Searching for Dora at Central do Brasil.


Botafogo

Familiar but not quite, that is how I would describe Brazil. I came to this conclusion after watching the chocolate seller, a woman in her forties with the type of face that you’d imagine had seen it all but through everything still had enough determination to flash a smile with tones of gentleness. Watching her walk along Praia do Flamengo selling her homemade chocolates wrapped in pretty ribbons the scene seemed familiar but it was the realisation that my imagination along with Loulou’s were on overdrive that made us conclude that Brazil has a slight touch of the exotic to make it different enough to make us feel like outsiders looking in.

Flamengo

Sugarloaf Mountain

Flamengo from Sugarloaf

Top: Sugarloaf at sunset from Flamengo Beach.

Middle: Cablecar up to the summit.

Bottom: Praia do Flamengo from Sugarloaf.

Somewhere along our journey we had decided to write a book, a sort of haphazard love letter to Brazil, the country which never ceased to offer us an abundance of characters. The chocolate seller, she had now turned into a bitter serial killer, once spurned by a foreign lover her chocolates and pretty ribbons now concealed a measure of arsenic to those who reminded her of those days when love had brought her near to heaven. Then there was the beautiful girl sitting on her balcony in an expensive condo in Copacabana. To us she had married a rich man who had took her away from poverty and now a kept woman in a gilded cage she would sit there bored everyday staring towards the ramshackle huts of the favela and longing for her childhood she would reminisce of those days that had felt worth living. Then there was the beautiful boy with green eyes wearing the sky blue t-shirt riding Bus 174 through Botafogo.  He lived in the favela where he would spend his days building a chapel made of cardboard and wood. He would only come down to the asphalt city to search for discarded newspapers and posters, hoping to find images of Jesus in them which would become the great Michelangelo artwork of his sanctuary. Yes, at first sight Brazil seemed familiar but it is when you realise that you are an outsider looking in that you understand this is not some lost European country but rather somewhere with it’s own unique identity.

Warsaw on Sea

Warsaw-on-Sea. The Centro district Rio de Janeiro.

Rio

While I know for sure that Brazilians are the kindest people I have ever met I couldn’t quite make up my mind about the Cidade Maravilhosa and it’s reputations of beauty. Most of the architecture of downtown Rio is modern bordering on brutalist and if it wasn’t for the cities location nestled between Sugarloaf, Corcovado and Tijuca National Park I could have quite easily christened it Warsaw-on-Sea. Rio de Janeiro is definitely not my kind of city. Show me the sardines vying for space on a packed beach and I will run a mile. The same goes for certain cities with their myths of glamour and the people attracted to it, who, too busy making selfies in the latest place to be seen hardly notice the beggars they are stepping over.

Ipanema

Ipanema late afternoon

Of all the beaches in Rio there was only one I actually enjoyed and that was the one nicknamed The Poor Man’s Beach, Flamengo. If you just want to sit somewhere quiet sipping on a cocktail unpretentiously wrapped in polystyrene without the endless hawkers and crowds then head for Flamengo around sunset and marvel at the great hulk of Sugarloaf Mountain. Here it’s façade seems gigantic and as the slipping sun will make it’s rockface turn quite volcanic you will marvel at the children and their confidence as they swim in the breakers which seem to my eyes more used to the North Sea quite terrifying. The same cannot be said for posh Ipanema or crowded Copacabana and while the walk along Ipanema and Copacabana’s Avenida Atlântica was truly iconic I longed for the back streets of Old Delhi with their chaos and grime where life seems far more edgier.

Guanabara Bay

The famous view from Corcovado.

One morning Loulou and I followed the tourist trail up to the summit of Corcovado to view Christ the Redeemer. While the statue is beautiful but much smaller than I had imagined the views were astounding. I couldn’t help but giggle to myself while watching the tourists all crammed on the balcony below, which from that angle made them look like one big angry cockroach their waving selfie sticks like the insect’s antennae reaching out trying to catch something, for the tourists just a memory. Sugarloaf was no different. Unhappy queues of tourists crammed into cable cars for the ride up to the summit and while the views again were amazing it was the crowds that made me want to flee. I was surprised though that on top of Sugarloaf there is small forest where if you search long enough you can just about escape from the crowds although I suspect the marmosets have become jaded or wise and fled the summit long ago.

