The Metropolitan Cathedral of Brasilia

December 14th, 2010 by someclevername

Designed by Oscar Niemeyer, and completed in 1970, the cathedral is one of the signature architectural works of the Esplanade. I had the opportunity to visit in the past week when I had a few free hours in the middle of town.

via Wikipedia

During construction:

via Fabiano’s Blog/

The building looks graceful from the outside. It consists of 16 poured concrete pillars that sweep inward and meet near the top of the structure. They converge and then their points evoke the image of a crown. Apparently they weigh 90 tons each.

You enter through an underground ramp, and transition through the corridor from an enclosed and tight space that is finished in black marble to a space that is white stone, poured concrete and stained glass. That transition looks like this:

Outside the building looking into the corridor

In the corridor

End of corridor

Looking up

Another view upward

a borrowed photo taken with a wide-angle lens:


The pews are beautiful minimalism

The cathedral looks so closed from outside. But the way the interior draws in the light it looks so weightless that you really don’t feel the presence of giant concrete pillars. The light color of the glass from the inside amplifies the light in the space and makes what isn’t that huge of an interior feel large.

Like a number of the buildings here, the material predominantly used was poured concrete. Not all of the buildings here have held up well over time, and this building is currently being restored. The economy has been growing here so it has been a better time for foundations and easier to pour funds into restoration. The building has a big fence up showing that work is going on at the surface level.

I really like the poured concrete bell tower, with its four bells of increasing size. This was a beautiful way to spend an hour in-between interviews!

End-of-Week food wrap up: Street Food, Self-Service Goodies and Sobremesas

December 13th, 2010 by someclevername

This is a bit of an ônibus post. It’s largely the result of being really busy after having had these experiences last week. I was also the inadvertent result of overusing my internet plan, which is a little limited. I’m trying to make sure I don’t leave with overage charges, so uploading photos and Skyping has been a little difficult.

Delicious Pastries
I have been able to try more of the salgadinhos (little salty snacks), delicious pastries that dominate the street food scene here. I went to a self-service restaurant with a friend on the lunch break of a conference I attended here. I got to eat some excellent food with her. I’ve eaten some delicious sorvetes for dessert.

First up, some really delicious steet pastries:

The first is called simply pastel. It’s a pair of two dough sheets stuffed with goodies, usually meat and cheese. I was able to order this one with Calabresa (good ham) and cheese. The second one was a Kibe, which was a ___ stuffed with melty cheese. I enjoyed a maracuja (passion fruit) soft drink while having this. It was much sweeter than plain passion fruit, sort of like passion fruit Kool Aid.

Here is a view inside the pastry:

Here is a view inside the kibe.

Apparently the pastel has Japanese origins, unlike other fried pastry here that has direct European heredity. The crust is flaky for being fried, and very light in flavor. The Kibe (we might say Kibbeh) was made with burghum, was a little spongy, and certainly delicious. I’ve been to a Spanish club here called Calaf, where samba is played, and made a dinner out of these things.

I made conversation with a fellow who was eating lunch next to me. He wanted to practice his English. He said that he had a Russian friend come to visit and he took pictures of all the food he ate too. So be on the lookout for the Russian Brazilian food blog out there.

I have another meeting at the office near where this place is located Tuesday. I might try to get another pastry run in before I leave for Rio.

Oh, lost in the archives was a shot of a pastry from earlier in the week. It was good, stuffed with ground beef, but the other one was better because it was fresh. I was at the time drinking an agua de coco straight out of a green coconut, which is the best way to get some quick energy and look cool at the same time!

Bear with me, because Flickr won’t let me edit the image here for some reason:

Self Service
I went to a self-service restaurant with a friend I've made here on a break from a conference. I ate a rather protein-heavy dish of beans, meat and plantains, and somehow I managed to stay awake for the rest of the conference when we returned.

I had some linguiça (sausage), skirt steak, braised beef, mixed refried beans, black beans, farofa de manioc, rice, plantains, fish, pequi (a fruit), hearts of palm, and slaw.

The meats were great. I was pretty selective in my cuts of meat. I grabbed steak that wasn’t done all the way through, and it was great. The braised beef was a big hunk of vertebrae, and I think the bone jacked the price of my plate up by about R$5 ($3). But the meat was so rich and wonderful it was worth it. The fish wasn’t really for me, but the rest was delicious.

You mix the farofa, which is dry and powdery, with the beans and it absorbs all of the remaining liquid. It adds a textural component to the bean dish. I was informed that this is a very popular thing to do in the South by my friend. I also learned that the mixed beans were very common in the south.

We’re all missing out on hearts of palm up here. So rich. They compare to artichoke but are more tender. The slaw was OK and the plantain was a young one. Had me nervous that it was banana, a fruit to which I’m allergic.

