Think of Brazil, and beautiful white sandy beaches, Samba-dancing, football-playing or possibly the Amazon rainforest spring to mind. Certainly most people do not think of the man-made, futuristic capital that is Brasilia.
The capital city of Brazil was moved from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia in 1960. This idea germinated in colonial times, when early Portuguese settlers were looking for a safe inland capital away from the poor climate and the inconvenience of frequent military invasions along the seacoast.
Nothing came of these plans however until 1955, when Presidential candidate Juscelino Kubitschek promised that, if elected, he would build the new capital within his five year term of office. Kubitschek was elected, and to the surprise of virtually everyone, he succeeded in keeping his promise. Ground was broken in September 1956 and construction ran full-tilt around the clock. The new capital was inaugurated less than 4 years later, on 21 April 1960.
Forty five years on, Brasilia is arguably one of, if not the most, successful manmade cities in the world. Originally planned for 500,000 inhabitants, Brasilia has seen its population grow much more than expected and several ‘satellite’ (now called administrative) towns have grown up around the outskirts. Today, Brasilia’s total population, including the administrative towns, is over 2 million.
The layout of Brasilia is hard to comprehend when you first arrive. The city has been designed in the shape of an aeroplane (known in Portuguese as the Plano Piloto), with residential sectors along the north and south facing ‘wings’, and ministerial buildings, hotel and banking sectors etc along the main body, or ‘fuselage’. A man-made lake (the Paranoa) runs alongside the east side of the Plano, providing a much needed focal point for the city. The objective of the lake was to increase humidity and make the dry climate of the region more tolerable, but it has also developed into an excellent location for water sports and many private clubs and some restaurants are located along the lake shore. More residential areas (offering bigger, family houses) exist around the lake to the north and south.
When moving to Brasilia, our organisation offered us the choice of a flat on the south wing, near the central fuselage, or a house in the north lake area. Not having any children yet, we opted for the former. All apartment buildings look pretty similar from the outside – modern, concrete structures – but inside, we were pleased to find that they are spacious and light. Many apartment buildings also have a shared ‘cobertura’ (rooftop) area, usually with sun-loungers, plants etc and occasionally with swimming pools.
The South wing is older and more developed than the north, and most expats who choose the apartment option live on this side of town. Each wing is divided up into superquadras which in turn, have residential and commercial sectors. A typical superquadra might have, say, about 20 apartment buildings and a main road which features a small supermarket, hairdressers, pharmacy, picture framing shop, dry cleaners and several bars and restaurants. Plenty of trees and grassy areas split up the residential and commercial sectors.
The idea of the superquadras was that they would each contain small communities, but unfortunately this hasn’t been entirely successful. Many quadras have gained a ‘specialist’ reputation – for example, one quadra has all the dress hire shops, another is renowned for its photographers, or hairdressers etc.
This means that it has become virtually impossible to live without a car in Brasilia. Although the drivers here are reputedly the best in the country and speed limits (often 60 km/hour even in four lane traffic) are strictly adhered to, accidents (involving cyclists/motorcyclists especially) are frequent. Wherever you are on the Plano Piloto, you will not be very far away from a busy road. Many vehicles in Brazil would never pass British MOT requirements and the fairly constant noise from tired engines and screeching brakes, although annoying at first, soon becomes part of daily life.
Many expats with families live in the South Lake area. This area is made up of family houses, usually large, often with nice gardens and swimming pools. Again, the south side has developed a lot faster than the north due to several bridges over the lake connecting it to the Plano Piloto. Local government has been promising a bridge to residents of the North lake area virtually since the city was created, but this is yet to be built. As a result, residents of the North Lake are much more isolated and it can take 25-30 minutes to get to the centre of town by car.
Organisations usually arrange accommodation on behalf of their expats moving to Brasilia and either have properties of their own, or contacts of reputable landlords with accommodation that meets expat standards. Estate agencies do not seem to exist in the city, but accommodation is regularly advertised in local newspapers and just by asking around you can usually get details of reliable landlords.
Brazil has several telephone companies offering competitive rates and you have to select which one to use by a 2 digit code that precedes the number you wish to dial. Br turbo is recommended for internet and provides a reliable service.
A variety of cable TV companies (Sky, Direct TV) can sort you out with a monthly package including BBC World, CNN, Warner, Sony, ESPN and various movie channels – call to arrange. Electrical goods are cheap and readily available in Brasilia, although it is recommended that you bring your own vacuum cleaner and TV (if coming from the UK) – the latter because due to differing configurations, a Brazilian-purchased TV will only be able to show your UK DVDs and videos in black and white. DVDs sold here are region 2, but if you have a multi-regional player, you can watch them.
