Minas Gerais

Letter Three, From São Paulo, Brazil

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Feb 6 – Mar 25 2015 Brazil and Chile

Oi, as they say here. It is Tuesday, terca feira, (c cedula, or a tail that makes it an  s). Work on the asilo

 a  rural small town home  that will house about 100 old and handicapped people–is finished for now, the multi-year project showing serious signs of surviving; it was very rewarding to be there as that started to happen.

Now– out of that decent healthy countryside, and into rough tough raucous São Paulo. If  Rio de Janeiro is a beautiful painted lady of Brazil, SP is its body and soul: Futbol, Samba, and Industry. It’s 1830, at night. The 24 hour clock, metric system, day/month/year dating, and periods in big numbers instead of commas are among the many minor differences notable to Norteamericanos.  I use that term because many in our hemisphere feel, and  insist, that people in the USA are not the only Americanos–Americans.

The fading day is trying to hold on to the city . It won’t succeed; or will it? A satellite view of the earth at night reveals a planet on fire with electric lights; São Paulo ,home to about 15 million people,  is a big burning blotch of light. 

I am sitting 3 m above street level, at the corner of Luis Coelho and Bela Cintra, in the open air veranda of a restaurant. Below the rodo dos rodos (wheeling of  car wheels as I imagine in my poor Brazilian) is intermittent and shoes carrying  bodies move along relatively quietly, in sharp  contrast to a couple of blocks away on Rua Agustinas or Rua  Paulista

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 Paulista Restaurant, and an omelet!

São Paulo Subway System                                     

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 Metro at Trianon Museo de Artes SP

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Rua Paulista        

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View from MASP- Museo de Arte SP     

                                                                                                    Vendors in Sheltered area under MASP

It rained this afternoon. Thick wet skies threw down an almost tropical rain on S P, washing, but spoiling, the view. It was very welcome because of the drought here. This was the second storm in the past few days; but it didn’t last more than an hour, like the ‘dry’ season in the tropics. Afterward I walked  up Consolacion, left on Paulista, and left on Bela Cintra to this corner restaurant–Segredos do Minero. I like the name– Secrets of Miners. It reminds me of the 13 little mining towns of my childhood, even though the restaurant has nothing to do with mines, except history, and an extract from a very nice poem. The name, however, doesn’t refer to miners but to about people of Minas Gerais,  the original mining country of Brazil, a place of  old culture,  relative wealth and a  power historically and politically. The country changed. wealth and power moved on,  but Minas remains a treasured part of the lore of the nation.  The State, the miners the mines, and Mineros — those who live there–are family. For a look at the menu of my restaurant,  cliquezhttp://segredosdeminas.com.br/   I have come here often, and the owner gave me a menu, where Frai  Betto’s poem appears. *See below: Ser Minero. 

I like the spot. I like the food. I like the chatter, usually subdued, maybe because the fare is relatively expensive… no music, no alcohol driven decibels. I like the restaurant, the name, the view from my table above the street. The menu features meats of many kinds prepared in different ways. When there is a chill breeze at night I order hot soups. They come  boiling hot in big clay pots with a ladle in the middle, to spoon the soup into a bowl. The soup is accompanied by a small roll of buttered garlic bread, I order water sem gas (no gas). And possibly an espresso later but not way late.  Like, Wow.  So? Yes, I’m an old man.

One reason I’m here is my disease: xenophilia, love of the Other. And I have a conceit of being  an American in a place including both our continents; and in that America there are three major languages.  Brazilian is the one I lack. What better way to learn than immersion?  This is my third trip but the others were touristic and short.  I did study some before coming; the overlap between both English and Spanish, and Brazilian, is sometimes helpful, sometimes very misleading! Even so, I can now read almost everything. I can make myself understood fairly well because when my words are garbled I or get totally lost I revert to gestures and to  Spanish. Nonetheless, I can hear almost nada, except when the subject is quite clear, as on TV news about assault, murder, robbery, ads, erudite art show enthusiasts, news… etc. Teen age talk in tongues in Brazil, as they do everywhere.

