Saturday, February 28, 2009

Diamantina (Saturday)

View all my photos of Diamantina here

'Thanks for the ride', I say to the driver as I'm leaving the bus. 'Just three questions though, if I may? Thanks. Does the bus leave from here also? And its at 15:30 tomorrow, right? Last one - where's the old part of town? Straight down the hill. Down that street there. That steep street just there. Well, thanks again!'

So, down the steep street it is then, though I haven't a clue where its going. All I can see is a bare, rocky ridge across the valley beyond.

The driver was right! Round a big curve I can begin to see terracotta roofs, a patchwork of pastel and there, the twin spires of the cathedral. Instead of being built along the hill's spine, old Diamantina was built slip-sliding down the hill's steep slope. Must have been to avoid the bleak wind that must blow in the winter, to be that bit closer to the river for water - and to search for the first diamonds, washed out of cracks in the rocks by the rains, lying there a million years waiting for a man's hand to reach out and grasp them tight.

The sun still sizzled in the late afternoon air, refreshingly light as the town sits 1200 meters above sea level. There's always something special about being high up in the tropics; all of the color, richness and variety of the verdant lowlands mixed in with the luminance of a high sky and clear mountain freshness.

Walked around the town to get my feel of the place, shoot some afternoon photos before the sun faded away over the mountain's ridge behind the town, and find a place to stay for the night. But five days ago the place had been a-bustle with Carnival; now life was concentrated in a small square between two bars. And noisy too, as though the people didn't want the buzz to die away too quickly.

As in all of the places on the Estrada Real, the old Royal Road that once lead from Rio de Janeiro and Paraty to just this place, the town's success is expressed by its baroque churches and trader's timberframe houses. Diamantina is of the same epoque as Ouro Preto but, like a diamond, it is more expressively lighter than gold. The streets in both tumble down the hillside, but Diamantina's streets tend to be broader. The churches are pastel, not bold. The houses are wood-and-brick, not wood-and-stone. Same, but different. A delightful unmatching pair.


One of the houses I especially sought out was the house of Chica da Silva. Depending on your (in Brazil, often ethnic) point of view, Chica was a heroine or a scandal. Either way, she remains famous 200 years after her death. What she did was, become the provincial governor's companion and bear him several children. Correct, they didn't marry. They could have, but convention wouldn't permit it. You see, she had once been a slave (the governor had bought her and freed her). She was African. And she had had children by her previous owners. Including a priest (well, he would, wouldn't he). Count the scandals!

Not that this apparently bothered her much - or the governor. When she was denied access to one of the local churches, as the legend goes, the governor had one put up right next to her house (I checked - there's a crucifix over the carriage gateway but no identifiable chapel, and the church the Governor did built is down the ways a bit),

Why is this important to me? The second time I lived in Brazil one of the many (eternal) soap operas running on TV that I used to learn the language from was about Chica da Silva. Really well played with the necessary dash of courage, calculation and charisma. And the only soap opera before or since with an African as main character. My five years in Africa and the experiences I saw there and in many places since always, always makes me sensitive to unfair and false discrimination. So, of course, I fell for Chica's story way back - and had to find her house, once I knew it was here.

The house is now a museum. With hardly anyone there I roamed around the rooms, courtyard and garden at will (there are grapevines here - the first I've ever seen in Brazil!). The lower rooms have a paltry collection of broken plates dating from recent times, nothing to do with Chica. The upper rooms have great planks of mahogany for their flooring (I adore this). A few items of furniture from the time (maybe) and several paintings by the same artist depicting Chica in various guises, which if I read correctly are the Seven Deadly Sins. Well, we know which side of the fence this artist is on, anyway. And the local tourist board, despite the tourist Real the legend brings in.


The sun was going down quickly now, so I went back to the Pousada (hostel/inn in the old sense of the word) I thought looked the most interesting and attractive, checked in and found it a delight. Would you believe this place still serves a complimentary tea with cakes at sunset? Wondrous! Hospitality!

A fast hike back up the hill to take the very last shots possible before twilight closed in, then back to the Pousada for a delectable orange tea and coconut cake in the enclosed courtyard.

