Brazil 2014: Brasília

In this episode, we walk around the capital.


Brasília’s a planned city, all laid out in grids, with a precise naming and numbering system for neighborhoods and buildings. So, of course, our cab driver from the airport to the home where we were staying had no idea where to go and would not listen to us when we showed him both a map and a GPS route. “Que está fazendo, avô?” I wanted to yell as he looped around the neighborhood, eventually having him stop the cab a few blocks from the house just to keep from running up the meter.

We were staying with Dani, a college student who was renting out some spare rooms in her house. Arriving just in time to watch Brazil-Colombia, we sat down with Dani, her pug, and her cats to watch Neymar get killed. Brazil won anyway, and the sound and scent of bottle rockets soon filled the neighborhood, ensuring we still got some fireworks on the 4th of July. Afterwards, it was time for one of my favorite things to do on international vacations: learning how they’ve localized the Simpsons. Dani asked if we wouldn’t prefer to push the SAP button for English dialogue. Nope, I said, then wondered if my Portuguese skills were improving or if I just knew the episode (Lisa vs Malibu Stacy) from memory. (Answer: latter)

Saturday morning, we walked around trying to find a cab to the stadium. Taxis were in short supply, so we paired up with some guys in Argentina jerseys, figuring, correctly, they were probably heading to the same place. This time, the dropoff area–every stadium had a 1km boundary past which no vehicles except official ones could cross–was at the base of a hill, with the newly renovated and expanded Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha at the top. The stadium looks like a giant automobile air filter. As we walked up the hill through the city’s hotel district, we passed several other Americans who shouted belated Independence Day greetings, a bit rueful that we were not celebrating by watching our team play. One man, born in Buenos Aires but a longtime resident of Albuquerque, expressed relief that at least he wouldn’t have to choose sides that day.

At the crest of the hill, just past the TV tower and giant letters spelling EU <3 BRASÍLIA for tourist photo ops, but just before the stadium, sat a large outdoor food court. The place was jammed, and every stall offered various Brazilian street and snack foods, from cheese-filled fried dough pasteles to full Amazonian plates of fish and farofa, all for dirt cheap. It made a for a neat, low-cost pregame meal with other fans; we ate with a group of Trinidadians who were surprised to hear me call to them for having an Avery John jersey in their party.

After grabbing some Brazilian-style churros (filled on the spot with doce de leite), we headed across the vast, forcibly empty parking lot, a feature that made the stadium seem much more like those in the US than the others we’d visited. It was nearly kickoff, but I had to stop just past the stadium gates to collect the souvenir Coca-Cola cup for this game. For each match, both Coca-Cola and Brahma were available in game-specific souvenir cups; the group stage ones were branded with the stadiums and names of the countries playing, and the knockout stage ones listed the stadiums and the round of the tournament. These were the hot souvenirs of the tournament, such that if you left your empty cup unattended for a moment, you could count on it being scavenged by the time you returned, and woe betide the fan who bought a beverage only to discover it was in an un-branded cup. It was not uncommon for fans to skip to the head of a concession line to ask if that stand was selling the right cups, or for strolling hawkers to let people know ahead of time what vessel they would receive with purchase. These were popular enough that I saw more people scavenging them than I did the plastic stadium cups in Germany in 2006, which were all returnable for a €1 deposit. (As of this writing, the Brazil cups remain a hot ticket on eBay). It was pretty ingenious marketing–a corporate branded item that encouraged in-stadium concession purchases, but were relatively low cost for fans (about US $4 for a beer and $3 for a soda, very reasonable if you’re used to US or Euro stadium pricing) and easy to take back to wherever home might be.

Unfortunately, the quest to get the all-important souvenirs made us miss all the pregame, arriving just in time for kickoff. The game itself was okay, I guess, but really made us wish the US had advanced–Argentina still would’ve won, but we probably would’ve made it more interesting. As it stood, I mostly just got “HEY, I’VE HECKLED YOUR BROTHER” out of the match.

That and our first introduction to Argentina fans, to whom our tickets were now tied, having knocked out Belgium who knocked out the US. First observation: They chain smoke through games, stadium policies be damned. Second observation: They kept singing the same song over and over, and the song was familiar, but I just couldn’t quite place the tune. Very familiar, on the tip of my tongue, over and over…and then about halfway down the hill on the way out of the stadium, past the eighth Pope Francis cosplayer…


That was the song. Well, with different lyrics, something about Argentina being Brazil’s daddy, or Maradona, or whatever, but it was CCR all right, and that was the song that was to haunt us the rest of the trip, alongside Pharrell’s “Happy” and the now completely forgotten J-Lo/Pitbull official theme.

For the rest of the afternoon, we walked around the main government plaza, starting at the national cathedral and ending at the statue that looks like the national clothespin. The mid-century Oscar Niemeyer architecture of the city center is magnificent, every line and curve evocative of the building’s exact function, the Eixo Monumental with its greenway, flanked by all the ministry buildings, leading to Congress and its balancing bowls. (Mike, upon seeing Congress: “I’d like some ramen.”) Just one problem: the plan was totally laid out for cars and commuters, the open plaza completely uninviting to pedestrians, especially on a Saturday afternoon. No shops or restaurants open for a place to relax, no trees to shade the setting sun, just some folks selling generic Chinese-made souvenirs and bottled water from card tables. We found the one taxi hanging around the plaza and headed back to a mall we’d spotted in the hotel district for dinner.

The mall, of course, was crawling with Argentines, mulleted dudes in blue and white striped shirts, singing John Fogerty’s tribute to Hurricane Camille whether they realized it or not. We sat down at the food court (no ramen, but surprisingly delicious pear and gorgonzola risotto) to watch the end of the Netherlands-Costa Rica game, hoping our CONCACAF brothers would triumph to meet Argentina in the next round. They didn’t, but it was a great game nonetheless, and we were excited at the prospect of a Netherlands-Argentina semi. Two style teams, surely that next match would be a premium one.

Immediately following the game, the entire population of Buenos Aires disgorged from the mall and scrambled for all five unoccupied taxis in the city. We finally got one after an hour of circling the hotel district, and headed back to Dani’s house.

We were only in Brasília about 48 hours, so we missed out on any in-depth exploration of the city. Sunday morning, time was up on our brief, pleasant stay. We were off to São Paulo.

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