Posts Tagged ‘Belo Horizonte’

Tanta contramão

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

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:

Praça da Liberdade

Praça da Liberdade

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?”

World Cup in Belo Horizonte

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

I arrived in Belo Horizonte, Brazil at 1:13 pm local time on Tuesday in June, the summer of 2010. I chose June 15 as my arrival date, more or less, arbitrarily, but as it turned out, I arrived just 47 minutes before Brazil was schedule to make its first appearance in the 2010 World Cup tournament, hosted in Johannesburg, South Africa. Brazil had been placed in bracket G along with Cote D’Ivoire and Portugal, and was scheduled to face the final member of the bracket: North Korea.

I had arranged to stay with a friend of a friend–a family I had never met, but had been in contact with several times before my trip–and I was relieved to find Carol’s smiling face at the airport. We considered stopping for lunch on the way home, but remembering what day and time it was, we quickly realized that most restaurants would probably close down during the game. My head reeling from the 15-hour journey and from mentally scraping off the 2-year layer of rust on my Portuguese language skills, I was pleased to be heading to Carol’s house.

The ride home gave me the chance to get to know Carol better, as well as to re-learn the city. My last trip to Belo Horizonte had been in August 2008 in order to appear as a guest vocalist for the second studio album of friend and composer Robson Santos. [Robson released Límbico Trem in 2009 featuring my vocal work on four tracks.] The swift 10-day trip hadn’t allowed much time outside of the studio for exploring the CD, but I had remembered Robson mentioning that the state government in Belo Horizonte–the capital of Minas Gerais state–had decided to move their central offices out of centro and nearer to the airport. As we drove, I discovered Carol was an architect, and she pointed out the modernist architecture of Oscar Niemeyer in what is now referred to as Cidade Administrativa (Administrative City). Here is the Palácio dos Tiradentes:


Palácio dos Tiradentes, Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais


This structure is architecturally fascinating to me. The central “box” hangs freely from the roof of the outer shell–could it sway in the breeze?–with the only visible entrance curling from the center of the glass box like a white ribbon. A striking building, I wondered how the average citizens interpreted this relocation of the physical reminders of the government’s presence from the Praça da Liberdade–a park located in the city center and a common gathering place for workers, families, lovers, tourists–to this remote site beside the highway that leads to Confins International Airport.

As we neared the western suburbs of the city, we noticed businesses starting to close their doors and traffic starting to slow us down. Futebol in Belo Horizonte, as in many places in Brazil, is treated much like a federal holiday, even if just for a few hours. Besides private businesses, lots of government offices closed up shop. Those that didn’t had a television going and workers and customers settled in for a pleasant break from the everyday. We passed cars decorated in green and yellow with green and yellow men, women and children cheering, chanting and honking the car horns.

Not everyone in Brazil loves futebol, just like not all Americans love baseball. But given the chance to gather with friends and family, many people are happy to love futebol for a few hours. I later met one friend, João, who took an entire week off from work to make sure he could watch the semi- and quarter-final games. When Brazil was ousted earlier than expected, João didn’t go back to work early, but found another team to support.

Carol and I arrived home a few minutes into the first half of the game. The neighborhood had quieted noticeably as we parked the car, aside from the occasional firework set off a few blocks away. Mineiros (residents of Minas Gerais) are known for their hospitality, and, though I was greeted warmly, I had to smirk at the atypical brevity of it. I settled into the couch, accepting a beer and some pão de queijo and cheered Brazil’s 2-1 victory over North Korea, the first of many happy afternoons and mornings of watching great futebol and enjoying new friends.

Trip to Brazil

Friday, August 20th, 2010

When I tell people I am going to Brazil, they always respond with jealous comments about the time I will spend on the beach. Maybe it was my landlocked Midwestern upbringing, or my dangerously pale skin, but I am just not seduced by beach life. Instead, I head straight to the third largest city in Brazil.

Belo Horizonte sits in a valley in the mountains of the Southeast, an 8-hour bus ride North of Rio de Janeiro. This past June and July, I spent two lovely months escaping from the oppressive heat and humidity of central Illinois in Beagá (Portuguese for BH). Winter in Beagá is fantastic—75 or 80 during the day, 50 at night and sunny every day—perfect for Northerners like me and my Canadian husband.

I first went to Beagá in 2003 and fell in love with the giant intersections of downtown, labyrinthine streets of the suburbs, and, most of all, the people. I stayed four months in 2004-05 and discovered mineiros (residents of Minas Gerais state) to contradict the stereotypes assigned them by other Brazilians. My next few blog posts will be dedicated to describing my experiences in Belo Horizonte—if you have any comments or questions, shoot them my way!