Thursday, 13 January 2011


After the standard bewildering overnight bus trek from Brazil’s Gotham the quiet charms of São João Del Rei seem a world away to Mr X. Though not quite – São João Del Rei still has a bustling energy to it that puts the easeless mind on edge. More peace is needed, and that peace comes in the form of Tiradentes, named after the famous teeth-puller dentist of the inconfidência mineira.

It is odd how you have to go away to find out what you have left behind. Belo Horizonte and Minas was abandoned in a veil of tears a long time ago after Mr X convinced himself that he was embroiled in a very Brazilian Romeo and Juliet (armalites replacing scabbards) with The Ex Girlfriend. The four years spent in the nordeste have represented the second part of his Brazilian education (the first being favela fun with The Ex herself) and it has not been four years wasted, so much so that previously terrifying urban hotspots such as BH´s Avenida Parana now seem as cosseted and luxurious as any Milanese fashion precinct.

Tiradentes is not Belo Horizonte but it is close enough for a weekend away, and there cannot be a more soothing (not even Pernambuco´s often rowdy beaches) place in Brazil. It is late afternoon becoming evening in the photograph above, and Mr X is sitting in the garden of the Pousada Do Ô with a chilled palavra on the table and a copy of Ryszard Kapusinski’s The Emperor beside it and also a packet of snouts the smoking of which Mr X will definitely definitely quit in 2011. It is chilly and someone has lit a fire in a house nearby and the smoke rises blue against the mountains. Somewhere, someone is playing a saxophone, and the notes float into the air, soft and melancholy, along with the smoke. Up on the hill behind the pousada the lights of the Matriz Do Santo Antônio church are already lit and stand sentinel against the night. Mr X, at peace at last, has nothing more pressing on his mind than whether to opt for faux European sofisticate (a crepe) or hearty comida mineira (the best in Brazil – feijão tropeiro, torresmo (better known as pork scratchings), tutu) to help wash down his evening whiskey. Tiradentes is very heaven, Mr X decides.

But nothing ever lasts forever, as someone once sang, and on this journey nothing that can go wrong ever really goes right. Mr X has been waiting all trip to take a ride on the Maria Fumaça steam train from Tiradentes to São João Del Rei. On Thursday he goes to the station to check the train is running the next day. Of course it is sir, why wouldn´t it be? comes the answer. He arrives in plenty of time on the Friday. Sorry sir, no train today. Terrible rain we´ve been having. Mr X is perplexed. But you said it was running yesterday, and it hasn´t rained since then. In reply he recieves a shrug and a smile that says you know it´s bollox, I know it´s bollox, but what can you do? It would be like complaining about the way the earth turns on its axis.

There is a bus stop across the road and it is only 12.40 and it is a mere 25 minutes to SJDR so there is no real crisis anyway, just the loss of an opportunity to make woo woo and chuff chuff steam train noises for half an hour. Only the 12.50 bus never turns up and in the end Mr X catches the 13.35 and ends up running across the bus station in SJDR to catch his 14.00 connection to Belo Horizonte. What happened to the 12.50, he asks the ticket collector on the 13.35. What do you mean, what happened, it ran normally, says the ticket collector. No it didn´t, I was waiting at the stop from 12.40. Ah you mustn´t have seen it go past then, says the ticket collector, in what is a very Brazilian Father Ted moment. Mr X wants to point out that the road from Tiradentes to SJDR is not exactly 5th Avenue and there is only one bus that goes along the road and that he has been standing looking in the direction of where the bus is supposed to come from for almost an hour and unless he suffered from a flash blackout or temporary amnesia or blindness it would have been very difficult for a bus to sneak past unnoticed. But there doesn´t seem much point. It would be like complaining about the way the earth turns on its axis.

And what of the unlovely mineiran capital itself? Lovelier than is remembered. Hundreds of CCTV cameras have transformed centro, previously a shadowy ghost town at night, into a bustling, pleasant place, filled with young couples eating ice-creams and bars and restaurants doing brisk business. Mr X decides he is in love with BH again and quickly resolves that he must live there, imagining pleasant weekends – reading the paper in the elegant Parque Muncipal on Saturday mornings, buying wheels of cheese at the Mercado Central, watching Atlético on Sundays, trips down to Ouro Preto once a month, regular visits to the jaw dropping (and bizarrely little known) artistic wonder that is Inhotim. It would be a fine life, and Mr X muses on it for a while before remembering that he does this every time he goes on holiday (previous I´m going to move there locations include Copenhagen, Helsinki, and a handful of unremembered Greek Islands).

He is also, after a while, wracked by guilt. He has been bad-mouthing his adopted home all trip, forgetting that Recife is a marriage (with all the pain and hardship that this entails) while Tiradentes and Belo Horizonte are mere rolls in the hay with whatever bit of skirt happens to catch the eye. Because how could Mr X ever leave O Mais Querido, and ear rattling forro in every bar, and burning heat 365 days a year, and the slack jawed street corner gawpers, and oxe and bone shaking bouncing over pot holes? The answer is he couldn´t, even though god only knows he thinks he´d like to every once in a while.

Ultimately though it doesn´t make that much difference where you are, Mr X decides. Show me the way to shake off memory, as Bill Callahan says, and it´s not always that easy. The first thing Mr X reads in the paper when he gets to BH is that a teenager has been shot and killed in Primeiro De Maio, the tough as old boots neighbourhood where The Ex Girlfriend and various chums were shot a couple of years ago. And no matter where you are the two great black dogs of Brazilian society stalk you – urban uber violence and fantastic jealousy. In Recife a man shoots his bride and best man at the wedding party, in BH a boyfriend stabs his girlfriend (who is also his co-worker and has just been promoted above him) twenty times, leaving her a paraplegic. Following a luta-livre (kick boxing crossed with every martial art known to man) championship in middle class BH suburb São Pedro 41 members of Atletico Mineiro´s galocura, testosterone no doubt pumping furiously, beat a Cruzerio fan to death in the street, a horror story that would make even the Inferno Coral blush.

What Mr X has been wondering all trip, from the parched and impoverished (though fast growing) nordeste to the billionaires of Avenida Paulista, is if a gringo from one of the less salubrious parts of gringoland might arguably have more in common with hard scrabble Brazilians than such Brazilians might have in common with their well heeled cousins down south. Mr X has previous – a few years back while on the way to visit Recife´s famed tits and arses sculptor Ricardo Brennand he had to help a pasty faced and clownishly dressed paulista (complete with expensive camera hung from his neck) extricate himself from a grubby part of Varzea, as said paulista´s nasal diction and rolling r’s had rendered him incomprehensible and foreign to the locals in a way that Mr X, no stranger to rolling r’s himself but by now acclimatised to all things recifense, was not.

The answer is, as the answer usually is, is that Mr X hasn’t got a bloody clue. Class lines, as always, are perhaps more important than borders – a wealthy carioca lawyer would be more out of place drinking in Jordão Baixo than would a Romanian farm worker. The good burghers of As Republicas have more in common with the good burghers of similarly nobre neighbourhoods in BH or São Paulo than they might with those who live two miles away in Coque or Coelhos.

Nordestinos, particularly the less well off, tend to look on the sul and sudeste as a palace of glittering delights that cares not a jot for life north of Espirito Santo (the Watford gap of Brazil). And yet as mentioned before life’s common themes – survival, crime, sex, arroz and feijao, football, and booze run in the blood of the sergipano as they do the santa catarinense. And finally, for Mr X, life is good and bad in Recife as it would be good and bad anywhere, whether it be Norn Iron, Avenida Paulista, or Belo Horizonte.

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