thomas locke hobbs | weblog
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January 17, 2001  
Serendipitous Connections

I just sent the following email, I think the context will make itself clear over the course of the letter.


I was in Chaiten in Southern Chile having a brief conversation with an American expat who runs a tour agency. I had just chanced to meet him in a small grocery shop and he convinced me to change to the other bus company (his) for the ride to Futaleufu on the Argentine border.

In our brief conversation I had mentioned that I had just finished a book. I said we should trade and brought out several books, one of which was "The Hours". Figuring I can't go too wrong with a book that won the nobel prize I picked it up and left him my copy of The War At The End of the World by Mario Vargas LLosa, a novelization of the Canudos Rebellion in Brazil made famous by Euclides da Cunha's masterpiece "Os Sertoes" (which I am reading now).

When I realized that "The Hours" is essentially a retelling of "Mrs. Dalloway" I figured I should read it first. And so I waited until I met up with my brother some months hence for Christmas in Sao Paulo where he gave Virginia Woolfe's book to me. I recently finished it and, the other day, on a long bus ride from Sao Luis to Belem in northern Brazil I read "The Hours", which I found to be one of the best and most moving novels I have read in quite sometime.

Your email appears in the back of the book so I thought it only fitting that I should email you. You live in Sao Paulo? Odd that the book should find it's way all the way to Southern Chile and then back up here to the mouth of the Amazon. I do not plan to carry the book with me. Instead I have written my own name and email address in the back of the book and plan to leave it at the next book exchange I find.



I just sent this email, but it was bounced back =)
posted by Thomas

A quarter pounder

I read some reference the other day to a quarter pounder. I had to pause for a moment and think how much this was in grams (about 113) before it made sense in a viceral sort of way.

I have been out of the US way too long.
posted by Thomas


What is amazing about Brasilia is that it is the vision of a few men made into reality: Oscar Niemeyer, the architect, Lucio Costa, the loopy urban planner, and Juscelino Kubitschek, the ambitious politician who forever earned the ingratitude of Brazilian public officials by moving the capital from Rio to this godforsaken plateau in the interior.

Briefly, Brasilia was begun in 1957 and inaugurated in 1960, altho it took another ten years to flesh out the details. The city is laid out in the shape of an airplane. The main fuselage contains all the monumental buildings and the commercial sectors. In the cockpit are the Congress, Supreme Court, and Presidential offices. The wings contain the residential areas. All the main buildings are designed by Oscar Niemeyer in this tropical modern style very similar to Le Corbusier, but rather more sensual, as is the custom for everything in Brasil. The buildings are all glass facades and whimsical curves. The interiors contain large hallways covered with colorful shag carpet and space-age leather lounge furniture deisgned by Niemeyer himself. Hey, it was the 60s baby! Naturally, none of this can be changed.

Brasilia gets a lot of flack for being very pedestrian unfriendly. The main axis of the city is on a huge scale. Cars speed down the roads flanking the public buildings at freeway speed. There are few sidewalks and the crosswalks are few and far between. Of course, you can say the same thing about the Mall in Washington, DC, so I don´t think the criticism is quite fair. There is a much more interesting story going on out in the wings where the people of Brasilia actually live and carry out their lives.

The residential area is divided into large blocks of small houses or long, seven story apartment buildings. The houses are on narrow, dead-end streets perpendicular to the main avenues that speed traffic to the center. On their backside the houses all share a common garden with the houses of the next block over. This makes it possible to walk between houses of different blocks without ever touching pavement. It´s a nice idea, altho it does not quite work. This is, after all, Latin America, not Utopia. The backyards are uniformly guarded by high sharp bars. The common gardens are overgrown and unkempt.

The apartment blocks, with their hired securitymen and gardeners are nicer with their common areas. This is most of the residential wing and it all resembles a big college campus. Most colleges experienced a building boom right as the baby boom was entering colleges, leaving most campuses today littered with hulking concrete dormitories surrounded by common gardens and bicycle pathways. This in a nutshell is Brasilia. For you Harvard people, imagine 12 miles of building after building that all look like New Quincy: long, low apartment blocks of 7 stories (they are ALL 7 stories) with simple facades with highly emphasizedhorizontal lines. In between each residential block is either a large green space or two small blocks of one-story buildings occupied by small shops, grocery stores and restaurants, with a very main-street feel. So in face, Brasilia has its own contained little worlds with all their services right there, easily accesible on foot: a place as if ripped from the pages of A Pattern Language, except for the seven story thing. It´s quite pleasant really. I imagine it is like Cuba in its better days--everyone works for the government, housing, daycare, and other services are all subsidized andnearby.

There is, however, another Brasilia. The satellite cities. Built far away and out of sight, these areas were to house the workers who built Brasilia, the Candangos, poor immigrants from the Northeast and other poor areas of Brasil. Niemeyer was a socialist so I wonder what he meant for these satellite cities. Perhaps they were to live in pre-fabricated housing uintes and be shuttled off to ultra-modern factories in hovercraft where they would Manufacture The New Brazil. Something like that.

