Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The City of Black Gold and the Toothpuller

I woke up early on Saturday as I am oft to do. I had coffee and papaya with Marcos’ parents until he lumbered from slumber far earlier than usual. He drove me down to the bus station. We arrived at 5 minutes to 9am for a 9 o’clock bus departing for Ouro Preto. Marcos had recommended that I visit Ouro Preto. I did not know much about this city of Black Gold, but had heard it was on the UNESCO list. The ticket taker shooed me downstairs and said I could buy a ticket on the bus. So Marcos and I went downstairs and waited for the bus...which didn't come for thirty minutes. While I was waiting, we met a German backpacker named Svenya who was also headed to Ouro Preto.

We headed out of Belo, and into the countryside of rolling hills. I took a short nap and woke to the beautiful horizon under the gentle cover of clouds. We pulled into Ouro Preto and I started on with Svenya past an old church and down a giant hill towards a hostel for her. The hill was quite large and I thought the city was above so I planned to meet her back at the church in 30 minutes while I went to have a coffee. After we split, I found a map and realized that the city was below so I began to trudge down and figured I would catch her on her way back up. Down the cobbled streets, there was a Red Bull event with bikers riding down the cobbled slope and off ramps and jumps. CRAZY. I made my way down the tight street that was hemmed in with rails to cordon off the biker route.

I descended down to a cobbled beauty, and bumped into Svenya at the bottom of the hill. She was still looking for a hostel, so we agreed to meet in a few hours. I wandered through the cobbled alleyways, and up a tall hill to the Praca Tiradentes city center. I descended the hill to find some comida minheira, the famed food of the region that is every Brazilian's fav. A delicious lunch of stewed okra, rice and feijoada and some stewed chicken, and I found a beautiful view from the restaurant's deck of the city.

After the delicious lunch, I made my way back up the hill to the Museu da Inconfidência, which Marcos put on my list of things to visit.  I stopped outside the prison-turned-museum and snapped some shots of the city below.

The museum was absolutely fascinating.  First, it takes its name from the Inconfidencia rebellion, led by one Tiradentes (The tooth puller) which sought to stem the wholesale pillage of riches from the region back to the  Portuguese Empire.  Inspired by the American and French Revolutions, Tiradentes and his band sought to throw off the colonial yoke that was exploiting the region and create a Republic based on the ideas of enlightenment that were circulating.  Alas, they were caught and he was hung, but not before creating a spark that would one day bring freedom.

O' Tiradentes, 
Puller of teeth
Shaker of empires

The museum itself was fascinating.  It has articles from the life in that epoch, from furniture to slave manacles.  It chronicled the fight for independence that sprung from Ouro Preto, and held the re-interred graves of Tiradentes and his cadre.  It also had the original flag that the conspirators used.  Beyond that, it discussed the history of Ouro Preto onward, including its role after independence from Portugal (Brazil became an independent Empire) as an imperial city.  The city became an administrative, political and cultural center for the wealthy Minas region.  The city was described by foreign travelers as an exotic and decadent place.  All that shimmers in this world is sure to fade.  And I was reminded of my travels to a similarly once-important metropolis long since forgotten- Port Royal in Jamaica. 

The museum had a fascinating section on baroque architecture and its role in projecting power and socializing imperial culture:

Colonizing the New World did not just implant an economic system that was articulated to the Metropolis for wealth creation.  It also meant transporting elements of the European culture in order to assure the domain of values, lifestyles, and how to see and represent the colonizers in American territory.

I loved swimming through Brazil's history and the history of the Americas. It was a feeling I had missed.

After the museum, I met up with Svenya and we wandered around the lovely cobbled city.  While we were walking to another museum, a samba school came pounding and marching through the city streets.  The percussive beat bounced beautifully off the cobbled stone street and tight alleyways.

After watching the school, and Brazilians dancing to the beat, we went to Casa do Canto, a museum dedicated to Brazilian currency.  It had an interesting display of all the coins and notes that had been in circulation in Brazil.  I was fascinated by the notes that were in circulation during Brazil's period of hyperinflation when prices kept escalating to the point that in grocery stores, attendants would announce the shifting prices on bullhorns.

After the museums, Svenya and I sat out in a pub with graffitied walls on the hillside, and chatted about traveling and other bits of life's fun.  On the hilled street, college students sipped beer on the diagonal.  As the day faded, we made our way back up the treacherous hill to the bus station, and I caught the evening bus back to Belo, as she checked on her bus back to Rio for the following day.  All and all, a great day in a fascinating city.

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