Yet, sitting in a bar, one of an estimated 100,000 across the city, Marcelo and Keylla say that they would not swap living there for the world.

As the city prepares for a spectacular celebration to commemorate 450 years, Marcelo says simply, "Sao Paulo is Brazil."

High streets, shopping centre facades, TV ads, newspaper sections, guides and taxis are all stamped with the celebration's heart-shaped logo.

The festivities are concentrated into the anniversary day itself, 25 January.

Brazil's most popular singer Caetano Veloso will have a show at the crossroads of Ipiranga e Sao Joao, made famous in his song Sampa, Sao Paulo's diminutive nickname.

A huge parade will snake down the city's main arteries, featuring folklore music 'blocos'.

Giant luminous fountains will be switched on in Ibirapuera Park, creating a curtain of water for the projection of multi-media images.

All TV channels are running historical spectaculars and live marathon coverage of the events.

Pride of residents

"Sao Paulo has fear, traffic problems, pollution, violence, but this is Sao Paulo too," says Keylla, a 21-year-old archaeologist, referring to the bar.

Keylla (L) and Marcelo will not
leave Sao Paulo for the world

"The city treats well people who come here and you can talk to anyone, interesting people. Of course, you can buy cheap drugs just 10 yards away, but Sao Paulo is also a place of opportunity," she says.

A quarter of Brazil's 175 million people live in Sao Paulo state, which is the industrial and economic engine of the country.

Millions of people, including President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his family, came here from the poor north-eastern part of the country in search of work in the 1970s.

"My father is Cearense (a state in the northeast) and came here when I was just a kid. The beautiful thing about Sao Paulo is not the nature but the people.

"You see the city wake up, go to work and sleep. On a beach, you don't see this. I love the noise, the buses packed full of people," says Marcelo.

Everything, it seems, can be described in terms of staggering numbers.

Depending on whose figures you believe, Sao Paulo is second (or third, or fourth) only to Tokyo as the biggest city in the world, with a population of 18 million growing from a village to a sprawling mass of high-rises as far as the eye can see in any direction.

That is just the city - the state of Sao Paulo has about 40 million inhabitants, itself four times that of former colonialist power Portugal.

Hidden treasures

Nevertheless, Sao Paulo is one of the least known of the world's great cities.

The megalopolis is in party mode
before its 450th birthday

It is not that it has a bad reputation – it is just that it does not have a reputation at all.

Very few tourists ever visit - and even if they do, it is only as a stopover to get the next flight out. Most guidebooks simply say, ''Nothing to see here, move on.''

The city of Sao Paulo de Piratininga was founded on 25 January 1554. Its sudden rise was built on the coffee boom in the late 19th century that attracted large-scale immigration in the early part of the 20th century.

The richest road in South America, Avenida Paulista, was inaugurated back in 1891 and remains a strong symbol of the city, dividing the centre in two between posh garden suburbs and the poorer downtown.

Favelas, or slums, circle the outskirts known as 'periferias'.

A crushing lack of public spaces or even trees makes the central Ibirapuera Park a vital green lung and a favourite play area.

The Park itself will be at the heart of the festivities as it too has its own birthday – 50 years old.

Election year

With 2004 being a local election year, the polls indicate that governor Gerald Alkman and the defeated candidate in the 2002 presidential elections Jose Serra are running neck-to-neck, with 20 points each.

"I was able to spend a good few months feeling like I'd found the good-time capital of the world with non-stop party invites and a seemingly endless supply of new places to hang out"

Andrew White,
English immigrant

The current mayor of Sao Paulo, Martha Suplicy, is behind as third with 18 points.

As a result, in addition to a celebration of history, the city's anniversary is driven by both politics and commerce.

As if to make the point, at the seventh International Congress of the Shopping Centres of the Americas, Suplicy made a slip of the tongue referring to investment in 'Ibirapuera Shopping Centre' when she meant to refer to Ibirapeura Park.

The commemorations are a coup for the city and none of the principle candidates is prepared to speak out of turn.

Even so, the spotlight on Sao Paulo is likely to fulfil all the cliches about Brazilians and their love of a good party.

"I was able to spend a good few months feeling like I'd found the goodtime capital of the world with non-stop party invites and a seemingly endless supply of new places to hang out, or find myself very lost," says Andrew White, 32, an English music producer and one of Sao Paulo's newest immigrants.

Infrastructure

With the polished sheen of the banking sector's skyscrapers and one of the best metro systems in the world, Sao Paulo can seem very non-South American at first glance.

Sao Paulo's skyline gives it a very
non-South American look

"The difficult part came when I needed to integrate. The confusion and frustration were astounding.

"It was as if the traffic and the crime and the systems had never been there. I think you really conquer it when you can accept that a lot of procedures don't seem to make any sense - but you learn how to follow them - that's when you stop feeling like you're in a European city," he says.

The impossibly unpredictable weather and short but regular downpours add to the odd displacement. No self-respecting Paulista leaves his house without an umbrella tucked away, even under the bluest skies and hottest sun.

Rivalry

There is a legendary competition and trading of insults with Rio de Janeiro.

Residents of Sao Paulo, Paulistas, are derided for their all-consuming work ethic. Residents of Rio are known as Cariocas, for their easygoing lifestyle.

But as the American actress Mae West famously once said, "Rio is a beauty. But Sao PauloSao Paulo is a city."

 

"I know our city has its problems, but if you come here you can do anything.

 

"You can go to the football and hug someone you don't know. You can get into deep philosophical arguments with people you've just met," says Keylla, finishing her drink.

 

However, she adds, "If you don't do something in Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo will eat you."