The reality is that these satellite cities are much more like South African townships--darker, poorer, and much more dangerous. People take the bus into Brasilia in the daytime and then clearout at night. My tour guide for the congress building commented that at night you only see good people about (her words). She kind of pinched her skin when she said this to silently emphasize what she meant about "good people". White people. Actually, she lamented that this is getting less so. Brasilia is a growing city with two million residents and counting. In an interesting twist on urban development (in a city that is full of them), the sprawl is encroaching *inwards* from the satellite city tothe airplane. There were a few more interesting aspects about the airplane wings that struck me:

- Hideous, brutalist monstrosities of architecture are Everywhere. Anywhere else a single one of these buildings would be a shameful landmark (I´m thinking of Boston City Hall). Here they are merely schools, churches, andhospitals. - Street addresses are Very Logical. For instance I could live in Residential South, Superquadrant 108, Block B, apartment 312. A local would know exactly where this places me, both physically and socioeconomically. This plan is so logical, in fact, that street signs and building numberings are rarely necessary and frequently dispensed with. This makes it more than a little difficult for a newcomer to find his way around.

- The residential superquadrants are neatly contained pedestrian worlds surrounded by the freeways that bisect the airplane wings. Try to go to another area and you are faced with 16 lanes of speeding traffic to cross. If you look hard enough you can find the occasional dark, urine filled pedestrian tunnel. At the entrance to each is a newish sign with an illustration of a cat flattened by a car and a warning to use the tunnels because humans, unlike cats, do not have seven lives. Odd that in Brazil cats should only have seven lives.
posted by Thomas

January 12, 2001  
New Year´s in Rio

New Year´s Eve in the United States sucks. The best we have is Times Square where you have half a million people waiting out in the Extreme Cold for hours to watch a little ball drop. Of course Times Square can´t fit so many, so most endure the Cold for nothing more than a picture of a big video screen.

And this is as good as it gets in the USA. Most other places people either shrug off the holiday completely (me most years) or desperately search for the cool party, always wondering if they´ve found it. The biggest problem with New Years in America, in my opinion, is that we are in The Wrong Hemisphere.

The party´s in Rio. On a good year up to 3 million people will gather on the beach in Copacabana and watch a 20 minute spectacle of fire works exploding in the shadow of the Sugar Loaf. There is plenty of space and the party starts in the afternoon and because it is summer, they hang out a long time afterwards.

I was here with my brother who was smart enough to get a hotel close to the beach. When we saw the hour long lines at the bathrooms we understood the value of advanced reservations.

We were not so lucky with the weather as the afternoon of the 31st saw several major downpours that sent the crowds on the beach promanade scrambling to the building overhangs in a mass rush of a crowd. While the people waited for the rain to subside men would come by selling umbrellas. God Bless Captialism.

When it was not raining we strolled up and down the beach indulging in Brazil´s cheap and very street food. The best, tho, was the 50 cent beers. Oh yes, another thing that sucks about the US: open container laws. Not in Brazil.

Of course, one leaves behind certain securities and comforts upon leaving the United States. Brazil, and especially Rio, are Not Safe (and I´m not just talking about muggings, altho there is plenty of that). Just one small example: its a custom for people to dress in white, buy roses and toss them into the sea while making a wish. The roses natrually wash immediately back up. Rose stems on a beach...most have been dethorned, but not all.

As midnight approached my brother and I stationed ourselves on the beach. It had been cloudy and drizzly most of the evening but as the minutes counted down into the single digits the clouds burst forth in a massive tropical downpour. The rain was mixed in with the shouts of people and the lighting of fire crackers in ever increasing frequency.

Finally midnight struck with a glorious rain of fireworks. Six different stations curving along the beach all launched identical rockets for a marvelous symetry. Halfway through the show I noticed a ways down the beach a massive exploding firework that did not get launched up, but instead exploaded right in the middle of the crowded beach. After the show ended we wandered up the beach and as we passed this section there were injured people being cared for and being taken away in ambulances, taxis, whatever. The following day I read in the newspaper that 49 people had been injured and one man died. As I said, Rio is Not Safe. Of course, in Sao Paulo crowds got into a beer bottle tossing war with the police and injured 40. Everything becomes a little unglued. I imagine it´s a little like Carnaval, except its just one night instead of four.

Unfortunately the rain continued and eventually Will and I went back to our hotel. Amazingly the next day the beach was nearly clean. Rio indeed knows what its most valuable assets are.

My brother is already talking of booking his ticket for next year. Carnaval certainly gets all the attention, but New Years must be a close rival.

posted by Thomas

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About me

My name's Thomas Locke Hobbs. I used to live in Argentina, now I am in New York City. I grew up in California. I'm a bit suspicious as the value of keeping a weblog, but I do it anyway. Go to my home page for more about me.

Weblogs I read:

Xblog, Virginia Postrel, Signal vs. Noise, Peterme, Obscure Store, Metafilter, Media News, Lonely Planet Daily Scoop, Lightningfield, Kottke, Joel on Software, Dan Bricklin, Camworld, Arts and Letters Daily,

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