Before I came to Brazil, in my ignorance, I thought the whole country was one big jungle. How hard it must have been to cut football fields out of the dense fauna I thought? It was a pleasant surprise to find, on my way across the state of Minas Gerais, which despite the name is not a location in Middle Earth, that the landscape lookes very similar to the North Island of New Zealand. Rolling pastures dotted the green swell of the hills and fences of timber and wire swam alongside my moving bus or sprinted away across endless paddocks to the horizon. The only fair haired Hobbit was me but the Shire could easily fit within this scenery. The capital of the state, and my home for the week that followed was Belo Horizonte, a city of 2.5 million just seven hours inland from Rio.
A nice detox week in Belo Horizonte was motivated by trying to keep expenses to a minimum; when you’ve been travelling for months the thought of retreating back to normal life routine is as foreign and frightening as the initial decision to leave, so delaying the day of reckoning was a natural course of action. The rain, which appeared for the first time in six months the day after my arrival, kept my initial few days in Belo Horizonte confined to my host Felipe’s apartment, watching films and writing. That however disintegrated the travel vibe pretty quickly as I felt myself becoming accustomed to a lazy hermit existence which I decided would be better to embrace once I became a fat alcoholic in later life.
I picked myself out of those suffocating confines for a day exploring the far more claustrophobic spaces of Ouro Preto’s mines. Ouro Preto itself was to me, Brazil’s Cuzco. Symmetrical colonial townhouses leaned against one another, their pale hues of blue and beige a soft sight beneath the misty mountains that surround the town. Large jutted stones beneath my feet invited the use of the cramped footpath which crossed in front of the clean commercial shop fronts that have inevitably invaded the streets. The whole town is set on one slope of a steep valley, making the decision of which street to take important; I spent about two hours wandering with puffed lungs and strained calves on the steep cobbled roads. The town was established 400 years ago with the mining boom, Portuguese settlers using slaves, many of them children, to work underground.
I took a short bus ride out of the town to Mina da Passagem, apparently the largest mine in the world open to the public. Arriving brought an eerie feeling; large rusted machinery and shacked together sheds lay beyond wooden fences as fresh as if the workers had all cleared out the previous day, but today, they were abandoned. Some sign of human life came at the cable tram which lowers you into the mine. Some young workers who were laying cement joined me on the tram, laying their long PVC pipes across the seats. The tram itself was angled in such as way that cramped knees took my weight onto the hard steel of the seat close in front, the dark depth of the mine entrance sliced into the land beckoning below. During decent I thought I was alone with the workers and would be wandering the mine at my pleasure. In fact a young woman who sold me my ticket was sitting behind me, and once we descended 200 metres underground she proceeded to give me a slow tour of the mine in Portuguese, of which I understood three fiths of fuck all.
Later in the day I returned to Ouro Preto, wandering loosely with my map in search of another mine. I was no less than 20 metres onto the correct street, confident that the mine was just ahead of me, when a local middle-aged man in a smudged loose shirt and crinkly shorts spoke to me as I walked past. Usually I make a point of being fairly sharp with locals offering assistance as it never comes for free, but for some reason on this occasion I entertained him, parroting back the work ‘mina’ (mine) with a speckle of navigational uncertainty which still plagued me. With this he took up the invitation and walked with me, despite my feeble protests that all was well. We passed a sign to Mina Choco Rei, the name of the mine I was searching for, but even after trying to communicate this with him he walked with a sureness and spoke swiftly around my words that I thought he was leading me instead to another entrance. He eventually led me up a long narrow staircase cut into the hill where no other people were around and at this point he was putting in far too much physical effort to not kill me, or in the least expect a good tip. Thankfully, we did eventually arrive at a mine that had a surprisingly professional tour setup. I tipped the guide and got shown through the cramped clay tunnels, learning that children slave miners had their testicles crushed with a hammer at age seven to stop them growing any taller, so they could work in the truly micro-sized spaces in the mine. I got a very broken English speaking guide which was an absolute unexpected luxury, especially compared to Choco Rei, the original mine I sought, where I found the entrance was just a hole in the hill out the back of someones home, and that I could wander through it’s intimidating isolated depths unsupervised and completely alone .
I also was intrigued by an open art museum my friend Juliana described as “a place where you ask yourself, how does a place like this even exist in Brazil”. It’s accurate, Inhotim is a hyponizingly sprawl of lush lawns and gardens speckled with a breathtaking array of international level art pieces and exhibitions, not that I’m anything close to an expert on the art world but well, if you can impress me, that’s worth a few brownie points. My personal favourite was a large auditorium laced with dozens of speakers laid out in a formation which invited you to sit in the very middle of them, then being treated to the experience of a phantom orchestra playing around you. Not so much just orchestral music but a performance, a woman’s voice narrates conversationally some truly disturbing nightmares while an old industrial factory clanks and steams to life around you. At another point a howling tropical storm engulfs the listeners, the lack of wind the only sign of safety. Footsteps pace from speaker to speaker as if a ghost loiters there. Another exhibition was made up of several rooms, one simply an empty space with 60’s pop art projected on the walls, a dozen mattresses laid out on the floor, and Jimi Hendrix music blasting. At first I thought that was just stupid, but the YOLO mentality convinced me to lie down on one of these mattresses and I’ll admit for a few moments I felt sophisticated. Or comfortable. One of the two. Like every art museum there were pieces where I’d be kidding myself if I stroked my beard while telling you how a drawing of a woman shoving a science beaker up her muff represents the fragile feminine in the 21st century. However there were also countless rather magnificent pieces and exhibitions; the place was undeniably magical and every visitor would certainly leave with part of that other-worldliness wedged in their thoughts.
My bus ride to Sao Paulo a few days later provided me with one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had on this trip, one that took place almost entirely over my old friend Google Translate. It was akin to txting the person next to you like a teenager who thinks they are clever, except I was passing my phone back and forth with my new Brazilian friend. Early on she tried to be polite and highlight if I was tired of the conversation just to let her know. Google, ever the comedian, translated to ‘If you start to get bored just faka me ok?’, to which I giggled like a schoolgirl.
A few days in Sao Paulo waiting for my flight to Colombia were spent hanging out with friends I had made on my last visit there, oh yeah, and dodging falling debris in a nightclub. Juliana took me to a free gig for which Busta Rhymes was headlining, and late in the night, as Busta Rhymes was wheeling his huge frame and aggressively insulting the mosh in front, who lapped it up like a cat to milk, a huge chunk of the ceiling wobbled, craned to it’s side and tumbled down onto the freaking crowd below. As we watched on in astonishment, a pair of legs lowered out of the fresh hole, kicking in the air with only the shoulders left up inside the roof. It was a good eight metres down to the ground, a critical injury or death poised to occur at any moment. Nice then that Busta Rhymes used the situation to show off his freestyling prowess, booming into the beat: “There’s man in the roof! Oh yeah there’s a man in the roof!” The gig continued through the chaos and to our relief the figure soon managed to pull himself back into the relative safety of the rafters above. I still don’t have an explanation for the incident. No chance the near death of a probably drunk reveler would halt the show though; Busta Rhymes was such a monstrous presence on stage I wanted to stay just because I was sure at some point he’d eat the microphone.