In the state of Minas Gerais, just a few hours away from Belo Horizonte, lies the old colonial capital of Ouro Preto.
Founded in the 17th century after the discovery of gold, Ouro Preto grew exponentially as people were drawn to the city with the promise of new riches.
Those stories of wealth were not over exaggerated either – at its peak, it’s estimated that two thirds of all the world’s gold in circulation at the time had once originated from this city – leading to Brazil’s literal golden age!
Once extracted, the gold was transported from Ouro Preto to the coastal cities of Rio de Janeiro and Paraty along the “Caminho do Ouro”.
Officially 800 tons of gold was exported out of the country. Unofficially, it could have been 3 or 4 times more… after all, any gold which was logged publicly in the records also had to be taxed and, if there’s anything the rich know how to do well, even back then, it’s avoid taxes.
With the great influx of wealth into Ouro Preto, the construction of many beautiful churches in the city were commissioned – one of which, the Basilica of Nossa Senhora do Pilar is decorated with over 1000 kg of gold and 500 kg of silver.
However, the story of Ouro Preto has a dark side as well.
In the period that the gold rush took place, slavery was commonplace. As the conditions in the mines were so horrible, it was seen as necessary to use slaves for this kind of work and, as more gold was found, so to increased the demand for these slaves, triggering a vicious cycle.
Even worse, as adults were too large to fit through the small tunnels and crevices of the mines, children were often used to do the work instead.
Whilst visiting one of these mines, our guide explained that the children were seen expendable in the eyes of their owners – and those that eventually grew too large to fit inside the small passages, were not longer useful and were left to die. Most of the children never lived past the age of 12.
After a week in Ouro Preto, I travelled back to Belo Horizonte.
Belo Horizonte “BH”, overtook Ouro Preto as the capital of Minas Gerais in 1897. Even though it is a huge city with over two and half million people, there is a funny expression in the city that BH is an egg – meaning that it’s a small place – one where everybody is in some way connected through a friend or relative.
For me, Minas Gerais is like Brazil’s own version of Yorkshire. In the UK, Yorkshire has some of the best farmland in the country and, all around the UK, you can buy Yorkshire puddings, Yorkshire sausages, Yorkshire cheeses – it’s simply known for having good quality food. In the same way, there are restaurants all around Brazil where you can buy Mineiro food (food from Minas Gerais). The entire state is full of farmland and it’s widely accepted that it’s the state with quality authentic food – whether it’s cheese, doce de leite or pao de queijo.
Similarly, like how people in Yorkshire have their own accent and expressions; such as nowt for no, aye for yes, ta for thanks and tarra for goodbye – the people from Minas Gerais have their own sayings which aren’t used in any other part of the country. For one, they call anything and everything a train (a trem), whether it’s a bottle of water, a microwave or a tree – even a plane can be a train in Minas Gerais!
One of the highlights of Belo Horizonte is, without a doubt, the Inhotim Museum.
Built in 2004 by Bernardo Paz, as part of a private collection, the museum was only opened to the public in 2008.
Spread over a massive 5,000 acres, the museum feels like the owner tried to recreate the garden of Eden. It has over 4000 species of plants, indoors and outdoors displays, and over a dozen uniquely shaped galleries from artists all around the world.
It’s honestly so big that we actually needed a golf cart to travel round from one exhibit to the next.
The name ‘Inhotim’ is also strange in that it’s not Portuguese or from a native indigenous language.. it’s kind of made up. The story goes that a British engineer used to own the land before it was purchased by the owner of the museum. This original landowner went by the name of Mr Tim in English – but, as the locals weren’t used to speaking English, they called Mr Tim, ‘Senhor Tim’ which later turned to ‘Nhô Tim’ and then Inhotim. I think the new owner found this funny and decided to keep the name for this reason.
Shortly after this trip, I then went to the beach town Itacaré to spend Christmas and New Years. This was only a short trip and, after having lockdown in the UK in March – which lasted for over 100 days – and also working continuously through this year without any breaks or holidays, it was nice to be able to have a chance to pause before returning back to work a few weeks later.
I have now been back in Florianópolis since September. As I was living here before Covid happened, I’ve had a chance to see how things have changed in the city from before the pandemic through to today. Honestly, if I were to compare my experience in the UK to what I’ve seen here (in the south of the country anyway), the people here seem to take the restrictions more seriously than what I experienced in London.
Whilst beaches and natural trails are more relaxed… on the streets, nearly everybody wears a mask – temperature checks are mandatory when going into supermarkets and you would not be allowed to even enter a building if you don’t have one.
Hopefully this trend will continue and 2021 will be a better year with the vaccine rollout going well.