Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Sustainable Curitiba

I came to Curitiba because of its former Mayor and State Governor, an architect named Jaime Lerner. I heard him speak on three different occasions in Vancouver and Toronto, and was impressed with his ideas and accomplishments. For the past 4 decades, he has been trying to make Curitiba a model of sustainability. Unfortunately, he was out of town when we arrived, but I could feel his presence as we toured around the city.

On arrival we were pleased to find HSBC advertising all over the airport. This meant we could avoid ATM fees! In keeping with the city’s spirit of sustainability, we took a bus from the airport into town. On the way we read the literature provided by the airport's tourist information centre. We were happy to see there was a hop-on hop-off bus. However, this one was operated by the local public transit operator, not a private company.

To the casual observer, Curitiba looks like another large South American city, with a skyline of large mediocre apartment blocks, and a broad mix of buildings along its downtown streets. But when you look closely, you start to see some differences. This is the self-proclaimed 'environmental capital of Brazil' and the greenest city in South America in terms of park space per resident.

The 25 stops along the two hour hop-on, hop-off tour offered further evidence this was not a typical Brazilian city. They included:

·A 24 hour street, initiated by city planners, to increase around the clock activity and safety in the downtown;

·Theatro Paiol, a powder depot recycled into an arena theatre;

·a combined bus, train and city market development, considered a landmark in transportation terminals in the country, when it opened 35 years ago;

·a memorial for Polish immigration,

·the Museu Oscar Niemeyer, the largest and most modern in Brazil;

·a tribute to German immigrants,

·the ‘free university of the environment’ that promotes public education on the environment, inaugurated with Jacques Cousteau;

·an old glue factory that was converted into a creativity centre;

·a glass and steel Opera Centre in a former quarry, where the trees surrounding the building are the 'walls' of the auditorium;

·a park which serves as a tribute to the natives who first inhabited the area,

·a Ukrainian memorial, in tribute to the many immigrants from the Ukraine,

·a gateway to the Italian neighbourhood.

I was particularly interested in seeing the city's relatively inexpensive rapid transit system that uses buses rather than trains or trams. They run primarily on dedicated lanes. A key feature is the raised tubular glass platforms that are the fare paid zone. They allow easy access onto the buses. Hydraulic platforms are available for those in wheelchairs. Lerner claims it works since it wasn’t designed by experts. It seemed like such a good idea, I was curious to know if other cities have copied it.

Curitiba is the opposite of Brasilia. In addition to its focus on transit, it is a city designed for walking, with many wide, decorated sidewalks, and a portion of the downtown restricted to pedestrians. It was the first pedestrian only street in Brazil, created in 72 hours over a long weekend in 1973.

Unfortunately, I couldn't see some of the other initiatives I had heard about from Lerner. These included a garbage pick up program in which residents of low income neighbourhoods were paid to collect their own garbage...with bus tickets! To make the program more interesting and effective, the bus tickets were also lottery tickets, with draws each week. In another project, park light fixtures were made from recycled local children

We did see the current recycling program operating around town. There are 5 containers instead of the typical three. One is for organic waste, and one is for ‘stico’ which I am hoping means chewing gum, since I hate seeing it on sidewalks around a city.

One of our best stops was the Oscar Niemeyer Museum. It’s the building with the large eye out front. There we saw some very unusual pieces and a display on Niemeyer’s work. There was also a filmed interview with him, explaining the rationale behind his different projects, (and he has done a lot of them in South America). While he didn’t convince Sally that there shouldn’t be trees in Brasilia’s major civic plaza, I was impressed with his approach. However, while I like many of his buildings, I too do not like his major urban design projects like the civic square in Brasilia.

While I would have like to have stayed on for another day or two to see a bit more of the city, Sally was eager to get to the Iguazu Falls and Buenos Aires. So, on Friday morning, I stopped off in the Canadian Travel Agency in Curitiba, where I purchased two tickets for Saturday’s flight to the falls. Although HSBC has a big presence in Curitiba, their credit card did not work for on-line bookings with the airlines. But when we got to the airport, we found a special airport lounge for HSBC premier members. Go figure.