Rio from above

Jardim Botanico

The Avenue of Palms in the Jardim Botânico. When you tell me these Botanical Gardens are amongst the world’s finest I was expecting far more!

Rio Jardim Botanico

Walking in “the armpit” … this neighbourhood is nicknamed so because it’s located under Christ’s right armpit.

Jardim Botanico

Parque Lage

There was only one moment in Rio and actually the rest of Brazil that had for me eclipsed all others and that was in the unlikely location of Rio’s main train station called Central do Brasil. It must have been sometime last winter when cycling home from work in a particulary nasty downpour that I had got home looking and feeling like a drowned rat, the prospect of the upcoming darkened months seemed to have weighed heavier on my shoulders that day. Trying to cheer myself up while dancing to Bossa Nova music on Youtube I had stumbled upon a Brazilian movie called Central do Brasil.Corcovado from Parque Lage

Corcovado and Christ the Redeemer from Parque Lage.

Artwork Rio I

Artwork in the Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage.

Artwork Rio II

Artwork Rio III

Central do Brasil tells the story of a boy searching for his father who becomes friends with a letter writer who sits in the main hall of the cities train station. This film captures Brazil and it’s emotions so beautifully that I couldn’t help but watch it a number of times and it was this film that made me decide to go to Brazil. One afternoon after walking what seemed like all over the city I would say fate brought me towards the train station where approaching it’s main hall I had felt a rush of excitement, the only time I had felt that in Brazil.

Central do Brasil

The building of dreams…Central do Brasil!

This moment is when I could say I loved Brazil the most standing at a coffee counter in Central do Brasil’s main hall wearing my beat up strawhat and dusty clothes where I sipped on an intense cafezinho and gazed across the crowds searching for Dora, the letter writer and Josue, the lost boy. In doing so I saw all of Brazil unfold before my eyes. People with unfamilar provincial features were flowing into the city carrying their lives in one suitcase, their sparkling eyes crammed full of dreams, while others, the downbroken, were going back home dejected by the Marvelous City and all that it had offered them. In between it all smartly dressed business workers could have been flowing out towards the suburbs after a day’s work lost in their thoughts and drama of big city life while beggars milled around in search of a few reais. The only thing that seemed permanent was the building itself with it’s huge images lining the main wall. These were of places in Brazil like Brasilia and São Paulo now faded and covered in dirt showcasing the country in another time when Brazil had seemed more optimistic. In that moment I understood the vastness of Brazil, of the world, and us, just one in billions with our hopes and dreams we are all in someway searching for the Cidade Maravilhosa.

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The White Dove of Ouro Preto.

Ouro Preto

Sometimes life throws something straight at you and I experienced this the first time I ever saw a photo of Ouro Preto. In the picture was a town nestled in hills but my eye was instantly drawn towards the quite unremarkable moss-covered church on a hill where I knew I was going to see some sort of sign. Later I found out this church was called São Francisco de Paula and that my premonition of a sign had been correct all along.

Set along the Royal Road leading from Rio up into the hills to the town of Diamantina, Ouro Preto was the old capital of the state of Minas Gerais and is considered by some to be the finest, most picture-perfect town in all of Brazil. In 1750 more people were living in Ouro Preto than New York and five times that of the population of Rio de Janeiro. At first named Vila Rica (Rich Town) and for long the wealthiest town in the Americas the name had later been changed to Ouro Preto meaning Black Gold. The town was also the location of the Inconfidência Mineira, the first uprising for independence in Brazil. It was led by an inhabitant of Ouro Preto, a dentist named Joaquim José da Silva Xavier better known as Tiradentes (Tooth Puller). The Portuguese crushed the uprising and Tiradentes was dismembered his limbs scattered along the Royal Road to terrorize the populace while his head was said to have been exhibited on the main square where a stone pillar marks the spot today.

