In my younger days, I visited Brazil and attended Carnival in Rio, and it was as wild as advertised. Bikinis the size of dental floss worn on the beaches were not hard on the eyes, either. The trip included vists to Manaus, Bahia, Brasilia, Salvador and Iguazu Falls. Thinking the best of Brazil had been seen, future visits were not on my list until I received an invitation from a college classmate, Dr. Irena Adams-Bruinsma, living in Belo Horizonte.
My classmate became a physician, then met and married a Dutchman while on a European vacation. Her husband worked for the Shell oil company and rose through the executive ranks while they were posted around the world and ended up in Brazil. They fell in love with Brazil and when he was asked to move to the Far East, they made the decision to leave the company in order to stay in Brazil. Her children went to private schools in England and then the children settled in Belgium and the U.S. They also became honorary Dutch consul generals, an indication of their standing in the community.
Her husband unfortunately died but she decided to stay, and with the insurance funds set up Clinica Ammor caring for homeless children.
A visa is required to visit Brazil and it is not inexpensive ($140 if applied for in person, plus parking twice, plus your time, etc). Their consulate says it is in retaliation for the high fees imposed on Brazilians trying to get a visa to visit the U.S. The consulate also uses any excuse to make the application process onerous and again justifies it by saying they are just trying to show what Brazilians have to endure. Yellow Fever vaccination is also required, as well as malaria prophylaxis if one is going to affected areas.
On my way to Belo Horizonte, a stop in Sao Paolo was required, resulting in an opportunity for a more in-depth visit. Sao Paolo is really the economic and industrial capital of Brazil and their work ethic there contrasts to the more laid back Rio. There are fewer sights of interest for tourists compared to Rio. Recommended stops included Praca Ramos, where an impressive Metropolitan Theater is located. Close by is Sao Paolo Cathedral, the largest cathedral in predominantly Catholic Brazil. Pope John Paul visited here but many homeless people sleeping on the streets mar the area.
Most families limit themselves to only one or two children, except for the poor. Health care is free even for foreign visitors but I was told that public hospitals are not that good and require long waits, so most everyone who can afford it elects to buy private insurance. Public schools are also available for everyone but again those wanting to send their children to universities pay for private schools. These actions ensure that class distinction persists since advancement without higher education is very difficult and portends what will happen here.
A huge covered marketplace sold the usual food products but someone told me a must-try food in Sao Paolo was pastel bacalhau, a large empanada filled with a cod-like whitefish. It was tasty but I doubt it would do well in the States.
Sao Paolo has an excellent rapid transit system and a stop at Liberdade Station to visit Japantown where the largest Japanese population outside of Japan exists was on my itinerary. As I tried to purchase a ticket for the subway, the ticket seller asked first in Portuguese and then in English whether I was a senior. When I replied in the affirmative, she said seniors rode free just by showing their ID. Attendants waved me through not even requiring me to show my ID. Several middle-aged women offered me their seats but their polite action made me feel really ancient.
Japantown did not seem that large considering the population of Japanese in Brazil is around 1.5 million with about 650,000 in Sao Paolo, but then they probably have disbursed to other areas in Sao Paolo. A cursory tour of the area did not impress me.
Early Japanese had to endure racism as bad as in the U.S. Later generations have integrated into Brazilian society with about a third marrying other than Japanese. Brazilian-Japanese that returned to Japan for work opportunities were also discriminated against as if they were foreigners and many returned to Brazil.
A call had to be made to my friend in Belo Horizonte using a phone card. It is very confusing to make phone calls and a message in Portuguese kept repeating, but luckily some Japanese-Brazilian teenagers who spoke English helped me successfully connect to my friend in Belo.
Belo Horizonte is the capital of the state of Minas Gerais, where the vast majority of Brazil’s gold and gemstones are found. It is one of the largest cities and is prosperous. It also has the reputation for having the highest number of bars, or botecos, per capita in the world. One of the reasons is their custom of anyone being able to open a bar in their neighborhood. Almost every block has an area converted into a gathering place for the locals to meet and have some liquid refreshment.
My classmate originally had a large home in the Pampulha area, which has a beautiful man-made lake surrounded by structures designed by world famous architect Oscar Niemeyer such as the St. Francis of Assisi Church and the Casa de Bailar. Unfortunately, the lake is infested by schistostomas that are parasites that can invade humans easily. After her husband died, the home felt too large for her, so she sold it and moved to an apartment closer to her clinic.
