OURO PRETO

No, it was not an emergency landing. It was a surprising landing.

We were on our way to Ouro Preto via Belo Horizonte to witness the Easter celebrations.

Located in Minas Gerais (General Mines) region of Brazil, Ouro Preto draws thousands of people every year during Holy Week. While some of them come to participate in the religious festivities, the others are content with just being spectators. The Eldorado of Brazil in the 17th and the 18th centuries, Minas Gerais is strikingly different from its neighbor, the state of Rio de Janeiro. The first thing that you notice from the plane is the color of dirt. It is red in Minas. After you land, you will realize that the number of barely clad people has dropped by a factor of 1000 compared to Rio.

The place that we (I and my husband) saw from the sky, as the plane started descending into the valley, did not look like a city of 2.5 million, Belo Horizonte.

It looked more like a village with a tiny airport. I like airports like that. They are more personal.

Big airports consume arriving passengers into one gigantic tunnel and then spit them out at the “Arrival” gate.

Small airports are quiet and empty. You can be off the plane and in your family’s arms in 10 minutes after the landing. There are other attributes of small airport, like stray dogs running around the airport building, or chickens picking through trash on the ground.

I am not sure why but I had some chicken phobia as we landed in the village. I was afraid that new passengers will start boarding the plane with chickens, and the unsupervised chickens will start running around the plane.

To triple check if we were on the right plane, we pulled the sleeve of a flight attendant and asked if the plane was really going to Belo Horizonte. She asked not to worry and gave us some extra candies. I could imagine what was running through her head. But we just wanted to triple check.

Upon our arrival in Belo Horizonte we got ourselves into the negotiation process with the taxi mafia. Amazing how the ability/or disability/or some ability (in our case) to speak the local language in conjunction with blue jeans and shoes that don’t look like beloved by Brazilians Havaianas (aka flip-flops) can double the price of a taxi ride.

After the tiresome and fruitless experience of dealing with the local taxi drivers, we found ourselves at a huge bus station at the center of Belo Horizonte.

 

Brazil travels by buses. They are comfortable, affordable and run on schedule. There is one negative, however. Right before the holiday, the line to the ticket-office is immense.

No, we didn’t get to ride the bus. Instead, we found a nice taxi driver, at the bus station. They are close to extinction, but they exist, if you keep looking. He not only didn’t rip us off, he introduced us to the best corn empadas in the world at a roadside café on the way to Ouro Preto.

Ouro Preto

On the day of our trip, Thursday of the Holy Week, Ouro Preto was already bustling with tourists climbing up and down the cobblestoned hills like ants in search of deals on gems, places to eat and drink and souvenirs.

Founded in 1711 and originally known as Vila Rica (Rich Town), Ouro Preto managed to preserve its character without becoming a dusty museum-like town. The presence of a young crowd attending colleges brings a lively vibe to the beautiful setting.

The city wouldn’t be there, if not for gold and gems that the area had in abundance. Imperial topaz (Ouro Preto has been the world’s major source of this gem), tourmaline, amethyst, aquamarine and many other types of gems are sold all over the place.

Jewelry shops are as common as Starbucks cafes in a big American city. They are everywhere. Unless you are going for a high quality gem, the process of buying comes down to negotiating the size of the pile of gems rather than discussing the price per carat.

There was a time when moving around the town freely presented a small problem. Not that you can go wherever you want nowadays. There is a chance that you will encounter some police activity that you don’t want any part of. The father from the center and the crowd, the sketchier gets the area, and it’s not uncommon to see cops with guns frisking a crowd of young people for drugs and weapons. Not exactly your average vacation experience but we saw it twice in four days.

Back in the day, what you were used to determine where you could walk. If you were a miner, then you stayed around the parish of Antônio Dias. If you were one of the Portuguese senhores, you lived close to the parish of Nossa Senhora do Pilar. The rivalry was so strong that the direction of the Easter procession would alternate every year to avoid conflicts.

As the money was pouring in, rich families started building more churches trying to outdo each other. Matriz Nossa Senhora do PIlar is considered the second most-opulent church in Brazil with its 434 kg of gold and silver used for decoration. Not all churches, however, were built by those with unlimited resources. There were also churches built by slaves for slaves.

There is really no lack of churches in Ouro Preto. Wherever you look, there is one or two of them within your sight.

Holy Week celebrations have a long history in Ouro Preto. Some of them, like Easter processions, have been held for 300 year now, while others, like painting streets with sawdust were forgotten and then revived not too long ago.

Good Friday’s big event is the passion play that attracts hundreds of people. A big stage is built in front of the church of Nossa Senhora de Rosario. People start filling up the square in front of the church long in advance. This year even the rain wasn’t an obstacle. It magically stopped right when the play started.

Nossa Senhora do Rosario during the passion play

Creating carpets with sawdust is a Holy Saturday night activity for the whole town. If you spend a day or two in Ouro Preto, you will notice that your barista from the coffee shop and that artist working on the carpet outside her coffee shop is the same person.

Designs of carpets are usually simple (there are exceptions!), mostly flowers and geometric patters, but what impresses is the joint effort to decorate all 3.5 kilometers of the streets for the Easter procession on early Sunday morning. The carpet creation starts after dark, around 8 p.m. Street lights and the Moon are your light sources.

Thirsty students

Street musicians, some of them of a rather doubtful quality, walk up and down the streets and “entertain” those who are engaged in the street decorating process.

Something is missing here… Audience?? Maybe, it is hiding in the sacks?

The population of Ouro Preto on Easter Sunday consists of men, women, boys and angels of 0-18 years of age.  On early Sunday morning beautifully dressed girls come from different parts of Ouro Preto, some alone, some with parents to the church that organizes the procession.

This year the Easter procession started at Matriz de Nossa Senhora de Pilar around 9 p.m. in the morning. With the angels leading the group it walked through the decorated with sawdust hills of Ouro Preto.

 

It was a special day with the church bells ringing, people opening shutters in order to take in some holiday atmosphere and biblical characters walking through narrow streets of the 300-year old city.

The celebrations ended surprisingly fast on Sunday afternoon. The procession was still walking through town when groups of street sweepers started cleaning up the place and by late afternoon you couldn’t tell that the city had just experienced one of the biggest celebrations of the year.