It seems to me Brazilians are almost reliably tolerant, and considerate, even in crowds. On the SP subway escalators, people politely almost always move to the right (like the sign says!)  to allow those in a hurry to pass. Drivers are courteous even in this city of …what? between 15 and 20 million.

People are always willing to answer questions, (even when they aren’t clear about the question or the answer!) There is a fairly typical Latin American machismo; it’s reflected in the Futbol museum, a multi-million dollar homage to maleness. Yet Brazilians are very tuned to USA and there are prominent informational items everywhere on the social, sexual, environmental and nutritional matters we focus on in the USA.

There is a general tolerance of the Other, with some exceptions: The homeless, the drug addicted, are ignored almost completely. I suppose people assume they don’t vote, or contribute much in any other way. In that sense this is a harsh, or practical reality.  Is it Tough Love? I suspect it is.. Street sleepers are usually gone by 10 AM, in this an upscale area, they are…Where?

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The ‘millennials’, young educated adults here are, it seems to me, like to their  peers all over the world.   My daughter Sandi’s friends, for example. He studied Biology at USF for a year, a scholarship; then came home and graduated. But, didn’t like the field, and took up technical drawing, now works for an advertising agency. She was a lawyer, worked for a while here, changed her mind and is now garnered a 6 month scholarship in Italy to train as a chef. They live relatively simply, marginally by some measures: no car, no home- they rent, public transportation, saving and spending on their big dreams, big Ideas, not big Things. No marriage yet, no kids, not even any pets. They hope and try to live without– or despite and beyond borders; in the physical world or in the personal.

They are not drug oriented, or escapist; their parents Worry; Obviously.   They are very  e.connected, current with  most of  the US and world  TV series  one way or another: like Orange is the New Black, Mad Men, Orphan Black  and many I can’t name. When I mention Walter White (Breaking Bad) they break into a long dissertation about the crafting of the show, the use of metaphor, color, clothing…etc. They feel the series was a timeless classic at birth.   They talk about  the theme of the book Lili sent me: The End of Power by Moises Naim... meaning the power of nations, of government, of industry, of Order… They reference the printing press, which led to an end of the God and King alliance.   Surely, they say, this too is a dangerous time, the inevitable beginning of major world change.

I express a  reservation about the power of individuals over institutions because it seems to me that  who live in relatively free, if clearly imperfect condition, don’t  understand how a ruthless dictatorship of one sort or another can hold its people prisoner in body and mind… Can the e.world of change overcome that? Possibly but not  yet in places like North Korea, which is a black void on the satellite night view of earth. Maybe the change will be universal and irreversible, like the development of the printing press, land earlier, that of language, writing, agriculture. We agree it will not be easy or predictable.

I am in my hotel room watching CNN. People are, they say, concerned about the closing down and evacuation of São Paulo due to lack of water. There is here, yes, a drought; much like ours in CA, it may last several years; in some small towns the water infrastructure is inadequate and people have to go elsewhere for water,  as in some San Joaquin Valley towns.

But at least so far these 15 or 20 million Paulistas have water;  the parks, and rural fields, are green and the SP faucets put out clean chlorinated water, with only occasionally a slight musty smell.  Everyone who can continues to choose bottled water in a determined effort to fill the ocean with plastic garbage, which is of course, oil.

A video taken from my hotel room TV 2 days later deals with the worst storm in recent history, flooding of hundreds of miles of freeways,  portions of the metro, hundreds of cars swept away, a death.

My take, therefore, on  ‘News’ is  it’s not what it pretends; it’s not evil by intent, but degenerate, created or invented, ,and often toxic in fact.  NEWS is not about what happens, it is about entertainment and profits. Once we are imprinted with false or very selected  ‘facts’, or factoids, it is hard to let go.


*Carlos Alberto Libânio ChristoO.P., better known as Frei Betto[1] (born August 25, 1944) is a Brazilian writer, political activist, liberation theologist and Dominican friar, born in Belo Horizonte. At the age of 20, when he was a student of journalism, he entered the Dominican Order. He was later imprisoned for four years by the military dictatorship for smuggling people out of country. Betto is an over the top activist, populist to say the least, communist to say the fact. He is also a fine writer, for which one can forgive most of his political sins, even though he uses his considerable talent to mislead. This is the redacted piece from the restaurant menu, I’ve translated it crudely losing it’s cadence, corrupting its imagery, misinterpreting its more subtle meaning: but that is what translation does!

