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.
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Minas Gerais Road Trip - Part 4 (Uberlândia)
I confess that, so far, there hasn't been much "on the road" with respect to this Minas Gerais "road trip". However, after three days in Belo Horizonte, Luiz and I hopped a plane to Uberlândia a city in the southwestern tip of Minas Gerais (had we actually traveled by "road", it would have involved a nine-hour journey) that is usually excluded from most travel guides.
Luiz had first arrived in Uberlândia in 1979, at the age of 16, with one desire: to dance. With this goal in mind, he made his way to the Forma dance academy owned and operated by Dona "Betinha". Back then, two dance academies dominated the city's dance and social scene: Forma, operated by Betinha, and Esquema, which was operated by her arch rival Elisete. Traditional upper class families – whose money came from cows and coffee – paid small fortunes to have their well-bred daughters learn classical ballet as well as modern "jazz" steps at these academies. The eagerly awaited presentations held at the end of each year were the highlight of Uberlândia's social and arts calendar.
For reasons of propriety and prejudice only girls studied dance. On one hand, it would have been considered incredibly risqué to have males and females dancing together cheek-to-cheek (or thigh to thigh) in tight, form-fitting leotards. On the other hand, any boy brave enough to display an interest in dance was immediately and forever branded a "boiola" (slang for "fairy").
Betinha broke with convention not only by being the first to accept male dancers, but by being the first to accept a black male dancer: Luiz. Back in the '70s, male dancers were such a scarcity that academies actually offered them sizeable "scholarships" to enroll and partner up with the female students (most of whom dreamed more of landing husbands than embarking on professional careers). Meanwhile, while it was expected that blacks dance samba, the notion of a black male dancer studying classical and modern dance was somewhat revolutionary, especially outside of the major cities. Betinha remembers Luiz showing up at Forma and declaring his desire to dance with such ferocity that she awarded him a scholarship on the spot (his immediate response was when would he get his toe shoes - he was crushed to learn that only girls wore them).
Thirty years later, Luiz and I met with Betinha (now in her '70s) on a bright blue day that grew increasingly cold as the sun went down. Unlike the coast, the air in Minas is dry and the temperature varies considerably between high noon and sundown. To "set the scene," Betinha drove us around Uberlândia to show off cultural highlights such as the Casa da Cultura, a sumptuous private mansion, painted a pineapple yellow, that was built in the 1920s and now houses a cultural center. Another stop was at the Oficina Cultural, a palatial turn-of-the-century complex that originally sheltered the city's electric company offices and residence, but which today features a dance studio, cinematheque, and art gallery.
Both landmark buildings are housed in Uberlândia's oldest (150-year) historic bairro of Fundinho, an appealing neigbhorhood of old houses, churches, and placid tree-shaded praças (squares). Sprinkled amidst these vestiges, I was surprised to discover a scattering of chic Japanese restaurants, antique stores, and designer clothing and housewares boutiques that seemed much more redolent of Rio or São Paulo than this small town located at the gateway to Brazil's wild Central-West region.
But as I was to learn, Uberlândia – like much of the surrounding region – is booming. In fact, the boom is so palpable that you can feel it vibrating in the air. Traveling around the rapidly sprawling city, you see soaring buildings springing to life and thoroughfares jammed with a new phenomenon: traffic. The city's federal university is one of the most important in the country and has brought a vibrant edge to what was formerly a cow town, and is now a hot agro-commerical center, whose strategic location – at equal distance from Belo Horizonte, São Paulo, and Brasília – has made it an important crossroads between Brazil's coastal cities and its vast hinterland (more notoriously, it's also a crucial link in the drug trafficking chain that leads from neighboring Bolivia to the Atlantic and beyond).
The region surrounding Uberlândia is a vast and fertile plain covered (less and less) with native Cerrado vegetation and (increasingly) with cash crops such as coffee, soy, and, most recently, sugar cane (much of which goes to make ethanol). Unofficially, but ubiquitiously, the area (roughly the size of Portugal) is known as the Triângulo Mineiro (Minas Triangle) due to its shape of its borders: the state lines of São Paulo, to the south, Goías , to the north, and (forming the triangle's tip) the juncture of the Parnaíba and Grande rivers. Triângulo identity, not to mention economic clout, is strong enough to have spawned a separatist movement that has waxed and waned with the years. Its proponents seek nothing less than the Triângulo's secession from the rest of Minas Gerais. (And what, we mused, would the residents of this new state be called: Triângulinos? Triângulistas? Triânguleiros?)
During our interview with Betinha – which took place in Forma's rehearsal room (the rest of the academy has been converted into a pilates and massage studio) – she revealed herself to be a fervent separatist. In fact, so determined was Betinha to put the Triângulo on the map in terms of dance that she was moved to team up with her historic rival Elisete. In the early '80s, the two of them founded the Festival de Dança do Triângulo, which today is one of the most important dance events in the country.
Although I wouldn't recommend going out of your way to visit Uberlândia, I've visited few places in Brazil that have felt so full of promise and dynamism, while managing to retain the simple flavor and slow-paced charm of a typical Brazilian town of the interior. Unlike Belo Horizonte and the cidades históricas of central Minas that are hemmed in by steep mountains and ooze typical Mineiro culture, Uberlândia, with its vast expanses and endless horizons, feels much more like a town in the Central-Western state of Goías.
Perhaps the most typical "Mineiro" experience we had was visiting the fantastic Mercado Municipal , built in the 1940s, with its beautifully organized stalls displaying row upon row of artfully assembled regional cachaças, cheeses, pimentas, and multi-colored jars doces featuring preserved fruits. Aside from kiosks and bars serving homecooked meals, there was a sprawling outdoor bar where we drank beer after icy beer and feasted on bite-sized chunks of jacaré (cayman) fried in a delicate batter. Initially, we thought that our makeshift dinner hailed from the nearby Pantanal, where these 2-to-2.5 meter long reptiles are a dime a dozen (the actual population – currently estimated at over 10 million reptiles – is the largest single crocodilian population on earth). Instead, it turned out that our jacaré (the meat is similar in color and texture to chicken) was from none other than our next and last stop on our Minas road trip: Luiz's home town of Araguari.