For me the most interesting part of my visit was observing my classmate, Dra Irena in action at her clinic. She is a modern day Mother Teresa as she renders health care to children who have been abandoned and abused and told they were worthless. She conducts a non-judgmental medical exam and at some point she gains their trust. All the while she is imparting valuable health information as well as promoting their self-esteem. She also ministers to children born with AIDS. She funds all this and is trying to form a nonprofit charity with headquarters in Torrance, Calif. to solicit funds (visit http://novo.ammor.org.br/?lang=en for more information).
Later, she drove me around and pointed out a project whereby homeless people gather recyclable trash. She and a Catholic nun noticed that these people were required to rent carts from recycling companies for a high fee to transport their recycled materials. These companies then would shortchange these people on the weight of the materials.
Dra Irena and the nun raised money to buy these carts and scales to determine the true value. They also went to the city government and explained how these people were providing a valuable service to the city by cutting down on landfill and unsightly trash buildup. The city helped by providing collection boxes for citizens to separate recyclable materials and then built warehouses to store materials such as paper so it could be protected from the elements.
These homeless people organized themselves into a cooperative called Asmares with strict rules of behavior. Their efforts have been so successful that many earn enough to buy their own homes. They are also expanding into making furniture and other items from the collected materials. They have now opened a very successful nightclub to train members how to become waiters, cooks and bartenders. There are now plans to open a second club in a more upscale neighborhood.
During a tour of this fascinating project, a gift of one of their T-shirts was given to me for being a friend of Dra Irena. Their success has not gone unnoticed and the heads of the organization have been invited to other Brazilian communities to share their experience. American communities might invite them to solve waste problems and help homeless people here. Read more details at http://tinyurl.com/22l3wba.
Dra Irena took me for an overnight visit to nearby Ouro Preto (black gold) where gold was first discovered and was a black color due to certain metals mixed with iron. Legend has it that a miner prayed on where to find gold and he was told God would point it out to him. As one approaches Ouro Preto there is a huge rock formation on a mountain that resembles a finger pointing and this was taken as the sign.
Ouro Preto is a world heritage site with many colorful churches such as Igreja Sao Francisco de Assis and Igreja do Pilar. (There are many hills so be sure to have comfortable shoes for walking to all the sites). Unfortunately, photos of church interiors were forbidden but they were predominantly in the gaudy baroque style with cherubs and other faces in every conceivable spot and covered with gold leaf. The successful miners showed their gratitude for discovering the source for their wealth by donating precious metals and gems to the churches.
San Francisco de Assis Church has many sculptures both inside and outside made by Brazil’s greatest sculptor, Aleijadinho (c1730-1814). He lost the use of his hands in his forties due to a mysterious disease that some attributed to a type of leprosy. He continued to work with tools strapped to his hands. His name means “little cripple” and he was the son of a Portuguese architect and the architect’s slave.
The ceiling on the church can be compared to Michelangelo and is considered to be Antonio Francisco Lisboa’s (Aleijadinho’s real name) masterpiece.
Our stay was at the delightful and popular Pouso due Chico Rei bed and breakfast. I thought chico meant small but it is really a nickname for Francisco. One meal was at Chafarriz (fountain) Restaurant served typical regional food buffet style. Being from Vegas, I know buffets and can state this was a fabulous offering and included free tastes of the local liquor.
The Museu de Mineralogia is said to be one of the world’s finest. It was a major disappointment. Also, trying to find gemstones at bargain prices is an illusion. The best stones are purchased in large quantities by professionals and sold in the U.S. at much better prices and with the assurance of quality rather than taking a chance here where some unscrupulous merchants may offer fakes.
A side trip to the town of Mariana’s cathedral to hear a recital on an Arp Schnitger organ built between 1700-1710 was an added treat. A Portuguese king was given the organ as a gift but he thought it was too loud and gave it to this town, where it laid dormant for over 50 years before being restored in Northern Germany in 1984.
A visit to an abandoned gold mine was interesting. A large lake was at the bottom but toxic chemicals used to extract gold resulted in all aquatic life dying. Still, thrill-seeking scuba divers like to dive more than 70 meters (229.7 feet) to explore this lake. More money is made from these tours and does not require the huge expenses and permits to bring the mine to operational status.
Las Vegas Tidbits
There are many Brazilian steakhouses, known as churrascarias, in Vegas. It is an all-you-can-eat meat lover’s paradise as waiters come by and slice off huge portions. If you have never tried one, you are missing out on a real taste treat.
(Note: This is the first of a two-part article.)
The Kaeru Kid writes about his various adventure travels. He lives in Las Vegas and includes tidbits about the city at the end of each article. He can be reached at KaeruKid@yahoo.com.