Panaji Takes Over the Streets: A different Sunday

I always wrote here how I love Sundays. And how I love tasting them in a different way. Either a Macau market, or a Melbourne park, Sunday is just a different day. How different? Well, today I woke up with the street noise at 9am. Normally the honks would’ve accomplished in making me open my right eye, but today what startled me was the absence of honking and car noise. What woke me up was the excitement in people’s voices, someone drumming in the distance and a girl singing right underneath my window. I look outside and what I see is not the same bustling road of yesterday. A colorful moving pattern floods it… People everywhere, of all ages claiming the street to themselves. It’s Sunday, no one works, so… why not? “Hey Mrs. let that little girl within come out and play! Hey Grandpa, put on your colorful shirt, yes the crazy hawaiian or Aztec one and grab your racket!” And that’s how I spent my Sunday morning, playing football with the kids, observing a lively cricket match and watching a street theatre play…


The Future is Bottled

In Argentina, I meet a hero. A trash collector, looked down on and called a “cartonero,” he actually is an ecological soldier passionate about recycling, but not because it is fashionable but out the pure necessity to survive. And he has restored my faith in humanity.

Alfredo is greeting me by the door, smiling. Ever since we first made contact, via email, he has seemed to be smiling. He has opened his doors in Iguazu, and so I have crossed the entire country of Brazil to get to Argentina to get to know  him and his very special initiative.  As I follow  the maroon, rust-colored dirt roads leading out of the town of Puerto Iguazu, I see very few houses, but the one I’m about to find is one of a kind. It is entirely made up of plastic bottles.

The story is simple. Out of necessity, finding himself out of work, Alfredo had to live off trash he collects. Like many Argentinians in the beginning of the 2000s he became a “cartonero.” I don’t think his smile can really turn into a frown, but  there’s a hint of  bitterness when he remembers those times: ” We didn’t even have  resources to provide for our families. I couldn’t believe that I wasn’t able to fulfill  this basic task of providing  food for my family, I just couldn’t.”

And with all his  stubbornness and will power he fought to find a way out. Just like many extraordinary things, this project was also born by chance. His daughter wanted a doll house for Christmas. And when Alfredo realized he couldn’t afford it, he decided to build one. This was the start of the development of an extraordinarily inventive construction technique.

By putting together plastic bottles, particularly soda bottles, he invented a kind of brick which is both cheap and ecological. His mission is clear : “We are convinced we can find social solutions to the humble that are also ecological. Like removing trash from the streets and thus avoiding that the planet is transformed in a huge trash yard. At the same time, this is a technique that can be easily learned by anyone.” For the past years, Alfredo has refined  his product to make it more resistant. He considers himself a kind of Mad Trash Scientist. He is thankful to have received technical advice from certain visitors, but mostly he did it himself. For instance, one of the criticisms he received was whether the bottles were fire-resistant. Of course they’re not, but they’re certainly not as inflammable like wood. In any case, Alfredo developed an anti-fire system by simply filling them  with water or dirt, so that when the bottle wrinkles with fire, the substance inside will put it out. Ingenious, to say the least. Alfredo tells me that there was of course criticism, the fire proof being only one of them. But what about the life span? The answer lies in the material chosen. He chose a particular kind of bottle, not the mineral water one, but the soft drink bottle. The plastic is thicker and it’s covered by a solar filter, to protect the drink. “This fact is very helpful, because the bottle’s shape stays untouched when exposed to the sun. If the bottles are covered, I’d say that their life span could be practically eternal. When we make the walls, we note that the bottles get dry, but they won’t get wrecked. So, if we cover them with, let’s say, 1cm of plaster, they won’t be exposed to the sun and thus last forever. If they’re not covered, I calculate that they could last for 150, 200 years.” I cannot help but be amazed how such  simple processes can be so effective. But there is still more  to keep me in awe.

As I’m taken around the “Bottle House,” Alfredo continues his story. His grin opens up even more as he speaks. His speech is well-measured and precise. Quite eloquent, I would even say. His objective now is to disseminate his construction technique to whomever may need it. He literally makes tours all over Latin America to teach the poor communities how to build houses made out of bottles. So far he’s helped to build 59 houses all over Latin America: “We bring our tools, build a model of the house and teach them the building technique. Let me just tell you, a house, to us poor people, is a cabin, a compartment of 4mx5m, 3mx5m, 4mx8m, all depending of the economic situation. That compartment is divided in two, normally by a curtain. On one side you have the dormitory, where everyone sleeps. On the other side of the curtain you have the common room, the kitchen, the living room, dining room, all in one. It’s not the conventional house with several rooms separated. What we teach is how to build a model that can be expanded by adding one, and then another, and then another. We want to teach them that it’s possible for them to have that conventional house, given  a bit of tenacity and hard work .” A viable solution for housing problems around the world.