Praça Tiradentes

Praça Tiradentes and the stone pillar with a statue of Tiradentes on top

Leaving the bus station we decided to walk into town as the quotes the taxi drivers where throwing at us were outrageous considering our hotel was only a fifteen minute walk away. We strolled along a cracked sidewalk which was no easy feat considering my suitcase was a spinner and past a custard-coloured church. Turning the corner of the church towards it’s façade I realised it had been built on a ridge overlooking the town which was suddenly revealed before us like a surreal oil painting by Alberto da Veiga Guignard. I couldn’t help but notice that the town was sloping away from us and built on steep hills giving the impression of a perilous sea of orange rooftops and rainbow-coloured window frames, between the waves loomed the huge steeples of Baroque churches acting as lighthouses for mankind before the homes surged towards the horizon and into the foothills of Itacolomi State Park. They were right, with it’s cobbled lanes, iron lanterns and red shutters Ouro Preto was indeed beautiful and inhaling the smell of a million eucalyptus trees I realised I could quite happily visit there every year.

Pousa do Chixo Rei

Pousa do Chico Rei just after dawn

Chico Rei detail

drawing on the wall of Chico Rei

Famous guests

Pousa do Chico Rei is full of framed drawings and letters, here is Guignard

Marvelling at the wrought iron balconies and artsy shops selling regional stones like topaz and diamonds we walked past the town’s main square, Praça Tiradentes, and turning right at the Igreja Nossa Senhora do Carmo made our way along Rua Brigadeiro Musqueira to the Pousa do Chico Rei where we would be staying. I couldn’t remember why I had decided to stay there but vaguely knew that it would be something special. After walking into the reception area I realised I was in some sort of shrine, snapshots of a life seemed to line it’s walls with poems and love letters, of faded photos and silly doodles framed in glass. Reading the name Lilli over and over again I realised where I was, the former home of Lilli Correia de Araújo, the Danish innkeeper who had lived here and had hosted a who’s who of the twentieth century. I adored everything about this 18th century building, the massive, creaking bedroom doors with even bigger gaol-like iron keys, antique beds that could have been from the palace in Sintra, squeaky floorboards smoothed from footsteps of long ago, the incredible views across town from it’s rambling garden and most of all the fact that it seemed as if Loulou and I were the only traveler’s who knew of it’s existence. On every trip it is a small pastime of mine to try to find a connection to the journey I had taken previously and spotting a painting of Saint Michael by the Cusco School on the wall of the breakfast area I felt a nod of recognition from Peru and saw it as a good sign.

The guesthouse is now run by Lilli’s grandson Ricardo and as he led us upstairs, at times tripping over a small, black, grey-moustashed mongrel, he told us we were the only guests and we would be staying in the best room of the house, the Pablo Neruda Suite named after the Chilean poet-diplomat who had stayed there. I was fascinated reading the names of former guests like Kissinger and Burle Max and knew I was going to sleep in a place surrounded by the ghosts of people I admire. I must say I have the best memories staying there, talking with Loulou for hours on end, running across squeaking floorboards at all hours of the night, raiding the kitchen for snacks and most of all the feeling we were free to explore the whole building. It really was like staying with your long lost uncle who was never around. I wondered too about the conversations that had been debated here, Marxism and Hedonism when Sartre and de Beauvoir had slept here, or of Guignard and his ideas of dreamy landscapes, of the laughter and clinking of wine glasses of all those years ago. Talking with Loulou about our own varied, alternative lives I wondered if the guests of past would have welcomed us too. At night as I lay on the bed clutching my stomach still in the last throws of food poisoning I couldn’t help but think of our room’s namesake, Pablo Neruda, and the irony of it all when he, in the last hours of his life, had too, clutched his stomach and pleaded for help from his wife convinced that he had been poisoned by members of the Pinochet regime.