The Pequi was another story altogether. This fruit is popular in the central-west of Brazil, where Brasilia is located. It was one of the most distinct flavors I’ve ever eaten, and I don’t mean that in a good way. It wasn’t sour, it wasn’t sweet, it wasn’t bitter, it was just pungent, and piquant. And it’s not even approachable.

You have to eat around a sharp, jagged stone on the inside. You do this by holding it and eating it like corn, slowly rotating around the stone with your teeth. But you have to be very careful or the fruit will bite back! You can’t bite down. Instead you’re just sloughing off the layers of fruit flesh around the stone. I stopped having the taste of this thing in my mouth (certainly not in my mind) by the late afternoon.

Dessert Run
Here is a shot of a delicious sobremesa (dessert) of key lime pie and açaí berry sorbets.

Every ice cream treat here is referred to generally as a sorvete, so the word is used loosely to describe popsicles, tubs of ice creams, and sorbets. No complaints. Desserts rule, and it’s hot here, so it’s important to cool off when you get the chance.

I was also able to try a street food hamburger here today. It was, well, in a word, horrible. I’m not trying to make the blog about awful things, but man, I’m going to be a little more careful here with sandwiches on the street. Pastries are the way to go.

Street food in Brasilia, round 1:

December 6th, 2010 by someclevername

I had a fun experience ordering some stuff on the street this week. The total of this ran to about $4.50R ($3), indicating just how different prices are here than in Caracas for street food. But everybody tells me this is the most expensive city in Brazil, so I hope that part will be better in Rio.

i had Coxinha, which is a fried chicken croquette, shaped like a chicken thigh. The names of things aren’t listed so it’s kind of hard to figure out what things are. Also the prices aren’t listed so It’s possible I’m paying gringo prices when I point and order. Nonetheless this was a good, but brief lunch.


Here is the whole shebang, with agua de coca right out of the source:

You can bet there was picante nearby. I drenched this thing in it.

Later in the day I had a Caldo de Cana, which is straight sugar cane juice. This stuff is pretty dangerous, even if it is in its unrefined form. There is a saying about how this is the only thing the government guarantees for people in the poorer Northeast, and it’s based in just how much energy this drink offers. Also, it runs about $1R (75¢), so it’s accessible for a quick-pick-me-up.

Caldo de cana comes straight from sugar cane that is refrigerated. It takes about 2-3 minutes to make, in a masher that looks like this:

The juice is visible in the blue thing near the rear of the machine. That thing is straining out all the solids so that the maker of the beverage can pour a pitcher of the stuff into your cup.

Then you drink it, and it’s so good. And then you get diabetes. But it really is so good that you don’t even worry about whether you might have just slipped into diabetic shock. And you feel good, which is why the saying involves the government’s goal of pacifying poorer parts of the population with caldo de cana.

Urban Space in Brasilia, round 1:

December 5th, 2010 by someclevername

I’ve gone from living in a dense urban grid that had its roots in the Spanish colonial era to living in a city that was planned entirely in the 1950s. That was the period when then-president Juscelino Kubitschek decided that the capital be moved from Rio de Janeiro to here. The city of Brasilia is designed to look like a giant airplane from the air. This “Plano de Piloto” (Pilot Plan) was implemented nearly all at once, functioning by 1960. Here is a view of it from a Google Maps screen grab from about 10 miles up:

via Fonte Brasil

The 1950s were a time when the vast majority of people – and planners especially – thought the car was the best mode of transportation for the future. Brasilia reflects the work of two individuals. Lucio Costa designed the Plano de Piloto and Oscar Niemeyer, who won the project to design the UN building in New York, a project that was heavily promoted by Robert Moses, designed many of the buildings in the government section. I mention Robert Moses as a contemporary because all of these men harbored a special sentiment for the car. And this town is designed around the car, for sure.

The city follows modern city planning and architecture to a T. The different kinds of buildings/ activities are divided into different zones. Each are apportioned some amount of space, and usually skyscrapers are built there.

Here is a map of Brasilia:


Exactly in the middle of the two major axes created by the “body” of the airplane and the “wings” is a colossal platform with two shopping centers, the major bus station for town, a metro stop, and a maze of highway connections.

