Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ouro Prêto and the Gem Trade

I had been two weeks in Brasil by this point and by diligent scribbling had filled two hundred notebook pages.  In there with the movie posters and magazine covers, newspaper headlines and what was popular on TV and how people dressed and behaved  --  that restaurants put salt and toothpicks on the table, but not pepper, and that picking your teeth in public is permissible if you cover your mouth with the other hand  --  and all of that sort of thing that you notice when you are a spectator in a foreign place I also realized that I had seen almost no private display of the Brasilian flag, either the banner itself, in full-size or miniature, or even pictures of it.  An odd thing I would think, though perhaps we Americans have an atypical attitude toward the national flag.
    Another matter I noticed was that several times people seemed to have gone out of their way to mention Brasil’s racial and social harmony.  While some of the people I spoke with had a political agenda, the lady in the shop who was showing me 19th-Century prints pointed out a scene in church at the communion rail and said that it showed that “at mass, all are equal”.  A businessman talking about the old days of the Patriarchy explained how the godfather system served to create personal ties across class lines.  I could speculate on why they felt the need to tell me these things, but I prefer just to hear what they have to say, and truth is truth, whatever its motive.

At the hotel I hired a car and driver for the hour and a half drive to the beautiful old colonial town of Ouro Prêto.  My driver spoke Spanish so I learned all sorts of interesting facts and statistics, including current production of bauxite, iron ore, uranium, precious stones and other chthonic produce.
Typical of his calling, the driver tried to steer me into particular gem shops, but I finally convinced him he was wasting his time so he went off to have a drink with a friend and I was left to wander around the city on my own.  Once free of my driver I had to deal with a swarm of jewelers’ legmen, but finally got rid of the most persistent by telling him that I was running short of money and could I borrow something until the banks opened tomorrow.  I doubt that he believed me, but he left me alone anyway.  Ouro Prêto plainly catered to tourists, but in those days, at least, did so agreeably enough.  

On the central plaza was the School of Mines, whose museum was open and where I got to see some of the black gold ore for which the place was named (it was grayish, actually) and wondered how anyone ever realized it was gold.

Sitting in a bar, there were four men at the next table dealing in gems.  They had lots of 20 or 30 stones in folded paper packages.  The fellows were playing it close to the chest.  Two men leave the table to talk privately, then return to continue dealing.  One fellow produces a pocket balance and is weighing a lot of dark purple stones.  As I cannot reliably tell the difference between a diamond and a piece of broken glass, the game has no attraction to me, however romantic it might seem.  (“Ah, ha. The Czarina Alexandra Peridot.  523.7 carats.  Last known to be in the collection of the Marquis duChien.  But this, I fear, is a clumsy imitation.”)  In gem shops I could see no difference between the pricy pieces in the display cases and the pretty stones in bushel baskets that were sold by the scoop.  I plainly had no business in the gem trade.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Waiting for the Revolution in Belo Horizonte

I went out from my hotel the next morning looking for breakfast, but with not much luck, though I found a number of stand-up coffee bars selling the usual high-powered coffee that was thick enough that it probably could have passed for breakfast.  My most interesting find were little shops with huge old machines with large metal wheels and gears into whose maw the staff would throw bundles of raw cane that were chewed up to produce an opaque tan liquid with a pleasant, not too sweet, “natural” taste that cost about ten cents a glass.  And it was also fun to watch.  I have in my notebook that the drink is called “cabolo”, but I have not since been able to confirm this.
Sitting in the MacDonald’s I notice a young black boy, maybe only thirteen, drift in the door with the diffidence of a wisp of smoke, as though he were trying to be invisible.  I looked away and he was gone.
     I saw very few people sleeping in the street or park and no beggars have approached me.  In the Parça da Republica I saw a few women in colorful, country-looking dresses, begging.  I wonder if they were gypsies.  There were only a few crazy people yelling in the street.  If there was misery in São Paulo, it didn’t seem to come downtown.

In the Parça I saw a family band  --  father on amplified guitar, sons on drum and cymbal and a small boy, maybe eight or nine, singing in a high voice a Caribbean-sounding patter song  --  but what was interesting was that the people passing by  --   even though they were not stopping to listen  --  seemed to be moving to the music.
     This reminded me of something that I had noticed the week before in Rio.  I had been irritated to observe that however lightly I dressed I seemed always to be drenched in perspiration, while well-dressed Cariocas glided by in jackets and suits and never seemed to break a sweat.  I eventually realized why this was.
     The Brasilians, I realized, were moving with a graceful economy of motion, while I was striding about with Teutonic purposefulness and this was why I was perspiring and they were not and once I adopted a more languid Latin gait, my problem went away and I might reach suppertime in the same shirt I put on before breakfast.  And it also made it more comfortable to stroll around town, though of course in São Paulo in April we did not have Rio’s heat and humidity.

