Posts in: Venture Grant
Roberto picked me up from my hotel in his Ford Fusion to start our tour. Yes, even though 90% of Brasilia’s famous sights are on the main street of the city, a car tour was the only way to go about seeing them all in one day. Like I’ve said before, not walker friendly.
Roberto was a great sport, expertly answering my rapid-fire questions about the city. He had lived here most of his life, so he had a lot of insight about the changes the city had seen in the previous decades. He explained something that I had actually thought a lot about-why there was no one downtown. When the city was built, all of the housing downtown was made for families. This entailed 4 or 5 person apartments. But that was 50 years ago and demographics have changed as children moved out and spouses passed away. I talked to a landlady who said that exactly 30 of her 60 units were occupied by single widowers. Meanwhile, the rent remains too sky high so young couples are moving out to the areas around the city, and the wealthier ambassadors and expats have moved to the neighborhood of South Lake. Downtown numbers are dwindling, a problem for the city’s design (that I’ll get into at a later post).
While not directly tied into my venture grant exploration, the buildings were what this city was built around. A utopian ideal of great architecture and monuments accessible to all. The monuments followed the city theme of “empty”, perhaps through the photo you can tell how astonishingly…well, empty, these places where. For instance, at the Palácio da Alvorada (Brasilia’s equivalent of the White House), I was one of 4 or 5 people there. I did find it pretty funny that, instead of a fence, they had a “moat” (I would call it more a shallow carp pond-compete with carp!-that a high school long jumper could easily hop across).
[On a related note, Roberto told me that, when asked the best time to visit Brasilia, Oscar Niemeyer responded, “Weekends, so there are no cars in front of the monuments.”]
For lunch, Roberto took me to get ‘real Brazilian pizza’ and mate, where I encountered the most people I had seen at once this trip. There were probably 5 or 6 guys eating at the counter silently watching the Brazil-South Africa soccer match. Brazil won.
One of the happiest coincidences of the days was that the National Museum (the circular building with a curving ramp sticking out of the side) was having an art exhibit on the Bauhaus movement! Ah, ‘twas a good day to be an architecture nerd in Brazil.
While the buildings didn’t disappoint, they did look…worn. White isn’t an ideal or sustainable building color. That being said, a lot of these photos are in black and white because these buildings are so much more about their form or shape, and to have the grimy concrete color in front of the building distract from the photo would kind of be a shame. Black and white really shows off the clean lines. I will say that the photos I had seen previously (and took myself) of the Dom Bosco Church (the one with all the small square panels of blue stained glass) did/do not nearly do it justice.
Despite what TripAdvisor told me, the people at the front desk of my hotel do not speak English. That would have been fine if I knew that beforehand, but since I was expecting “Excellent English skills” I didn’t exactly do a lot of research, figuring it would be easy to just ask the front desk. Now, this isn’t because I’m the type of person who likes to travel and figure it out on the fly, quite the opposite actually. However, I’ve found that no matter how much time you spend researching a city there is just no way you’re going to know more than the people who live there.
First, let me clarify. Brasilia is not a destination like Rio. Going to Brasilia is a bit like traveling to Italy and choosing to go to Milan. No offense to any fans of Milan out there. I will admit my only experience with the city was a night sleeping on a cold marble bench in their train station, but you get the idea. To drive the point home, I was the only non-Brazilian on my flight. This is not speculative; I walked through the ‘foreigners’ customs line alone. I was pretty relieved to even be let into the country considering I look a bit like a mass murderer in my VISA photo (I’m gonna split the blame on that one with the Walgreens photo guy).
Check in with the front desk and my general questions about the area (like where to eat) did not go quite as smoothly as I imagined. After realizing neither of us could understand each other (I had a feeling that my one Portuguese phrase, “A menina come uma maca//the girl eats an apple” would not be getting me very far) we met in the middle and conversed in Spanish. I use the word ‘conversed’ lightly, it was mostly him speaking Spanish phrases or words quite slowly to me, followed by a lot of hand motions. But ultimately, as it often does in these situations, we had a good idea of what each other were trying to say, though the conversation ended with me putting my credit card number on a slip of paper for reasons not entirely known. I suppose I should start checking my bank account on a more regular basis just in case.
Apparently, because of Carnival and Brasilia’s poor pedestrian planning, nothing is open within walking distance. Oh well, what’s the saying? “There’s no better way than getting to know a culture than eating their frozen meals”?
