist and be absorbed by. Between 4.30 and 6 pm the light is positively animate; nostalgic, accusing, revealing, caressing…. In that light I can hear the great tall buildings of Sao Paulo strike against the sky like a choir of metal bells; the drapes of shadow on the low houses murmur lost pasts; the bustling, jostling, strolling crowds in the streets seem to whirl and flock and call and cry like wild birds before night roosting. The morning light starts dull, teasing me gently awake around 6 am, and as I assemble myself after the dissolve of sleep, so does the light, growing in character and confidence until by 7:15 or so it is determinedly washing the city clean for the day.
Many mornings I leave the house around that time to take the metro to Luz, the station nearest to EMESP, where Guri Santa Marcelina is based. The journey takes around 25 minutes, and as I emerge into Luz at the Rua Maua exit in the lemon grey morning the streets are still relatively quiet. Every few yards or so someone is asleep on the pavement, often under an ripped grey blanket; sometimes just on the ground, limbs akimbo in the defenceless grace of sleep. Some people are sitting up, many shaking in anticipation of the day’s first fix, some just staring quietly. Snack bars, newspaper stands and cheap clothes shops are just opening and there’s a powerful cocktail of smells – cheese, piss, sweat, tobacco smoke, coffee, excrement, garlic…..
Sala Sao Paulo, the premier concert hall of the city and home to OSESP (SP State Symphony Orchestra) is five minutes’ walk from Luz. Its grand 19th century doorways make shelter for night sleepers, and its elegant façade looks out over a square that is a focal point for the hundreds of crack addicts, trash pickers and other homeless citizens who live here in what is also called Cracolandia. People sit on the street in a dazed lethargy, then spring up and with jittery manic gestures move swiftly to new spots. All are thin, and many look injured or are lacking a limb. Crack and dope dealing take place quietly, visibly and efficiently. Many people wheel carts or shopping trolleys filled with scrap and garbage which can be sorted and traded, or carrying limbless people. An anxious young woman crosses the road and drops a shiny 10 inch kitchen knife from her sleeve. An old man washes his hands in water from a bottle before eating rice from a paper plate on the pavement beside his piles of trash.
Each time I walk through Luz I experience it as a bright mirror held up to my own soul, reflecting back to me the fear, embarrassment, shame, and denial that rise up as I walk past these sisters and brothers. This is not something about Sao Paulo – this is something about being human, and how we choose to distance ourselves from the suffering of others in order to protect our own illusion of well-being. However, there are people here pushing through that veil of denial. I had the profound privilege to walk around Cracolandia with the coordinator of De Braços Abertos (Open Arms), a programme that reaches out to offer support, friendship, health care, training, employment and housing to the estimated 1,000 or so addicts and homeless people here. Evilásio de Jesus is a small man, with bright eyes and a quiet, focused manner; glowing with love, strength, and an absolutely steely determination. As we walk past the makeshift shelters and the huddled groups, people jump up to embrace him, gripping his arm and gesticulating, words tumbling out to be translated, telling me all the ways that he and the project are bringing light into their lives – help with doctors, a hostel bed, a job – but what shines stronger than all of these material things is the radiance of respect.
The project has a simple premise – people need to work to earn money to live. The work at this stage is mostly street cleaning, but they are now providing training in a number of practical trades. There is also a safe street level space where anyone can come for a rest, to play music, have a soft drink, see a doctor; and a restaurant where project members cook and serve food to others. No one is required to be drugs clean to participate in the programme – if you can turn up to work you get paid. If you are too stoned to turn up to work, you don’t get paid. Not everyone in SP agrees with the premise of the programme; but to me it seems utterly brilliant – touching, loving and respecting the inner light of in each person, and inviting each soul into a warm embrace. There are nearly 400 people now participating, with clear positive impacts.
Walking back to Luz station in the evening the energy is different. People sit in chairs on the pavement and drink beer, workers stand in the cafes eating pastels and drinking coffee, women lean on doorways to the narrow stairs leading up to rent-by-hour hotel rooms; there is laughter and shouting and many different kinds of music coming from the open fronts of bars, shops and cafes, children and parents hurry to bus stops. We crowd at the edges of the pavement, watching men dart out on the crossings to clean car windows, sell water or sweets, juggle or breakdance, or just walk down the lines of traffic holding up cardboard signs saying JANTAR? (dinner?). We wait for the red to change to green and surge towards the station, pouring down the escalator into the tunnels, turning away once more from the sharp, revealing, demanding light of Luz.