Near where the wings hit the “body” is where all of the commercial sectors are located. There are hotel, a banking, ‘commercial’ sectors, radio/ tv, and hospital sectors.
here is a shot from the bus complex of one the commercial sector, showing the open space that bisects town:

Here is a photo of a hospital in one of the hospital sectors. It has a system of awnings over the windows that can be moved to direct sunlight into the area covered by them. In the photo some windows are blocked out at the moment, others are open:

The wings are divided in a grid between Le Corbusier-style habitation-type buildings which are interrupted by small commercial sectors. It looks like chain-link from the air. It is like chain mail. Here are the habitation buildings:

Here are row houses nearby:

Here is park right next to the row houses:

Here is a shot of the commercial sector:

Here is another set of commercial sector buildings very near the apartment:

Here is the apartment building of my host. It has been built very recently:

We went to a cookout today. There was a white elephant, and churrasco, which means barbecue. It was held on the top of a building on the cobertura, or roof. It was really fancy. Here is a view of the countryside that surrounds Brasilia. The rolling hills in the distance look just like Western Pennsylvania:

I had a completely delicious meal of grilled goodies, salad, cassava, and fejião tropeiro (beans with ham and manioc):

Yeah baby, that’s a chicken heart on top of that steak. So good. Also, beer and a caipiroska (caipirinha with vodka), and this dessert, a passion fruit creamy thing (passion fruit is maracujá):

My Head Hurts

December 4th, 2010 by someclevername

I made my way from St. Barths at around noon last Saturday. In order to get a flight out of town and to Brasilia I had to take four flights: to Saint Maarten, to San Juan, to Miami, and then to Brasilia. Neither the flight to St. Maarten nor the flight to San Juan left anywhere near on time and I was very very nervous about that.

Here is a shot from the 6-seater airplane landing in St. Maarten.

However, it worked out and I arrived in Miami with time to spare, right in front of a Cuban cafeteria there. I had a delicious meal: a Cuban Sandwich, a plate of plantains and a Materva yerba mate soda. The Cuban was a little dry, but I wasn’t complaining. The plantains were delicious and the Materva tasted like some sort of ridiculous bubble gum carbonated thing (not like mate, but good anyway).

Delicious dinner last Saturday looked like this:

When I made it to the gate I found out they were offering a handsome sum to anybody who would consider changing their flight. I turned out to be the only American to take it, which was something that the Brazilians noticed very quickly. To me, it was most of the cost of a return flight, so I couldn’t say no. I got on a flight two hours later to Sao Paulo with a connecting flight to Brasilia about 6.5 hours after arriving there. I was willing to put up with that inconvenience because I didn’t have a fixed schedule Sunday to deal with. I did have to get a hold of my host because I was worried about an errant trip to the airport. He may have gone, and I don’t know.

I arrived in Sao Paulo exhausted and, to my surprise, without luggage. I didn’t find out till later that my luggage had already made it to Brasilia. So I spent about an hour and a half dealing with that and left the concourse to find out that it was about $120R each way to take a cab into Sao Paulo proper from this suburban airport – which was something that I couldn’t afford. Plus the traffic there is legendarily unpredictable and I couldn’t be sure that I could get back if I went. I just found out last night about some sort of incredible record bazaar that is offered in the middle of town. I am pretty annoyed that I missed that, but am also fairly comfortable with the choice I made: I went to get a SIM card at a suburban Sao Paulo mall, which helped smooth over my arrival greatly.

I spent another hour dealing with my luggage in Brasilia, but they found it rather quickly and I had it by 10:30 Monday. Afterward I went to an industry news organization (kind of like Bloomberg) and hung out in my host’s office digging around with emails and telling my bank at home to chill out re: purchases I made in St. Barth (gift for Jess, mailing academic stuff back to PGH), Sao Paulo (internet), and Miami (internet). All of these were unscheduled stops in my trip. Welcome, but unscheduled.

My host doesn’t have the internet, so I found several ways to get a plan. Unfortunately none had panned out until yesterday. All of the options were incredibly expensive except for getting a monthly rate.

First I tried to get a data plan for the BlackBerry I borrowed for this trip. I used the service provider Tim, which appeared at first to be very flexible. They offered me a prepaid plan for $36R (about $20) and a data plan for $.50R per day. However then they took it away from me because they don’t let BlackBerries use prepaid wireless. I found this out the hard way when I tried to communicate with Jess via email on the 2nd day of having the service. My email wouldn’t send. They explained the problem when I took it to the the Tim Store to try to deal with it. I made the lady explain the problem three times not because I didn’t understand, but by the end, because I was so annoyed at their inflexibility and wanted to be inflexible myself.

I don’t have a Brazilian social security number here and they wouldn’t let me use my passport number like I could in Venezuela. It was killing me. For the reasons above I couldn’t get a prepaid data plan with a BlackBerry and I couldn’t get a billing-style plan that would accommodate a BlackBerry because I don’t have an SSN. I can’t get my own internet plan with any company because I lack an SSN and I can’t get even a prepaid plan without one. I shopped for a wireless modem for almost an entire afternoon, and the only one that is offered prepaid also requires an SSN.

For 20 miraculous minutes Monday night I was able to get my phone to tether and serve internet to my computer. During that time I was (barely) able to send Jess an email telling her that I am alive and OK. It hasn’t worked since.

