Perhaps travel, like life, is a unique journey towards a banal conclusion. From the airport in Rio de Janiero our taxi drove us to the hotel. For a short period of time we whizzed along a highway that ran parallel to a black polluted canal that was lined by precariously constructed homes. Three-hundred pound black pigs slowly rooted through fetid garbage while children flew kites overhead. The scene reminded me of those Tibetan tapestries that describe the various lives through which one is reborn and in which desire, ignorance and greed are denoted by tusked and bloated demons. The highway disappeared into darkness and plunged into the large rocks that dominate and characterize the city. At the other side I was unceremoniously pushed out into the sunlight. It took my eyes some time to adjust but when they did there was a large placid lagoon surrounded by hotels and apartment buildings. I saw people jogging along the promenade and in the center of the water was a giant improbable Christmas tree. At the hotel the porter took our bags.
The next day I felt like jumping off a cliff. As I waited, I spoke to the woman that drove me to the edge. She had tried to set up an unofficial school in the favela (a pretty word for shanty-town). Many of the children there had never held a book or seen a film and, despite living on a rock almost completely surrounded by water, some had never seen the sea. She started by bringing some of her own books. Soon small hands grabbed her in the dark as 10-12 children watched Tom Cruise leap over explosions in his latest impossible mission. She continued to visit the favela every week. Parents around the school began to clean and paint their houses. She soon spotted children of precocious talent and unique ability among the sea of the eager and enthralled. Then it all came to an end. The school conflicted with the interests of the drug dealers and the corrupt police that rule the favelas. The distribution of cocaine, heroine and protection services requires a constant supply of mules, soldiers and targets. Children are the best candidates for these positions. The school by showing competing alternatives would reduce the size and motivation of this labor pool and raise the political cost of doing business. There were also the long-term effects to consider. Education would lead to organization, a taste for justice, order and progress and one only had to look to other countries to see that this was not only possible but probable. One day, at the end of class, my driver observed that the children were hiding the books. That night she received a message never to return. That was several weeks ago. This week violence tore through the favela.
My body did not want to step into nothing, but I made it. I dropped, saw absence beneath my feet, my heart beat one big thud in my chest, my brain received the information that I was falling and then refused to accept it. It grabbed the rationalization that I was hang-gliding and that we should in a few moments have some lift from the thermal air-streams coming up the mountain. Then the thermals came and lifted the glider. They were strong and I quickly realized that my life was now in the hands of the elemental forces of nature. I was tandem-gliding – my pilot had been doing this for 15 years and had jumped over 10,000 times. This was more normal to him than my daily commute to me – I tried to play it cool. Below me the previously hidden homes of the city’s wealthy were now clearly visible. They looked like earrings from this height, edged with coils of barbed wire and in the center of each was a large blue turquoise jewel, surrounded by languishing bodies, alternately brutish and beautiful.
That night I learned something about empty cans. The favelas are huge and subsections have over the years formed their own samba schools. They prepare religiously throughout the year for the giant competition that we know as Carnival. We decided to attend one of the practice sessions and drove across town, past armed police checkpoints, the largest soccer stadium in the world (though Paul McCartney apparently filled it more than any soccer game) and finally arrived at the Salguero samba school. The streets outside were lined with gangly adolescents and large hunkered down old women yawning behind mounds of slowly cooking linguica. We went inside. To the right, along the length of the hall there was a red and white stage and a band was playing happy music. On the opposite side a motley bunch of variously aged individuals gathered on a balcony with what appeared to be a collection of tins, drums and soda cans. They began to answer the band and it was from that moment everything changed and I began to understand. A beat, that knew me better than I knew myself, began in a biscuit tin and reached down into my shoes, lifting my feet to dance along with everyone else as a single coalescence. Rat-tat tatta tat, rat-a-tat tat, rat-tat tatta tat, rat-a-tat-tat. Just as an aircraft at take-off moves all its passengers as one, these drummers by their ability to pour such passion and sheer joy from such an empty cup, thrust me beyond my personal internal dialogue to a shared transcendence. In that embarkation the intangible became tactile and the physicality of my own body became unknown to me. I felt as if I had found an original consonance and I dissolved into the fat air. I stayed in that bliss for over an hour. As the night drew on, the faces grew tired and the drums went to sleep. Lustful eyes searched out forbidden fruit and muscled shoulders marked the n’est plus ultra. The heavens receded and I was once again aware of myself and others as separate from me – we slipped individually into the night.
We arrived in Ouro Preto, Brazil, yesterday at about 3pm. We flew into Belo Horizonte from Rio and then took the BR040 south from Belo Horizonte to Ouro Preto. The journey was a winding trek through steep but verdant mountains. The sides of the roads and the bordering vegetation were both dusted with the indigenous red clay one sees in every documentary about this part of the world. Big beautiful skies, wide green vistas and new construction all give one the impression that Brazil was discovered yesterday and that there’s lots to explore.
