Archive for December, 2010

The Metropolitan Cathedral of Brasilia

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

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

Monday, December 13th, 2010

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:

Monday, December 6th, 2010

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:

Sunday, December 5th, 2010

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

Saturday, December 4th, 2010

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