I went Tuesday to try to get a prepaid plan and my friend and I went to the wrong store (an authorized reseller). They couldn’t help me get a prepaid plan there because they weren’t a real store. By the time I went to the correct mall, the real store was closed because it is a local religious holiday. I accepted my loss and went with a friend for a caipirinha (it was huge, too) at a Lebanese restaurant. We also had some kibbe, kufta, and hummus. That helped greatly.

Basically the same thing happened Wednesday – then my phone signal died when I was in the mall and I couldn’t get a hold of my friend until it was way too late. However by then I was resigned to being patient. I found several internet kiosks including a shack near the house. The folks there were super helpful and even told me about how to navigate the bus system.

The “communicating with family, friends, and colleagues” aspect of the trip has been frustrating. However, I have had interviews and am finally getting somewhere on that front.

I changed wireless carriers yesterday. My host and my friend joined me for lunch. We went to the mall an in about an hour and a half I had the best possible phone plan and the best possible internet plan. They’re both regular monthly billing plans. My host generously vouched for me. However, unlike the US they are “sem fidelidade” which means you don’t get penalized for cancellation. I will cancel my monthly plan at the airport on the last day I’m here in Brazil. I split the cost of the wireless modem that I’m using with my host. He’ll keep it after I take off. He’ll also keep the plan, but I’m pretty sure he can cancel it if he doesn’t want it. Total cost of switching everything over ran to about about $240 Reais, which is $150. Total communications cost to date on this trip is about $175.

Meanwhile, this is what I get to see every day when I make my way past the capital buildings. The block buildings at the sides are government ministries. The building at the end is the national congress building.

Brazil is great but every step of the trip here has been truly complicated. Fortunately my Portuguese only benefitted from using very similar words and grammar in Venezuela last month. I am pretty comfortable speaking and thinking in it right now. Of course people are very patient too. They keep asking me “where did you learn to speak Portuguese?” like it’s an anomaly. It is, but with close to 190,000,000 people living here, there’s plenty of reasons to study this thing.

I’ve got a bunch of food pictures coming. I’m really stoked to show them to you. I also want to talk about some of the cool food things that I haven’t yet photographed so I will get to work on that.

Tonight there is a samba show on the big yard between the ministries. It was National Samba Day this week and the celebration in the capital is this weekend. STOKED

This Is Just Like Living in Paradise

November 26th, 2010 by someclevername

I woke up Wednesday in Curacao ready for a flight to Saint Maarten and a battle with Winair, a local-to-St. Barth’s airline there to change my ticket to the day after I’d originally intended to show. It turns out that the best factor working in my favor was timing, as I’d landed so early as to get onto one of their relatively empty early planes. The planes fill up in the late afternoon as the major airlines show up full of passengers ready to head to the neighboring islands of Anguilla, Saba, St. Bartholomew, and St. Eustatius (aka Statia). It cost about $30 to change my flight and the staff was very accommodating. I was fortunate as none of the anxiety of the previous day entered into this venture.

I landed at 12:20 in St. Barths after a particularly interesting flight. The weather was windy that day and while the pilots didn’t appear to be nervous, I was a little. Here are a few views from the plane.

This is not a big plane:

Here is a view of St Barth’s:

Here is a view of the outer harbor:

The descent into St. Barth’s airport involves a trip over a hill before landing. To do this properly, a pilot has to dip the nose of the airplane and dive into the ground a little bit. Some buzzer usually comes on (more or less the YOU’RE GOING TO DIE IF YOU DON’T STOP WHATEVER YOU’RE DOING buzzer), and the whole thing is really, totally, awesome.

Here is what it looks like through the cockpit window when the pilots are pointing the nose of the plane over the hill.

Here is a shot from the plane of the hill on the one side of the runway. Runways are usually flat on the side where you land!

My mom and Aaron were waiting for me at the other side of the immigration booth. It was totally a surprise, because I didn’t pay for internet when I had the chance in the St. Maarten airport. They called Winair who told them I was on an arriving flight and when to show up. Totally awesome. We regrouped, went to the house and then to the beach. Here is a view from the villa.

It is one of the highest villas on the hill where we’re staying. You can see many of the originally volcanic hills in the foreground, Lorient beach (where the waves are breaking), some uninhabited islands, and on the horizon below the clouds, St. Maarten. We hit the beach but left after a little while. I was wiped out.

Thanksgiving morning after pastries we watched a bit of the Thanksgiving Day parade. I freaked out before leaving because I saw Takeshi Murakami and his two floats. However because he doesn’t advertise, they skipped over him before Aaron could see. It was incredible.

