Getting to know the neighborhood

India rubber trees get really big around here. You really cannot tell where the truck stops, since “roots” drop down from the branches and add to the girth. These trees do give latex, but they are not the rubber trees where we get rubber that is the Pará rubber tree, a completely different species. You can see from the pictures how impressive they get. Recall that none of these trees are more than sixty years old, since that is when they built the city.

I have been looking for a good place to get my weekend meals. Maybe my criteria are not common. The place cannot be TOO close. I want to walk at least twenty minutes to get there, so that disqualified the nearby ones. I think I have found one in section 107. You can see in the picture. It has lots of salads plus churrasco.

The people of Brasília have done a good job of modifying their city to make it more pedestrian and bike friendly. It was designed as a car city, the vision of the future of 1960 and it still suffers from that original design. But it is getting better.

Biking instead of walking

I have been riding my bike a lot more because I pulled a muscle in my right leg.  It is a strange sort of injury.  It doesn’t hurt at all most of the time, but if I walk more than a few hundred yards I get a feeling of extreme fatigue on the side of my leg followed by a tightening of the calf muscle. It passes in a few minutes if I stop walking but it has stopped my walking.  I didn’t realize how much I walked. I was spending about two hours walking in the evenings, listening to my audio books. This was in addition to walking to the store or restaurants.  Walking is not working, but biking is okay. 

I have been using the bike as transport and exercise/recreation. There are two problems with biking. I cannot do it after dark, when I was walking around listening to my audio books, and I cannot listen to my audio books while riding my bike no matter what time. It seems strange to ride five minutes to restaurants in Deck Brazil, but I have been doing that. The bread and grocery stores take about ten minutes. This would still be a preferred walking distance, but not so strange. 

The exercise/recreation part is more straightforward and I will have to do it until I can walk and run again. Brasília is not a good biking city, at least not for my style of biking. As I have written before, it is kind of a 1960s science fiction vision of what the future would be.  People were expected to drive everywhere and be organized by the city.  So you CAN ride a bike or walk, but you are meant to drive to the place where biking or walking was designated. Getting between these designated regions w/o a car is nearly impossible.  Sidewalks end; roads narrow and ramps are made for cars not people.  There is an impressive amount of open space, but not usable space.  On the plus side, the city could be easily improved.  On the downside, some people want to protect the legacy of the original plan. I don’t understand why, but they do.

I rode my bike to the Botanical Garden a few days ago and to the City Park yesterday.  The bike ride to the Gardens was easier.  On this side of the lake the planners had a less pernicious effect.  You still have to ride along a busy road, but there is a bike lane. The problem is that there is only one entrance to the Garden and that is on the side farthest from my house, which means I have to ride around five miles around.  The Garden also sits on top of a ridge.  It is not a very steep hill, but you have to go up for about two miles with no going down or even flattening.  Coming back down is not as much fun as you might think because you go too fast and have to fear for merging cars. I like the Botanical Gardens.  They are mostly wild and not too crowded. But the ride there is a bit to arduous to make regularly. 

The City Park is nice. It has a long bike/walking trail.  This is one of those places designated by the planners as a place to ride or walk.  The park is pleasant.  I used to run there when I was in Brasília in 1985.  It was less developed then and the trees were smaller. Like the Garden, the problem is getting there. There was not much traffic on the roads because of Carnival, so I was okay, but a bike would not be safe much of the way on an average day.  It is also mostly uphill on the way there.  You climb gradually out of the valley.  It is not very hard but consistently hard. 

As I ride and walk around Brasília, I always think of what could have been and what still might be.  This city has a great climate and topography.  It is an ideal city place for things like walking, biking, sidewalk cafes etc. They could easily construct a network of bike and walking trails on much of that open land and along some of the streets.  A few well-placed stoplights would make it safe to cross the busy streets.  They are probably too wide to put up pedestrian bridges.  I know all this would deviate from the original plan, but the original plan is outdated. The planners built for conditions and habits that never came to pass and people’s preferences are not what they thought.

My bike riding is giving me a strange type of tan. You can see the contrast in the picture above. The top of my hand is brown from the sun, but the fingers stay mostly pink since they face down.

Other pictures: On top are pine trees in the City Park. I remember them being much smaller, but it is very pleasant in their shade. Next is Brasilia from the City Park. Below that is a path in the Botanical Garden and then a “blitz”. Brazil has a zero tolerance law now for alcohol. At one of these blocks, the cops stop everyone to check blood levels. 

