São Paulo may not be an obvious tourist destination if one goes to Brazil. The reviews I saw before I arrived were not stellar. I was there for work, with very little time to explore and absolutely no exposure to the rest of the country–still, when I get a chance to return to Brazil, I will make time for São Paulo.
I had only one morning that was truly mine in the city, on a Friday. It was easy to decide what to do: I wanted to get a glimpse of São Paulo waking up and preparing for just another weekday. One possibility stood out immediately.
I got up early to attend the daybreak Gregorian chants by the monks of São Bento, a 17th-century Benedictine monastery and church near the city’s financial district. My taxi dropped me off several blocks away, and I walked, inhaling the morning: empty streets being swept with palm-tree leaves; closed store windows and dark chapels, asleep; people having breakfasts on their balconies and by open windows; and an army of motorbikes, still lined up from the evening before.
Eventually, I noticed a thin but recognizable stream of people heading to São Bento: locals, dressed for work, stopping by to set their mood for the day.
I felt a bit like an intruder, but only at first. The experience was surprising. I thought I would find it interesting, calming, but this was more than that–it was moving: unpolished in places, unguarded, and beautiful, not because of any theatrics but because this was obviously the cherished part of the day for almost everyone present. I saw only one tourist couple, asked not to photograph–this was not a spectacle. As the chants wounded down, people got up, quietly, silently, picked up their bags and briefcases, and headed off to face the world. Outside, the early-morning lull was already giving way to the busy rush hour.