“To be Mineiro is not to say what you do, but what you will do; to pretend not to know what you know; to speak little and listen much; to let people think you a fool, to sell cheese, and have a big bank account.

“A good Mineiro isn’t a drunkard, doesn’t reap the wind, doesn’t walk in the dark, or in the damp, doesn’t fear speaking with strangers.

“Only believes in smoke when he sees fire, only risks when certain, never gives up a bird in the hand for two in the air.

“To be Mineiro is to say ‘UAI’. To be different. To have a registered trade mark. To have a History.

“To be Mineiro is to be pure and simple, humble, and modest, courageous and brave, faithful and elegant; to be Mineiro is to see the sunrise and the moon’s bright light, to hear birdsong, and the purring of cats; it is to feel the awakening of time and the dawn of life.

“To be Mineiro is to be religious, and conservative; to cultivate letters and arts; to be poetic and literate; to like politics and love liberty; to live in the mountains, to have an inner life; it is to be decent.



Letter Two, In A Small Town, Minas Gerais, Brazil

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Letter Two: of a series about Brazil and Chile, Feb 5 to Mar 25, 2015

Note: These letters are a form of Creative Nonfiction, but accurately coincide with real events. I have changed little excepting the personal names

 Monday Feb 16, 2015

This small town in Minas Gerais is 4 hr by car NW of Sao Paulo.  I  am spending the  next  ten days with Volunteers in Mission, a  Methodist  program, working on an asilo–a home for invalids and old people. It has been a long term project, now reaching a state of viability, with increasing support from town people, who at first were quite dubious; they doubted the project could be completed.   At first the Methodists worked, while locals, and politicians talked and watched; but now both are more active, as are average people in this rural town of less than 15,000.

This is my second trip to work on the asilo.  I was here before in 2008.  Methodists, consistent  with the views of founder John Wesley,  generally value doing over talking; good  acts over good words.( Politicians of the world please note.)  The VIM leader, Ted, is  from  silicon valley, compulsive and aggressive. Probably that’s essential there, and as a VIM leader. He constantly speaks of herding  cats; there are only six of us this time, three men and four women, all  hard working and dependable, rather un-cat like in that regard. There are no slackers, but Ted doesn’t seem to suspect that cats are more easily led than herded. So we quietly do what cats do. Example: After it becomes clear we will finish what we started, the cats began to  bypass our herder to repaint a dingy dining/TV area currently in use, and that will still be in use until the project actually opens; a place they spend 90 percent their days. The asilo director approves, and it is done, despite contrary rulings by Ted: ‘that’s enough… stop here’ and so forth. But the cats stray on, even  recruiting  a local volunteer and some residents of the asilo, who can be herded even less easily than Nortemericanos. And to his credit, our herder, who is wise and experienced, having led many similar missions, is unperturbed. He himself is an extraordinary cat.

Extraordinary is also the perfect word for people who leave their comfortable homes and and pay their own way to a remote part of the world in order to try doing  something that might be illusory or idealistic, but takes them to a world that is new and renewing, where there is much to be done. That is just one reason I like to go on VIM trips. My companions are a breed apart, one I admire and enjoy being around. One can, as has been so common over the last century, ridicule missionaries. But that is merely a  cheap and easy abuse, directed at those who are’t able to  aren’t there to respond..Of course there are self serving frauds among  all of us, including religious types, and those called missionaries. But I have traveled the world for more than 80 years one way or another, and my experience with missionaries is nearly universally positive. I may disapprove of religious institutions; I often do. But only very rarely do I disapprove of activist religious individuals. And this kind of VIM mission attracts the best amateur missionaries.

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The existing multipurpose area used for dining and TV.
Model of the asilo; the new structures are the three buildings on the left.
Covered walkway leading away from the new buildings.
multipurpose room before repainting.
Interview with local news media in 2008.


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Open air room is the site of  almost all activities.
Preparing and painting of an exterior wall.
Sanding must be done before primer and paint.
Interior hallway with doorways to resident rooms on the right.
Preparing for interior painting.