I noticed a bus with a sign on the side: “Transportation: a Right of the Citizen / a Duty of the State”.  This Right could be exercised for thirty Cruzados, which at that day’s rate was about twenty cents and, for a Right, was I thought quite reasonable.

Latin Americans seem to love to name streets for the date of a glorious revolution or pronunciamento or other such great event that will forever change the nation and set its foot (finally) on the Road to Destiny.  Skimming over the São Paulo street map I find these Avenidas: 25th of January, 25th of March, 7th of April, 3rd of May, 9th of July and 14th of July, 14th of August, 7th of September, 15th of November and the 3rd of December.  I wonder how many of those a typical, educated Paulinho could identify?  I notice that eight of the eleven fell in the cooler months from March to September, which I suppose might be more conducive to great deeds.

[By the way, a Paulinho is someone from São Paulo and a Carioca is someone from Rio.  I will edit this better later.]

That I was talking about my street map should be a clue that I was not happy in São Paulo.  I had long interviews with very interesting people and filled pages of my notebooks, but I will not inflict these on my readers and instead move the trip along.  I checked out of my comfortably seedy hotel (where my bill for six days came to US$66 and the elevator never was fixed).  I negotiated the usual police activity in the street outside my hotel (no one was up against a wall having their IDs checked  --  too early in the day, I suppose  --  but a policeman was standing over a fellow sprawled on his back on the sidewalk who did not look in very good shape) and caught a cab to the bus station for the 10:35 bus to Belo Horizonte.

My seatmate was a pretty young woman who reminded me of the bright creatures I saw on the beach at Ipanema and who chatted away pleasantly, almost none of which I understood, but I smiled and agreed with everything.

The bus climbed into forested hills and the sun shown down on fields of Brasilian green and gold and the deep red of fresh-dug earth.  There was a man sitting by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere with boxes of fruit, apparently hoping to sell them.  At other places there were clusters of open-front stalls offering rugs and baskets and honey in used liquor bottles.  There were brown streams and rivulets under majestic, towering cumulus clouds.  It was beautiful country. 

There were rest stops about every two hours and in the early evening I wandered out away from the lights to look at the southern sky and try to find the Southern Cross.

We would be arriving in Belo Horizonte after ten in the evening, so I ought to have been concerned about where I was going to stay, as I had no reservations, but oddly enough I wasn’t and was completely content just to be riding on a bus through the Brasilian night, just to be traveling.

I found a nice hotel and awoke the next morning with a headache, which I hoped was sinuses and not something that had blown up my nose, as my comely and chatty seatmate had been replaced by a dour chap who smoked incessantly and I had spent the last leg of the bus ride with my face to the open window.  Something had blown up my nose under similar circumstances in Costa Rica and I had been miserable for the rest of my trip.

I arrived downstairs after the hotel’s breakfast room had closed, but they opened it again for me and I dined in solitary splendor in a grand, high-ceilinged salon and had a fine breakfast.  Then I went outside to see Belo Horizonte.

I knew something was wrong when I walked out of my hotel.  There were people standing around, singly and in groups, waiting for something.  There were police, many more than usual.  Some stood by squad cars; one stood looking down the avenue, speaking with quiet urgency into a walkie-talkie.  There were mounted police in front of the bank, helmeted, with long sabres sheathed in leather scabbards by their saddle.
     Then I realized what it was: May First.  May Day.  That day when all over the world the workers rise up in solidarity to tweak the nose of their capitalist exploiters, and occasionally rough up American tourists.
     I retired to the hotel, put the telescopic lens on my camera and went to the balcony to await the arrival of the red battalions.
     As the hours passed, expectation grew.  Below in the street, groups of spectators dissolved and reformed.

Morning grew late.  Families came from church.  Some of the watchers began to drift away for lunch.  I wrote postcards and started reading a book.  Historical inevitability was behind schedule.

Early afternoon.  I had to move to stay in the shade.  Below, in the street, the only people waiting were standing by bus stops.  The mounted police and squad cars were gone.  The policeman with the walkie-talkie had disappeared.  People had gotten tired of waiting for the vanguard of the proletariat.

Later, I asked the policeman in front of the hotel if there had been a demonstration.  He said he didn't know.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

to São Paulo

If my journal is to be believed, I had spent ten days in Rio.  Whatever did I do with my time?  I do not hang out well and one tires quickly of caning rascals.  I did several long, serious interviews about things that seemed important at the time, and may still be, and perhaps it is just I who am now less serious.  In any event, it was time to go elsewhere and I checked out of my hotel and went early in the morning to the central bus station to catch a bus to São Paulo.
          Their departure time was written in whitewash on the front window of the bus and there was an air of make-do Latin disorganization about the terminal, but as it may be in other countries where they do things differently, this may have been more apparent than real as my bus left on time.
             Our bus tickets must have our ID number on them.  For Brasilians, it will be their government-issued ID card and for we foreigners our passport number will do.  Or actually, most anything: the fellow at the counter really didn’t care: there was a space in the form to be filled in and any sort of official-looking number was fine with him.
          I noticed at the bus station that there was an office that apparently looked after children traveling by themselves.