Most of all I cherished the moments around dawn when I would try to hush the creaking doors and tiptoe across the living room floor and sit on the balcony where I could marvel at the church right outside. This was the spot where Elizabeth Bishop had wrote her poem Under the Window: Ouro Preto. As I thought of her words “…here am I for whom you have been waiting…” I would stare towards the Igreja Nossa Senhora do Carmo which at that time would be bathed in the softest kaleidoscope of purples and pinks sliding across it’s façade. The fat-cheeked cherubs sculpted by Aleijadinho seemed to dance in this light, hovering above the doorway it was as if they were dancing for me, a final show from Christianity before I turned my back on it forever.

Nossa Senhora do Carmo

Nossa Senhora do Carmo. This is the view from the balcony of Pousa do Chico Rei at dawn

Ouro Preto Sunrise

the first light of a new day on Rua Brigadeiro Musqueira

Places with hills are always a shock for me at first as I spend most of my time in The Netherlands but being in Ouro Preto and fighting both food poisoning, a viral infection and along with that the hot temperatures after coming out of a European winter, walking in the town was particulary tough but I managed to soldier along. I believe it was the kindness of the inhabitants of the town and the amazing companionship of Loulou that helped with my recovery.

Ouro Preto is famous for it’s churches, the soapstone market and it’s souvenirs of white doves so days were spent wandering it’s lanes buying presents made of soapstone and visiting the many churches, my favorite being the Igreja Santa Efigênia. Named after an Ethiopian saint this church didn’t have the wealth of it’s more famous neighbours like the Igreja Nossa Senhora do Pilar with it’s 400kg of gold but it was it’s history that beamed it into the stars for me.  Santa Efigênia had been funded by the slaves who had been shipped over from Africa. It is said the churches construction had been funded by the gold dust collected in the fountain where the slaves had washed their hair after being forced to work in the mines. It was amazing to look inside this church and see traces of Africa in it’s artwork although such a pity it’s not allowed to take photos.

Ouro Preto Church

Morning in Ouro Prero

Minas Gerais

Dawn Ouro Preto

Ouro Preto flora

Ouro Preto Bridge

find the puppy!

Pousa do Chico Rei

Pousa do Chico Rei from Igreja Nossa Senhora do Carmo

Ouro Preto Rays

man catching the first sunlight on Praça Tiradentes

As the days passed and our list of churches to visit were ticked off there still loomed the moss-covered church of São Francisco de Paula which was ever-present from our room window. As this was the church I had saw in that first photo I told Loulou that I needed to go there before we left the town although I didn’t know why and that I knew I would see something. It all sounded a bit crazy but having faith she walked with me over to the Tourist Information Office where we hired a driver who told us there were nicer churches than that one but still I was adamant that we must go there. Driving into the grounds of the church I was shocked. It was the only church in the town, and infact the rest of what I had saw in Brazil, that seemed unkept. Covered in grafitti and locked up with smashed windows I realised it was in the type of place where you have to watch out that you don’t step on used syringes. My heart sank thinking I could never see anything remarkable in such a place as that and feeling defeated we asked the driver just to drive us around and take us to places where he thought could be interesting.

It wasn’t until later when we were on the other side of the town that I noticed across the valley stood the abandoned church and right above it was a cloud in the shape of a white dove with outstretched wings. I knew instantly that this was the sign I was seeking although I didn’t know what it all meant. I later asked a shopkeeper why they sell so many trinkets of white doves and she told me in Brazil they place them above their doorways to protect households and that in Christianity it symbolizes the Holy Spirit. All through my journeys into Romania, Peru and now Brazil I had visited many churches and had now become aware that all along I had been saying in some way a farewell to Christianity, a religion that I had loved as a child. It was amazing for me to see this sign, the White Dove as a cloud, confirming that there is something higher that we don’t understand. The White Dove, a symbol of peace the world over, it was in many ways closure for me and a confirmation that I must persevere on my journey towards belief but in a different form.