Although Brasilia and Curitiba had not been typical tourist destinations, we were glad we had visited them. We had again seen different sides of life in Brazil, but now we were off to do some real site seeing. It’s a shame we couldn’t take Brasilia’s and Curitiba’s perfect sunny weather with us.

Brasilia: the country's bold capital

I first learned about Brasilia in 1965 when I started my studies in architecture. But I hadn't really planned on coming here until I started to exchange emails with my friend Jonathan Rubenstein, who spent quite a bit of time here putting together a mining project.

Brasilia is the modern capital city of Brazil. It was essentially carved out of the jungle over a four year period, and officially inaugurated in 1960. The driving force behind it was Juscelino Kubitschek, who was elected president of Brazil in 1956 on the promise that he would build the capital before the end of his term. It was originally planned for 500,000 people. Today it has a population of over 4 million and is still growing. It was master planned by Oscar Niemeyer, a student of Le Corbusier and Lucio Costa. Did I mention it was a master planned community?

While in many respects it was a difficult place to be a tourist, it was fascinating to see. It is a vivid case study on how planning has changed in 50 years.

We nearly didn't come. When we tried to book a hotel, only two had space, and we didn’t want to stay at a Brazilian Comfort Inn. When we tried to book flights, the airlines wouldn’t accept our international credit cards. So we did something we have never done before. We went to the airport with no reservations and no tickets. When the taxi driver asked which terminal, we had no idea. As it turned out, we were lucky. TAM, the Brazilian airline in Terminal 1, (or was it 2?) had a flight in an hour. We bought a ticket, checked in, and it was all too good to be true. And it was. The flight was delayed two hours! But we eventually got there, although I missed seeing the city, whose site plan is based on the shape of a bird or plane, from the air in daylight.

As it turned out the hotel was just fine. We had a great room, free internet, in a good location, if you consider ‘the hotel zone’ a good location! That’s right. In the plan prepared by Niemeyer and Costa, all the hotels are located together in hotel zones, with little else around them; no small shops to buy snacks and water; no apartments; few restaurants; just lots of hotels, and a large nearby shopping centre.

In fact, the entire city is planned that way. Elsewhere are the government precincts; the embassy precincts; the 4 storey residential precincts; the 6 storey residential precincts; the high rise residential precincts; the sports and leisure precincts; and so on, all separated by very wide arterial roads.

The concept for the neighbourhoods is similar to that of Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier. Each has its own neighbourhood retail. However, what the planners didn’t understand is that in Brazil, retailers want to be near other similar retailers. As a result, the residents still have to leave their neighbourhood by car to buy most things.

The character of the place is best exemplified by the street addresses. Most people live in ‘superquadras’ such as SQS 105, Bloco A-501, 70344 Brasilia, which means superquadra south no 105, building A, apartment 501 postcode 70344. The three digit superquadra number gives the location; the first digit represents the position east or west of the main axis; (with odd numbers to the west, evens to the east), increasing the further away form the centre you get. The last two digits represent the distance north or south of the other axis. A similar logic applies to the main roads. Once you get the hang of it, it’s actually very functional, and makes it easy to find a location, as long as you can figure out the road system.

Each sector is separated by wide arterial roads, with grade separated intersections, and lots of cloverleaves. To illustrate the situation, on our first evening we wanted to go to a restaurant we could see from our hotel. However, we had to take a taxi since it was across a major boulevard street, with no traffic lights or pedestrian crossings. The road system was so contorted the taxi cost 30 percent more coming than going!