The day was hot and humid and overcast and it seemed a nice one to spend curled up in a comfortable seat on an air-conditioned bus while I watched Brasil slide past my window. 
          I always admired the sturdy English gentlemen travelers who would relax in the evening by a flickering lamp in the wilds of Kaffiristan with Boswell’s Life of Johnson or Stanhope’s History of England, comprising the reign of Queen Anne until the Peace of Utrecht.  Perhaps it had been the weather or the relaxed atmosphere of Rio, but I, alas, had read nothing on this trip.

The 490 km trip to São Paulo was scheduled to take seven hours.  The road climbed through green hills, past banana stands.  Magenta soil and red blossoms on small trees along the road.  It was raining and the water seemed to be running high in the rivers and streams.  The land seems to be used for grazing.  The road is a divided highway and the bus made good time.  In the seat in front of me a young man is reading a magazine called O Sexo.  Considering its subject, it seemed to have curiously few pictures.  Looking more closely I see that he is reading the section on Religion and Morality.  Perhaps I ought not judge the young fellow so quickly.
We have lunch at a huge rest stop.  We must step lively as only twenty minutes is budgeted, but there is a large cafeteria and service goes quickly.  The prices seem on the high side of reasonable or perhaps the low side of expensive.
The rest stop was a nice place, reminding me somewhat of rest stops on our Interstates.  It may be an unfair comment since it is entirely sensible in the climate, but there seemed to me to be too much tile and marble, plate glass and metal and terrazzo for my comfort.  There were no wood surfaces or anything soft and giving.   Everything seemed designed to be cleaned with astringent chemicals, like one of those attractive new prisons.  But perhaps I was just being over-sensitive.
The highway was a limited-access toll road so I saw passing towns only from a distance, but they all looked like slums.  It was a nice bus trip, though.  Not the sort of poor, back country Latin America bus with people riding on top and packed into the aisle carrying live chickens and iguanas.  It was as nice  --  or better  --  than some North American busses I have been on.

In São Paulo my cabdriver couldn’t find my hotel and when he did we had some argument over the fare, as if I was supposed to pay for his learning his way around the city.  Once in the hotel, I discovered that the elevator was out and my room was on the sixth floor.  All of this I took in good spirits, for what is adventure but inconvenience rightly understood.  I simply would not be running back and forth to my room all that much.
After settling in to my sixth-floor aerie I went out for a walk.  The hotel is in the heart of town and the corner of Iparanga and São João reminded me of Rush Street in Chicago or Broadway and Columbus in San Francisco.  Degeneracy seemed near at hand, with the news stands selling much more pornography than news. But there was a MacDonald’s and I comforted myself with a Big Mac.

Later, back at my room, I remember some folk wisdom that mosquitoes do not fly above the 5th floor.  I had found this not to be the case in Ipanema, but had written that off to peculiar air currents, but here they were, biting above their station again.  But having come prepared for the jungle I swabbed myself with bugbane until I smelt like all that a mosquito finds loathsome and slept an untroubled sleep in a room full of hungry mosquitoes and awoke the next morning from pleasant dreams to a room full of mosquitoes even hungrier than they had been the night before.

When I said that the city reminded me of Rush Street I did not mean it as a compliment, but it had been dark then and even that part of Chicago looks better in the morning, so I went out to give São Paulo another chance.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Set upon by a Rascal

In the afternoon I walked down to the beach to cool off in the breeze.  As I sat there an old fellow came up and warned me to watch out for thieves.  I appreciated his concern though I had no idea what a thief looked like, as I suspected they did not go about in daylight wearing masks as they helpfully did in comic books.  A short time later I was standing on the beach watching minimally-clad young women frolic on the sand and a young fellow walked up to me and grabbed the banknotes I had in my shirt pocket, tearing the shirt.

Perhaps seeing my walking stick he had thought he might plunder me with impunity and paused a few paces away, not considering that the stick actually increased my reach, and I caught the rascal squarely on the side of the skull with the knobby cane, just above the ear, where the flesh is thinnest over the bone, and it made a most satisfactory whacking sound. The young miscreant ran off in pain and, since the handful of inflated banknotes he made off with were worth only pennies, I though it a completely fair exchange.

I was planning to leave the city the next day and so I was not concerned lest we meet again when he might have his henchmen with him.

And I did rather enjoy the whole thing.  Surprising, what one learns when you travel.