The first thing I notice is how empty it feels here. I was the only one checking into (possibly staying at?) my hotel, and despite being surrounded by high-rises, I didn’t see anyone as I walked the block from where my taxi dropped me off to the hotel doors. It felt a bit post-apocalyptic. When I got to my room on the 16th floor and looked down onto the main axis (think of it like DC’s mall) I could see a few groups of people walking the immense stretches between cross streets like little ants. But that was the only real sign of life. This may just be my reaction to staying at a business hotel instead of a crowded youth hostel. I guess when one has spent most of their nights traveling on a bunk bed in a crowded room, one comes to expect certain things with their lodging (namely, a steady stream of loud young travelers coming into and out of the room at all hours of the night). But it still feels eerie, and I’m not exactly sure what to do with myself…
I was told it wasn’t really safe to walk around the hotel area at night, and I can kind of seem why. This is what the view of the place is at night:
Luckily I did do some research, and had written down the number of a highly recommended tour guide who has a background in architecture. One phone call later I am poised to meet Roberto tomorrow in the lobby of my hotel at 12 to begin our day of touring the architectural sights of Brasilia.
I’m excited to finally see Oscar Niemeyer’s extensive work in this city, as for so long they have been just been staring back at me from the pages of a book. I am a little worried they will not live up to the photos (some CC students may recall me dragging them through the streets of Vienna one night in a desperate attempt to find Otto Wagner’s Postal Savings Bank. I was met with several “this is it?” stares upon arrival) but architecture is an art form you must experience to really appreciate, so I remain deliriously excited to finally step into these buildings.
That’s it for now!
Welcome to my blog detailing my venture grant! I suppose my 9-hour layover at the Miami Airport is a convenient time to write a first post. A quick introduction on me, where I’m going, and what I’m doing:
I am a senior political science major with a focus on international relations. Last spring I studied abroad in beautiful Copenhagen, Denmark, on a program studying non-European immigration and integration in Scandinavia. I also took a class there on how to read cities based on their architectural styles, maps, and structure. For my final paper I ended up merging these two diverse studies by looking at how various housing and immigrant distribution policies throughout Scandinavia were impacting social cohesion in neighborhoods. This is all a longwinded way of saying I’ve recently become very interested in urban planning, and how a city’s structure can have impacts on its citizens and the society at large. How can city design positively or negatively impact things like social capital? Why are some neighborhoods rundown and others are not? This brings me to my venture grant.
I am headed (in a few hours) to the capital city of Brazil, Brasilia. I bet you thought the capital was Rio, and that’s okay, I did too until sophomore year when I ran across the city in an architecture course. What’s so architecturally significant about a city most of us have never heard of? Surprisingly, a lot! Brasilia is an architectural haven, and a UNESCO World Heritage site to boot. You see, in 1956 it was decided that Brazil’s capital should move from Rio to the more centrally located Brasilia. There was just one problem. This is what Brasilia looked like in 1956.
The plan was to build the city up from scratch, which afforded the city complete control over the city’s structure and plan. It was the 1950s, so the utopian urban planning of the Modern movement was in full force. The entire city was completed in just 41 months. Lucio Costa designed the city, with famed architect Oscar Niemayer designing many of the public buildings.
What brings me to Brasilia is actually not the beautiful modernist buildings, but the many faults that people find with the city and its design. The city, designed in the shape of an airplane, has at times been used as a symbol of the failure of urban planning and architecture to take into account the real needs of the people who live in urban areas.
While the museum district is filled with beautiful examples of modern architecture, the city design has sparked debate about just how much government oversight there should be in urban planning, and if it is better to have cities arise naturally with population growth. It is a fascinating contrast to the neighborhoods I studied in Copenhagen which date back to medieval times. While Brasilia looks quite beautiful on a site plan or from an airplane, one finds, in reality, a city devoid of street life. This is due to a variety of factors such as the city being planned on a scale suitable for people moving at speeds of 60km/h (traveling by car) as opposed to a pedestrian friendly city, coupled with the use of single use neighborhoods and cul-de-sacs.
I am headed to Brasilia to see how the citizens of Brasilia have modified their urban environment to cope with poor design, and to understand how the people who live there deal with design issues. I am interested to see if the inhabitants of Brasilia have modified their urban landscape to deal with the sterile environment, if they have moved out of the central districts to create their own spaces outside the city, or if nothing has been done and no street life exists (and what the consequences are if that is the case).
I will primarily study this through photography, both because it’s the format I feel most comfortable with, and due to photography and architecture’s relationship with one another. I’ll be using photographer Marcel Gautherot’s beautiful black and white photographs from the book Building Brasilia for reference (all black and white photos posted will be his unless noted).