We should have taken some organized tours, but since there were few if any other tourists, we would have been on our own in a little van. We considered renting a car, but Sally was concerned we would always be lost. I told her we can’t get lost if we don’t know where we are going, but she wasn’t convinced. So we decided to tour by public bus routes suggested by our guide book. At first, we had little success. However, everyone was extremely friendly and helpful. At one point, a fellow passenger who couldn't speak English handed me his cell phone. It turned out he had dialed a friend who could speak English, to give us directions!

We toured most of Niemeyer’s major buildings which really are quite extraordinary. We also walked by the 17 identical government office buildings. At one point, we couldn’t get from the congress to the street above, so we did what other people did, and used the steps that had been carved into the side of the grass slope.

We were both disturbed by some of the major civic spaces that were completely devoid of trees and street furniture of any kind. Many of the buildings were much too sculptural to be functional, which reminded us of a famous Canadian architect.

We took the bus over a new bridge that was voted the best bridge in the world in 2003. En route we met a young lady who told us it wasn’t often she met foreigners on a bus in Brasilia.

The second evening, we took the advice of Jon’s friends Carlos and Tina, who live in Brasilia, and went to Zuu, a fusion restaurant owned by his friend. It offered a mix of Brazilian and Japanese influences and was very good; one of the best meals of the trip.

On the third evening we went for dinner with Carlos and Tina to a wine shop that served meals in the evening. A very interesting concept. I was a bit disappointed that after a very good Brazilian champagne, the sommelier proposed an Australian white and Spanish red. In fact, there are some very good Brazilian wines. But we had a very good evening together, and enjoyed experiencing their very sophisticated approach to life in Brazil. However, when they come to Canada, we’re serving BC wines.

After three days, it was time to again move on. We decided our next stop would be Curitiba, another city I wanted to see for planning reasons. Unfortunately, the director of planning who I had met in Vancouver had not responded to my email, and I hadn’t bothered to contact the former Mayor who inspired me to come. But at noon we boarded another TAM flight and were on our way. This time we had a ticket and a reservation before getting to the airport.

Brasilia, like the art gallery in Balbao, was intended to put the country on the world map. It cost a lot of money, and put many governments in debt. But the consensus is that it is now a great success in terms of having opened up a major part of the country. I would just like to see some changes to make it a bit friendlier to pedestrians. But Carlos mentioned that certain things can’t be changed in order to keep the UNESCO designation intact. Hopefully one day, the UN will allow some small shops in the hotel zones.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Picturesque Parati

It was the description in our guidebook that first caught my attention.

‘UNESCO considers Parati to represent one of the world's most important examples of Portuguese colonial architecture….The town centre was one of Brazil's first planned urban projects, and its narrow cobbled streets, out of bounds to motorized transport, are bordered by houses built around courtyards…’

When we arrived by bus from Rio, it was not at all what we expected. Instead of ornate stone buildings, we found simple, predominantly single story white stucco buildings. However, windows and doorways were painted in different colours, creating a rainbow effect along the street. It reminded me of Obidus in Portugal, which we once visited on Larry Beasley’s recommendation. There, all the buildings were painted white, with yellow and blue trim. However, this place had another interesting feature.

I was surprised to find the very bumpy stone streets quite wet in places, which seemed odd since it hadn't been raining. As we walked down towards the waterfront, we realized what was happening. The streets were being flooded by the ocean. I didn't learn until much later, this was not an accident. It was by design. At high tides, and especially at full moon, water would enter the town and flood the streets, washing away excrement from donkeys and goodness knows what else. A local artist told us that at certain times the water could be so high, he would be stranded if he didn’t leave in time, and have to arrange for a donkey and cart to transport him away from his studio.

Over the years, many of the buildings have been converted to pousadas, art galleries, restaurants, and shops. Much of the town is now geared to tourists, and has become a venue for conferences. While we were there, we met some physicists who had been attending a week long session on quantum physics. I know that my good friend John Swift would have liked it, since he got so much enjoyment from the film ‘What the Bleep do we Know?’ that we saw together one evening in Vancouver.

