My favorite Brazilian import
Foreward: Tyler really wants to write a post about Itacare, but hasn’t had a chance yet. For this post’s purposes, just know it’s a beautiful Bahian surf/beach town south of Salvador where we spent a week staying in a gorgeous beachside pousada and Tyler surfed his heart out.
Our journey has been a sequence of mostly unplanned and happenstance events, and the events of the past week were no different. After Tyler got his last surfing fix of South America in Itacare, we were undecided on what to do next. We knew we wanted to spend our last week in Brazil in the Pantanal and Bonito regions to explore the wildlife, but we had almost a week “to kill” and didn’t know what to do. Our initial thought upon arriving into Brazil over a month ago was to visit Rio de Janiero at some point, but as our time became more and more limited, both of us desired to adventure somewhere neither of us had been (and we’ve both been to Rio). The next most logical destination also happened to be my first choice – Belo Horizonte – a significant choice since it’s the hometown of Erika, my best friend from law school.
After bothering Erika’s day/work time in figuring out details for our trip to Belo, we decided on the Sao Geraldo bus on Thursday, August 2nd, from Ilheus (a slightly larger town near Itacare) to Belo Horizonte. Erika’s mom, Madalena, would pick us up at the rodoviaria (bus terminal) upon our arrival that night at 8:30pm. On Tuesday, 7/31, we left our beautiful beachfront pousada in Itacare for Ilheus – a couple hour bus ride with lovely scenery. Ilheus, however, was not lovely. I wanted to get there with 1 day to spare because I’d heard it was a decently interesting town to explore. Also, the only place to buy the Belo bus ticket was at the Ilheus rodoviaria, and I definitely didn’t want it to sell out – there’s only 1 bus a day on certain days of the week to Belo. In Ilheus, we stayed in a disgusting hotel aptly situated in front of the even more disgusting municipal beach. When we walked around town, we discovered the rio de mierda – river of shit – literally. Needless to say, Ilheus is one of the worst destinations of our trip thus far, and after our initial exploration on Tuesday afternoon, we decided to spend most of our Wednesday in the hotel watching the Olympics (finally!) and getting some work done. Tyler wasn’t pleased that I took him out of his Itacare haven 1 day early, but I blame TripAdvisor/Lonely Planet.
Thursday morning arrived, and we excitedly boarded our 8:30am bus to BH (and more importantly, out of Ilheus). Since E and I are clear geniuses and total planners, we read the Sao Geraldo company website to figure out when we would arrive in BH so Madalena could pick us up. It clearly said 20:30 (in Portuguese, of course). So when Tyler and I stopped for dinner at some truckstop in the middle of nowhere Brazil at 20:00, we knew something was wrong. Our first thought was “oh no – we got on the wrong bus!” We inquired in Portuguese with a nice young couple who informed us we were indeed on the bus to Belo Horizonte. We asked when we would arrive. They said “cinco o seis” – we said “horas?” – they said “nao – A cinco o seis en la manha.” Uhhhhhhhhhh shit. That’s 20:30 in duration – not arrival time. Good thing we have a cell phone. Wait- no. Good thing middle of nowhere Brazil has wifi so we can send an email. Ha – definitely not. Good thing I wrote down Madalena’s phone number and have it in my backpack and can maybe borrow someone else’s phone to call her – uhoh where did that piece of paper go?!?!?! All we could do was settle in for a 20-instead-of-12-hour bus ride and try not to freeze to death all night. The ride wasn’t as bad as our Colombian experience – my fingers didn’t turn blue – but we were wholly unprepared. We stopped enough so food/water wasn’t an issue, but poor T was wearing shorts, and we didn’t have jackets or earplugs or any other nighttime comfort. My biggest concern was not being able to contact Madalena. The stress caused by my stupidity, super-cold bus temp, uncomfortable seats, and crazy-man-screaming/talking-to-himself made for a long, sleepless night.
After our arrival time came and went, Erika was worried on one continent and Madalena on another. Not just them either – a group of Erika’s family and friends were all at the bus station waiting for us at 8:30pm. The bus company was super helpful and told them that our bus didn’t even exist, let alone any possible arrival time. Eventually they were able to figure out that we were set to arrive around 5am. Once we finally made it to the BH rodoviaria, which was much bigger than we expected, we had no idea if Madalena would be there and if so, where to find her. Of course there was free internet, but you needed some sort of Brazilian SSN equivalent to access it, and no one wanted to divulge their personal info to a couple of stupid Americans (yes- we asked). Tyler and I took turns wandering around the bus station and parking lot for about 30 minutes when T finally found our Brazilian mom. Commence happiest moment in a long while! After stopping at Erika’s tio and tia’s padaria (bakery) for some delicious breakfast – we went “home” and slept better than we have in weeks.