I’ll leave it at that for now, I promise more photos for the next post!
Final night in Yellowknife. Best aurora yet. First night with camera problems. Obviously.
It was an early display last night, without the interim between the weak and strong displays that I had noticed two nights ago. My complimentary hot chocolate was interrupted by the announcement that the aurora was increasing in intensity, so I was already flustered as I tried to navigate the teepee flap with the tripod. Looking over the frozen lake in front of me I could see several distinct ribbons of light visibly dancing, where mere minutes before had only been a dull haze. Knowing that sometimes the lights can last as little as five minutes, I hustled over to the spot my dad secured on the lake and began setting up the tripod. I had been outside just a few minutes before, trying to photography the early aurora, so the metal was frozen and sticking. After struggling with the legs, I went to mount the camera, and the dang thing would not click into the base.
If I was flustered before I was basically frantic now. Around me I could hear the “Oww’s” and “Ahh’s” of the other guests at the Aurora Village whom I could not see, as night turned us all into black masses. Finally, I managed to get it secured, and with a sign of relief, I turned the lens to the tree line and composed a shot. By this point, the entire sky was ablaze with undulating green bands. Again, we had the privilege to be directly under a portion of the ribbon, but this time two ends flared out in either direction so you could trace the path of the lights from beginning to end. With all the settings adjusted, I pressed the shutter button halfway down and waited for the telltale hum of the auto-focus adjusting to the focal point.
Nothing. No movement. Frustration turned to desperation.
It was the coldest night that I had attempted to use the camera, and as I figured out later, the lens had stopped registering distances as the metal froze. Thinking that this may have been the problem, I dismantled the whole camera and stuck it beneath both of my jackets in an attempt to warm it before the lights faded away. The cold metal dropped my core temperature faster than I would have thought possible, so I quickly gave up that idea, and remounted the camera in a last ditch effort to get a few shots off before it was too late. For reasons still unknown to me, everything came together at that moment, and I took some pictures where the whole sky is full of clearly dynamic green ribbons.
All in all, I was able to get a few pictures that I would have been proud to share. Except, when I went to upload them to this post, I realized that they were all too big. I was experimenting with a higher ISO setting, and it made the images too large for this site to handle. What I could upload is actually a pretty neat picture of the Aurora Village backlit by the rising moon. Though it’s not the most breathtaking image of the night, it is a good representation of the beautiful landscape under which I experienced the aurora on my last night in Yellowknife.
Last night we took ski-doos (I tried calling it a snowmobile and was met with a blank stare until I amended my verbiage) 30 minutes outside of town to a quaint cabin tucked into a small bay on Great Slave Lake. We were paying for an “Aurora Viewing Tour” which made me cringe for several reasons:
1) I do not like paying for something that I can do for free. No one can charge to watch the display in the sky, but as I learned early on in this trip, you have to be patient and willing to wait. But waiting out in the cold and wind is not really an option up here, so in essence what we are paying for is a warm house with complimentary hot chocolate and muskox meatballs. The awesome mode of transport was just an added bonus.
2) I do not like being “the tourist”. That person who walks into a room and stares wide-eyed as they try to get their bearings, equipped with dangling camera and area map. On this trip more than any in my past I have embraced the inevitable and succumbed to the tourist image. Which actually served me well because in addition to finding a bunch of great eateries and good deals, I got a free pass to complain about the cold (just a little).
Regardless to my unfounded aversion to spending money and owning up to being a visitor, the viewing tour was great. We had a beautiful view with a great foreground for my pictures and very little light pollution.
Because we had a warm house to retreat to, we were able to stay up and watch the entire sequence of the aurora. I am beginning to notice a real pattern in the displays, and our guide for the night verified some of my observations.
At first it is just a whisper of light, a band that cuts across the sky devoid of color and movement. Initially I was mistaking the band for a stray cloud and almost missed the beginnings of the show because of it. Eventually, the colors will deepen just enough to give off a faint green hue, but the ribbons of color don’t change their shape very quickly. Last night, this stage lasted for about 45 minutes, but it was so faint at the end that you could only see the color with a long exposure picture, it was no longer visible to the naked eye.