At the end, the inn's attendant invited me and some fellow guests up from Rio (the ladies' loud nasal voices gave them away) to take a small 'tour' of the little museum set up in the house. In this spacious room was set out the story of panning for diamonds (here they were all alluvial, not mined as in Africa or Australia), with equipment and a small diorama. Think panning for gold and you have it. Also on display were the assayer's and jeweler's tools, this because the house once belonged to the Nascimentos, assayers and jewelers in the the diamond trade.

Quick turn around the town in the evening, just to discover that it mostly closes down as the night closes in. Then bed, in an old wooden room with mahogany floorboards, large mahogany bed, fresh white sheets, embroidered coverlet, soft fluffy pillows and the gentlest of cool breezes rustling the white linen curtains as I left the sash windows open. Memorable.

Somewhere in the distance a telephone was ringing (and not being answered) constantly.

The Road to Diamantina

View all my photos of Diamantina here

I had tried to travel to Diamantina during the Carnival period but the coaches were full and so ,the teller told me, were the hotels. Which turned out for the best as I found there was work to do anyway. So Friday evening I returned to the Rodoviaria to buy a return ticket for the weekend.

Bright and early on Saturday therefore (not so bright and early as when I went to Ouro Preto, but respectably bright and early) I found myself sitting once again by a window seat, gazing out at the countryside as we headed north for Diamantina.

Why go to Diamantina? Because of all the diamonds there, of course. Well, not quite - the town gets its name from the diamonds washed into deposits by the cascading rivers and streams, first found by the same people who found gold in Ouro Preto around 300 years ago. Nowadays its the town they built that draws people, rather than the diamond industry itself, which still exists but is industrialized and remote from the everyday life of the Diamantinines (not Diamantines, though it sounds way easier).


Heading north meant heading into much different terrain than the way south to Ouro Preto and Congonhas. No mountains and deep ravines here - this part of the world has been settled by ranchers and foresters, with the occasional steel mill thrown in. There are more small towns too, and rarely the view is devoid of some sort of habitation.

After the relatively steep hills around Belo Horizonte, the land softens, with more gentle open rolling hills. There seems to be an equal mix of open countryside, grazing land, crops (mostly maize/corn) and plantations of eucalyptus. Roll back a couple of hundred years (or less) and these lands must have been woodland, strip burned away like the Amazon basin continues to be today. Past Caetanopolis the earth is as red as South Africa or northern Queensland - rusty laterite full of iron - hence the steel foundries, islands among the plantations of trees.

These transplanted Australian eucalyptus are set so close together that nothing lives underneath their high canopies; only the outermost trees are fully leaved, making each planted section look like a shaggy, upturned box. With their slender, silvereen trunks its like looking through an elven forest. Wish I could stop to wander through, but the coach presses on.


Three hours we have traveled non-stop. Now the scenery is much more open, almost savannah. We roll into a town called Curvelo, which seems to be in the heart of rancher territory. Fifteen minutes to stretch legs, have a coffee, check up on the soccer matches screened on wall mounted TVs. Not much of the town to see in that time - plus the Rodoviaria is not centrally located. Back up into the coach and off again.

From now on right up to Diamantina the coach would stop at several places along the road; obviously this is one of the 'local' buses. The people coming aboard are the farming people and small town traders, young and old, just going a short ways down the road. They are regulars; they all know the driver, the conductor and each other.

Soon after Curvelo we slipped off the main road into a place called Ita......, a country town where houses are for the most part kept prettily clean, the public lawns are flowered and waters, their curbstones painted white and tree trunks daubed with quicklime. The same in Gouveia too, a place just a little larger than Ita... just up the road - almost like the towns in Morocco, with the sun brightening the green and white alike.


Between Curvelo and Gouveia the land changes quickly and dramatically. The grasslands give way to rough land spiked with singular grey boulders and broad green ficus bushes. Not that the cattle mind much; they are still tranquilly roaming around, three strands of barbed wire keeping them from short-lived freedom.

Then the stones coalesce into rocky outcrops and the lush vegetation falls right away. I can see miles and miles into the distance, like across the grimly bare hills of Scotland. These are the Brazilian highlands, broad expanses of land that never were jungle (too high for that), but some sort of steppe land, with isolated ranches stretching the land to its utmost as they raise cattle. No wonder the beef here tastes so good.

