Sunday, 6 July 2008

4. Belo Horizonte and Ouro Preto

Thursday 3rd
I woke up, in Tiradentes, to one of the most sumptuous breakfasts I had ever seen. They get their eating done early in Minas Gerais, and a large table was literally covered with food - all for me!

Stuffed full, I made my way out to explore the town. Tiradentes is famous for it's large and excessively gilded church (one of the richest in Brazil), so I made a beeline for it. Finding it certainly wasn't hard - the sleepy little town is tiny! Tucked into a small valley you could easily walk across it in an hour, negotiating the crazily steep streets as they climb the mountain sides.

In all honesty, I wasn't that impressed with the opulence of the church - it was nothing like the beautiful little Irmandade de Nossa Senhora da Glòria I'd found on a small hill in central Rio. There was gold everywhere, winking in the light, but the art it framed had nothing of the life I've come to expect from churches in Brazil - the church was built before the Baroque movement swept across Europe.

Tiredentes is a nice enough small town - large parts are almost perfectly preserved from colonial times, the streets are all cobbled and I honestly saw a couple of horses making their way across town with no human handler in sight! I was getting tired of the outback however, and was feeling like spending some time in a big city. In this mood, I made plans to head into the centre of the state the next day.

Friday 4th
Rather than take the bus out of town, I headed to the station. Tiradentes and Sao Joau del Rei have an amazingly well preserved old steam train route between them, and I felt like checking it out. It was a hell of a lot of fun - I'll post up a couple of photos. From Sao Joau, I jumped on a bus to the capital city of Minas Gerais - Belo Horizonte.

When I arrived it was Friday evening, so I got myself checked in, chucked my bag down and went out looking for adventure.

So I basically hit the streets in the student district, looking for a place to start the night. As I was sauntering down a side street I stumbled on a tiny little place - only a couple of meters of bar space under a little roof - that was spilling out, not only all over the pavement, but into the street! Cars were having to dodge round hammered students in their yellow plastic chairs! I dived in.

At the bar I was having a little more trouble than I'd anticipated. I'm pretty adroit at ordering myself a beer now (Bohemia is my current fave), but there were complexities. Brazilians like their beer cold. Really cold. They keep the bottles in freezers hovering just above zero degrees, then, when they're taken out, immediately wrap them in cooling sleeves, pouring into and drinking out of tiny glasses which are finished before they heat up in the slightest. The friendly barman was trying to ask me if I wanted one of these sleeves in the rapid-fire Brazilian Portuguese, and I wasn't getting it.

A pretty girl just down the bar from me was chuckling at my confusion and, after enjoying my plight for a minute, dived in and saved me. Armed with my Skol, she promptly (and without saying a word) dragged me over to her cramped little table of friends - a bunch of straight girls and gay guys. This lot found me alternately fascinating and hilarious - the idea that someone would be stupid enough to travel for three months in a country where his linguistic resources amounted to a 90s Linguaphone tape and a pocket phrasebook seemed to boggle their minds. I had loads of fun, and after an hour or so they demanded I come party with them at a club round the corner.

Clubbing was crazy fun. Turned out the place, while not a gay club, was pretty popular with the local gay scene, which made for hilarious times - I narrowly escaped recruitment for a famous local transvestite's singles auction and quickly learnt the Portuguese for "Nope, I'm straight thanks!" There were as many straight guys and gals as gay there, and I was reminded again how beautiful the average Brazilian is. I find it interesting that perhaps the most attractive group in the world springs from a happy mixing of African, Caucasian and Indian genes. Says something nice about racial unity I think - I wonder how they'd look if Chinese/Japanese and Arabic blood had been thrown into the mix. I ended up separating from the guys I'd come in with and meeting a stunning girl named Christova and her 4 roommates. It was getting to late morning by this point, so I went back with them and crashed at their place for a few hours.

After we all rolled out of bed, me and Chris headed into town, and she showed me a locals eye view of Belo Horizonte. It's nothing like as crazy and beautiful as Rio, but it's a lot of fun! That evening I said goodbye and struggled back to my hostel, and the next morning I packed up and moved out to Ouro Preto.

Monday 7th
I woke up this morning in my beautiful little pousada, a far cry from the crazy hedonism of Belo Horizonte. Ouro Preto is basically Tiradentes scaled up. The crazily steep cobbled streets are even steeper (the pavement on my street is actually a huge flight of stone stairs!), the sense that the city is desperately trying to fit in the small space afforded it by the local geography feels much stronger, and then there's the churches. On one 2km stretch of road there are nine churches. Just so we're clear, I'm not talking little 30 person chapels, I'm talking huge, magnificent, gold-encrusted works of the finest baroque art. Each able to seat a congregation at least 100 strong. I've been unable to wrangle permission to photograph the interior of any yet, which is killing the photographer in me! The beautiful, and mostly tasteful, gilding, frames fantastic paintings and some of the finest carvings by the famed Aleijadinho. They're gorgeous. At first I was a little put off at this huge expenditure, all for the sake of telling the person in the street that "god's house is a hell of a lot nicer than yours". More recently however, I've started to look at them, not as religious symbols, but as celebrations of the beauty man can create.

I've got another night here, then I'm going to venture up into the mountains to see if I can find this elusive monastery-turned-school. I'm also trying to contact this exciting bunch of guys camped out somewhere around Chapada Diamantina. It's proving tricky though, and I don't know if it's going to work out. Plus I've got to be hundreds of miles up north for the festival in only 16 days! Wish me luck!


There was actually noone looking after these horses. They were making their way across town and even obeying traffic rules - waiting for cars and giving way!


Ouro Preto

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