Speaking of leaving things undone …

My sheep experiment didn’t work and I don’t have an animal to eat the grass, so I decided to declare my lawn a nature preserve and stop mowing.  You can see what it is like in the pictures.  I didn’t only stop mowing.  I also gathered seeds when I ride my bike past flower beds on the median strips for my wild garden.

I scatter them and some things have come up. I don’t know most of the plants but some are familiar.  Morning glories and marigolds grow down here and I found some seeds from them.  One of the most aggressive volunteer plants is “Maria sem vergonha.”  This means Maria w/o shame.  The name comes from the fact that it grows easily almost everywhere.  Brazilians think it is a weed. It has the nice deep green leaves and pink flowers.

I don’t know what the red flower below is called.  There were a bunch of them growing on the median strip near my house.  I gathered a couple seed pods; only three came up.   I have no idea what the other one is.  That is just another volunteer. 

I like it better than the carpet-like lawn, especially because I am not sure what will come up.  It is a surprise.  One thing that is disappointing is that there seem to be not many bees and butterflies.  Generally speaking, the grasslands around here are less exuberant than our plains.  I read that this is because the Brazilian grasslands lacked large ungulates, such as bison. These big beasts graze the grass, fertilize with their manure and help spread seeds.  I can help spread the seeds, but I don’t think I want to do the other two things on my lawn and I don’t want to repeat my sheep experiment.  Below is Maria sem Vergonha.

Brasília Days

It rained for four days w/o stop. Sometimes it rained little less and sometimes it poured really hard. I walked to the grocery store on Sunday while it rained only enough to make you feel a little damp, but I don’t think it stopped raining completely for a full hour during those four days.  Today it rained too, but it didn’t rain all day.   In fact, the sun came out strongly.  While I was eating lunch, outside but under a roof I saw it rain a little, rain a lot, become very sunny and then rain again.  In other words, today was more like the “usual” summer weather here.  This time of the year in Brasília, it usually rains every day but not all day. “Todos os dias, mas não o dia todo,” is the phrase I learned in Portuguese.

The four days before today were rainier than usual, but the weeks before were dryer.  It rained only a couple times a week, which is strange.   It was sunny and it got a little hot during the middle of the day.  But the temperatures in Brasília are nearly perfect.  It gets down to around 65 at the coldest and never more than 90, w/o much humidity.

Brasília is pleasant, although the original design is not conducive to things like walking, biking or generally being a human not sitting in a car.   It improves as you get away from the original plan, but the parts of the city are disconnected.  Riding my bike to work, even during the dry season, takes significant commitment.  The city represents what some intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s thought the future would look like.  It is purposely car dependent and unfriendly to pedestrians and bikes.  There have been some improvements, but it is hard to fix the core of the city because of various protective rules.  Lago Sul where I live is better than the planned city and there is a nice bike lane along the main road, but it tends to end where cars merge and it is dangerous at these points.   In general the places where you can more or less ride safely are separated by nearly impassible stretches.   When I ride to work, I use some sidewalks, where there are sidewalks.  After that, I have to cross a bridge on a “sidewalk” about three feet wide, then ride on the grass, pass as quickly as I can under an overpass, then get off the bike and run up a grassy bank.  I finally get to the end of a road that leads to the Embassy.   The way home is a little easier.  I take the back road to one of the main highways at a point that features one of Brasília’s few stop lights.  When the light turns red, I run across the street – RUN across the street before the traffic catches up with me.  If you are not quick you will be dead.  On the other side of the big road, I ride through a series of parking lots until I come again to my bridge and the way home.

The sad thing is that it could have been such a great city.  With this marvelous climate and mostly flat topography, Brasília would be the perfect place for sidewalk cafes, bike trails and tree lined boulevards. Brasília is still a nice place in spite of the plan.  It could be fairly easily improved with a few pedestrian crossings and sidewalks and trails.  

My pictures show some of the pleasant little places on my walk to the grocery store.  As I wrote, Lago Sul is nicer than the center city, but it is still designed such that there are lots of dead end streets.   I think the trees with the spikes on the trunk are floss silk trees. My pictures show some of the pleasant little places on my walk to the grocery store.As I wrote, Lago Sul is nicer than the center city, but it is still designed such that there are lots of dead end streets.I think the trees with the spikes on the trunk are floss silk trees.

Brasilia Education Fair

EducationUSA held its first ever educational fair in Brasília.  Sixty-six American universities came along with Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade Francisco Sánchez. This was the largest educational trade mission ever organized by Commerce.  So we have a lots of firsts.