One of Alfredo’s  greatest achievement was in the Paraguayan city of Concepcion. He drove the 1200 kilometers in his 1985 Renault 12. When he got there, students had collected more than 18000 bottles. After ten days of work, they had made a 50 m2 house with all the rooms of a normal house. It’s the biggest he’s built and it was declared a building of national interest by the Paraguayan government. It now functions normally as a tourist information office. “This is  a house that I’m really proud of. A lot of young people worked there that learned the construction technique really quickly. And a lot of them brought the knowledge back to their places and even used it to build  green houses, for cultivation, since the material  is translucent, so that the sunlight can come in.  For me it was a fantastic experience, it gave me true joy! The people, once they learn it, they’ll never forget, it’s like riding a bike.”

To finance his ventures, he accepts donations and he opened a museum house in Iguazu. And the  bottle house construction model is not enough, his inventiveness goes even further. He came up with a lot of products that can help people all over the world. All of them are made using recycled products, from shopping bags made out of plastic stripes to children’s toys made with cans and bottle sofas – the range of this man’s creativity is immense. My personal favorite of his creations is in fact a very practical one. According to Alfredo, one of the poor peoples’ greatest problems is that they normally sleep on the floor, even if with a small mattress. “Humidity gets the best out of your health, especially for children growing up. To face this problem, he used plastic bottles to make a kind of Sommier bed. An innovative and pioneering idea that solves such a simple but serious problem.

Finally we reach the end of our tour. Alfredo is currently building his greatest project. A house built with 24000 bottles. A spacious place, with all the commodities of a comfortable home, so visitors can admire that it is possible to live well in an environmentally friendly construction.

As a curious traveller, I can’t express how lucky I feel for having found  this man. This encounter has filled me with hope and my faith in human kind has been  completely restored. Such generosity and such humbleness. At the same time such boldness and tenacity to overcome the difficulties of life using creativity, imagination, skill and talent. One can simply not be indifferent to something like this. I must thank Alfredo, not only for receiving me with kindness and patience. But for something far more valuable than that. For giving me hope that the future might be brighter.

A Brazilian Mosaic

Brazil is a giant and diverse country. But in São Paulo I find a legendary place where I get a glimpse of the variety and beauty of its people – a scale model of Brazilian society.

São Paulo, a city called ‘concrete jungle’ by the Brazilian people. I am walking down a deserted Avenida Paulista, the jungle’s main artery, in wonderment. Meandering through the empty Bairro da Liberdade, I stop to think while tying my shoelaces. Why does “Sampa” feel like a small village dressed as a metropolis? Then it hits me! I have managed to come to the city at the time of a yearly migratory movement – Carnival. Every Paulista has left the city, which explains the desolate streets, almost eerie, with nothing but huge buildings to guard them. “Fantastic,” I think to myself, -“will I even get to see the real city?”

I actually don’t think I’ve ever felt this small. On my journeys, I had the opportunity to visit some big metropolises. But not even Manhattan gave me this sense of sheer insignificance. And not just insignificance, also some kind of abandonment. It is like having Mingus Big Band playing only for you and having no one to share the experience with. That solitary feel of the solo clapper. 
Oh well… But I’m here for a reason. I want to visit the Copan building.

Copan is an urban landmark of São Paulo. A project by Brazilian living legend, architect Oscar Niemeyer. The residential complex, with its light, curvy form, is a breath of fresh air in the middle of the city’s geometric straight-lined concrete. Looking at it from a distance, you can’t help but think it’s the work of a visionary. But, truth be told, I’m not here to admire the building’s design. I’m here because of the distinctive human aspect of the Copan building. Its 37 floors are home to 2000 people living in 1160 apartments. And people even say that the official stats are wrong and more than 5000 people actually live there.

I sit down at “Bar da Dona Onça”,” watching the people passing by. I see families enjoying the soft summer breeze. Older men discussing football and having a couple of beers. Young executives working extra time on weekends and returning home with loosened ties. A middle-aged lady in high heels, a golden wig and a short dress leaves the building. Our eyes meet and it becomes clear to me that she hasn’t always been a lady.I realize that in only ten minutes of people-watching, I have encountered the huge range of human diversity that Copan hosts.

After a bit, I get restless and go talk to a family. Alzira and Fernando live together in a two bedroom apartment with their daughter and son-in-law. “We moved here from Goias State 35… no, 36 years ago,“ Fernando tells me. “When we were looking for an apartment, the Copan seemed like a good option. It’s a really nice place to live… very central.…Here, let me get you a beer.” When he returns with an ice cold one in his hand, I ask him about his neighbors. “I can’t complain. People are really respectful, honestly. Of course we have people here from all over the country, rich, poor, families of eight living in a studio apartment, and couples living  on the top floors in 200 square meter apartments. But I never had any problems. A healthy coexistence all around.” Fernando smiles openly when he says that. Smiles like only Brazilians can, I remember thinking.

 I enjoy the ice cold beer with him. His family is really warm and everyone is curious about my country. They ask a lot about the food, the coastline and if I know the little town their ancestors are from. They share smiles and invite me to come back whenever I want. I feel a little bit like I’m part of the family. Immediately. I have to say goodbye, a little unwillingly. But duty calls. Gotta move on.