We slip between treeless plateaux and green river vales, eventually coming over the last ridge and into Diamantina. The little town of Diamonds.


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Ouro Preto

View all my photos of Ouro Preto here

Up early to walk down through deserted streets once more to the Rodoviaria, this time for Ouro Preto.

Ouro Preto (Black Gold) was once called Vila Rica (Rich Town) because its entire reason for existing was as a result of finding gold in the hills around it in the mid 1700s. If I recall correctly, the fist gold was alluvial; the gold diggers soon had their slave gangs burrowing inside the hills for more. If you have ever seen fotos of the army of 'garimpeiros', men covered by the mud of sluiced down hillsides as they scrabble for nuggets, then this was the true face of Ouro Preto.

Even now, as the bus screams around every curve of the highway on the way to Ouro Preto (I'm sure all bus drivers here think they are White Rabbits, convinced they are late, terribly late), I can see that there is mining activity in the region. Now of course its a more industrial affair - open mechanical strip mining owned and managed by the state/federal government. The gold diggers sit in public offices now.

While the road to Congonhas slipped through hilly country, the road to Ouro Preto is altogether more mountainous. Nowadays the views are quite open, the still forested valleys releasing a long breath of mist as the sun begins to warm up the air. Imagine what it was like 300 years ago when the first of those enterprising sons of Sao Paulo, the 'Bandeirantes' (Bannermen) who were the first colonists to strike inland, struggled through wild, original jungle forest, slashing a path to their El Dorado without ever being able to get to a viewpoint to see where they really were.

The forest around Ouro Preto is long gone; cleared for settlement and grazing. The city itself is picture perfect, a traditional Portuguese fishing village transported whole and plopped down entire and complete in a tropical heartland. Literally the only things missing are the cry of seagulls and the roll of the ocean.

The people who built it up were, of course, the wealthy mineowners and the merchant who settled in the town to sell the provisions miners needed - assay offices, equipment, slaves. With their surfeit of wealth the place became a boom town, like Manaus, Klondike and Potosí. People settled, families were born, ladies of the household wanted the latest fashion and the Church was graced by the building of several edifices in splendid late Baroque style.

Which is where Aleijandinho's father comes into the story, emigrating from what would have been a relatively poor existence in Portugal to Brazil because his skills as carpenter were sorely needed in the construction of what we see today. Rather like a Brit going to Dubai nowadays (or yesterday, nowadays being what they are).


Since the bus left Belo at 6am, I'm here in Ouro Preto quite early - 8am - which was as planned so I could shoot some photos at a cooler and more interesting time of day. The sun was climbing fast in the sky, but on the other hand its power was often mitigated by many clouds, some almost Alpine in white fluffiness, others dirty grey laundry suds glowering with menace. A typical summer's day in Minas Gerais then.

I wandered around the streets, plazas and terraces, snapping away. One of the most unusual natural features is a cone of rock perched high up on the mountain opposite the town, its singular shape and oblique angle making it look like an elongated darvish's cap or, to be current, like an alien spacecraft crashed as in the movie Independence Day.

Ouro Preto also holds a Carnival, but unlike Rio with its regimented samba parade or Salvador with its trios blaring samba from truck drawn floats, Ouro seems to be an altogether more informal affair. Here college students (from where, I don't know) rent apartments/rooms and set up 'Republicas', complete with logo and banner fixed to balconies, where they revel and use as a base station during the festival.

At 8am of course, only a couple of diehards were still a-reveling. Most were in their Republics sleeping Saturday off, and not a few had chosen to let the sun of Sunday raise them from where they laid themselves to rest on the Saturday night - whether that be parapets, doorways or the cobblestones of the main plaza itself. The more professional drunks were recognizable not only by their disheveled appearance, but also by the blisters of too much time spent sprawled under the unforgiving sun.

Between scrambling over walls and things, I broke for breakfast, which was a truly delightful coffee with green cardamom (tossed in whole - I'll remember that) and a warn cake of raisins and cinnamon soaked in a sugary syrup. I have to find the recipe to that - it's unforgettably good.

