So, I could not have asked for a larger contrast than Sao Paolo as I was driven from the airport into the centre of Brasilia. As I left Sao Paulo the last of many phases of habitation that surrounded the roads and stretched off into the distances as far as the eye could see was a ramshackle collect of walls and roofs, huddling together for mutual support and I presume sheltering as best they can many, many people.
Around the airport at Brasilia, there was nothing of the sort. Here it was parched park land with palms, new roads with relatively little traffic one them and a feeling of relatively newness; correct considering the Brazilian capitol was only inaugurated in 1960.
As the taxi coasted down the boulevards to the business hotel and meeting rooms that would be this week’s home, I noticed that the main road thoroughfare seemed to be closed to traffic – this was a Sunday – and instead populated by a smattering of walkers, joggers and people on bikes. Compared the hustle and bustle of Sao Paolo it all seemed very quiet and sedate, and largely proved to be over the coming days, at least in comparison – although crossing Brazilian roads is still an exercise in speed, courage and possible the odd prayer at times depending on just how many lanes you must scamper across.
In retrospect, I would summarise the difference between the two cities as being wrapped up in what they are about. As noted last week, Sao Paulo seems to me a place where the most important thing are the people who live there themselves. In the case of Brasilia, it is not about individuals or the mass of humanity, but about how Brazil wants to project itself and its institutions. If you look up any of the buildings – most designed by the architect Oscar Niemeyer – they are indeed impressive, even if you do not happen to be a fan of concrete. They are making bold statements and in most cases, at least adhere to my personal view that functional buildings do not (and should not) be boring. Though it was hard at times to get away from influences of the period in which they were designed – on of my favourites, the National Museum Honestino Guimaraes, to my reckoning does look like a spaceport as imagined perhaps in a post Star Wars cheap rip off. Nothing wrong with that, by the way. Next to it, the cathedral is a stunning piece of work, causing you to enter down a dark tunnel only to emerge into a huge light auditorium where monumental metal angels cascade down towards you in a scene reminiscent of many medieval ceiling paintings.
There was a second thing that in Brasilia struck me as different from Sao Paulo. In the latter, I was forced to spend most of my exercise time on treadmills as the part of the city I was in was not conducive to running. In Brasilia, the city park, a huge parched thing provided ample (if hot) opportunity for slow jogging. For me, having to go slow by necessity of the conditions had the advantage of allowing me to see many of the diverse bird species that share the park, from little ovenbirds, flycatchers, caracara or my personal favourite, the incredible cute burrowing owls. The zoologist in me was worried that I was not going to experience any of Brazil’s wildlife, but while it was not exactly a trip down the Amazon, at least it was a nice taster. So, Brasilia, for me, not about the people, but about the country and the identity it would like to project, set in a landscape while the owls look on unimpressed before vanishing down a burrow.