Matthew Niederhauser is reporting from Brazil with support from the Pulitzer Center.
I arrived early in Curitiba after a late night in Porto Alegre. It was definitely a wild card for me. I had never even heard of the place before its announcement as a host city for the World Cup. My curiosity was piqued, though. What were three million people doing on this plateau in Southern Brazil? Right off the bat I was extremely impressed with the atypically comfortable and spacious FIFA Fan Zone in the airport, replete with a "chill out" section for taking naps. I was more than tempted to test out the crate-and-mattress setup, but instead headed into the city center to explore what I found out is one of the most sustainably developed cities in Brazil, if not the world.
My Airbnb host, Joao, quickly gave me the lay of land. Curitiba, for all intents and purposes, is a boring place. Quite comfortable and agreeable, but at the end of the day nightlife is repetitive and there were only a few sparks of culture. Joao was in the midst of a self-imposed exile of sorts. He kept a tidy apartment with a bookshelf that came straight out of a NYU film major dorm room. He was spending the year reading and staying healthy, but yearned to return to Rio de Janeiro. I don't blame him. What Curitiba did have was efficient public transportation, pedestrian and bike friendly streets, widespread urban green spaces, and an overall high quality of life. UNESCO even suggested Curitiba as a model for rebuilding cities in Afghanistan. It is not known whether they included the 40,000-seat Arena da Baixada in that recommendation.
Curitiba is that type of town. People were more interested in talking about urban planning than the World Cup. Later in the afternoon I headed down to the stadium with Joao to see how people were taking in the daily World Cup matches. There was the normal mix of fans in cafés and bars, sometimes even seated outside in the nippy Curitiba air. Maybe I just hadn't looked hard enough before, but all the beauty parlors in Curitiba were also streaming the games for ladies getting their nails done. Everyone was tuned into the World Cup, but it still felt like background noise.
As we approached the stadium, a steady stream of fans appeared. The celebratory frivolity of other crowds made me forget the absolute seriousness of these games for some countries. Ecuadorian fans were die-hard. They came to bear their hearts for the team, and made their way down to the stadium eyes blazing with earnestness. Some of them also bore intricate crocheted face masks. The wild things were out and looking for victory. Eventually our wanderings were cut short since the Curitiba police, effective rocks of stability, wouldn't let anybody within three blocks of the stadium without a ticket. My only opportunity to get a photograph of the stadium was when Joao pretended to be my translator and convinced the manager of a nearby office building to get on their roof. The Arena da Baixada shone beautifully amongst the suburban sprawl of Curitaba.
The only thing really out of place were the proselytizers running into the middle of the road to perform Jesus cheers in front of stopped traffic. People handing out religious pamphlets and holding up "Jesus Loves You" banners are popping up around stadiums across Brazil during the World Cup. It seems like Christianity is trying to challenge the real religion of South America at their centers of worship. Good luck. No one minded the evangelizers jumping up and down in the street, although they were messing with the outstanding efficiency of Curitiba's traffic patterns. Otherwise the rest of the evening went along quite leisurely. We watched snippets of the match between convenience stores and bars before ending up in a wonderful night market in the Plaza General Osorio. Tasty Brazilian and European snacks abounded, and every stall had a television set up for viewing the game. Curitiba revealed itself as an outstandingly pleasant city. One worthy of more exploration, but I was off to Belo Horizonte in the morning to mingle with some Iranian fans.