I went to Lorient beach for a few hours. Here’s the beach. You can see the end of the beach in the foreground, an uninhabited offshore island in the middle ground and between them, just a peek of St. Maarten:

To the other side you can see different villas dotting the landscape. The weren’t many people there. The weather was perfect. I got a bit of a tan. When I was leaving, I saw local lobster fishermen paddling a set of traps on their dinghy to get to a fishing boat. It looked like it was a giant pain in the ass to get over the surf with the traps.

Afterward we picked up Thanksgiving catering from Maya’s To Go, the take-out arm of a legendary restaurant here. On the way to picking up the food, we met a friend:

I really approved of the on-deck location of this unexpected Thanksgiving rendezvous:

This was the result: Mache salad with goat cheese, toasted pistachios and beets; snow peas; mashed potatoes and gravy; stuffing with apples; roast turkey (dark meat mostly for me); fennel with mandarin oranges and kalamata olives; cranberry sauce; bread; and of course beaujolais nouveau.

Holy hell this was delicious. There are enough Americans coming to the island during Thanksgiving that catering Thanksgiving turns out to be good business.

Here is a shot of my mom and Aaron on the deck of the villa. I simply couldn’t put them into a decent space to get the sun on them. They were happy anyway.

Thursday night we took care of some of my laundry and headed into St. Jean to do a bit of shopping. Then we returned home, watching football and ate leftovers. My chevre, butter, ham, turkey, cranberry, and mustard on baguette sandwich was perfectly American. The French ingredients made it excellent.

I got up a bit late, and after pastries, mailed a box of books I’d accumulated in Venezuela to the US. I thought about doing this there but I never really gave myself the time to do it. This turned out to take a couple of hours because we had to find a place on the island that had tape. Shipping was expensive, but the overweight fees associated with moving the stuff from place to place had begun to mount, so I knew it was necessary. The postal service guy was super helpful and he said “I can’t handle that Americans get the impression that we’re all unhappy, so I want you to have a good experience with this.” All I could do was thank him.

Afterward we went to the beach. Here is a shot from the car of the outer bay and shipyard of Gustavia, the big town here:

One of the beaches we visited is called Gouverneur’s Beach, and for a while the area was owned by a Rockefeller. Here is a view of the beach area and the compound there, now owned by a retired tech billionaire. Everything in the foreground is a wooded compound. In front of that is the beach:

Here is a view of the beach. It was jam-packed:

Here are goats we found on the hill by one of the beach. Sorry the photo sucks:

Afterward we had a burger. It kicked ass to have a regular burger and from a location in St. Jean that I remembered distinctly from my other visit here:

Came loaded with sauces (good mustard, A+) and with bacon. Kicked Ass.

When we returned we found a friend who was making his way around the driveway of the villa:

Seriously the biggest box turtle I’ve ever seen.

We hit Gustavia for a little while as I shopped for a Christmas gift for Jess. I found one. This place is fancy. Then at the Hideway, which advertises “corked wine, bad beer, and a great view of the car park” I had an excellent dinner of Entrecote Frites, a mojito, and a plate of profiteroles with ice cream and chocolate sauce. I was sated.

Afterward I spent the evening with the folks and eventually moved outside to internerd in paradise. Here is a dusk view of the balcony. The night one doesn’t turn out so good with the exposure on my point and shoot:

That’s St. Maarten in the far distance, but if you follow the coastline to the right you can see two big double light groupings on Anguilla.

As I have been writing this, there have been goats that live on the hill behind the house who’ve descended onto the property and begun to eat the landlord’s garden. He hates this. I love it, because it’s incredible to see wild goats. They’re scared out of their mind of us as we’ve been playing a game of cat and mouse trying to catch a glimpse of them all night. They’ve been braying to each other and every once in a while that gives us a good bead on where to look for them. I’ve been shining the computer monitor in their direction to illuminate the area and see the space. Mixed results.

Here is what the moon looked like the other night:

Tomorrow (Saturday) I leave here and head for Brasilia for a little under three weeks of interviews and snowballing. I really look forward to it, but if it’s a little obvious that I’m going to be bummed to leave here, I’ll try not to show my hosts. This has been such a truly generous and wholly welcome three days of distraction. I love it here and hope that next time fewer than four years separates my visits!

International Travel Fail, or Porque Estoy Burro

November 24th, 2010 by someclevername

I missed my flight out of town and showed up a day late to the Simon Bolivar International Airport at Maiquetia. Thank goodness my cab driver didn’t have a 50 Bs. F on him to make change for my 150 Bs. F trip. I wouldn’t want him to have suffered for getting up so early.

As it turns out my flight out of town (my ticket anyway) was for Monday. There was some miscommunication between me and the travel agent, and I never confirmed that the dates were the ones I needed. I showed up at 5am at the airport today to make my flight.

