Sunday, December 23, 2012

Waiting for the Revolution in Belo Horizonte

I went out from my hotel the next morning looking for breakfast, but with not much luck, though I found a number of stand-up coffee bars selling the usual high-powered coffee that was thick enough that it probably could have passed for breakfast.  My most interesting find were little shops with huge old machines with large metal wheels and gears into whose maw the staff would throw bundles of raw cane that were chewed up to produce an opaque tan liquid with a pleasant, not too sweet, “natural” taste that cost about ten cents a glass.  And it was also fun to watch.  I have in my notebook that the drink is called “cabolo”, but I have not since been able to confirm this.
Sitting in the MacDonald’s I notice a young black boy, maybe only thirteen, drift in the door with the diffidence of a wisp of smoke, as though he were trying to be invisible.  I looked away and he was gone.
     I saw very few people sleeping in the street or park and no beggars have approached me.  In the Parça da Republica I saw a few women in colorful, country-looking dresses, begging.  I wonder if they were gypsies.  There were only a few crazy people yelling in the street.  If there was misery in São Paulo, it didn’t seem to come downtown.

In the Parça I saw a family band  --  father on amplified guitar, sons on drum and cymbal and a small boy, maybe eight or nine, singing in a high voice a Caribbean-sounding patter song  --  but what was interesting was that the people passing by  --   even though they were not stopping to listen  --  seemed to be moving to the music.
     This reminded me of something that I had noticed the week before in Rio.  I had been irritated to observe that however lightly I dressed I seemed always to be drenched in perspiration, while well-dressed Cariocas glided by in jackets and suits and never seemed to break a sweat.  I eventually realized why this was.
     The Brasilians, I realized, were moving with a graceful economy of motion, while I was striding about with Teutonic purposefulness and this was why I was perspiring and they were not and once I adopted a more languid Latin gait, my problem went away and I might reach suppertime in the same shirt I put on before breakfast.  And it also made it more comfortable to stroll around town, though of course in São Paulo in April we did not have Rio’s heat and humidity.

I noticed a bus with a sign on the side: “Transportation: a Right of the Citizen / a Duty of the State”.  This Right could be exercised for thirty Cruzados, which at that day’s rate was about twenty cents and, for a Right, was I thought quite reasonable.

Latin Americans seem to love to name streets for the date of a glorious revolution or pronunciamento or other such great event that will forever change the nation and set its foot (finally) on the Road to Destiny.  Skimming over the São Paulo street map I find these Avenidas: 25th of January, 25th of March, 7th of April, 3rd of May, 9th of July and 14th of July, 14th of August, 7th of September, 15th of November and the 3rd of December.  I wonder how many of those a typical, educated Paulinho could identify?  I notice that eight of the eleven fell in the cooler months from March to September, which I suppose might be more conducive to great deeds.

[By the way, a Paulinho is someone from São Paulo and a Carioca is someone from Rio.  I will edit this better later.]

That I was talking about my street map should be a clue that I was not happy in São Paulo.  I had long interviews with very interesting people and filled pages of my notebooks, but I will not inflict these on my readers and instead move the trip along.  I checked out of my comfortably seedy hotel (where my bill for six days came to US$66 and the elevator never was fixed).  I negotiated the usual police activity in the street outside my hotel (no one was up against a wall having their IDs checked  --  too early in the day, I suppose  --  but a policeman was standing over a fellow sprawled on his back on the sidewalk who did not look in very good shape) and caught a cab to the bus station for the 10:35 bus to Belo Horizonte.

My seatmate was a pretty young woman who reminded me of the bright creatures I saw on the beach at Ipanema and who chatted away pleasantly, almost none of which I understood, but I smiled and agreed with everything.

The bus climbed into forested hills and the sun shown down on fields of Brasilian green and gold and the deep red of fresh-dug earth.  There was a man sitting by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere with boxes of fruit, apparently hoping to sell them.  At other places there were clusters of open-front stalls offering rugs and baskets and honey in used liquor bottles.  There were brown streams and rivulets under majestic, towering cumulus clouds.  It was beautiful country. 

There were rest stops about every two hours and in the early evening I wandered out away from the lights to look at the southern sky and try to find the Southern Cross.

We would be arriving in Belo Horizonte after ten in the evening, so I ought to have been concerned about where I was going to stay, as I had no reservations, but oddly enough I wasn’t and was completely content just to be riding on a bus through the Brasilian night, just to be traveling.

I found a nice hotel and awoke the next morning with a headache, which I hoped was sinuses and not something that had blown up my nose, as my comely and chatty seatmate had been replaced by a dour chap who smoked incessantly and I had spent the last leg of the bus ride with my face to the open window.  Something had blown up my nose under similar circumstances in Costa Rica and I had been miserable for the rest of my trip.

I arrived downstairs after the hotel’s breakfast room had closed, but they opened it again for me and I dined in solitary splendor in a grand, high-ceilinged salon and had a fine breakfast.  Then I went outside to see Belo Horizonte.

I knew something was wrong when I walked out of my hotel.  There were people standing around, singly and in groups, waiting for something.  There were police, many more than usual.  Some stood by squad cars; one stood looking down the avenue, speaking with quiet urgency into a walkie-talkie.  There were mounted police in front of the bank, helmeted, with long sabres sheathed in leather scabbards by their saddle.
     Then I realized what it was: May First.  May Day.  That day when all over the world the workers rise up in solidarity to tweak the nose of their capitalist exploiters, and occasionally rough up American tourists.
     I retired to the hotel, put the telescopic lens on my camera and went to the balcony to await the arrival of the red battalions.
     As the hours passed, expectation grew.  Below in the street, groups of spectators dissolved and reformed.

Morning grew late.  Families came from church.  Some of the watchers began to drift away for lunch.  I wrote postcards and started reading a book.  Historical inevitability was behind schedule.

Early afternoon.  I had to move to stay in the shade.  Below, in the street, the only people waiting were standing by bus stops.  The mounted police and squad cars were gone.  The policeman with the walkie-talkie had disappeared.  People had gotten tired of waiting for the vanguard of the proletariat.

Later, I asked the policeman in front of the hotel if there had been a demonstration.  He said he didn't know.

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