Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Brazilian "Midwest"

View from the TV Tower. Notice how symmetrical the city design is.
I arrived to Brasilia last Sunday morning. It was a long trip. I left my house in Seattle at 7:30 AM caught a flight to Atlanta and met the rest of my group there. Then we had an 8-9 hour flight to Brasilia. When we arrived, we took advantage of the beautiful sunny weather right away and walked around. Our hotel, which was the nicest hotel here back in the '80s (Princess Diana stayed here), is across the street (a  busy 6-lane highway) from a TV Tower and park. You can take an elevator up to the top of the tower for free (which we did). There was also a Sunday market taking place nearby, which we perused for a couple of hours.
For those who don't know why I am in Brazil, let me explain. I am part of a new program called Teachers Without Borders. It is affiliated with the Department of State and administered by a non-profit called IREX. There are about 65 teachers in the program who are traveling to six different countries (India, Indonesia, Ghana, Morocco, Ukraine, and Brazil). We are here to learn about Brazil's education system and to deepen our own thinking about global education. It is an amazing opportunity.

Brazil is a huge country, the fifth largest in the world both in area and population. There are five distinct regions: the north (Amazon), Northeast (poorest region), Southeast (most populated), South (wealthiest), and Central-West (where the capital is). Tomorrow, I will be traveling to Teresina, a city in the northeast, for a week.

Brasilia is a strange place. It is a planned city - construction was completed in 1960. The buildings remind me of some of the World's Fair structures in Seattle (completed in 1962). They were intended to look futuristic and there is a big emphasis on concrete. Almost every building seems to be designed by Oscar Niemeyer, who is currently 104 years old. He is considered a sort of national hero here. He uses a lot of curves in his buildings and as I mentioned above, a lot of concrete. He also helped design the UN headquarters in New York.

Brasilia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site - the only city built in the 20th century with that designation. It feels like an aging city; many of the buildings look dated and feel like they opened in 1960. Some have compared it to the Epcot Center at Disney World.

The master plan has the city organized into "superblocs." A superbloc contains housing, a church, a park, and often a shopping street. Everything is coded with numbers and letters. Some of the apartment buildings were originally designated for government officials, bank employees, or other specific groups of people. Today, Brasilia is very expensive. A 3 bedroom apartment will cost $1500 to $1800 a month or will sell for $500 million USD. That is a lot when the average income in Brazil is about $800 a month (many civil servants and professional make much more than this of course). Minimum wage here is about $300 a month.
The "Blue Church"
Sign in a Super Bloc
Brasilia has the highest per capita income in Brazil. If you are poor, however, you probably work in Brasilia (as a maid or porter perhaps), but don't live here. There are several "satellite cities" 30-40 kilometers outside of the capital that face much higher levels of poverty, crime, drug abuse, etc. They were originally created after construction workers squatted in Brasilia when their work was completed in 1960. The workers were given land outside of the city in order to remove the slums. Today there are new problems in the capital. There are about 2,000 homeless people (only in the past 5-6 years) and a rising number of crack cocaine users (also a recent problem).

I learned most of what I now know about Brasilia from our tour guide, Roberto (r is pronounced with an h sound). He is a native of Brasilia and has given us an honest interpretation of his city's history. He acknowledges that many find Brasilia cold, but points out that most visitors never go into the neighborhoods. They often just visit government and office buildings. I have to say, by my 4th day here, the city is growing on me. Maybe it's the weather (upper 70s and sunny EVERY day) or maybe it's the people (very welcoming).
Typical superbloc apartment building.

A church in a superbloc.

The National Cathedral
The National Cathedral's ceiling.
The Congress building.
The source of my refreshing coco water.
Roberto doing his thing.
The new World Cup stadium under construction.
Ready to go to the U.S. Embassy and the Congress.

1 comment:

  1. I love the picture of the layout of Brasilia; although I've never been I am sure that this city designed from the ground up it awesome. The church with all of the stained glass is beautiful! And it looks like a fun group of guys at the embassy.