The night before our trip, I was talking with Alexandre about the details of the weekend at the ranch that his friend recommended. I found out that the ranch was actually in Minas Gerias proper, and not still in Sao Paulo state. This made me very happy for two reasons, the primary being linguistic: everyone I have met from the state of Minas Gerias has been significantly easier to understand, largely because the Minas Gerias dialect has a sound system roughly equal to that of Western American English (apart from the open ɔ and nasalized vowels, the banes of my existence). It's like hearing Spanish spoken by my mother. “Por que?”, which is often pronounced “poh-key” or ([poh-ki]) in the big cities, is pronounced as “per kay” (or [pɹ-kei]) in Minas Gerias. The vocalic American approximant [ɹ]s run rampant. Fabulous. The second reason is because Minas Gerias is a very historically rich state, with a colonial culture almost parallel to the United States south. It was one of the first places inhabited by the Portuguese, and it's famous for its giant plantations and romanticized conquest of nature. So many of the telenovelas here are set in Minas Gerias in the 1800s. It's like reading Robert Penn Warren books, with all the beautiful dresses and forbidden cross-class relationships, except on TV and in Portuguese. And, it's famous for its cheese.
As we were preparing to leave, Alexandre asked, “how much money are you bringing?” I told him, and said, “and I also have my credit card, in case we have any problems.” He laughed. “Oh, Da,” he said, applying the Portuguese L-R CV nicknaming system to my name. “I think you don't have an idea of where are we going.” (Those pesky embedded questions!) “They aren't going to take Visa.”
I humphed. “Well, they have a website.” I really hate moments that reveal my American-ness.
“You'll see,” was all he said.
Early in the afternoon, we started our drive east across Sao Paulo state. It was a beautiful day, with perfect windows-down driving weather. The majority of our views consisted of vast rolling hills of sugar cane, miles and miles (or should I say kilometers and kilometers?) of cane, as far as the eye could see. (I sometimes wonder if parts of the American south look like this, since everything I read about sugar cane says that America is the second-largest producer after Brazil. But where is it?) I also think I saw almost every stage of the sugar cane --> alcohol process, from the seeding, to the sprouting, to the harvesting (including the encampments of poor farm laborers, as well as the encampments of the protesters of the treatment of the poor farm laborers), to the transport in giant trucks, to the processing plants, to the gas stations, to the controversial burning of the fields to start again. It is very apparent just how much this process was the Brazilian government's pet project.
One fascinating thing about the Brazilian landscape is that it combines so many types of vegetation the same area. There are patches that are at once Northern California greenland and lush Amazon rainforest. Everything grows here.
Our drive took longer than expected—6 hours became 9 hours-- mostly because of the many instances of being stuck behind slow, old trucks on single-lane highways. I am very pleased to report that Alexandre is a refined and mature driver, not the typical oaf of a man to tries to show the girth of his loins by insisting upon his ability to pass said trucks by driving into oncoming traffic. His patience kept us safe, and also allowed me to take pictures of the funny things written on the backs of the trucks.
Even with all of its transportation flaws, one valuable thing about the California highway system is its virtual inability to cause you to get lost. Yes, I know it's not impossible to get lost by using California freeways (right, Mom? ;) but imagine how much more often if would happen if you didn't have, for example, a numbered highway system, or signs that show that you are still, in fact, on these highways, or clearly demarcated off-ramps and on-ramps (including such valuable words as “north,” “south,” “east,” and “west”), and no godforsaken rotundas. Even if we are ashamed of other things, we Americans can take pride in our efficiency and logistical abilities. And our high speed limits. :oD
After crossing into Minas Gerias, we stopped in the biggest city (and one of the only cities) in the three hours between the state border and the ranch-- a place called Piumhi, pop. in the low thousands. Alexandre very Brazilian-ly and not impolitely stopped people on the streets to ask for directions and recommendations for dinner. Two men told us about a little open-air restaurant close to the road we needed for our next highway, so we ate there. I had a hamburger with corn on it (???) and understood everything the waiter said. I love Minas Gerias.
As we got closer to the town that the ranch is in, we encountered only small villages and dirt roads. Alexandre, who by this time was tired of driving and being lost, stopped people at every turn to ask people for the directions again. He stopped a cute evangelical teenager with braces and a bible who was very embarrassed to be talking to such a cute boy, managing to give us directions though all out-of-breath and giggly. :o) We finally found the road (stony path?) we needed to get to the ranch. (Perhaps a better translation is a related word: hacienda.) We drove... and drove... and drove. For about 30 minutes. We saw lots of homemade wooden signs for other little fazenda-pousadas (a farm/inn, the type of place we were going to), but none for the one we needed. We also didn't see any sign of lights enough to suggest the presence of a town. We started to doubt the 6 or so people we had asked. We started to get kinda scared. We made our own version of The Blair Witch Project, except in PortuSpanglish. You can maybe watch it here.
When the doubt overcame us, we decided to turn around and stop at one of the other ranches to ask for directions. We were clearly at some family's house, and not at a public business. The people in the house were logically wary of us, and didn't answer the door. Alexandre started to panic a little at the possibility of guns or dogs. Luckily, a woman who was probably a maid came out of her quarters to assist us. (The old slave culture of Minas Gerias is still alive here, in many aspects.) She told us not to worry, that we were, in fact, going in the right direction, and that we were just a couple of kilometers away. Paranoia is a strong emotion, as it turns out.
We made it to the village at the base of the ranch (just wild dogs, sand, shacks, and a giant church), went through yet another process of u-turns and direction-asking, and finally found the sign for the road that led to the hotel section of the fazenda. The owner, Senhor Soares, was outside waiting for us. As it turns out, we were the only guests that night, and we were a bit later than expected. But of course, he was patient and gracious, offering us food, milk and coffee. We thanked him and declined all of it. We were happy to be out of the car and somewhere with electric lighting, and we were eager to take showers and crawl into bed. So Senhor Soares gave us our key and a short run-down of the options for Saturday (breakfast before 9, etc.). At this point, we couldn't see more than a few feet in front of us, but we could hear water everywhere around the property. The night was cold, but we were in for a beautiful morning.
Check out Part II here.