I thought this was going to be it for the night as the aurora forecast for that evening was pretty calm. So when our guide called us to pack up around 12:30am, I was totally content with the images I had taken. Camera and tripod both safely secured to my dad’s back for travel, we waited outside for the ski-doos to warm up. I was the first to notice the indistinct cloud forming above our heads, and it was only a matter of seconds before it erupted into a flame of color. It stretched almost from horizon to horizon, east to west, and was nearly directly overhead so that we were looking up into the ribbons from below. Paralyzed by awe, I barely had time to get out my camera and snap a few hurried shots before it began to fade and we were herded on the ski-doos. I will confess that I was not a good driver on our way back, as I kept tilting my head back to see if it was still above us. As far as I could tell, it stayed with us until we reached the lights of the city, where it quietly faded away.
I think I let my descriptions get the better of me, so incase I was not clear, here is the pattern I have noticed thus far:
- The initial manifestation of the aurora is a stagnant “cloud,” perhaps with a slight greenish hue
- Early in the evening, an aurora with little movement, but a deeper color so as to clearly identify it as such, will appear slowly in the sky and last for around 45 minutes, the fade slowly back into the night
- Later in the evening, the same preceding cloud will appear, but quickly explode with color and movement, lasting for less time than the first, perhaps 15 minutes.
I am happy to give my insight, but please take into account that I am still exceptionally new to this. I have heard so many different accounts from residents of Yellowknife that I can already recognize there are no fast and true rules to the aurora. It does what it wants when it wishes, and you have to be ready to observe it, for it will not wait around for you.
After a day of fishing, checking traps, and collecting firewood, I asked a new friend to tell me a story about the northern lights. Over tea and ginger cookies, he told me about a hunting trip with this father many years ago when naka (the Dene word for the northern lights) had led them to caribou:
Neither man had seen any sign of caribou in several days. After building camp for the night, the father pointed off into the distance and said they would hunt in that direction tomorrow. He was indicating the direction underneath the northern lights which could be seen in the distance, but made no comment on this coincidence to his son. However, this was his way of teaching. The son had to observe and experience in order to learn. The following day, the father set out early on snowshoes, while the son harnessed their best team of dogs. The son caught up with his father and together they traveled in the direction of the naka the night before. At first they did not see anything, so they traveled farther. Then they saw some tracks, but they were old, so they traveled farther. The farther they traveled, the newer the tracks became, until they came upon a large, fresh path through the snow. The father signaled to pull the sled up a hill and out of the way. He sat and began to pack a pipe to wait. Before he could light the tobacco, a herd of caribou rounded the bend and walked toward the men. The father abandoned his pipe, took off his hat and poured his shells inside. They shot fifteen caribou that day. The son asked the father if caribou were attracted to naka. The father responded yes, because when their hooves click together naka dances for them across the sky.
I took as little artistic liberty with that story as I could, except to exclude names. It was a really profound experience to hear this story from the man who lived it. The imagery he created and the utility of a phenomenon that I had only attributed an aesthetic beauty was quite remarkable. Hearing the story just redoubled my determination to see what I came here for.
Last night it all finally paid off, but I am finding it incredibly hard to articulate the event. It is too simple to say that I saw the aurora, because it was more of an experience. At the time it did not seem so profound, but now as I try to write and describe what I saw I am becoming increasingly more blocked. For now, I will let the pictures tell the story of my first experience with naka.
My Father likes to test the bounds of human capabilities. This usually leads to some pretty intense physical challange in far from ideal conditions. For example, before school began last year, my dad and I drove my car out to the Springs a few days early in the hopes of summiting Pikes Peak. Two days after arriving at altitude and one day after running the Warrior Dash, we decide it will be a great idea to start our Pikes ascent a little late to give us time to rest. Not too long into the hike, I start feeling the altitude, but not wanting to be the weak link I keep my mouth shut and keep trekking. Just as we reach tree line, the thunderheads we had been watching grew ominously gray and thunder sounded in the sky. My dad was thoroughly disappointed, but I was secretly rejoicing. I wasn’t sure how much farther I could have gone before it got dangerous. As the rain fell, we jogged the nine miles back to the car. On the way down I finally admitted how out of it I was near the top and I got seriously reprimanded for not being responsible enough to make my limits known. Easier said than done, when your hiking partner is over thirty years older but in far better shape with enough tenacity and fervor to fuel ten ascents.
So really I should not have been surprised when what was supposed to be a leisurely stroll on the ice road to watch the sun rise quickly turned into a challenge this morning. It started with simple questions like, “So how far is Dettah?”(the ice road connects a community across Yellowknife Bay with the greater city of Yellowknife during the winter. When the ice melts, it’s an 18 km drive around the bay). Then it turned into, “Well, do you think it would be dangerous to walk all the way across?” And this is where I made the mistake of responding, “I don’t think it would be dangerous, just uncomfortable.” And suddenly we were off.