View of atypical  nearby town.
Surrounding countryside with coffee plantations.

After our work is complete, Carnaval begins. It lasts about four days, shorter and low key by comparison with the cities. It is less crowded than I remember last time, less beer, more friendly; maybe that’s because the country– indeed the world– is more limited than it was then. Everywhere government is unpopular,  corrupt, bungling, and  worse: powerless.  Brazil is no exception. Some things like this annual celebration endure in that hot humid  Summer, one reason nothing happens until well after dark.

Here is something i found by the road while looking at coffee plantings. It captures the feel of Carnaval, and samba competitions. My translation, of course, is amateur, but it is roughly accurate. ‘Block’ is akin to barrio, or sector:

Fuzue Block

We are arriving, rich folk

we are only beautiful people

toasting 2015

A toast to life itself

Founded in Alvarada’s garage

With Anisio Perez the theme’s fun

It’s Carnaval not UTI (?)

With peace and love in our hearts

with audacity and joy

And regard for the holy church; to the sound of my drums.

Come my love,Let’s do Aue Aue Aue; At Carnaval  and Block Fuze.

I’m watching while a samba school band practices for their competition.  Maybe 40 people. A leader starts to  conduct from the front, then moves around constantly into the band, urging them with arm gestures, and rhythmic jumping, shouting instructions, arms pumping up and down in rhythm for emphasis, blowing on a police whistle to signal certain changes or rhythms. Toward the rear are 10 or 15 boys; they beat small metal rimmed plates, making metallic sounds. Toward the front are three or four large drums of differing sizes. They sound a heavy, usually steady beat. There are a number of high pitched drums, some tall with  middle  pitch some small with a higher pitch. All this collection of instruments, and some i miss,  put forth complicated patterns of beating; often  changes are made in unison.  I could not figure it out; will have to go on line for more info!

It is Sabado and I go to the celebration. Two big schools compete, going slowly around the covered block by turns. Afterward are stage shows and professional bands for the rest of the night. The Samba parades are impressive, but I feel sorry for two performers in particular (reportedly women).Their school has chosen Disney theme and they are  completely clothed in heavy Mickey Mouse costumes, dancing with great energy ahead of their  samba school parade that takes at least 1/2 hour to circle the big old church square. And at  the end or their route they are not done. The drummers keep drumming, the people  keep dancing and prancing. The two Mouses  stand and gyrate for pictures. When I stand between them for my photo they radiate heat through their heavy mouse costumes. It is still quite  hot but they continue for another hour. Wow..

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Samba school and band moving around the main square.

At the moment someone, a male voice on loud speaker,  is going on about something… roving  groups of similarly costumed people come and go.  The samba band music seems a bit mindless at first. I’m reminded of a friend, a  protestant, who said at a Catholic funeral mass: SOO Repetitive!! Samba drumming can give you that impression. But it is quite complex and precise. Even so, it’s hard for me to guess why people find this collective celebration as significant as anything else in life,  like Futebol. Why it is samba so elemental to this culture. Maybe because it is a collective abandon. In a small town it involves everyone; even dogs come and go.  Lots of beer for kids, as well as caipirinhas whenever they can grab them  (rum and stuff …think, ‘rum and Coke’; the word implies rustic or hick); little kids running and jumping about; a sound stage… no, two.

The  VIP section fills with dancers; it’s a  central, raised area, where some important folk like to hang out. I think it costs about U$100 to get in but that includes plenty of booze. All around is  a milling crowd, mostly young, not all  in costume, dancing and talking and drinking. Lots of loud harsh male voices, flocks of teens. It continues til dawn of course.There are only two days when the samba schools compete. The rest are for music, alcohol,  prancing and dancing. . It is not a gaudy celebration here, more  a  family sort of thing; a barrio thing, where people from one area get together, make up some costumes, and dance along together in a sort of neighborhood solidarity that’s been developing for months.