White Dove Ouro Preto

the cloud that changed it all, on the left hovering above the Igreja São Francisco de Paula

It’s strange why sometimes we have to travel half way across the world just to find what we always had at home and in Brazil I realised this . . . I had belief. The White Dove of Ouro Preto was the sign I needed in my life, a final blessing from Christianity and a form of guidance for me to embrace a new religion, one that I had been aware of as a four year old child and one that I had been aware of even before that of Christianity.

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Following Aleijadinho’s footsteps to Mariana.

Minas Gerais Landscape

As we travelled north west from Rio de Janeiro into one of Brazil’s largest states Minas Gerais I enjoyed the idea of the unknown. It was a part of my trip that I had not researched and all I had to go on was a photo of a beautiful colonial town that had reminded me of a favorite place of mine in Portugal, Coimbra, and more tragically of the Bento Rodrigues disaster which had been all over the news only a few months earlier.

As the gritty industrial suburbs of Rio faded into farmland shadowy mountain ridges of cool blue set against rolling hills and forests of emerald green seemed to go on forever. As beautiful as it was I couldn’t help but think of it’s rivers, poisoned by the toxic sludge from Bento Rodrigues which was slicing through the landscapes on it’s way to the Atlantic. I had expected a displaced people and areas cordoned off but realised Minas Gerais was so vast that it was impossible to notice anything out of the ordinary. There were no sandbags or army jeeps or television helicopters with cameramen, just sleepy towns where life seemed to go on as usual.

SONY DSC

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I was following the footsteps and legend of Aleijadinho. A man who some say had never existed while others say was the child of an African slave, the father being a famous Portuguese mason. Aleijadinho was said to have decorated some of the regions most beautiful churches and the legend goes that as his life progressed he had lost his limbs to leprosy. This didn’t stop him from his passion and he would ask people to bind what was left of his limbs with chisels and hammers and then be hoistered up to continue his work which seems looking back now to have been executed at a frenetic pace. I was intrigued by the story of Aleijadinho and knowing I would never uncover the truth at least I would have his artwork to admire.

Mariana

Sleepy Mariana

Mariana is the oldest of the colonial towns in Minas Gerais, named after Dona Maria Ana of Austria, the wife of Dom João V. Gold had been discovered in this region which gave the townsfolk enough money to build elaborate homes and churches and as the Portuguese style was much in fashion at the time the streets began to look no different than towns thousands of kilometres away. It was said that in the rush to discover gold the towns grew so fast that there had been at one time a shortage of food where people had starved to death clutching gold nuggets in their hands.

Church in Mariana

Nossa Senhora do Carmo Church

Square Mariana

a sleepy square

Mariana steeples

Mariana Brazil

Mariana Minas Gerais

church towers of São Francisco Church

I would have liked to stay in Mariana longer and while away the days on it’s town squares and to have explored more of it’s churches but I was aware of Brazil, it’s exotic vastness, and how I would need to move on, to explore this great land in more detail. The great jewel of Minas Gerais was calling me, Ouro Preto, a town not far from Mariana and said by some to be the most beautiful in Brazil.

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Into the shadows of Corcovado.

Rio de Janeiro

Flying down to Rio. As my digestive tract exploded from both ends somewhere off the coast of Madeira I realised the glamour of air travel was truly over. Back in the thirties “flying down to Rio” to stay at the Copacabana Palace Hotel was quite the thing when the city had been for the rich and famous the voyage du jour. Now I found myself on a cramped plane suffering from severe food poisoning due to the negligence of the airline itself. I had been served food with a broken seal and believing the lame excuse from the stewardess – she is the person I have to follow instructions from in a disaster – I ate it. An hour later when it became obvious I was ill the crew closed ranks and gave three different reasons why the seal had been broken. I have a witness but being the better person I have decided to let it rest. I’m thankful that my body managed to eject most of the contaminated food before it was digested as I believe I could have died as ill as I was from the tiny morsel that had remained in my system. A month later i’m still recovering from a viral infection which I’m convinced was caused by the same bacteria getting into my lungs. Some of my colleagues were upset when seeing the state of me when returning to work so you can imagine how serious this was. During the flight I remained polite as always and maintaining a stiff upper lip suffered in silence but I found it in bad form when leaving the plane the crew didn’t even ask how I was feeling. As for their new Dreamliner Screamliner I’m not at all impressed.