When we started, the weather was warmish and a gentle breeze was at our backs. We walked facing the sunrise and watched it turn the clouds brilliant shades of auburn and crimson. We examined the ice that peaked through the hard packed snow and tried to estimate just how thick it was. But the farther we got from the shore, the more the wind picked up and the faster the temperature dropped. Conversation stopped and hoods went up as we fought the needling winds.
This was the point that I decided not to repeat my mistake on Pikes Peak. I called the trudging to a stop and pointed out how little progress we appeared to be making. We could still see Yellowknife clearly, but had not spotted Dettah on the horizon. Logic prevailed, and we turned around. It was probably one of the better choices I have made recently.
The walk back took twice the effort of the walk out. The wind was now blowing at an angle towards our faces, and no amount of tucking or angling could protect the exposed skin of my cheeks. Dad took the lead and I was able to draft, which cut the wind considerably. We turned around as the sun made its final ascent over the clouds and it was such a spectacular image over the windswept landscape that I had to take a picture. Tactical error. Even with my liners on, I lost all feeling in my fingers in the 30 seconds I had them out of my big gloves.
At this point, I am beginning to question my initial assumption that this walk would not be dangerous. With nothing else to do, we continue walking back. I replace my dad’s shadow as I tuck in behind his jacket to avoid as much of the wind as possible. As cold as my face, fingers and knees were getting, my torso had begun to sweat from the effort. But I dared not unzip anything because the sweat would freeze in seconds. And though it was just walking, my legs began to tire from a combination of cold and fatigue. But I dared not stop to rest because it doesn’t take long to get too cold to function properly. There was really no other option but to continue walking despite the increasingly uncomfortable situation.
We made it back none the worse for the wear, but looking hilariously windswept. The hair that has escaped my hat was frozen across my face and my cheeks were more red than a maraschino cherry. But my dad took the prize with a quarter inch icicle suspended from his eyelashes.
If my math is right, which it usually isn’t, it’s about five miles from Yellowknife to Dettah across the ice road. Adding the distance we had to walk from town just to get to the ice road, we are guessing we walked maybe five miles today. Just under half way across the ice road and we had to call it quits. I get my stubbornness from my father, and I hate having to back down from a challenge. However, I am not messing with these elements. Even though I hate admitting that I have any, its good to know your limits, and today we reached mine.
I did all the research and crunched all the numbers to find the most probable yet cost and education efficient time to see the northern lights, but sometimes the odds are just not in your favor.
The weather forecast for the next few days is a continuation of the last few days; cloudy. In addition, the aurora forecast, which is based on solar activity of the preceding days, predicts low activity for the remainder of my stay. Both of these projections are making me increasingly worried about the success of this trip. Initially I was concerned that my photography skills would not improve quickly enough to produce images worthy of sharing. Now however, I am judging “success” merely by a sighting of the aurora
Of my stay thus far, two nights have been clear enough for a hope of a sighting in at least a portion of the sky. Both nights found me out on a road outside of town staring hopefully at a monotonously dark sky. On Saturday I was rewarded with a brief glimpse of what could only be the northern lights. What I saw was a single, hazy green thread that stood immobile just long enough for me to spot an inconsistency in the sky before it dissipated into the surrounding darkness. Though it looked little like the dynamic and crystal clear images seen through Google, it was just distinct enough for me to recognize as the northern lights.
Sunday night I repeated the process in the hopes of some better results. On the advice of some residents, I tried an earlier viewing time but to no avail. Though it was clear enough to pick out my favorite constellations, no color was to be seen. I went to bed disappointed, but woke heart broken when I checked the aurora images of the night before. I found that not a hour after I had called it a night at the request of my ride, three faint bands of green were photographed just outside of town.
I will not say that this trip will have been wasted if I am not able to see the aurora. I have already learned a myriad of new information, from the rules and etiquette of Settlers of Catan to the lore and technique of ice netting. But, I will feel unfulfilled. The inspiration and planning of this trip centered on viewing the northern lights. All the amazing experiences I have had thus far were intended to be bonuses to the main attraction. I can adjust my thinking if need be to accept that these experience were indeed fruitful enough to curb my disappointment, but I hope that will be unnecessary. I am still holding out for a positive combination of solar flares, clear skies, and perfect timing necessary to see the northern lights.