Catholic  Mass on  Sunday is not particularly crowded. The religion was celebrated the night before, perhaps so people have the right to rest up during the day for the night to come.  I can’t understand much at mass– even though in many regards there are similarities with protestant Christian litany. As usual, I can read almost everything, speak passably, though people don’t find  my accent easy; but as to understanding average fast speech,  and especially teen talk, almost nada.  The church is fairly full. I want to take a little bit of video but am shushed immediately by my friends, and properly so I suppose; but one admirable thing about Catholics, it seems to me, is that it is very tolerant of real people’s behavior; much that would not be allowed in organized protestant churches is acceptable, even welcome.

We  don’t go to carnaval that night. To finish the asilo work is demanding– and to recover from just  one evening takes all the next  afternoon, at least for me, just  sitting  around, napping and eating.

Last evening you may be surprised to know we ate  Pizza; like many US imports that are re-exported, it is big in Brazil.  The Pizzeria da Roca isn’t pronounced the way one might think; the c is  cedula  c with a tail, an ‘s’; and the R is like our H. It means small country hut and sounds like ‘Hosa’.   It was an interesting place… a couple of local kids went to Italy, studied pizzology, and came back, bought a piece of land about 8 km out of town with nothing commercial  around. They created a little park with  rustic walkways meandering  through the woods, and opened up their restaurant. It is regularly packed on weekends; especially with well off folk here. Perhaps  they prefer to congregate in a more remote place. This  Sunday night it is packed by 7 PM!

The next day, Monday, or segunda feira, I decide to wash clothes and everyone follows.  It’s about time. As  I hang out my rags on the clothesline the clouds thicken. A huge black cumulus rises in the East  (Which is not E but L here– for Leste; neither is West W… it is O for Oeste. So the compass points are NSLO). Raucous parrots, (maritakas) hide in their hollows as a sudden wind comes up, mourning doves cease crying, and little hoppers flee… to where?  And of course all this is my fault for hanging out clothes which brought on the storm.  Worse, the wind that comes in ahead of the rain dries  my things so I take them in quickly… not so lucky are those who wash and hung out their clothes after I do.  Maybe that  rain washes off the old-fashioned lye soap better for them.

The cathedral and plaza, center of the carnaval celebration.
Home rented by VIM group.

Nana, has again loaned me her wi -fi connection; she is in her kitchen, on her own computer, copying verses from the bible in HUGE text. It looks like she’s almost finished. I don’t want to abuse her by writing too long, and stop. She loves to talk, is quite alert, and  lonely at times. It is afternoon, and  the clash of a practicing band and some samba drummers invades  Nana’s house and its windows rattle to different resonances. It is muggy and warm. This evening the parades, will return with the drumming corps marching behind or among costumed samba dancers, schools in matching colors and designs, among people just coming and going independently. The celebration will be loosely guarded by … generally black… guards.

We talk of everything and nothing. Once she says: “A mea mae estaba en Cadeira de Roda por seis anos.” (My mother was in a wheelchair for six years) but I didn’t understand. . Roda of is pronounced Hoda.  After a time she made clear it means  Wheel Chair… I had forgotten that cadiera is chair.. I kept thinking of back or hip as in Spanish cadera. So I broke out my hearing aids to hear the foreign sounds better. She’s somewhat hard of hearing too, so I passed her one. We spoke comfortably each one-eared.  Nana had tried some hearing aids before but my COSTCOs seemed  much better… so she plans to get a  pair. We talked, for hours, almost   understanding one another!

The country house where we stay at night is  at least an air mile from the cathedral on the hill, the site of Carnaval. Yet sometimes at night our  windows rattle with the drum beats.  Our rental is quite impressive as decayed luxury:  a large one story house with a long veranda, a four car garage, a private well and leach field, large grounds, a pool, a lighted tennis court, and a few square miles of land for cattle grazing. I suspect it is empty most of the year,  but all is cleaned up to make it attractive for rental during Carnaval.  Tomorrow  it will be time for me to go to São Paulo Sao to meet my daughter who is a very skilled barrista and coffee roaster; she speaks four languages–Spanish, French, Portuguese and English– ideal for scoping out coffee growers. She’s in  Guatemala now, but I will meet her there tomorrow, and later we go to Chile to meet my wife and family.

My VIM colleagues are back, anxious to go home to bed, and they are not a  patient bunch; so, Ciao.!