About this blog
Thrill of Brazil is a travel blog all about Brazil written by Moon Brazil author Michael Sommers. Michael blogs about Brazil travel, culture, and more. He welcomes questions, comments, and story ideas.
- Care for a Drink with your Film? (or a Film with your Drink?)
- Brazil’s Homegrown Tourism Boom
- Brazil's Best and Write-est
- Making House Calls in Rio (Part II)
- Making House Calls in Rio (Part I)
- The Dawning of Brazil's B&B Age
- Rio's Alternative Points of View
- Taxi Trouble in Santa Teresa
- Obamas Take to the Campaign Trail in Brazil
- Plans and Punctuality
- Reliving Tropicalismo - On and Off Screen
- Food and Lodging that Make the Grade
- The Making of Moon Living Abroad in Brazil
- U.S. is Number One Source of Immigrants to Brazil
- Best English-Language Blogs about Brazil
Minas Gerais Road Trip - Part 6 (Araguari)
I met Luiz de Abreu four years ago this July. Within a few short months he had moved in with me, and we stayed together until early last year. Since I've known him, I've heard many stories about his hometown of Araguari and, over time, in my mind, the place has taken on certain mythical proportions.
I heard stories of Luiz's father who drove the train that ran between Araguari and Goiânia, capital of the neighboring state of Goías. How he sometimes let Luiz ride the rails with him. How he would stop the train in the middle of an orchard so all the passengers could get off and pick pink and white guavas, and then sit, savoring them, in the baking sun. How he came home loaded down with gigantic sacks full of fragrant mangos, frutas do conde (sugar apples), and pequis that Luiz's mother made into preserved doces and liqueurs so that they wouldn't spoil.
I heard about the fruit trees in everybody's backyards and the chickens as well (at a tender age, Luiz could walk out back, grab a chicken, and expertly wring its neck, without missing a beat or the next cartoon). His mother was a crack at making frango com quiabo (chicken with okra), frango com pequi (chicken with pequi), and frango com molho pardo (chicken in a velvety sauce of its own blood) along with angú (a polenta like mush that I've never gotten excited about, but that inspires Mineiros to do cartwheels) and couve (kale) sauteed in garlic over the wood burning stoves many rural Mineiro homes still proudly possess. I heard about how neighbors took turns raising pigs whose food was supplied by the entire neighborhood; when slaughter time came around, all those who had contributed to the pig's upkeep received a chunk of pork for their troubles.
I heard about the first TVs, which for a long time were black and white. Although color TVs were introduced in the early '70s, only a few rich Brazilians actually owned them. Instead, people went out and purchased special filters that they stuck upon their screens and then sat back to enjoy "color". I love the story Luiz tells of discovering that Martians were green. More poignant is the story of how he reacted to first discovering that he himself wasn't the same color as many of his classmates at the nuns' school he attended. Instead of telling Luiz that he was "preto" (black), his mother (a classic Brazilian mixture of African, European, and indigenous origins) told him that he was "fundo de cuia" (literally "the bottom of a gourd"), a highly lyrical and mysterious euphemism that forever stuck in his head and that for years defined him (Luiz swears that it was only in Belo Horizonte that he "discovered" he was black).
Araguari wasn't all idyllic. There were tales of unhappiness too, of alcoholism and infidelity, waste and bitterness, the stifling conservatism and horizon-less futures of a small town in the Interior. As soon as he realized he could – and would – dance, Luiz got the hell out of Araguari. After his parents died – in rapid succession, in their 40s – he often looked back, but never went back.
When we were together, Luiz often anguished over returning to Araguari. He very much wanted me to accompany him, but for many reasons (including the daunting task of writing Moon Brazil), such a trip never materialized. Finally, last December – after an absence of 14 years – Luiz returned on his own. The visit unleashed a whole new series of stories and whetted my appetite for things Araguari.
Five months later, now separated, I was finally making the trip home with him. The irony of the situation was not lost upon me (in fact, I was rather tickled by it) and yet my overriding emotion was of intense curiosity. Imagine being immersed in an engrossing novel for several years and then suddenly having the opportunity to leap headfirst into the books' pages and interact with the main characters.
