Wandering Thoughts

October 25, 2008

Beautiful Horizons

There’s something to be said for English. It may not sound like an extended poem like Spanish, or have the sweet-softened edges of French, but it’s a magpie’s nest full of words, either beautiful or, at the very least, fun. Luminous, wander, voyage, shade. Catapult. Caterwauling. Cacophony. Shout.

If there’s one area that does let us down it’s place names. Compare Johnsonville, Greytown and Lower Hutt to Rio de Janeiro (January’s River), Porto Alegre (Happy Port) and Belo Horizonte (Beautiful Horizon).

A few years ago I spent 3 weeks in Belo Horizonte. I arrived groggy and folded from a 22 hour bus ride to discover myself in the middle of a metropolis home to a population greater than New Zealand’s. It was quite some time before I found the horizon. To do that I had to take us bus up into what my friends called favelas dos ricos – the favelas of the rich.

Once upon a time only the poor in Brazilian cities lived on the hillsides, the more affluent preferring the services and convenience of the flat. And so the word favela is associated by most Brazilians not only with slums but more specifically with slums on hills. You can still find plenty of these – perched above Rio, for example, are dangerous, violent ghettos with amazing ocean views. In Belo Horizonte though, in recent years the wealthy too have taken to the slopes. So some of the hillside suburbs are now covered in mansions – favelas for the rich.

The bus deposited me amongst big bold houses crouched behind fences. I picked a promising looking street, one which continued up, and began to walk. At first I wove between houses, thankful for the fences, protecting me from guard dog after guard dog, teeth bared between the bars. But, as I climbed the sections became larger until they stopped. The road now cut between trees on one side and a wall on the other – the edge of a military barracks, I guessed.

I kept going, puffing – conscious and anxious of the fact I was alone. Looking back at the beginnings of the view I watched a helicopter hover above a mansion’s helipad. If you’re really rich in Brazil you don’t commute on the dangerous, congested roads, you fly. In Sao Paulo, apparently, at rush hour the skies are filled by the wealthy avoiding the city they live within.

The end of the road, when I got there, was familiar in a way – two teenagers making out in their car, a dilapidated park, a light coating of rubbish – and Brazilian too: a man in a brown leather jacket holding a machete was selling soft drinks and coconuts. The machete was for the coconuts, of course, and no doubt it was just worry working my imagination, but something about the way he held that knife made me wonder what might happen if I declined to purchase something. Thirsty all of a sudden I bought a coconut when he asked, noting with some satisfaction that a car load of Brazilians who arrived shortly after me did exactly the same.

Sipping through a straw I wandered off and found my horizon already being swallowed by dusk and smog. Striving, like rainforest trees in search of the light, the buildings of the city below pressed up together in haphazard competition. Beyond them the suburbs stretched (the one I was staying in was so large that a taxi driver the night before had had to drive round for half an hour asking for directions to the address I’d given him). And then finally, after all that, the buildings gave way to the roll of hills and the undulating line that separated the darkening land from the orange of the sky.

Belo Horizonte earned its name, although in the interests of fairness I should disclose that Belo Horizonte itself is situated within a state called Minas Gerais (General Mines). Not all Brazilian place names are poetic.

Belo Horizonte from Favela dos Ricos

View from the window of the ambassador’s residence in Brasilia

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2 Comments »

  1. I realise you were there some time ago, but can you remember what this particular rich hillside neighbourhood was called?

    Comment by Elve Madsen — April 22, 2010 @ 11:07 pm

  2. Hi Elve, Sorry – I can’t remember. I tried looking on Google Earth to job my memory but to no avail. If you’re in BH you could try asking a local. Friends of mine gave me directions. It’s not far from the hill where cars – supposedly – roll upwards (a very unlikely place – but a bit of a local landmark, which might help in getting directions.)

    Comment by terence — April 23, 2010 @ 7:19 am


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