The Week of Extremes

This week has truly been a week of extremes for me. I spent 3 days in the  northern state of Pará, visiting some mines, followed by a shopping spree weekend in the Brazilian New York City, aka, São Paulo.

Pará reminded me of the image of conquering the western frontier, so often portrayed in the American literature and movies. We spent hours driving through broken highways and dirt roads, passing endless plains, green hilltops, horse pastures, small farms, huge forests, seeing very little presence of humans in the region. This state is seeing a lot of economic growth in the past year due to investments in the mining industry, and people from all over Brazil, especially from even poorer areas are flocking here in search of job opportunities. The small cities that exist around future mining operations are growing at a high pace (20%+ population growth rate per annum) and the government is busy talking about economic growth rather than actually taking actions to support it. Many of these emerging urban nuclei resemble shanti towns, with no sewage system, no waste treatment facilities, and overall low levels of support for public services such as education, health or safety.

Oftentimes, the big companies in the area have to assume the role of the government, developing urban plans, paving roads, providing electricity, building schools and creating various training programs. Unlike in some developed countries, they are not driven by PR concerns but rather are acting on immediate operational needs and long term planning. They have to ensure a certain quality of life for their employees, they need to be able to build a local labor pool, and as it is always the case with extractive industries, they have to build trust relationships with the local community and governments.

Setting aside the current dire state of the towns I visited, I could see the infinite amount of opportunities for brave future entrepreneurs. These places are short of everything: hotels, supermarkets, shops, restaurants, bars, technical training institutes, beauty salons, security solutions, transport, internet cafes, gas stations (we actually tried to fuel the car one day and were told gasoline has run out for the day). They will also continue to grow at the same rate for the foreseeable future. I am sure that next time I visit, the towns will be completely transformed. I hope that for the better…

From one extreme to another, I passed a weekend in Sampa, catching up on all the things I have been missing from my lovely NYC. I bought some amazing designer clothes (second hand but perfect state!!), spending a ridiculous amount of $$, which is uncharacteristic of me. I met some MBA friends and had a brunch at the chic Hyatt restaurant (overpriced, but totally worth the western experience). I also checked out the nightlife and found the paulista girls super stylish and paulista guys much more elegant than their carioca counterparts.

I understand how a state that is 3 hours of flight away can be so different but what is truly amazing is how the 500km between SP and Rio can create such a huge cultural distance.

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