A few more facts – Casa Thomas Jefferson organized the fair.  Each of the schools pays around $1200.00 for their table and it costs about $35,000.00 to stage the event, so organizers make some money on the fairs that they plow back into educational advising.  About 1000 prospective students preregistered the fair and more than 2500 showed up.  I don’t know how many students universities actually recruit, but they evidently think it is worth the price of admission and the expense of sending their representatives.

The day started with Denise from CAPES explaining Science w/o Borders to the assembled representatives. Science w/o Borders is starting to resolve itself into a recognizable form.  Denise explained that it wasn’t always like this.  Last year there was nothing. All the structures were created on the fly. The university reps were very interested in SwB.  In fact, that interest goes some way in explaining why such a big group showed up.

Ambassador Shannon and U/S Sanchez officially opened the fair, after which the reps dispersed to their tables where they pretty much stay for the next six or seven hours.  You can see what the place looks like in the pictures.  It is a profession that requires a strong bladder.  The setup here looks the same anywhere in the world.  I walked around for a while and talked to dozens of the reps.  I tried to hang around only when no potentially paying customers were nearby and left before the biggest crowds converged on the place.

I had a good talk with Jose Santiago, representative of ETS.  They have expanded their offer of TOEFL tests to meet the vastly increased demand provoked by SwB.

My pictures show the tables at the fair, Case Thomas Jefferson registration table, U/S Sanchez opening the fair and below is the street outside.  I arrived way early.  Nobody was there yet and the city was very peaceful.

Twilight Running

The pictures above and below are the lake from my running trail along Lake Paranoá in Brasilia. It is a very pretty scene. It gets dark in Brasília at around 6pm at this time of the year, so anytime I run on a weekday I am doing it in the dark, or at least the semi-dark. I don’t mind, no chance of sunburn. It is also a sublime experience to run through the landscape in the muted light. My system is to run a loop that takes me back about three quarters of the way. Then I walk the rest of the way, listening to my audiobooks. Right now I have the bio of Lyndon Johnson, “Passage to Power”. Great book and a great way to combine exercise, relaxation and learning.

Beautiful JK Bridge

Among the many things in Brasilia named for Juscelino Kubitschek is the bridge in the pictures. It is a real work of art and looks good, as you can see in the pictures.

You notice from the grass that we are getting into the peak of the dry season.  The air is as dry as Death Valley. and it won’t rain again until September. After that it will rain every day for the next couple of months. You can read more about the bridge at this link.

High Cost of Labor

You can see the changes in the news, in advertisements and in the behavior of people. Labor, even semi-skilled labor, has become more and more expensive. As a result, individuals and firms are quickly adapting, substituting machines for people or changing processes in order to avoid hand labor altogether.

The TV news a couple days ago featured an article about the quickly rising wages of “empregadas” or maids. Let me explain that household help in Brazil was not something only for the rich, as it tends to be in the U.S.   In Brazil, when labor was cheap, middle class people had maids, gardeners etc.  Anyway, I saw stories about this on the news and read about it in the papers. Some empregadas were happily reporting that they had five or six offers for their services and could decide among them, a good news story for empregadas, but maybe not sustainable. 

Brazilian houses tended not to have the labor saving devices found in American homes. For example, the USG has put me in a very nice home. It has a built in grill and many other luxury features (you can see in the picture up top). But it doesn’t have a dishwasher. Nobody invests in labor saving devices when labor doesn’t need to be saved. Or more to the point, there are two types of dishwashers; one is mechanical.

Things have changed.  There are lots of advertisements for dishwashers of the mechanical variety. On the farm show “Globo Rural” there are more and more stories about agricultural equipment, even on small holdings.  This morning featured a story about a small holder in a poor region of the Northeast who found it cheaper to rent a combine than to hire his usual team of farm workers.  

This is what happened in America generations ago. Brazil is following the pattern.

I had a pleasant Sunday w/o any labor. I went running down near the lake before the sun got high enough in the sky to burn my pale skin, came home and planted my garden and then spent the afternoon sitting in the yard in the shade and reading my “Veja” Magazine. I have a kind of history. When I was nineteen and knew nothing about the world, I was impressed by one of my co-workers at the cement plant who seemed to know lots of things. He said he just read “Time” every week. So I started to do that, sitting in my backyard in Milwaukee in the cool of the early mornings. Eventually, I learned enough to pass the Foreign Service exam.