I should take the quotes off home – despite being our first visit to BH and having only met M and a precious few other family members on their previous trips to Chicago for our law school graduation and Erika’s wedding – we felt at home. A few of Erika’s family members, particularly her younger cousins, speak and understand English pretty well, but we definitely needed to speak Portuguese (or at least Spanish with an accent) most of the time. Surprisingly enough (to us and them), we were able to converse fairly easily, even me! I apparently picked up a lot over the past month, so even though I hadn’t really tried to learn and didn’t even practice that much until BH, I have a little Brasilera buried deep inside that somehow manages to understand, speak, and even crack a few jokes in Portuguese. Tyler’s Portuguese has flourished, and he really impressed everyone with his skills – he really has a knack for languages. Both of us feel it’s very important to try to understand and speak the local language – it’s a sign of respect – and Erika’s family was incredibly helpful by teaching us, speaking slowly, and willingly explaining something any number of ways until we understood (mais o menos). Most importantly, for me at least, was they never laughed at our attempts to speak and were patient with my lengthy silent periods as I tried to think of how to say what I wanted to say. My family in India has never been very good about my ill-attempts at any of my mother tongues (laughter isn’t motivating), and it discouraged me from trying for most of my life. That’s not an excuse for why I can’t speak Hindi or Gujarati, but it certainly never helped.
Our time in Belo was way too short but action-packed. Every morning, Madalena set out a huge and delicious breakfast spread including homemade pao de queijo (little bread rolls with traditional Brazilian cheese melted into the center of the batter and pretty much the most delicious thing in the world), bolo (cake), fresh fruits, presunto & queijo (ham and cheese), other fresh breads, suco (juice), and cafe. Somehow the entire contents of the refrigerator made their way to the table for every single meal. We’ve both gained at least 5 lbs in these few days by stuffing ourselves with bolo and pao de queijo and brigadero (chocolate). I figured I owed it to Erika to eat for her as well and then send her telepathic messages of deliciousness. We now have to re-train our stomachs and heads to not expect a crazy sugar/carb rush every hour…
On Saturday, we spent all day at Erika’s cousin’s son’s 3rd birthday party at their beautiful house in the suburbs. The party was a family affair filled with laughs and tons of delicious and typical Minas Gerais (name of the state) food, and we had a fantastic time meeting many of Erika’s aunts, uncles, cousins, and her adorable 92-year-old grandmother who has clearly led a busy life with her 14 children. The entire family was incredibly warm and inviting – more than good hosts, they truly made us feel part of the family. At night, we went to a dance club with Luciana, one of E’s many cousins. It wasn’t so much a nightclub as a bar with people of all ages and backgrounds and a super cheap cover of only R$12. It’s associated with a local dance studio, and the music ranges from the sexy samba and zuki to the more folk-ish forro. There are professors and students of the studio there to dance with you and teach you, so we managed to pick up a few very easy moves of forro and bolero. Luciana is a lovely and graceful dancer, so there were some extremely talented and entertaining dancers, including 2 guys who danced a very provocative zuki together, and we had a blast watching everyone. It was definitely a locals-only type place, and we’re so glad Luciana suggested taking us there! Videos will not be posted, but they exist, if for some reason you ever need to blackmail me in the future.
On Sunday, we woke up early and went to Inhotin, a botanical garden/modern art museum/outdoor concert venue about an hour outside of BH, with Madalena and Tulio, her boyfriend. The drive is on winding roads through hills and valleys and included a beautiful, though lengthy, dirt road alternate scenic route that Tulio insisted we take. We were able to really understand why the state is called “Minas Gerais” – it’s all mines, especially iron, which is easily seen in the red clay earth. The weather in BH is absolutely perfect – warm but not hot during the day – and light jacket/sweater weather at night. We spent hours wandering around the gigantic park – they say it takes 3 days to see it all. The exhibits are all mostly housed in separate specially built buildings scattered – though some sculptures are outside. The art was all very modern and multi-medium, including the usual “what the hell am I looking at and why is it called art?” exhibits as well as some truly unique, beautiful, and thought-provoking works from around the world. I particularly liked the mental interplay of natural beauty in the perfectly manicured gardens and lawn areas vs. entering the often-crazy exhibits. It’s truly one of our most favorite museum experiences and easily the best garden/park we’ve ever visited.
