Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Independence Day in Brasília - A Rather Long Tale

Ever since arriving in Brasil almost 2 years ago, Eric and I have wanted to visit Brasília. I'm not exactly sure why we wanted to so badly, and our Brasilian friends sure as heck didn't get it - they don't even have any desire to go there, but we really wanted to visit the nation's capital.

As Brasil's Independence Day approached on September 7, we decided the three-day weekend would be the perfect chance to make the trip. Lucky for us, Gol had a sale on flights there. Of course, then their website wouldn't work. And by the time we got tickets purchased there was only one seat available at the sale price. So we ended up putting Eric on an overnight bus on Friday night, and then Gabriela and I took the early Saturday morning flight.

We stayed at the Bristol Hotel, which is far from fancy, but was clean, comfortable, and spacious and located in a convenient location for sightseeing. But then again, most of the hotels are located in the "Hotel Sector" of the highly planned city, so location isn't really all that unique in Brasília. But they had a good weekend rate and looked decent, so we stayed there. (You might notice that is sort of a recurring theme with us. We love to travel every chance we get, but our budget doesn't really allow for extravagant spending. So as the designated family travel agent, I've gotten pretty good at hunting down airline sales and finding discounted hotel rooms. And if all else fails, well, I just send my husband by bus. hehe)

Since we are talking about the nation's capital, I feel a little history lesson is in order:

Brasília is the third capital of Brasil. The capital was originally located in Salvador and then moved to Rio de Janeiro. Apparently, since Brasil's colonial days, there had been talks about moving the capital to a more centrally located region of the country. But it wasn't until 1956, when Juscelino Kubitschek was president, that the idea was thoroughly developed. 41 months later, on April 21, 1960, Brasília had been designed, built, and inaugurated. And that was the fastest anything has ever been accomplished in Brasil, I'm sure of it! ;)

Brasília has received mixed reviews from the Brasilians all along. The concept was to create a capital somewhere more centrally located, despite that the Southeast and coastal regions of Brasil are home to an enormous majority of the country's inhabitants. It was thought that building a capital in a less inhabited part of the country would bring more residents to the area and increase the standard of living for the surrounding region. And all of that has happened. But it was an incredibly expensive venture (to build an entire city in the middle of nowhere in 41 months) and I suppose that now there is the ongoing expense of getting all the politicians back and forth - since few of them are actually from the region. I would compare it to the USA deciding to build a brand new capital in an Iowa cornfield. Lovely idea, as it would be equal distances from the east and west coasts that way . . . but seriously, in Iowa? I can't imagine the concept of Brasília was considered much different.

But it is what it is, and it is where it is, and we were there last month. The End. Okay, not really.

A map view of the city resembles an airplane. With the main government/memorial region being the fuselage and then the wings extending to both sides being the residential, hotel, restaurants, etc. sectors of the city. And on a map it is all neat and pretty, and the maps make it appear that the airplane is heading south and everything is nice and linear in a Cardinal-direction sort of way. And then you notice that the North arrow is quite askew and what you think is North after glancing at the map is actually very northwest and then you and your husband end up arguing about where things lie in relation to one another because you are thinking in terms of the map and you firmly believe that North should be straight up and decide to refer to things on the ground as if North is up on the map. Meanwhile your husband, being quite the precise engineer type, keeps misunderstanding you since he is thinking in terms of actual compass directions and not the way something was portrayed on a map. And then at some point during day 3 of perusing the city and arguing with your husband which way you are heading and realizing that there isn't a single road in the city which runs East to West or North to South, you throw your hands in the air and shout, "Oh good grief, for the love of all that is good and holy, if they were going to go through the trouble of building a city in the middle of nowhere, why on earth couldn't they just make the dadgum thing line up with a compass!!!" Except you might not have used such nice of language. And now seems like a good time to just show some pictures . . .

The TV Tower is probably main feature of Brasília's planned landscape. You can ride an elevator to the observation desk and get great views of the city. (It is located towards the tail of the "plane".)

From the TV Tower observation deck, looking towards the cockpit of the plane. (Notice I'm not even going to mention compass directions here.) Most all of the monuments and government building are located along this strip, called Eixo Monumental.

The National Museum

The National Cathedral (which was under construction - like a large portion of the city. No doubt they are trying to spruce things up for the 50 year anniversary of the city in 2010.)

Inside the National Cathedral

National Congress (The flagpole doesn't actually extend from the giant bowl there, it is actually well behind the National Congress building.)