You can see my reading spot in the second photo. If you have shade, Coke-zero and something to read, you are set. About the garden, you can see it behind the chair. I am not sure what to do. I planted my flower seeds, but who knows what the seasons do around here? There is no winter in the sense of getting cold and it is certainly warm enough for the seeds to grow, but we are in the dry season. I figure if I keep the dirt moist, I will get something.  Of course, how long will a normally annual plant keep on growing if there is no frost to kill it off?

Above is a tree in my yard. I don’t know enough about tropical trees to identify it. Before I moved in the yard was overgrown. The gardeners cut back all the bushes and trees, including this one. It looked like it was dead when I moved in a couple weeks ago. Now it is growing back from the stumps. The gardener says that it will be completely grown out again in a short time. It looks like it is starting. Things grow really fast around here.

Saturday in the Park

One of the surfers told me that the windy season is just starting now. The surfers would be out when the wind was blowing. The wind follows the lake and the peninsula near my house seems to be the one of the focal points.  In any case, as you can see in the pictures it attracts surfers.

Above  shows the sails close up. They pump some air into them and so they are not only like kites. The air gives makes them a little easier to sail and – a key characteristic – it makes them float.  This is a key to happiness when you fly kits above water.

Another guy told me that it was not very hard to para-surf. The only thing you needed to do, he said, was understand the wind. I am sure there are other things you need to do, but understanding the wind would be hard enough even if it was the only challenge. The surfers looked to in good condition. Look at the three photos below. No matter how well I understood the wind, I don’t think I could leap out of the water like that and come down again w/o sinking.

The whole operation has a picnic atmosphere. 


Many BNCs were created around Latin America during the years around World War II.  They were supposed to foster understand and create connections among Americans and the people of Brazil and not incidentally counter Nazi propaganda, which was virulent and effective in the region.

BNCs have gone in and out of style with the U.S. government.  At times we have given them significant support; other times we benignly neglected them.  Even during the time of relative official neglect, however, we always kept the ties intact because most American FSOs (USIA and State) – working in the countries – like BNCs.   They are easy to like.  They are locally managed and usually self-sufficient.  Their boards of directors often include important local people, the kinds of people we want to get to know and they provide a continuity that us diplomats, who come and go like migratory birds, really cannot.  We always have friends at BNCs and this is important in hard times and good ones too. 

Most of the money needed to support BNCs comes from English teaching and English has become a big business in recent years. This is both a threat and an opportunity for BNCs.  The BNCs now must compete with for-profit organizations that are often well-financed and springing up like mushrooms after a soaking rain. I have no problem whatsoever with profit-making enterprises, but as an American I prefer that English be taught in the context of our culture and values. And the BNCs provide much more than nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs.  Besides providing scholarships for language study, BNCs sponsor cultural events, hold lectures and help us with our exchange and educational programs. To the extent that we really reach youthful audiences in depth, the BNCs are a big part of the equation.

Last time I was in Brazil, I made it my business to visit the BNCs in my region (Rio Grande do Sul & Santa Catarina) on a regular basis. At that time, there were BNCs in Porto Alegre, Florianopolis and Joinville. I understand that the ones in Porto Alegre and Joinville are still prospering. Washington was in one of its less supportive phases back then,  but I could still contribute books, programs and time. Attention by American diplomats was and is still important to BNCs. It adds to their cachet. 

Today BNCs are back in style in official Washington because of their proven abilities to reach young audience and because of their expertise in English teaching. The English teaching is especially important in Brazil at this moment. The Brazilians themselves recognize the need. Their economy has gone global, but they do not have enough people with English skills needed to participate effectively. English is the world language of business, science and even tourism. With the flood of visitors expected for the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in Rio two years later, the Brazilians know that they need to start now to meet the demand for English.

We are in the enviable position of having what people want and wanting to give it to them.

There are around 40 BNCs in Brazil today. I say “around” because it depends on how you count. Some BNCs have a for-profit affiliation that some of the BNC purists think is not good. My opinion is that we should judge them by what they do.  If the organization does all the things that BNCs should do, i.e. it provides scholarships, holds seminars & exhibits, cooperates with outreach and integrates energetically into its local community, I think that it looks and acts like a BNC and we can call it one if that is what it wants to be called.  I think we should be as inclusive as possible. BNCs are a great legacy left to us by good and farsighted people – Brazilians and Americans – going back to the 1930s.  We can benefit from their years of work and we have a duty to steward it for the next generations.  I look forward to visiting our BNCs and hope to get to all of them over the next three years.  I am glad that they are back in style. 

