I am riding through Belo Horizonte, and Robson is driving. This means two things: we are laughing a lot and we are getting lost. In fact, we are laughing because we are getting lost, or getting lost because we are laughing. Peripheral activities include singing along with the radio, my yelling frantic directions at Robson, and mutual bickering in a halting combination of Portuguese and English.
I have never driven myself anywhere in Brazil. After a serious head-on collision stateside in 2004, driving in unfamiliar places makes me nervous. Other peoples’ driving makes me nervous too, but at least I don’t feel responsible for any unexpected outcome. My discomfort with driving, however, does not stop me from having opinions about how it should be done, sometimes to the irritation of others.
Our trip began in Anchieta, a neighborhood to the southeast of Belo Horizonte, where I rent a room from a group of nice girls. Our destination was a neighborhood to the southwest of Belo Horizonte, where I was to interview one of the founding members of the Clube da Esquina. I had written out instructions from GoogleMaps to guarantee that we arrived on time, but Robson–as he himself would tell you–doesn’t trust my sense of direction and headed due north into centro.
Though Belo Horizonte originated as a farm settlement called Curral do Rei, the centro (downtown) of Belo Horizonte was planned in the 1890s in homenagem to Washington DC. Both cities feature wide boulevards, a grid layout, and several roundabouts. Parks with statues serve as centerpieces of the urban landscape and are often named after historical figures and events.
Washington DC is well-known for its street names: east-west streets are letter names (e.g. J Street) while north-south streets are numbered (e.g. 14th Street). City planner Aarão Reis envisioned a less utilitarian, more nationalistic, naming system for Belo Horizonte: east-west streets are named after indigenous Brazilian groups (e.g. Rua dos Tupinambás) while north-south streets are named after states (e.g. Rua Espírito Santo).
Arriving at the Praça da Liberdade, Robson began to have doubts about the path he had chosen (much to my inner delight). We decided to head back south, but unfortunately the traffic had become quite slow, even at 8:30 in the evening. The Praça da Liberdade has long been the civic and cultural heart of the city, and it was originally conceived to host the houses of state government, including the residence of the governor.
The Palácio da Liberdade can be seen here by daylight between two majestic columns of palm trees:
It has been decades since the governor resided in the Palácio, but it remains a symbol of state governance even as many other government buildings are being relocated outside of town (see prior post for more on this). The departure of government buildings has made room for additional cultural buildings, such as the Centro da Cultura and soon the Museu Clube da Esquina.
Even in the evening darkness, the square is bustling. Some walk circuits for exercise; others rush off to the nearby independent cinema; and still others relax at various restaurants, like the famous (or infamous?) Xodó offering fast-food and ice cream, or the popular Pizzeria Sur on the corner with Rua da Bahia. I watch the laughing and chatting figures as we round the three corners of the Praça da Liberdade to cruise south again.
Upon crossing the Avenida do Contorno, we leave centro behind us and near the correct neighborhood. Robson gives in and begins to ask what I had learned from GoogleMaps, though with an air of suspicion. And for good reason, as it turns out.
We follow my directions, but quickly lose the way. The road we followed simply changed names, and we didn’t run across the next street on my list. We turned right in order to head in the correct general direction, but after a few blocks, the street became one-way in the opposite direction. This is known as a contramão.
What to do now? We could not continue straight, so left seemed like the best option, but this too became a contramão as well as a “no right-turn” sign preventing us from staying on our path. Lovely. [Note: heavy sarcasm]. Que bonito.
We had no choice but to turn towards where we had come. Taking a little loop, we started over with the very first street we had started on in the neighborhood, but we fell into the same traps. All streets seemed to point back the way we had come.
We passed a boteco (small neighborhood pub) for the second time, and this time Robson got out to ask directions. I could tell just by the gestures of the people gathered there, that this was not the first time someone had asked for directions. The dono do boteco came out to the street and gestured what appeared to be very specific instructions. Several people inserted their own suggestions as Robson alternatively nodded or repeated back what they had said. Finally, the man repeated the entire set of directions a second (or third?) time, and Robson thanked everyone.
And we were off. Amazingly, the directions were accurate and involved a number of abrupt turns through the labyrinthine neighborhood. We even got back on track with my GoogleMaps directions. But we soon lost our way again, prompting me to lament, “Tanta contra-mão! [So many one-ways!]”. We asked directions two more times (at a gas station and a public square) before we finally pulled up to our destination.
I nervously checked my recording equipment and worried about how late we were. I had agreed to arrive at 9 pm for the interview (I shudder to admit that I had originally thought we were meeting at 9 AM, but that’s another story…), and Robson asked, “What time is it?”
“9:15,” I said nervously.
“Ah, bom atraso.” Though I had never heard this phrase, having traveled and lived in Brazil already several times, I immediately understood its import. Though some might compare it to the English phrase “fashionably late,” that brings with it connotations of class (an elegant invitation-only party) that isn’t present in the Portuguese phrase. Bom atraso is more direct, more frank. It simply means “acceptable, good or even polite lateness.”
I smiled at my unintentional appropriateness. Had we not gotten lost, we would have arrived at least 10 minutes early. Though I can’t say it doesn’t exist, I have never heard the phrase bom precoçe (good earliness).
We spoke with the 24-hour doorman, and he let us into the building after calling up to confirm our appointment. We ascended in the elevator, walked the short hallway, and knocked on the apartment door … as butterflies fluttered in the pit of my stomach.
We were greeted warmly! After some brief introductions, our host asked if we found our way okay, and we laughingly admitted our evening hijinks.
Our host smiled knowingly at the story, then asked, “Did you use GoogleMaps?”