Hanging out in the really comfy leather chairs inside the National Congress building after a guided tour (and hoping that they have plans to replace the bile-green indoor/outdoor carpet in that reception area - ICK!)

The Supreme Federal Tribunal

A statue of Tiradentes who died (by hanging before having his body cut up into pieces and put on display throughout Brasil by orders of the Portugal king in case anyone else had the grand idea of trying to lead the country to independence) on April 21, 1792. His date of death is a national holiday, one of the most important in Brasil. You might remember that Gabriela was born on Tiradentes Day!

The largest Brasilian flag in the country; on display on a giant flag pole at the nose of the plane. We tried to watch the changing of the flags, which occurs on the first Sunday of every month and is supposed to be quite a ceremony. Turns out, the flag hasn't been changed in 6 months, as the flag pole is under renovation. (Quite the ongoing theme this year - I recommend not visiting Brasília until after April 21 next year. It should be pretty awesome after all the renovating going on!)

Hmmm, I don't remember which building this was now. But I loved the waterfalls on the side of it!

We encountered this crabby owl during our self-created walking tour. Not sure what he was doing out and about in the middle of the day. And given his mood, I'm not sure he wanted to be awake at such an hour - he did not seem to like us.
The Don Bosco Sanctuary in Brasília. From the outside, the building isn't all that spectacular.

But step inside and you are engulfed in a sea of blue. Walls are all covered from floor to ceiling with blue and purple stained glass.

It is one of the most serene and yet captivating buildings I have ever been in. I could have stayed in there for hours!

After lots of walking and sightseeing on Saturday and Sunday, we got up Monday morning and headed down to the area that was set up for the Independence Day Parade/Air Show.

Gabs thought we had her up and moving entirely too early, but that's my kid for you!

We got excited as we heard the parade approaching us. And then as we awaited for the first group of parade marchers to come by, the military police in charge of the route and crowd control went rushing past us towards the paraders and motioned for them to turn off on a side street . . . 100 meters from where we were standing in the front row just behind the barriers put up to keep everyone off the street. Yep, all of our hurry up and get down there to get a good spot to watch the parade was for nothing. But at least we weren't alone. There were several thousand other disappointed families further down from us when the parade (seemingly) decided to end the route shorter than planned. Oh Brasil, how I do (not) love you some days.

Gabriela and me all decked out in our yellow and green trying to be patriotic (in front of the cavalry (?) after the parade.)

Early that afternoon, we decided to hop a city bus and go out to the airport where we rented a car for 16 hours so that we could check out some of the "further out" sights. (Since we needed to leave for the airport at 5:00 am Tuesday morning and didn't want to take a bus at that hour, and since taxis were rather expensive, given the distance to the airport, having a rental car worked out great and didn't cost us much more than a taxi the next morning would have!)

Out of curiosity, we had to go visit the Templo da Boa Vontade which was built by the Legião da Boa Vontade (Legion of Good Will). Turns out, you couldn't enter the building wearing shorts (which we were), but luckily they were prepared for visitors such as us and had a lovely pair of black polyester drawstring pants for Eric and a calf-length skirt of the same material for me to put on over our clothes.

There is a giant (21 kg) raw crystal at the very top of the pyramid. And once inside, you can take off your shoes and walk a spiral path along the floor until you are directly underneath the crystal. We were encouraged by the welcome committee to silently walk the spiral path and pause when we reached the center to absorb the energy from the crystal overhead. The quiet walk (which took a lot longer than you would think just looking at the black and white path on the floor) was very calming, but the energy of the crystal was lost on Eric and me. It was one of the most "finished" and well-maintained places we have every visited though, proving that plenty of folks are totally buying it and are more than happy to send in their money to the "organization". (I am resisting the urge to use the word cult. In all fairness, I don't really know enough about it, even after our visit and some further research. But it had a cultish feel about it. Or maybe it was a Rolex-wearing-send-me-your-money-and-God-will-heal-you-TV-Evangelist feel. Hard to say exactly. But I left feeling rather untrusting of the institution. Just my honest opinion.)

The really cool JK Bridge. It's design was inspired by a stone skipping in the water. Built in 2002, it was named "The Most Beautiful Bridge in the World" by the International Bridge Conference of the Engineers' Society of Western Pennsylvania in 2003. And you know those engineers in Western Pennsylvania . . . they know their bridges! (Oh, I kid. It is a nice bridge. The title is lovely, I just thought the naming organization was a little funny.)