I come back a few days later. I want to go to the roof and take pictures, but the doorman says it’s closed on holidays. Right next to him is a lady of a certain age, wearing a colorful dress. I remember thinking that maybe she read a lot, she had that wise air that only teachers have. When I ask her about the building and how it was to live there, she says: “It’s good, it’s fine but… If you want you can come and take a look at my apartment, maybe it’s useful for you.” Obviously, I agree. 

”To live in Copan is truly a pleasure. It’s an honour. It’s a work of Niemeyer, after all. Of course with your day to day routine you tend to forget it, but I can’t hide how nice it is. Besides that it has every comfort I could wish for.” I’m sitting in Dona Celia’s neatly decorated living room, with bookshelves all over and some vibrant, colorful paintings on the walls. I’m hearing how she raised a family in the building and how now she lives here by herself. I also hear how she loved visiting Portugal, especially Coimbra, the university town. “Why? Because it’s a city where you can breathe knowledge. And I’m a teacher, so…” I was right. She actually reminded me of my first grade teacher, that’s why. I ask her what  it is like to live in such a diverse building. “Haha! This building is a real watercolor picture of Brazil, a true ‘Aguarela do Brasil’. You find every single type of people, every race, creed and, of course, level of wealth! But everyone lives together, no problems at all. People from Bloco B for instance, they live in poorer conditions, really tiny studios. But I have never heard of anyone having problems with the penthouse lawyers. Why should they?” She laughs. I think how privileged I am to discover a little bit of her world. On my way out she says: “Good luck with your world trip! Open your heart!!” I thank her immensely. Brimming with joy, these words accompany me down from the 10th floor and out of the door, overflowing into the street.

I’m walking on clouds when I notice this young couple sitting on the curb. Hand in hand, they’re just enjoying life and each other’s presence. I approach them and ask them a few questions. Otto and Luisa. The vivid light in their eyes, the light of people whose whole life is still ahead of them. They’ve been living together for a year in a studio at Copan. “It was an opportunity. We love the centre, we love the city life. Of course, to live in Copan has a special taste.” They live in the B Block. “We live in a small but cosy apartment. Perfectly enough for both of us. Yes, maybe for eight people it wouldn’t be…” Yes, maybe it wouldn’t. I wish them all the luck in the world. 

Coming back home, my head is boiling with thoughts. I feel like I was at the Tower of Babel, except everyone spoke the same language. The impression I had was that no matter how different they were from each other, every single person I spoke to enjoyed living in a symbol. It was a matter of pride. This building felt like an immense island and I only regret not having had more time to hear its anecdotes. With 5000 pulsating lives under one roof, I’m sure there are a lot. At the same time, after spending almost a month in Brazil, the building seemed like a scale model of the country. It included Brazil’s diversity, its contrast and intensity, a mosaic of several tones. It also revealed the country’s blatant inequality, and the people’s ability to reinvent themselves into a happy people, living in harmonic coexistence, despite all their difficulties and diferences.

Big Apple Harvest

Admiring the skyline is standard when you are in New York. But have you ever done it while harvesting vegetables?

Every city has a colour, a tonality that captures its spirit. My hometown Lisbon is sometimes called the White City. When thinking of New York, I think of a dark gray. Urbanized space leaves little room for green spots. And space seems to be a daily dilemma for the inhabitants of this city. But, as true New Yorkers, they react with creativity and invention. There is an urban myth about people using their ovens for storage. According to Marisa, a born and raised New Yorker, the myth is reality:”They only use the microwave to cook,” she tells me, “so they use their ovens to store their clothes!”

As a good Portuguese, I love food. This passion made me aware of another dilemma facing New Yorkers: the difficulty of finding fresh produce without spending the whole pay check. But again: New Yorkers act in unique ways. For this specific problem, the solution is green – and it is out there! I am talking about a new movement called rooftop farming. The principle is simple: No room to grow in the city? Just do it on the rooftops, the city’s most unused space.

It is official: Gotham is turning green, it’s not even St. Patrick’s day. Urban farming has been witnessing an exponential growth. The place I simply had to go see, the Brooklyn Grange, is a one acre big organic oasis on top of an industrial building and the largest urban farming project in the US. I am meeting Ben, one of the proud founders. He takes me to the roof and tells me how the whole Grange idea came up because he was tired of his desk job and “wanted to go back to the roots, and growing seemed like a good option. At the same time, he really did not want to leave his city. The solution was urban farming. Ben managed to gather an enthusiastic group of people with a common goal “The idea is to provide fresher and cheaper products by cutting the middle man. A farm located inside the district can grow food directly to the consumer.”

One of the greatest aspects of the Grange is to see how the community is engaged in this initiative. Volunteers flow into the farm, including school groups that come to learn the basics of farming. Taking your kids to the park is great, but teaching them how to farm in the heart of New York City has no price.

 Who would have thought that during my first week in New York I would be admiring the city’s iconic skyline from the green fields of a farm? That I would be picking fresh jalapeño peppers while looking at the Empire State Building?The city is changing, and its inhabitants will follow: The 21st century New Yorker is putting down his briefcase and exchanging it for a spade.