Walked around the streets some more, which by now were beginning to come alive as shutters opened and the perkier of the students began the day. By 11am the sun was strong and the clouds had declared a truce. I headed for the best point in town to watch the town and its people - the platform on which the column to Tiradentes stands.

When my body said 'enough already with sitting on a stone!' I moved off and walked around some more, snapping shots of people. By 2pm the whole town was buzzing with the expectation of the excitement to come. The street stalls and solo traders were open by now, with sizzling skewers and caipirinha, hot dogs and icy beer for all. Soon after the music started up, not live - that was for later, in the evening - but the 'classic' pop and samba songs that got people jigging (too early for the full-blown everyone-together samba that marks Carnival here).

A convoy of police vans arrived, the visibly unhappy cops piled out and went their different ways to make sure the crows stayed happy but safe. At several key points several of them clambered up to temporary observation posts set in the plaza and principal streets. Actually not a bad idea - I haven't seen this at other events and it makes sense. Rather like the beach guards in Australia checking for rip tides and sharks.

In the late afternoon I could see heavy clouds heading fast for Ouro Preto. I also felt my face and forearms to be unnaturally hot and sensitive (I was sunburned!). So, after being the subject of a quick interview by a local TV station (as one of the few foreigners here I was collared by an enterprising and lovely reporter) and snapping some photos of people who asked them of me, I headed back to the bus station. No, I didn't stay for the night's revelries. I thought about it, but all the local pousadas (hotel/hostel/B+B rolled into one) looked full and I wasn't going to spend a night in the streets.

By 8pm I was back in Belo, rolling through the 300+ photos I had taken.

Ouro Preto is a pretty place, and one of the very few that ever were in Brazil. It feels automatically familiar to anyone who has spent time in the Latin/Mediterranean region, a human sized place of wood, stucco and balconies cascading over green hills.

If this were in Europe it would be like Portofino, an expensive locale for wealthy people to buy a small apartment, its streets filled with high quality artisan work and day tourists. In a sense its more lovely than that, as Brazilians don't hold such places in the same regard, the money generally going on a beachfront high rise apartment, or in a villa in Buzios, or a gated community in Florida. So it is entirely personable. If it were by the sea, then it would be a place to live in.


Saturday, February 21, 2009


View all my photos of Congonhas here

This is Carnival weekend - five days of non-stop celebration. Unfortunately I'm not in one of the more 'established' centers to enjoy Carnival - Belo is not Rio or Salvador - and thanks to work impediments I wasn't able to book ahead to go somewhere interesting - all full or way too expensive at short notice.

So I resolved to do some day trips based from Belo - and from here its easy to visit the colonial era towns of Minas Gerais. Most of these were developed during the 'Gold Rush' of the second half of the 1700's; places like Ouro Preto and Diamantina.

My first stop, today, was to Congonhas, a small town on the Royal Road that connected Sao Paulo and Rio to the heartland of mining territory. Congonhas do Campo is special for one reason (and one reason alone), namely the Basilica and its surrounding statues scullpted by Aleijandinho, Brazil's native born baroque era sculpltor.

I've been here before, way back in Easter 1996. Then I was with Marcia and we were doing a tour of the region. So this is 'known' territory. Not having, or wanting, a rental car, I took the coach.


Since Brazil doesn't have a rail network to speak of many coach operators fill the gap. These all leave from the same terminal in each serviced town; it looks like each operator has an exclusive route, with the exception of travel to principal cities.

I'd checked out the 'Rodoviaria' in Belo on Friday night to see where it was and how it worked. On Friday, thanks to the start of the long Carnival weekend, the queues were wound around people waiting for departures and even out of the doors. Saturday morning turned out to be easier, but many departures were full already.

I booked a trip to Ouro Preto for Sunday and, given there was probably time enough, bought a ticket for the trip to Congonhas today. In the fifty minutes of waiting I walked around the terminal building seeing what I could shoot with my little pocket camera. Not easy, with the press of people and the scarse neon lighting in what is a low dark hall - Niemeyer's heavy concrete hand is everywhere in public buildings here, constructing caves where there could be light.

