Feb. 15, 2016
I was supposed to fly out to Brazil for work on Saturday, Jan. 23, but forecasters were calling for 2-3 feet of snow from Friday to Saturday—an event that became known as Snowzilla. Knowing what happens to the Washington, DC region with a few inches of snow, let alone two feet, I knew the airport would be closed by the time my flight was scheduled to take off (it was). I needed to be at work at U.S. Embassy Brasilia Monday morning. So I changed my ticket, flew out Thursday evening, and (poor me) was forced to spend the weekend exploring an unusual city in a warm climate.
Brazil’s capital was moved from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia in 1960, in an effort to open up the interior of the country. It was designed in the shape of an airplane, with the fusilage being a 12-lane highway along which the government ministries were built, the pilot’s cabin the Plaza of the Three Powers—a convergence of the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches—and people living in Eastern European style apartment buildings along the “wings.”
Architect Oscar Niemeyer designed fantastic public buildings that were futuristic in 1960, and now resemble an old James Bond movie set. The buildings truly are amazing (see the Brazil slideshow by clicking on "Slideshows" at top, then "Brazil"), and the use of stained glass in some of the modern churches is exquisite. But Brasilia has all the warmth and charm of an outpost in Antarctica because cars reign supreme, there are few sidewalks and no shops and restaurants connecting the buildings, just roads and parking lots. It is an anti-Paris.
Brasilia was planned out in sectors. I stayed in the hotel sector, from which I took a taxi to the embassy sector, from which one could not walk to any restaurants. The tourist sites along the “fuselage” were nowhere near shops where tourists could buy souvenirs or treats. Although Brasilia is well worth visiting for the sheer uniqueness of it, its workers fly out on weekends to Rio, Sao Paulo, and other cities better designed for human beings.
After four days at the Embassy, I traveled to Sao Paulo to visit the U.S.’s largest consulate (there are three, with two more opening in the next few years to satisfy the desire of Brazil’s expanding middle class for U.S. visas to visit Disney World). Brazil’s business capital, Sao Paulo is a thriving metropolis of 22 million people, with an excellent subway system.
Although I was there ahead of Carnival, neighborhoods were hosting “blocos” or block parties to help get folks in the mood. As I moved around the city, I kept running into them. Here are the key elements of a bloco: a two-story truck with a platform on top from which a live band played, beer and water vendors (it topped 90 degrees during the day), and Brazilians in T-shirts and shorts or wearing silly costumes, dancing, drinking, and enjoying themselves. I also saw the following variations: health enthusiasts on a platform leading group exercise/dance routines; and a group casually protesting a raise in taxes, with saxophonists and yellow balloons.
I enjoyed the parks, food, and ambience of Sao Paulo. The city has the largest population of Japanese people outside of Japan, and I loved visiting Libertad (“Japantown”) as well as the Japanese Pavilion in Ibirapuera Park, where I stumbled across a concert of koto, shamisen and flute musicians. The museum in this park celebrating Afro-Brazilian traditions is excellent. But my favorite museum was the Museum of Sao Paulo, with its treasure trove of paintings by the world’s great impressionists. The paintings are not displayed on walls. They are hung from the ceiling, in rows, and people can walk all the way around each one. In fact, you are encouraged to because the painting’s title and name of its artist are placed on its back. Thus, art viewing is a more active experience.
The zika virus had made headlines by the time I got to Brazil, but I saw nary a single mosquito. The babies tragically born with microcephaly are concentrated up in the northeast of the country. The spector of zika, though, may wreak havoc on the Olympics in Rio this August. With so much unknown about it, that’s understandable, but it’s a shame that fewer visitors will be exposed to the vibrant spirit of Brazil.