Palácio da Alvorada is the official residence of the President. Hello Lula! It looks like you could walk right across the lawn and knock on his door. There is actually a 4' moat around the edge of the grassy area though - we just zoomed in past it. Eric said he could pretty easily hop right over the moat, but I suggested that he would probably be shot by the armed guards long before he ever got to give Lula a big thumbs up or hug or anything.

I was totally intrigued that Brasília had a planned camping area in the original design of the city. Camping just isn't that big of a thing in Brasil, so I made Eric drive way out of the way so we could go check it out. And it appears that, who knew, camping isn't that big of a thing in Brasília either. If it was built in 1960 with the rest of the city, it appears to have been abandoned since 1965. But that doesn't stop them from putting it on all the maps and maintaining a fairly new sign out front. I even insisted that we drive in for a better look. 100' in, Eric was pretty sure someone was going to come behind us, shut the gates, and then proceed to murder us and leave our bodies out there where no one would find them for another 15 years when the next set of curious Americans came along to check out the campground. So we left rather quickly.

We tried to go check out the Museu dos Povos, but it was already closed. So we just grabbed a quick photo outside and then went across the street to the Memorial JK.

In front of the JK Memorial, which also houses the tomb of JK, I said something completely harebrained. I turned to Eric and said, "You know, there are a million things named JK (pronounced Jota-Ka in Portuguese), and yet I have no idea who that is even." Eric stopped walking and stared at me for a second to determine if I was being serious. Then he shook his head and laughed as he said, "Uh, Juscelino Kubitschek, the president of Brasil who was responsible for Brasília being built? Juscelino Kubitschek . . . JK." Ooohhhhh, makes sense now. That one goes down as Emily's Blonde Moment Number 71,347. A really neat museum of his life and family.

Igreginha Nossa Senhora de Fátima, probably the most famous of the many little churches in the designed residential areas of the city.

Ultimately, it was a really nice trip. The modern architecture is really interesting and there are some neat museums and things to see. We were most disappointed in how difficult it was to walk around though. The main tourist areas (although plenty close enough to walk) have unkempt sidewalks and few (if any) crosswalks. The Eixo Monumental is just 2.25 miles long, and even though we made it okay, it really wasn't pedestrian friendly . . . which is really a shame! The sidewalks are right along the curb of the main road (6 lanes of traffic in each direction) when they have an entire grassy park area that they could have put a sidewalk in! In the end , we were really glad that we:
1. took the jogging stroller with the bicycle tires instead of the "mall" stroller,
2. chose to walk the Eixo Monumental instead of doing a bus tour - saw so much more!, and
3. rented a car for one day to see all the further out sights as the bus system was alright, but it would have taken forever to see everything by bus.

In my humble opinion, it doesn't even come close to comparing to Washington, D.C. though. I love Washington, D.C., although I think maybe it's the historical factor as much as anything. And can you believe Eric has never even been there?!? He is more ready than ever to rectify that situation now though. As soon as we get moved back to the US we will be watching for on-sale flights to our nation's capital! (Besides getting her father fully cultured, it is important for Gabriela to see the capital cities of both of her "home" countries too!)


Claudia said...

Hi Emily!
The building with the waterfalls is the Palacio da Justica. I love Brasilia, I think it's a very neat city. But you're right about Washington DC. The city has got so much to offer. I lived for two years there and I simply loved every minute of it.

Ray Adkins said...


You should try to visit DC on the first week of April and watch the cherry blossom on the Potomac, it is life time experience!
Washington DC is my absolutely favorite city.
Super expensive but totally worth it.

Vivi DiLopes Adams said...

I agree with you: D.C. is WAY better than Brasilia!
(You were very close to my hometown)

Corinne said...

I love DC too!! The ipês in bloom remind me of the cherry blossoms in DC. I have yet to see Brasilia, and honestly not much desire to go (although this post has definitely made me more curious :).

Fabiana said...

It is soooo nice to see Gabriela growing up so healthy and beautiful! :)
Beijos to all!!

Rogério Penna said...

hey, that bile green carpet was THE thing back in the 60s lol

its impossible to compare Brasilia, a city 50 years old, to Washington DC.

and yes, Brasilia SUCKS for walking... it was a city designed for CARS... back in the 50s, they thought that cities had to be designed for cars, both in the US and Brasil... Brasilia ended up like that, very unfriendly to pedestrians... and dated, imho.