I became really confused because a flight of the same number leaves Caracas at noon on Tuesday. However, I waited seven hours and paid an extra $50 to make it onto the Tuesday flight. Because the flight from Curacao to St. Maarten (a stop on the way to St Barth, where I’m going) leaves at 9am every day. So I flew here and am waiting in a Dutch paradise for my flight to another Dutch paradise.

It has taken just shy of a couple hundred dollars and an overnight stay in Curacao to fix this problem, but it’s almost corrected. Believe it or not, this is what I thought I’d have to do to get to St Barth’s before I discovered this mythical flight I should have boarded.

Here is why they call it Blue Curacao:

Here is the oil refinery:

I landed here.

I headed through immigration. They said, “don’t you have a place to stay?”

I said “no, this was an emergency. I will find one as soon as you let me through. I couldn’t call before I left.”

They said “you’re not allowed to do that here, but we’ll let you slide,” and I said, “Believe me i don’t want to sleep in the street.”

Look at all these people who have hotels. Good for them.

Anyway I ended up at a Hilton because I liked the pictures of the waterfront, and I was really worried about a non-chain not taking a reservation I made with the free airport wi-fi minutes before arriving in a taxi.

Here in Curacao I don’t think the sand beaches are natural, but i wanted to go to one, so I did, and that is why I’m staying here.

There is also a restored fort on the property:

I asked the front desk what kind of food they thought was good and cheap, and here, they asked: “do you want something that is expensive and good or do you want something of lower quality that is cheap”

There isn’t cheap and good on this island?

So I walked on the beach/ rocks past the Hilton, then past the other Hilton, found this and chilled out a bit:

Then went past the Marriott, both very fancy places!

I was kind of walking aimlessly, until I found what used to be a trailer:

It had a grate in what used to be the window. Through the grate was a kitchen (in the van) Two people were hanging out on the other side of the trailer. I walked up to them and said “whatever you are cooking, I will eat.”

The thing about that was, they were talking amongst themselves in some sort of Dutch-Spanish combo language I later found out is called Papamientu. I had no idea how I was going to get across to them that I wanted whatever came out of that former van. I tried Spanish. That didn’t work.

I tried English. We agreed on the word “food.”

I had $6 on me (I had to count to make sure I could cover this), and they only wanted $5. Then they told me they’d give me chicken saté and batatas. While I waited, I was invited to take a seat. I photographed some friends who thought I’d feed them, and the inside of the van.

I followed rules #1 and #2 to great success. All the sauces they offered made their way to the plate. In addition to the fry toppings, there was a delicious peanut sauce waiting for that well-seasoned chicken. There was also a salad of white onion and tomato covered with lemon pepper.

It was really good. I sat on a public beach under a palm frond-covered picnic table and ate my cheap and good food. Here were the boats that I saw in the Sea:

Here is a shot from the walk back:

I then hung out and watched the sunset:

Dare I complain? It would have been nice to be hanging out with my folks. Here are a few night photos of Willemstad, Curacao:

Here is the other side of the inlet. Crossing the inlet is the Queen Emma Bridge, which is a pedestrian bridge that pivots across the inlet when a big boat needs to go to the refinery. The one side of the bridge has an engine with a propeller and it literally pulls the bridge (the bridge is pivoting against the other shoreline) out of the inlet and to shore.


This reminded me of Leidzeplein in Amsterdam:

The above street/park food above was better than what I had for dinner, but I did get to have a Leffe Brown, and man did it taste good. I left those plantains on the plate.

Real Beer!

So Long, Caracas

November 23rd, 2010 by someclevername

I was too busy visiting with a friend and my host family last night to actually type something up eulogizing the Caracas leg of my trip. Caracas is a city of contradictions. The contrast in income and attention is evident in the last few blog posts. But the contradiction between what I think people tolerate, between frustration with transportation, beer that I have no idea how anybody can like, and issues of political polarization, is how it doesn’t close them off. The people that I met were so open, so willing to share their time. Even if they weren’t ultimately going to be helpful, they weren’t unpleasant about having me around. So many people offered kindness, picked up a lunch, called me back, sat down with me, put up with my bad (but improving) Spanish that what was more apparent than anything was kindness.

Living in Caracas is hard work. Here are a few examples from my experience trying to get around town. I was talking with a good friend about that last night and again this morning with my cabbie. For example the Metro is not only fantastic, but also .50 Bs F (meaning it is 6¢ with the black market exchange rate) for any connection on the thing. Which means that everybody is riding it, trying to avoid the traffic on the surface streets and the autopista. I rode it between stops where I could easily walk because it was so inexpensive. Tons of people use it, some perhaps using it as unnecessarily as I did. The lines are super long to even get on a train. I cannot remember how many times I sweated through my clothes pressed in like sausage in a train or because the a/c was broken in a car. People have been protesting the quality of service and so far the government’s response is summed up in it’s new slogan: tomamos medias. sigue las reglas (we’re taking measures follow the rules) which puts a sizable (and not deserved) onus on the people who are using the service.