On Monday, we woke up early again for another bus adventure, although only 2 hours, to Ouro Preto. It’s an important historical town known for its black gold mines and as the former capitol city of the state. The streets are super hilly and cobblestone, and the architecture is a wonderful example of Portuguese colonial style, especially the churches and municipal buildings. Unfortunately for us, segunda-feira (i.e. second day of the week) is probably the worst day to visit the town since many of the museums and churches are closed. (This is when actually having a guidebook might be useful, but we still prefer traveling without one.) We made the best of it though and enjoyed wandering about the town and enjoying yet another beautiful day. Many of the buildings and churches were completed well before America’s birth, and there was a tranquility about the town’s atmosphere that I can only attribute to it knowing its place and not having any qualms about it. We hitched a bus back to BH and were met by M&T who informed us that a bunch of Erika’s cousins were coming over for dinner. Of course it was not mentioned that they all went well out of their way to bring/make us all of the things we had happened to mention loving in previous conversations – sushi, acai, corazon de frango (chicken hearts), and pork roast. In spite of their work and school schedules, we had a blast chatting and eating until 11pm. The food was delicious, especially the corazon (thanks Nicole!), which T definitely cannot get enough of.
Tueday, August 7th happened to be our 2nd wedding anniversary. If someone had told me 2 years ago that I would be spending my 2nd anniversary in Brazil, I would’ve said “totally possible” and thought little of it – we love traveling and vacations and have wanted to do a trip like this long before our wedding. But I would not have guessed that we would have spent it with my best friend’s family in a wholly unique and memorable and awesome day. Tia Fernanda picked us up around 11, and after successfully avoiding having Madalena buy me a pair of unnecessary, but beautiful ballet flats (which turned into a beautiful, incredibly soft sweater that although unnecessary, I did not avoid receiving), we headed to the mercado central, inconveniently located very un-centrally. T&I love markets, obviously, and BH didn’t let us down. E’s cousin Larissa met us there and together the 4 of us wandered around for a couple hours trying various fruits/nuts/peppers/veggies/cheeses and teaching each other how to say things in our native languages. We ate lunch at a local diner type restaurant (rice, beans, chicken, salad, pasta) in the market and watched the Brazilian women’s volleyball team advance a round. After spending some time at Tia Fernanda’s house, Larissa and her sister Lorena took us to watch the sunset at the lake and to check out the free Museo do Arte – which is free for a reason = though we had a ton of fun with L&L.
When we first arrived in BH we had wanted to find a nice restaurant for our anniversary dinner – a standard celebratory affair. Various family members made suggestions and we said we’d do some restaurant research. But within 1 day, we decided we’d MUCH rather spend time with E’s family – a romantic dinner can be had anywhere, anytime – but being in BH was a truly unique experience to be maximized at all times. So for our anniversary dinner, we went to a very local bar/chuhasco with 6 of E’s cousins and Madalena and had an absolute blast! We ate garlic bread and queijo and batatas fritas and carne and porko and corazon and drank Bohemia – our favorite Brazilian beer. Madalena of course surprised us with an incredibly strawberry cake from the family padaria, and we drank port wine that Tulio so kindly gifted us. I know anniversaries aren’t really “family” affairs and are supposed to be romantic couple nights, but no moment on this trip thus far has been filled with as much love as there was in that restaurant. I barely remember what we did to celebrate our 1st anniversary, but I can assure you I’ll never forget our 2nd.
After sad goodbyes early Wednesday morning, we took 2 flights and a 5 hour bus ride into the heart of the Pantanal region of Brazil. I feel grateful and privileged to have spent time with E’s family and understand a part of her life that is of course SO important – it gives me an even greater appreciation for her as a person and as my friend. I really wish we had more time in BH, but that’s how this trip goes, and I’ve pinky sworn to return (with Erika) – so it’s not goodbye so much as a see you later (2014 Cupo do Mundo) to minha familia Brasilera.