Ouro Preto (the name means “black gold”) is a beautiful 17th century village set high in the middle of a green mountain ridge. Although there are modern vehicles winding their way along the rough cobble stones, the overwhelming feeling is that you are a guest in the past. I love it – it feels like another world and a welcome break to the preoccupations of the one I live in every other day. By way of overview the village thus far seems to have three or four beautiful and prominent churches in the Portuguese/Spanish style catering to around a thousand souls. There is a piazza in the center of town surrounded by a sea of terracotta tiled roofs. We are staying at the Hotel Solar do Rosario, a building that fits perfectly into this tropical hamlet but includes high water pressure and internet access! In our hotel, and the handful of other buildings we have been inside so far, you can see gorgeous thick floorboards of polished teak and mahogany – evidence of the rich fruits of the nearby forests. Although this is a World Heritage site it is not a tourist trap or at least not at this time of the year. Though exhausted by the 8 hour flight to Brazil we couldn’t help popping out to try the local churrascaria. It was very good, but not like that served in the Brazilian restaurants in the United States – the food is not constantly supplied (though it is very inexpensive) and the meat is cut much thinner and served on a hot plate. They serve it with a strip of fat on the outside which tastes great. On our way back to the hotel we stopped at a chocolatier where I had the best hot chocolate I have ever had in my life. The chocolate itself was of superior quality to that commonly available in the United States or in Europe; its warmth was contrasted with cool rich cream (that did not come from a can/bottle/hose) and finally the whole elixir was topped with dry feathery flakes of chocolate.
When I opened the curtains this Christmas morning the whole town glistened with the night’s moisture. It didn’t feel like Christmas and it seemed reasonable that even Santa Claus was unable to find us. The wooded green ridges in the distance reassured me that I was in a refuge beyond the reach of the world – a desperado hiding out with the friendly inhabitants of an old gold-mining town in the tropics.
With the morning comes illumination. Yesterday, Ouro Preto seemed like a sleepy little town in the tropics and although it is still picturesque after today’s explorations, I have discovered that its history reveals a very different past. This town produced 80% of all the gold produced in the world between 1700 and 1820. In 1750 more people lived in Ouro Preto than in New York. The town was at one point the capital of Minas Gerais, one of the several states that today make up the federal republic of Brazil. The region is combed with mountain ridges and the isolation afforded by these barriers has produced a people (known as mineiro) that are commonly regarded as self-sufficient, stubborn, cautious, hardworking and thrifty with democratic expectations. In other words, my kind of people.
During its heyday, gold flooded out of the slave-dug mines of Ouro Preto and traveled along the mountain ridges to the sea at Rio de Janiero. From Rio it was sent to Portugal where inbred aristocrats frittered it away on fountains, stockings and Nintendos. Afterwards Portugal was just as poor, if not poorer than before. When diamonds were subsequently discovered in Minas Gerais, the Portuguese government tried to avoid the same result by refusing concessions to prospectors and installing a Governor to oversee the mines. This too failed as corrupt governors such as Joao Fernandes spent vast sums on follies such as an artificial lake, complete with a Portuguese sailing ship, for his slave-mistress Xica da Silva.
The scale of Ouro Preto’s economic output helps one to imagine the scale of the slavery that was used to produce it. This town must have heaved with that great sin and all the wealth poured into its 18 churches drips today as much with hypocrisy as devotion. It seems therefore just that a church built by African slaves, the church of Nossa Senhora do Rosario dos Pretos, is today widely acclaimed as the finest example of baroque architecture in Brazil. On a similar vein, I heard a great story today about a former slave who came to be known as Chico Rei. Chico was allegedly an African king sold into slavery and sent to work the mines of Ouro Preto. He swore that he would regain his crown in the New World. Thus, during his days spent deep in the hot dark bowels of the earth he managed to sequester enough gold to eventually buy his freedom and that of his friends. Today he is known as Chico Rei or King Chico and the streets here are named after him in the same way as they are after the Portuguese Emperors Pedro I and II.
But what of Ouro Preto today? I would not say that the people here are rich or even well-off, but one does not see the level of poverty that I am anticipating in Rio. Although you can buy a 4-unit apartment house for $US 40,000 it feels very safe and the ideal place to come and join Garcia Marquez and Borges in the pursuit of magical realism. There are more old cars from the 1970s than one sees in either the United States or Europe but there are also new cars, largely either FIAT or Volkswagen. Apparently 60,000 people live in the series of hills that compose this area but it certainly doesn’t feel like there are that many people around. The street outside the hotel is largely empty (though it is Christmas Day) and earlier a man rode by my window on a horse. Though modernity makes its presence felt in the occasional Direct TV satellite dish and the widespread availability of excellent high-speed internet and CNN, the people still live in the same houses as did their ancestors during the height of the gold rush. No doubt this may have something to do with the town’s categorization as a World Heritage site which probably limits the ability of its inhabitants to build modern homes. Ouro Preto seems to have successfully developed a tourist strategy as its remedy to the common fate experienced by formerly successful towns flanked by economic history. In doing so it was greatly helped by its rich architectural inheritance. This leaves one to think whether cities such as San Francisco should today impose architectural standards on real estate developers so that at some point in the future tourists will leave their lunar homes and spend some much needed currency in the city that was once the center of the internet boom.