I hailed several cabs but only one delivered me to the location where I intended to arrive. And that was because it was the only time I had been to the destination before. No other time was a cabbie able to take the name of a prominent location and neighborhood (or address!) and turn it into me getting there.

The beer is not for me. I was not a fan of Venezuelan beer. I liked Destilo which I had late one night in a bar, but that beer was not widely available. I thought either Destila or Zulia were the best but both were in the yellow beer category.

I’m really not touching the situation of political polarization here but I will say this: it’s on everybody’s mind. People are thinking about the future and what it means for them. And lots of different people have interests in it in many separate ways. And that makes it hard to find common ground.

And these are just some of the things that somebody who shows up for a month has to deal with. I don’t own a car and have to deal with the traffic all the time. I don’t have to deal with any issues related to public services and I didn’t have to deal with herd behavior/ shortages in grocery stores.

There is such a range of things that wound me tight that I can’t imagine what it’s like for somebody to be there all the time. And yet people are not wound so tight – they’re open and giving. Perhaps it’s a way to deal with the stress. I can’t say for sure. It was a truly great experience to behold.

Last night we had arepas at the house. Mercedes cooked 9 arepas to honor the requirement of the night before. A tradition with fans of the Venezuelan baseball league is to “have to” eat/ cook as many arepas as your team put up zeroes on the scoreboard during the game. The night before the Leones put up 9 arepas. They were shut out. So last night we had 9 arepas with a delicious spread:

Pernil, queso maduro, jamon, caraoatas; all the stars of Venezuelan cuisine were there. That thing that looks like Turner’s Iced Tea is Pabellon con Limon, which is an unrefined sugar drink flavored with lime. It’s ridiculously good. Made for some great sandwiches to send me out of town. I truly appreciated it. I wasn’t the only one. This is Salvador.

He’s the son of my host’s niece, who stays there during the week because the commute from a nearby town is impossible given the traffic. This family brought a light to my days that is impossible to bring to words here. Along with a friend who I met while here (who I think it’s best to have remain under the radar), I’ve found it hard to compare the kind of generosity in such a short time to my situation here. I’m indebted to her kindness and I will always think of each of these people when I think of Caracas. I was asked last night what I was going to miss the most, and it’s not the arepas, the baseball, etc. It will be the people. And I’ll be thinking about them a lot. So long, Caracas. For now.


November 22nd, 2010 by someclevername

Of course not all the urban spaces here in town were so fastidiously planned. However they comprise a different form of incompleteness, as they’re always under development. However, it’s important to recognize that these living conditions involve dignity and those who live there care about their space.

Here is a view of Petare. I visited here multiple times with a friend who worked for the municipal government, which isn’t the same as the city government that runs the middle of town. As Caracas expanded into outlying areas, the municipal governments gained responsibility. They have not been formally incorporated into the city, but there is a coordinating council that attempts to bring the city together. This would be like if Brooklyn was a separate municipal government.

This view is panoramic, though of course, it’s incomplete. I think this is as large as I can get the photos to convey the panorama. As I illustrated with a link to a photo in this post, this neighborhood is vast, and what you’re seeing here is merely a ridge within the neighborhood. All of the hills on this side of town are covered with habitats that look like this:

Here was a view from the other side of the room of the barrio in the foreground and the Avilas in the background:

Here are some of the photos above, but large enough to see in detail.

Nearly all of the terrain is covered by families’ houses:

Here is a window shot of a neighborhood church. I believe somebody said it was built in the 50s, but it doesn’t really correspond to that period of architecture. There was a bit of a party happening in this street on the Saturday when we visited:

Part of feeling that social exclusion is so oppressive is that it’s easy to look around and see that everything around you reflects your social situation:

To the north is the Avilas, to the west, the rest of town.

Here is a rooftop view:

Traditionally family members support each other in the barrio, offering a social safety net for those missed by the government. Part of this support involves putting together and expanding one’s living space when you can, on your own. This involves one’s own masonry skills. These houses are constructed vertically, with rooms on top of one another. The bricks used are not of particularly high quality, and I don’t know if there’s a code/ inspection system here. I have my doubts. Here is some masonry on the upper level patio of a house. This was a third floor patio. At some point it could be filled in and a roof could be added, enlarging the living space upward. It would then be finished on the inside, and the new roof would become the patio.