Apparently, there is also a fairly simple way of changing regional DVD players so that they are multi-regional – someone in the Embassy knows how to do this! Kitchen appliances – toasters, blenders, coffee machines etc are generally cheaper in Brazil than at home and a good selection is available. It is possible to play UK videos on our Brazilian TV/video system, but, mysteriously, they come out in black and white. Electrical current is same as UK so you can use all UK appliances as long as you have the appropriate plug adaptors.
If your home needs any repairs, again it is recommended to ask around for a reputable builder or handyman. Appointments made can not be relied upon. You should call to reconfirm at least twice and be very careful letting people into your home unsupervised.
Many people have maids to help them, and their duties commonly include shopping and cooking, as well as cleaning, ironing and looking after children. Maids are often passed down by predecessors or recommended by word of mouth. Due to the rather extreme differences of wealth in Brazil, even most middle-class locals will have at least one maid and often a separate nanny as well as gardeners, drivers etc. Most accommodation has maids’ quarters. If you do decide to employ a maid for 3 days or more per week, then you will need to have a proper contract and pay insurance and pension contributions as well as a 13th month salary.
One of the first things you should do on arrival in Brasilia is to apply for your CPF (individual registration) number. All residents of Brazil must have a CPF number and it is virtually impossible to get anything done without one. Your CPF will be needed before you can open a bank account or make any significant purchases. Most organisations will complete the procedure on your behalf.
It involves applying for the registration at Banco do Brasil and then waiting for the number to be issued by the Ministry of Finance (taking approximately ten days) or alternatively, queuing up at the Ministry yourself for several hours in order to get it more quickly. Make sure you take along a copy of your birth certificate as well as your passport. In a country obsessed by names, you need to have proof of both your mother and fathers’ full names, as well as your own.
Having your own car is of paramount importance in Brasilia. Although you could probably manage without one (especially living in one of the more popular superquadras of the South wing), it will make a huge difference to the quality of your lifestyle. The city was not designed with much thought for pedestrians and this means that it is almost impossible to walk anywhere without regularly having to cross over a 3-5 lane highway. Pedestrian crossings are respected, but few and far between.
Buses are frequent and cover the whole of the Plano Piloto as well as satellite towns, although nearly all of them go via the central bus terminal which is not considered to be a very safe place. Brasilia also has a seedling metro system, which is clean, comfortable and cheap, but only makes a couple of stops along the south wing and serves mostly as a link for people living in the satellite cities to get into work in the centre of town. More metro stations exist which have not yet been opened, and who knows when they will be? So it does not look like the current network will be expanded anytime soon.
Many car dealerships and garages are situated close together on the outskirts of the Plano Piloto. It is worth making a trip in the early stages of your arrival – having a look around and taking a couple of test drives. To order a new car under diplomatic privilege, all your paperwork (including CPF number and registration with Ministry of Foreign Affairs) must first be in order and then you can expect a wait of 2-3 months while the car comes from a factory in another part of Brazil. Buying a new car without the diplomatic discount is easier and you should be able to purchase the vehicle direct from the garage in Brasilia. Some dealerships will give you a competitive price on a hire car while you are waiting for your own to be delivered. If this is not the case, the airport and its environs seem to be the best place to negotiate a good deal.
Second hand cars sold in Brazilian garages may well be ‘clocked’ (meaning somehow ‘tampered with’ so that it looks like you are getting a better deal than you actually are), if you aren’t buying from a reputable dealer (and it’s hard to be sure). However, due to the large expat population of Brasilia, you can often find details of returning expats who want to sell their cars. The American – and other - embassies advertise cars (as well as electrical goods etc) etc in their fortnightly newsletters and local press.
Once you have your car, you then have to learn how to drive around Brasilia. Expect to take a good couple of weeks to navigate your way around the unique, and for the most part, one-way road system which is completely based on numbers. Once you get to grips with it however, you will find that it is surprisingly logical. Try to get your bearings over a weekend, when the roads are definitely quieter (keeping in mind that the north-south axis road is closed on Sundays for pedestrians and cyclists). Be prepared to undertake, as well as overtake, and to go under a road and around it in order to turn left!