Since we arrived without accommodation we immediately went to the nearby tourist information centre. We were told the town was essentially booked up for the weekend, but after our expressions of regret, were found accommodation at the Hotel Coxixo, one of the larger hotels in the historic centre. As it turned out, the town was by no means booked up, but would be the next weekend, since the annual cachaca festival was taking place. (Cachaca is to Brazil what Tequila is to Mexico. Except this is made from sugar cane like rum, but without the pleasant taste of rum! Shops around town offered hundreds of different varieties.)

The hotel was very charming, but unusual in that everywhere there were photos and memorabilia of some actress. It was like a shrine to her and there was even a small theatre on the property. It turned out the hotel was owned by Maria Della Costa, once one of Brazil’s most famous actresses. On the hotel literature, she proclaims 'Te espero com cainho'. 'I wait for you tenderly'.

Compared to Sao Paulo and Rio, Parati seemed almost surreal. It was so very comfortable walking around and felt like the safest place on earth. There was only one small piece of graffiti, which I offered to paint over myself if someone would give me the paint. I didn’t have to. It was gone the next day!

In addition to just wandering around, we went on two outings. The first was a schooner trip to some nearby islands in the bay that included an opportunity to go snorkeling. After being at the Great Barrier Reef, this was a bit disappointing, but still enjoyable. While we were the only English speaking people on our boat, we managed to make a few friends. By the time we got back, the weather was starting to change, but the views back to the town were impressive.

We also took a jeep expedition to the National Park of Serra da Bocaina with its preserved rain forest and waterfalls. We visited two typical cachaca distilleries which seemed extremely primative, and sought out the gold trail. In the jeep, we sat beside an English couple who had been traveling the world for about the same length of time as us. We discovered many similar experiences, even though we had taken very different itineraries.

Each evening, we had good meals, including a bouillabaisse ordered a day in advance at a small French restaurant run by a chef from Marseille. Other restaurants were often selected based on the quality of the music.

We enjoyed listening to non English speaking singers doing songs in English. While some were quite good, no one compared with the girl from Albania, who had us convinced she was from an English speaking country until she started to get tired.

One evening we went to the theatre. While I was concerned whether we would understand the dialogue, I need not have been. The Grupo Contadores de Estorias performed with puppets, and without dialogue. And without strings. ‘Direct manipulation’ is the trademark of the company. Their production included seven ‘adult oriented’ scenes including an old man playing fiddle, an elderly couple flirting, and something called ‘erotic awakening and rebirth’. Fortunately, I slept through much of it.

At breakfast each day, we chatted with two Americans who were in Parati scripting a film with an older Brazilian man. When we told them we were from Vancouver, they wanted to know if we knew Bing Thom. It’s a small world. We didn't want to ask what their film was about, but if a film about Maria Della Costa appears at a theatre near you in a year or two, that's probably it.

On our last morning we told them we were off to Brasilia. “Oh no”, they said. “You should have gone to Brasilia before Parati”. We had an idea what they meant, but were going to find out for ourselves.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Rio and The Girl from Ipanema

Rio de Janeiro is an hour from Sao Paulo by plane, or 6 hours by bus. As a result of the recent air crash in Sao Paulo, we were told it might be faster and safer to take the bus. When we arrived at the station, we discovered a number of companies all wanting our business. In South America, there are often three classes of buses. We traveled by ‘executive coach’ which was very much like being at the front of an airplane, except for the absence of caring flight attendants and the drink trolley. But it was a very easy and enjoyable trip up the Costa Verde.

On Eliane's advice, we booked into a hotel on Ipanema beach. Fortunately, I met a brave young man wearing a kippa and tzizis in the Sao Paulo bus station who lived in nearby Copacabana. He wanted to serve as our guide once we arrived in Rio, directing us onto another bus through a dirty and scarred favela to the subway, from where we took another bus to Ipanema. When we arrived, I noticed row upon row of bars. But they were not the ones in which you drink. These were designed to keep intruders out. It was disconcerting and sad. That evening, I looked for the girl from Ipanema, but never found her.

