Tom had the day off yesterday, Labor Day in Sao Paulo, so we hit the road and headed for Embu das Artes, an artisan town about 30 km from the city. I’d Googled the route, but thank God we had TomTom on my iPhone!

I believe that Sao Paulo suffers from the same affliction as Derek Zoolander: it’s not an ambi-turner! Paulistanos can turn to the right only.

It’s almost impossible to make left turns, which makes sense, given the sheer volume of traffic on the roads here. We’ve finally deciphered what Retourno means: it’s the route you take to make a left turn…typically three right turns.

Say you’re going south on Rua Roque Patrone Jr. (pronounced Hua Hokey Patronie, which is very confusing when you first hear it), and you want to turn into the giant Murumbi Mall, a monolith rising on your left. Well, you can’t get to it going south on Hokie. You have to take the Retourno and go to your right for two blocks, then come back and cross Roque Patrone Jr. from your right. If you miss the Retourno, you’re out of luck. You’ll never, ever find your way back!

And God forbid you ever miss a turn! Getting back to where you missed is a nightmare. Tom and I went to his boss’s house for dinner on Friday night. We had directions, but I hadn’t taken my phone, so we had no TomTom. We knew what roads to turn on, but the road names are so long here that they don’t fit on signs, if there are signs, and if those signs haven’t been hit so that they point in the wrong direction. And you’d better know ALL the names of the road in your little area, such as Rue Vicente Prado, which is also R. Cda. de Sao Joaqim, which is also Rue Facundes, etc. You never know what part of the name they’ll put on the street sign. Rua Giovanni Gotchini is shown merely as Giovanni on some of the signs.

So, we’re trying to get to the house, which is a mere 5 miles from our place, across the river, and we take one left turn too early. Tried to get back to the main road, but found ourselves climbing in a heavily wooded area. Cut bait and reversed direction, where we had to wait forever to turn left to get back on the main road, where we again turned too early (by the time you see the signs, you’ve had to make a decision; there is no time for thought, just action).

This time, we found ourselves in a favela, stopped on a steep hill with about twenty other cars, going nowhere. With our embassy license plates. Not where we belonged, that’s for sure! Took a right, just to get out of there, and eventually found our way to his boss’s house, half an hour later. I was exhausted, and the evening had just begun!

I have the luxury of trying to watch for landmarks as Tom drives (he can’t take his eyes off the road for a second, due to narrow lanes, him driving a Dodge Caravan…beggars can’t be choosers…, and impatient drivers who will pass on the left or right if you hesitate for a second). Problem is, there aren’t many landmarks, since most of the building signs are down low. Years ago, the folks of Sao Paulo decided to outlaw all billboards. While this surely cleaned up the view, it made it difficult to find landmarks, I think.

Lost coming home the other night, I saw a Hyatt sign and knew I’d seen one somewhere near our place. Flying solely by instinct, I directed Tom in several right turns and eventually we found roads we knew. It’s a bit terrifying, but now I know that if we keep the river behind us and the beautiful bridge to our left, we’ll find out way home, that is, if we can decipher what side of the river we are on in the first place!

Oddly, though Tom and I are both generally very good with compass directions, we’re stymied here. I seriously think it has to do with the lighting, and shadows falling on the “wrong side.” Here, as we enter winter, the sun is more northerly, versus more to the south, as we’re used to. And shadows fall differently, as a consequence. I haven’t sat down and thought all of this through, but I know for a fact that my innate compass is running riot.

So, all in all, my purchase of the iPhone (as suggested by those in the know down here) was an excellent decision. GPS in my palm, and help available at the touch of the keypad. I’ve entered our home position in the TomTom. Our very patient, and readily adaptable, female guide can always get us back.