Brasilia is very spread out and it takes longer than you think to get to most places. While you are driving around, you will realise that there is no real centre to the city. The fuselage may be the geographical centre, but it is made up primarily of ministry buildings, banks and hotels. The usual ‘downtown’ area of shops, cafes, restaurants and museums does not exist here: these places are dotted around the city in different ‘superquadras’. Walking is restricted to a few pedestrian friendly areas, including the large city park, a small area around the lake and within the superquadras.
Malls are popular in Brazil and this is where the locals go to promenade. Brazilians love to dress up and part of the attraction of hanging around the shopping mall is to look good. Several European chains have recently opened in Brasilia, including FNAC (CDs/books etc) and Zara (clothes). Locally made inexpensive clothes and shoes can be found easily, although sizes are smaller and fabrics are cheap synthetics, more often than not.
There are occasional markets at weekends near the lake and at the TV tower, however don’t expect great ‘ethnic’ produce. The markets usually sell handmade crafts etc but these are not of outstanding quality. The best market is the wholesale fruit and vegetable market behind Carrefour hypermarket. Go early (at dawn!) on a Saturday morning for the most amazing selection of fruit and veg, or on a Thursday for fresh flowers.
Supermarkets seem to be rather sporadic in what they sell and it is not uncommon to have to go to 2 or 3 different shops before you find everything that you want. Small supermarkets within the quadras sell all the basics but you often have to go to delis to find more luxury, imported goods – including mushrooms, smoked salmon and sun-dried tomatoes etc. Apart from that, most things are available, including a fantastic selection of fresh vegetables and exotic fruit which would cost a fortune back home!
The current strength of foreign currency against the Brazilian Real means that you can live very well here. The Federal District is one of the richest states in Brazil, and Brasilia has excellent bars, cafes and restaurants to cater for the rich expats and politicians. It is common to go out for lunch, and then turn right around and go out to dinner (not literally turning right around – lunch is at 12 or 1pm and dinner often not until 9 or 10pm). Lunch is often buffet style – eat as much as you like for a set price or por kilo where you pay for the weight of your food. For dinner, nearly all styles of cuisine are available, including Italian, Mexican, French and Japanese. Only the really spicy Thai and Indian options are lacking.
At night, the Brazilians eat late and stay out later. If you arrive at a restaurant before 9 pm be prepared to be the only ones eating. At events such as weddings, important birthdays etc the lateness of the meal relates to the sophistication of the evening. Invitations will specify dress codes (eg. smart-casual, formal, long dress etc). For Brazilians (particularly women- many of whom you remember will dress to the nines just to go shopping, even ‘casual’ usually involves incredibly low-cut tops and tottering, pointy heels. If you are invited out, expect the locals to arrive a good half hour to an hour later than the agreed time. If you are hosting an informal party yourself, don’t be surprised when people don’t turn up who promised they would and others unexpectedly bring along friends and family that you’ve never met before.
The use of private homes for official dinners, receptions etc is not as common in Brazil as it is in the UK: homes are for friends and members of the family. Therefore do not necessarily expect return invitations from Brazilians who have attended such events in your home. In the event that you do, it is considered gracious to send or bring flowers to your hostess, especially on your first visit.
Brasilia is not a particularly easy place to meet locals. Like the foreigners, many of them come to the capital to work for a couple of years and then return to their home cities in other parts of Brazil. It is only now that the first generation of ‘Brasilienses’ (people born in Brasilia) are starting to grow up.
The easiest way to meet Brazilians is in the workplace, or through a social activity such as football, dancing lessons, cooking courses etc. Even still, they are often friendly without necessarily following up your suggestions of a drink/lunch/other engagement, airily saying ‘oh, you must come round to my house sometime’, without any exchange of contact information. It’s just their way of being polite. As an expat, it is much easier to meet other foreigners. The international community is tightly knit and the same people turn up to Embassy events and other international gatherings.
The abraco, or embrace, is the national form of greeting in Brazil. It is not unusual for two male friends to speak in the street with arms about each other’s shoulders. Women give each other kisses on both cheeks, always on the right cheek first. However, it is always safe to shake hands if you do not feel comfortable initiating um abraco.
Brazilians (both men and women) are very body conscious and will spend a lot of time working out at the gym; and if that doesn’t do it, they won’t hesitate to undergo surgical procedures to reduce or enhance certain body parts. Brazil also might be a good place to consider cosmetic dentistry or laser eye surgery - it will cost much less than in Europe or the US. Beauty parlours specialising in waxing, permanent hair reduction, massages, facials and manicures are as common as your local greengrocer.