The next morning we set off for Copacabana Beach, described by our guidebook as the most famous beach on the planet. We didn't know whether it would be beach weather or not, but it was 25 degrees at 10 in the morning. It was very beautiful, but not as ‘glamorous’ as we expected. While most of the buildings are quite ordinary by our standards, the landmark Copacabana Palace did stand out. We now realize that few cities can match Vancouver's waterfront developments.

After looking around the area, which once back from the beach feels like New York in terms of building density, we went downtown by Metro. Like Sao Paulo, the subway is very clean and feels very safe. At street level, we discovered a varied mix of modern skyscrapers, decaying older buildings, and much in between. Unfortunately, like Sao Paulo, much of it is covered in graffiti.

On the advice of our guidebook, we took a tram up to Santa Teresa, a hilly suburb with leafy, cobbled streets. We didn’t expect too much for 30 cents, but it turned out to be an exciting 25 minute roller coaster ride on an antique tram up to the top. The views along the way were quite spectacular, and although there were many interesting neighbourhoods where we should have got off, we decided to keep going, so we would have time to take a ferry over to Ilha de Paqueta, a car free zone popular with locals.

Unfortunately, we just missed the ferry, and rather than wait an hour, boarded one for Niteroi, across the bay, where we could see Neimeyer's famous Museu de Arte Contemporanea. Unfortunately, it was closed since a new show was being installed, but we did see the outside, which many think is much better than most of the work inside.

That evening, we walked to a nearby restaurant where during dinner we were entertained by three athletic black gymnasts who performed a variety of cartwheels in the street, accompanied by some drumming. After collecting from the patrons, they were off. I think we were all quite generous, in case we met them again walking back to our hotels!

We spent time each day on the beach, by the hotel. Fortunately, we met up with 6 delightful friends traveling together from Pennsylvania, some of whom were originally from Brazil. Together we exchanged travel experiences, tried to negotiate the purchase of prawns, (challenging even if you speak Portuguese), and bought some small paintings.

We decided to stay on another day, but the Ipanema Plaza was fully booked. So we checked into the Sheraton Rio in nearby Leblon, which is unique in that it is a resort right on the beach. (It was also unique in that a large hillside flavela looked directly into our 17th floor windows!)

We had a very decadent time, being served Brazilian barbq by one of the pools, and just lying around. It’s an odd thing, but even after 7 months of travel, I feel guilty just lying on a beach reading! I feel I should be ‘doing something’.

We took the hotel shuttle back to Copacabana that evening, and after a few caipirinha limas, wandered through the market. We came across a very colourful and exuberant painting by a charming young man that seemed to epitomize the spirit of the city. So I bought it, not knowing how I would get it home, but hoping to one day see it framed in our front hall. Back at the hotel, we discovered we had missed the Mexican night.

After 4 days in Rio, it was again time to move on. We didn’t really know where to go. But I had read in our guide book about Parati, a small UNESCO protected 17th century colonial town that had remained fundamentally unaltered since the 18th century. Although it meant a four hour bus ride each way, backtracking towards Sao Paulo, we decided to go.

As for the girl from Ipanema, I never saw her, but she has stayed in my mind. Now she can stay in yours…

Tall and tanned and young and lovely
the girl from Ipanema goes walking
and when she passes
each man she passes
goes Aaah!
When she moves it's like a samba
that swings so cool and sways so gently
that when she passes
each man she passes
goes Aaah!
Oh - but he watches so sadly
How - can he tell her he loves her
He - would just give his heart gladly
But each day when she walks to the sea
She looks straight ahead not at he
Tall and tanned and young and lovely
the girl from Ipanema goes walking
and when she passes
he smiles
but she doesn't see
no she doesn't see
she just doesn't see...