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.
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 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.
Nossa Senhora do Carmo Church
a sleepy square
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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Flying down to Rio. As my digestive tract exploded 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 theCariocas lovinglycall it could infact beWarsaw-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.
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.
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.
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.
Subscribe to my blog. Next up: Following Aleijadinho’s footsteps to Mariana.