Let me tell you a little about our BNC here in Brasilia. It is called the Casa Thomas Jefferson. I remember it from the 1980s, when it was run by my friend and USIS colleagues Maureen Taylor. Back in those days, an American FSO directed the CTJ. In fact, we still sent directors until 1997, a time of budget cuts and a general downplaying of the need for public diplomacy. But our departure did not spell the end of the CTJ. On the contrary, it has grown and prospered beyond the dreams of the earlier generation. 

The Casa Thomas Jefferson today is run by Brazilians with a local board made up of mostly Brazilians and some expat Americans.  It is completely self-supporting and has grown to include six significant campuses around Brasilia (look at the pictures I have included to see what I mean) and eight min—operations embedded in local schools.   

CTJ affiliates teach around 15,000 students each year.  Some start as young as four years old. I have included a photo of the little kid classroom. They are on break now, so the teacher is preparing materials for them. But the biggest groups of students are middle school of high school age, although a significant number of college students are still involved and there are some adults. 

Brazilian government entities contract with CTJ for English teaching and cultural training for their officials who are going overseas or who will have to work with English in their jobs here. CTJ recently trained Brazilian air traffic controllers, who need to use English in their daily work, and also engineers from EMBRAPA (the Brazilian agricultural research agency) who have to travel and interact with scientists worldwide. 

We still work closely with CTJ, providing mostly moral but also some material support. Our Information Resource Center (FKA library) is collocated with the Lago Sul branch of the CTJ, as is the Fulbright office. We are probably most useful to them when we provide connections and training opportunities for their staff and management.   CTJ wants to keep in the forefront of developments and we, with our worldwide reach (State is a unique organization in that respect) help with that.  We also have stationed in Brazil officers devoted specifically to education, English teaching and information resource management, who provide extremely valuable support.  So I think we do our part. 

As I have been writing, we during the last week we have been cooperating with CTJ on our English immersion program (see earlier posts). This has been a wonderful thing. CTJ will hold its own EducationUSA fair later in August. We can cooperate again in something that we all benefit from doing and benefits Brazilian young people. 

All things considered, it is a pretty sweet deal for everybody involved. I like an agricultural metaphor. It is like an orchard. We are harvesting the fruit of trees planted and nurtured by those who went before us. Our job is to keep it growing, all the while enjoying the fruit. 

Public diplomacy is hard to measure. If I tally up all the people who have gone through BNC programs all over Brazil this year alone, I am sure we have reached thousands. Over the years, we are in the millions. But Brazil is a country of 190 million. How can we hope to have an impact? Might it not be better to “reach” millions through things traditional or social media?

First I have to respond that doing one thing does not preclude others. Our BNC efforts include face-to-face meetings, which are labor intensive, but they also have enormous social media and traditional media components. You saw the full-page newspaper report on our English immersion, for example. We also got a good piece of time on the evening television news. There is a definitive synergy. But let me put that aside for now. 

The BNC experience is deep, intensive and rich in favorable outcomes. Many of the people who use the BNCs develop lasting connections with American. Some of the students at CTJ, for example, are second or third generation, as former student parents sent their kids. Significant numbers want to study in the U.S. or work at U.S. firms. They are strongly committed and this has an effect through social networks, electronic and otherwise.  Recent studies have shown that people get many of their attitudes through social interactions several steps removed from themselves. The attitudes of friends of friends of friends can affect your attitudes and even physical characteristics such as body fat. Academics have studies this for a long time and we know it is true, although those who tell you that they really understand the transition mechanism are lying to you. I believe that getting 100,000 people really interested and talking to others is better than “reaching” millions in a shallow and short term transaction. I cannot prove that to you, but I think even a casual perusal of the history of ideas shows that it happens. 

The BNC is a high leverage activity.  I can devote relatively small amounts of time and money and DEEPLY reach lots of people, who will in turn reach many more. Take the example of our recent intensive English group.  Around 1600 students applied from public schools around Brazil. These are ordinary Brazilian kids, w/o much contact with America. They are doing an extraordinary thing just by applying. Around 100 were chosen. They are already a special group chosen from a special group and the experience improved their skills making them even more special. Now consider when they go home to places that are hard to find on the map. People will ask them about their experience. They will be the source of opinion. Who knows how many they will reach personally and how long they will continue to do it, but it will be a big number. And their experiences will pass through friend to friend for a long time.