That said, I’ve been inside some of these places and people care for their spaces. The outside appearance is not the same as inside, where plaster is used to smooth over problems with masonry, floors are tile and the living space can be comfortable. Not every room has windows, but light and bright paint provide feelings of comfortable space. That’s not to say these houses aren’t without their problems. Getting electricity and functioning plumbing have been reasons for community mobilization in the past 10 years, but these houses do not lack these services. Electricity is often bridged from a power line that is run into the neighborhood.

You can see above how the electricity is run from the light that illuminates the stairway between the building.

This is a view of Catia, in another municipality on the other side of what is officially Caracas. This area is in the state of Libertador, and extends in two directions: one containing massive apartment buildings and another that constitutes traditional barrios. I missed an opportunity to get here once, but I was helped by another contact to conduct interviews and learn more about the space in a later vista. Here are views of both sides of town.

This first view is 23 de Enero, which consists of the buildings designed by the modern architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva, who based the designs of these buildings on the ideas of Le Corbusier’s Habitations.

These are very, very large buildings:

Facing the other direction from my rooftop view, I could see Catia. This is also a vast expanse of homes in a densely-packed neighborhood. The dwellings continue on all forms of terrain on this side of town. They are what tops the hills:

These areas are places that people live. They can be frustrated by them, can care about them, but ultimately may be stuck there. Some are well-integrated into the traditional system, but most are not. How governments respond to their needs, look for their support, or whether they ignore them will be the determining factor of domestic politics in this century, anywhere that populations like this are concentrated.


November 21st, 2010 by someclevername

I’ve been trying to think about how to responsibly display some of the photos of the experiences I’ve had in neighborhoods where the less fortunate and socially excluded live here in Caracas. I was talking to a friend the other night, somebody to whom I felt it was important to convey that I’m not a tourist, here only briefly to take advantage of my experience with stark inequality. I was invited to two upper levels of buildings to safely get good pictures of the view from within the barrios of Petare and Catia. These two barrios frame the east and west of Caracas, respectively. A patchwork of wealthier neighborhoods fit within the area in-between, but the level of wealth varies considerably. Some of these neighborhoods contain people who are extremely well-off. Some contain people who aren’t. This post talks about some of the interesting urban spaces that exist here. I will continue tomorrow by discussing the urban spaces that exist on the edges of the city, where informal dwellings illustrate the sharp contrast between levels of income here in town.

Most of the skyscrapers here were built as oil wealth was integrated into the economy, and they correspond with the modern period of architecture. Because of its utilitarian expression and goals of limiting costs, most of the buildings here are neo-brutalist. You can see the texture from the boards that served as a form for the poured concrete and rebar that comprises the exoskeleton of most of the buildings. I have always been fascinated by this architecture, so I find myself looking up while here. Some of my favorite architecture is in Bellas Artes, which has a few developments from the late 1970s that offer very visually interesting uses of space.


This is probably my favorite building here. I love the window modules that protrude all around the building. The copper windows punctuate the concrete like keys on a computer keyboard. They’re open because the air condition probably doesn’t work but it’s more or less pleasant here all the time (if a little humid).


via Wikipedia

This massive urbanization complex contains the tallest buildings in South America, and the rest of it was designed and implemented in the late 1960s-70s. This is a view from across the street and back a little bit. The rebar signifies places where other development parts were intended but haven’t been finished. Many government offices are located within. However, there are numerous businesses that operate in the towers. The shorter towers contain apartments and the lowest levels of these are business offices too.

Part of one of the tall towers was destroyed in a fire in 2004, and while it looks nearly complete I haven’t seen the crane on top of the building move once since i was here.

This hallway was so desolate, but look at the concrete and the ceiling. I felt unsafe here because of the lack of people, but I also felt uncomfortable in the space.

Here is a plaza that is on top of the roof of the mall section that combines the ground floors of the buildings:

This space was intended for use but nobody was using it. Again, fairly uncomfortable.

This development is part of Centro Simon Bolivar. It is one side of Avenida Simon Bolívar. The buildings overlook the capitol, the parks, well everything in town, since they’re as tall as the USX tower. The other side is framed by the Palacio de Justicia, which looks like this from the front.

via Wikipedia

I visited a government office in here and was confused by the way the building looks from the side.

When I walked to the office in the building I assumed it was a construction area undergoing demolition. It wasn’t. Turns out the building was initiated in the early 1990s but the north side was never finished. This building is in the capitol area, which I would imagine is prime real estate. I took the steps to the 3rd floor where a perfectly functioning office was located. This experience was surreal.

I wasn’t around and haven’t been able to look into the exact constellation of issues that resulted in some of the parts of this city that have been neglected/ unfinished. All I know is that when I snapped the above picture, some dude eating a hamburger at a street kiosk not far from me glared at me as if to say “What is wrong with you?” I could certainly understand from a pride perspective why he wouldn’t think it’s OK for a gringo to snap a photo like this. Like everything else here, there’s more to it than meets the eye.