Still as the plane came into land the ochre and pink sunset against the lanterns of bobbing ships on Guanabara Bay all mixing into the blue south Atlantic was quite spectacular. As the plane taxied along the runway I could make out Corcovado on the horizon and Christ the Redeemer which from that distance looked like an oversized telecoms tower bathed in spotlights. I have always suspected that the ciudade maravilhosa as the Cariocas lovingly call it could infact be Warsaw-on-Sea with it’s brutalist Sixties architecture and pulling into the ugliest airport I have ever seen – more like a large oversized power substation – seemed to confirm my suspicions. Staggering through the sweltering terminal towards a sluggish passport control was quite a shock. I had imagined everything new and especially beautiful as it is, afterall, Rio de Janeiro.

Botafogo

Dream view from the hotel room balcony, that’s Corcovado and Christ the Redeemer!

We decided to get the airport bus downtown which was another shocker. The bus is supposed to be a premium service but it was all a bit battered with no information or map inside so we didn’t have a clue when to get off. As the bus made it’s way past what seemed like a horrible French banlieue Loulou noticed a barefoot child run into an abandoned building while I had my eyes on a very beautiful transsexual prostitute standing near the Edifício Santo Dumont. As a kerb crawler appeared she made her way to the car showing her oversized silicone implants and pointing to the bulge protruding from her tiny bermuda shorts, obviously her advertising strategy that she was pre-op. Such an apparition for me was rather fantastical and seemed in line with my ideas of Rio as progressive where people, as gender fluid as they decide, can live how they want.

Pichaçāo, the strange cryptic grafitti reminiscent of Tifinagh script seemed to cover everything from alleyways to the upper floors of nice apartment buildings. All of this together with the constant police checkpoints and empty downtown gave everything a sinister edgy feel. The large posters for beauty products created an even awkward enviroment as all of the models were extremely aryan, even by Slavic standards and completely alien to the people I was seeing walking on the street. The only model who had darker skin tones seemed to be a television celebrity or actress. Seeing old Portuguese buildings made me feel quite emotional and in those moments I longed for Lisbon, a city where I used to live and had loved and loathed in equal measure.

Guanabara Bay

Centro and Guanabara Bay in the background

As the bus made it’s way through downtown and along Avenida Rio Branco I became obsessed with trying to figure out where we were supposed to get off the bus. Using Google Maps and a Portuguese translation app a woman disturbingly explained that we would have to walk through a dark area with trees and then through an underpass that was known as being a bit shady. We asked her to repeat this information a number of times as I was sure that she could not be serious. In a city with a dangerous reputation as Rio walking around with all of our money and electronics while clutching onto a sick bag was the last thing I wanted to hear. It had seemed so easy planning the bus transfer in a healthier state-of-mind from the comfort of my home but now as disturbing streetscapes appeared on every corner along with jetlag and confusion I was regretting not taking a taxi. The woman could see our distress and assuring us went to have a word with the bus driver and here is where Brazil gets incredible. The driver took a detour from his route and basically dropped us off right infront of our hotel! I was amazed at this gesture and realised that Brazil was going to be different and special. Where else, especially in a major city, would a scheduled airport bus make a detour to help a pair of vulnerable foreigners who could only mutter a few words of the local language?

After the drama with the predatory airline crew I realised being in a country as caring as Brazil was exactly where I wanted to be when ill. As the bus pulled away the woman who had helped us waved and smiled. I felt in that moment that I would be alright and Brazil, like a glamazon transgender mother covered in rough tattoos, would wrap me in her arms and tell me everything would be fine.

Subscribe to my blog. Next up: Following Aleijadinho’s footsteps to Mariana.