There are three main towns in the Triângulo Mineiro: Uberlândia and Uberaba (both of which are in full boom mode) and Araguari (which never boomed at all). Araguari is the smallest of the trio and the least developed and urbanized. It is also a sleepy and somewhat charming little Interior town. Many streets are still placidly lined with early and mid-century houses painted in faded pastel hues and topped with red tile roofs, back gardens hinted at by the tangled branches of fruit trees reaching up to the sky.
The town itself is flat, which seems to increase the vastness and brightness of the blue sky. It's also ideal for the main modes of transportation: bicycles, motor scooters, and the odd horse-drawn carriage. For those without wheels, moto-taxis are an important way of getting around; names and numbers of moto-taxi companies are tattooed on sidewalk corners, creating a colorful patchwork on painted squares of cement. In fact, after checking into the swankiest hotel in town, the extremely nondescript Monte Castro Executive Hotel, we called one such company to take us zooming through the streets to the house of Luiz' sister.
Luiz has one sister, two nieces, two nephews, a dozen uncles and aunts, and a seemingly endless array of cousins, many of whom kept popping up individually or in small groups all over town. As late morning segued into afternoon, and afternoon plunged into a sudden chilly evening, we made the rounds from house to house, migrating from one family branch to another. Each time we left, half of the household came along with us, so by nightfall, the core group numbered around 15, ranging in age from 8 to 80.
Arriving at a new house, we were plied with freshly made coffee and apologies that no cakes or pães de queijo had been baked (immediately afterward, a child was surreptitiously sent to the nearest bakery for cakes or pães de queijo). Along the way, I met Luiz's cross-dressing cousin (the most celebrated drag queen in Araguari) who, by day, works for the city as an exterminator of dengue mosquitoes, his nephew, who gets gigs as the town's one and only dancing Michael Jackson impersonator, and his beloved 80-year-old aunt with whom we engaged in an intense two-hour session of ludo (a.k.a. Sorry).
By nighttime, my head was reeling from all the names and familial connections and my stomach was growling from all the coffee. Actually, Araguari is one of the most important coffee growing regions in all of Brazil and every market, bakery, and convenience store is filled with glistening bags of homegrown brands such as Araguari and Ouro Negro. (When I stopped at a supermarket to buy a few bags, my innocent inquiry as to which brand was the best set off a major family debate).
The next morning, instead of resuming visits to far-flung cousins, Luiz insisted on taking me on a quick tour of Araguari's downtown with its architectural mishmash of placid squares and busy commercial streets mingling with churches and a handful of once grand mansions and palaces.
We walked by two handsome Art Deco movie theaters; one now houses an exceptionally grand kilo restaurant, while the other is being transformed into a theater. The Igreja Matriz is an impressive pink affair (re)built in the 1940s, with a vast cupola and Deco stained glass windows. It is dedicated to the town's originally named patron saint, Bom Jesus da Cana Verde (Good Jesus of the Green Sugar Cane). Particularly impressive is Araguari's magnificent 1920s railroad station, from which the trains operated by Luiz's father departed and arrived (today, the building houses City Hall). We also saw the two oldest buildings in Araguari, a pair of white-washed, blue-shuttered, low-slung houses from the 19th century, reminiscent of homes you'd see in Portugal's Alentejo region.
We ended up spending a mere 24 hours in Araguari, and were both sorry not to remain longer. Aunts had tried to entice us to stay with the promise of frango com pequi (Luiz told everybody that I was a pequi fiend) and nieces had offered to drive us to one of several nearby waterfalls surrounded by Cerrado vegetation - however, their efforts were in vain since we had a flight from Uberlândia to São Paulo booked for later that day.
Flying from Uberlândia to São Paulo takes less than an hour, but as is often the case in Brazil, the world can often shift dramatically between take-off and landing.
The next day in Sampa, Minas seemed like a bit of a dream and to matar as saudades (literally "kill our nostalgia"), Luiz unpacked the large jar of preserved pequis he had provisionally purchased at Uberlândia's market and then went off and bought a freshly killed chicken. He then spent the morning cooking up the frango com pequi that we'd been too rushed to savor in Minas.