In my mind’s eye, Brasilia was always a futuristic fantasy rising out of the Amazonian jungle. The reality was more prosaic. Ultra-modern though its plan and architecture is, its location is ordinary, though practical. At 1,000 m above sea level and a 1000 km inland from Rio or Sao Paulo, it escapes the worst rigours of the tropical climate and the landscape is more savannah, something you find around Harare.
Lúcio Costa designed the city in the shape of a cross. But the topography has made it look like an airplane. In the ‘fuselage’ are government offices, the senate and lower houses, the futuristic cathedral and the Palacio da Alvorada or presidential palace, all designed by Oscar Niemeyer. The ‘wings’ moving north and south with a length of 7 km house the residential and business districts. It is Chandigarh gone berserk; Le Corbusier was Costa’s guru, after all. Zoning is so severe that the hotel district will have nothing but hotels and the banking districts, just banks. Yet there are problems with the design. Though allegedly designed for cars with overpasses and tunnels to avoid traffic lights, Brasilia lacks parking space and the roads are narrow leading to congestion. Pedestrians in particular are at a disadvantage and getting across the broad roads can be a tricky enterprise.
Paranoa is a beautiful man-made lake with a perimeter of 80 km, home to the third largest private boat fleet in Brazil, after Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Indian Ambassador Hardip Puri sprang a surprise cruise and dinner aboard the Happy Day, a large boat on the Lago Sul or southern part of the lake.
There are several good restaurants in Brasilia. The one we explored, Steakhouse provided an unlimited buffet of barbecued meats. Brazil vies with Texas and Argentina for the quality of its barbecue, and the Steakhouse did the country proud. But the dinner at Oca da Tribo, a fine natural food restaurant, whose décor was all wooden with an open veranda-like design, took the best advantage of Brasilia’s climate and the traditional cuisine of maize, pork, beans were set off to good advantage. Brazil’s most popular meal and, as it turns out, that of its chief guest at the time, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is rajma-chawal, or its equivalent in brown and black beans.
Sugarcane is the heart of Brazil’s life, its smell pervaded the city, or maybe it was my imagination, because Brazil leads the world in using ethanol as an additive to petrol used for fuel in cars. Cane-based alcohol forms the basis of cachaça (pronounced Kachasa), which is also the base of the country’s best-known cocktail: Caipirinha, a mix of cachaça, lime, sugar and ice. Don’t be deceived by its pleasant taste, it’s the liquor that is lethal.
In Hemingway country
Havana, the city of imagination, of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and above all of Ernest Hemingway and the iconic Fidel Castro is the largest of the Caribbean islands. A former hub of the Spanish empire, its fate was determined, through the first half of the 20th century, by its giant neighbour, the United States, just 140 km away. Since the revolution there has the sort of estrangement that only comes from a long marriage. The US still occupies a small western tip, now made infamous by the military prison at Guantanamo.
The American connection brought great prosperity to Havana — casinos, hotels and nightclubs — but it also brought in mafia chiefs like Meyer Lansky and Hollywood stars like Frank Sinatra, Gary Cooper and Ava Gardner. The revolution cleaned all that out and ushered in the highest rates of education and literacy in Latin America, as well as a universal health-care system. Another revolution came with the collapse of Cuba’s mentor, the Soviet Union. As a result since 1996, tourism has displaced sugarcane as its most important revenue earner, even though the US blocks its direct access to the island.
Old Havana, or Havana Vieja, with its columnar construction reminiscent of cities of Old World Spain is undoubtedly the most beautiful in Latin America. People still sit in the doorways of the main streets that lead to labyrinthine lanes where they live, old women can be seen smoking cigars, and this is not a tourist show, at least not yet. Good Cuban cigars are expensive — the top of the range going for as much as US $ 200, so is the Cuban currency, which is actually stronger than the US Dollar. El Floridita and La Bodeguita, two of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bars are in the must-visit list. At the former the drink of the evening is daiquiri; at the latter it is mojito, made of rum, lemon, sugar and mint.
The promenade along the sea, called Malecon is spectacular. Across the road is the 15th century Castillo del Moro or the Morro Fortress where the La Divinia Pastora restaurant is located. The simple soldier’s barrack with a veranda that overlooks the rampart, replete with canons was once a command post of Che Guevara. Cuban food is mainly rice and beans, pork and chicken, surprisingly not too much seafood and no beef. The VHP will be happy to know that cow slaughter is banned in the island, for the same reason that it was in post-Vedic India — cattle are too valuable to slaughter.