The coach turned up almost on time and departed quite quickly. Clean, comfortable with reclining seats and enough room for legs too. Most of the passengers were headed to Congonhas, returning home or to visit relatives for the Carnival.

Since Congonhas is south of Belo we passed by where the offices are, which felt kind of weird. Soon we were beyond the city limits and into steep hill country. Never mountainous, just very hilly. The road was wide most of the way, all the more room for the driver to zip around, given that he intended to stick to the schedule at all costs. We stopped at a couple of other small towns before arriving in Congonhas itself. A short taxi ride and I was up the hill by Aleijandinho's basilica.

There is a dispute about whether or not Aleijandinho ever existed, or if he did whether he ever did what is ascribed to him, or whether he did it solo or as part of a local studio. The story is that Antonio Lisboa was born in Ouro Preto of a Portuguese carpenter and his African slavewoman, raised with the children of his father's official family (presumably white) - so he is the archetypal Brazilian and the true reason why he exists. From these beginnings he learned his father's skills, joined a studio in Ouro Preto, suffered some disease or accident, earned the nickname 'Aleijandinho' (Little Cripple) and worked his life away sculpting façades and statues for the local churches.

Who cares? The work is very beautiful, characterized by the rich textures of the sculpted cloth and the almost Etruscan look of the curved, almond eyes. The stone statues are the true reason to come to Congonhas.


I've never been inside the basilica, aka the Sanctuary of the Good Jesus of Matosinhos. From the outside its a delicate, modestly sized church in classic Portuguese late baroque style which serves as a platform and backdrop for the statues. There are evidently twelve of them, all prophets from the Old Testament, each with a large scroll which carries a quote from the same.

Off the platform on which they all stand, down the sloping hill in front of the basilica, are several kiosks with wooden sculptures inside, from the same period as the statues and depicting several events in Jesus' life. I think these must be used in processions and are laid in these one room kiosks for people to view, as in a tableau, but these are so dimly lit by the two window slits that in essence they are invisible. They don't have anything of the quality of the stone statues; just the usual folk-cut emblems of religion.

I wandered around the souvenir stalls that lie around the precinct. The houses are quaint, the products the usual selection of miniature prophets and religious reliquaries you'd expect, plus the regional handwork of hammocks, covers and cloths, as well as painted stoneware, a lot of which is quite pretty - and which I bought the last time I was here.

Strolled down the hill to a large circular building enclosing a round plaza call the Romaria. Other than a sensation of being in a low rise amphitheater, I haven't a clue what Rome might have to do with the name. The Romaria is a very elegant, old style building which I think in part are the public administration offices of the town (the Mayor's office is there, at least). Its quite a piece of architecture for a small town - human sized and quite impressive for that.

Back up the hill, knowing that the bus back to Belo was at 9pm and it was now 7pm, my stomach kicked in and said 'dinner'. I was torn between the lower restaurant run by a woman and the upper restaurant, run by a man. The lower was empty, the upper had some people in, so I headed for the upper. The beer I ordered was the most deliciously cold, crisp beer I had had in a long time - perfect for the end of the day (for those that don't know me, I drink beer very very rarely). The dinner (I played safe and ordered steak and fries) was terrible - warmed up something that someone hadn't eaten at lunch, masquerading as steak grilled au point.

A taxi took me back to the Rodoviaria, the bus came in on time and by 10:30 I was back in Belo. What a pleasant jaunt out for the day.

Tomorrow I have to be up early - 6am bus to Ouro Preto!


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

It's stopped raining

You will all recall my blogs from December about it raining all the time. Well its been raining in Belo Horizonte since I got back here. Every day. Especially weekends.

Today is the first day it hasn't. The clouds have retreated, almost, to the horizon.

And that is my news for the past two weeks ....

Monday, February 02, 2009

In Brazil again

I'm off to Brazil again - don't know how long for. Its for work, of course. This time I will grab some free time and go and do/see something interesting. Don't have my good camera gear with me as I don;t want to be encumbered and I don't want to take the risk.

Not much will happen in Brazil when I'm there, so post will be erratic again.