Once a perfect body has been achieved, the lack of a beach in Brasilia means that people are restricted to the lake area or exclusive clubs and parties to show it off. It is not unusual, however, to see people jogging on the side of the road in their bathing suits.
Brasilia’s many leisure facilities and good year-round quota of sunshine ensure plenty of outdoor activity. Private clubs are expensive but offer water sports, swimming pools, football and tennis courts, exclusive restaurants etc. Tennis is widely played and finding a court to hire is easy. There is also a golf course in a beautiful setting by the lake. Some expats take up water sports including sailing, rowing and waterskiing. Barbecues by the pool are frequent at weekends. Although the city is still rather lacking in cultural venues (the main art galleries, museums and theatres etc are still located in bigger cities such as Sao Paulo), Brasilia has several good cinemas, some great live music performances, and a vibrant night life.
It is easy to lead a life of sunshine and leisure: shopping malls, coffee mornings, bridge clubs, language lessons, tennis and gym will quickly fill your days. However, many spouses are frustrated at the lack of job opportunities for non-fluent Portuguese speakers. Some TEFL positions are available and no recognised qualifications are necessary for native speakers. Occasionally, embassies advertise ‘locally engaged’ part and full-time positions to members of the international community.
And a few voluntary possibilities exist (the ‘safest’ ones being organised through the American Women’s Club International or one of the English-speaking churches). However, finding fulfilling and full time work is extremely difficult, and often out of the question. Some spouses have been known to embark on a course at the University of Brasilia, or by long distance learning. Many who don’t work will often return to the UK for 2 or 3 months in the summer.
Brasilia offers great travel opportunities within the rest of Brazil. Although the Federal District itself is rather isolated (only one or two weekend destinations reachable by car), recent cheap airlines offer discount prices if you book in advance. Flights to Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are frequent and only take an hour and twenty minutes, making both cities accessible for the occasional weekend.
The historic colonial towns of Minas Gerais, breathtaking waterfalls of Iguacu or fabulous coastlines of the Northeast are also within reach for a long weekend. No train network and dangerous, poorly maintained Brazilian roads mean that air travel quickly becomes the norm. Planes operate like buses and often stop at one or two other cities on the way to your final destination. In the rainy season, huge electrical storms are not infrequent but pilots still manage to direct their planes through the tropical storms.
As for health and hygiene, Brasilia rates quite highly. Restaurants have a good standard of cleanliness. Traffic flows quite freely along the Plano Piloto and therefore there is very little air pollution. There are some good private hospitals and experience of having children and (non-cosmetic!) surgical procedures here has been positive.
Unlike some other parts of Brazil, there is no malaria, and although frequent campaigns in the summer months warn against Dengue fever, cases have been infrequent. In recent years, there have been one or two outbreaks of Hantavirus, which is a deadly condition spread by rats. This is more of a danger in the countryside but has occasionally been known to occur in cities. The climate is good, although rather dry in the winter (June – October) and temperatures average mid-20s year round. Fair skinned people, especially, should take precautions against the sun which, at this latitude, is very strong.
Safety here is also more guaranteed than in most other parts of Brazil. The extreme poverty which exists side by side with wealth in larger cities such as Sao Paulo or Rio is still marginalised to the outskirts of Brasilia and not evident in daily life. The most common form of crime is theft from homes or theft of cars. Usually there is little personal danger in these circumstances. A phenomenon known as ‘quicknapping’ is unfortunately becoming more common. This involves the criminal(s) getting into your car with you (often when you are returning to your vehicle in a car park) and forcing you to drive to various cash points to withdraw money on your card. Again, the victim is rarely physically hurt.
Brazil is a predominantly Catholic country but tolerant of all religions. Brasilia in particular, is home to several religious cults and there is a distinct New Age feel to certain parts of the city. The most visited place in Brasilia is the ‘Temple of Good Faith’, constructed in the form of a seven-sided pyramid, which has a 21 kg crystal at the apex of the main hall. The temple invites people of all religions to follow a spiral route under the crystal in search of energy through prayer and meditation.
Despite the futuristic, concrete and often impersonal feel to this city, Brasilia is nevertheless the capital of a country that is one of the most vibrant, fun-loving, culturally enriched and naturally beautiful in the world. Living in Brasilia will give you the chance to explore this wonderful country and get to know its amazing people and customs. Whether you choose to attend the Rio Carnaval, explore the Amazon rainforest or play football with the locals on one of the hundreds of white sandy beaches, Brazil is an amazing place. Enjoy the experience for all that it’s worth.