I don’t always carry a camera with me when I was traveling – sometimes it prevents you from really seeing what’s in front of you, because you’re only looking at the photo. But I spent three months in Brazil, with a camera, and I took a million pictures of flowers. I don’t really consider myself a ‘flower person’ but the wild flowers in central Brazil were truly incredible. I’ve chosen some of the best ones.
It wasn’t an easy country to travel in, because the culture is very violent – mainly thanks to its history of occupation by the Portuguese, who were probably the most brutal colonisers in the world. That deeply ingrained way of thinking doesn’t change for many generations. But I met some great Brazilians.
A Sticky Predicament
I’d heard that Brazilian roads are bad, but no one actually used the words nightmarish, or horrendous, or terrifying, so I assumed they were just – bad. I’d been on bad roads, that was do-able. I also assumed that the roads marked on the map as thick red lines would be better than the thinner red lines. I soon found out that the size of the line had no bearing on how many potholes there were, or how deep the potholes were. The thick red lines had more traffic, and specifically more trucks, which generally meant the potholes were really deep. In Brazil, no matter what the traffic rules might be in writing, the law is: if I’m bigger than you, get out of the damn way. There isn’t much of a concept that traffic coming one way is on one side of the road, and traffic coming the other way is on the other side; it’s more like everyone just zigzags around the road trying to avoid the holes. I was willing – or should I say happy – to get out of the way of the trucks when I could, but at times the road was so strewn with potholes, that it was hard to get out of the way quickly enough. They weren’t just regular potholes, some of them were bottomless pits. I saw more than one car that had been thrown off the road as a result of hitting one at speed. I quite often stopped and reversed when I came to a whole slew of them littered over the highway. The locals drove off the tarred road onto the dirt at the side, for long stretches. It was safer.
There was no way of telling what the road was like until I was on it. I did drive one or two roads that had been recently tarred, with not a pothole to be seen for miles. The truck drivers still hogged the middle of the road – I guess they were just used to it. And I was still nervous that I might come upon a stretch of potholes without any warning, which certainly did happen.
Generally speaking, signposts in Brazil don’t exist – if you don’t already know your way, then you develop your psychic abilities very quickly, get lost a lot and ask the way often. The worst hazard was the roadworks, where guesswork might be fatal. Brazilians are renowned for taking a long time to get things done. Frequently the roadworks had obviously been going on for so long that the road users had just absorbed them; they were part of what that road was like, they weren’t a temporary alteration. So people just knew that you went this side of that red cone when you wanted to get to Sao Roque, and that side when you wanted to get to Belo Horizonte. They knew that these two lanes were for traffic in both directions. They knew that this piece of the road dead-ended abruptly. They knew which way cars would be coming between this line of cones. I didn’t.
In the end I got quite blasé about the driving conditions. I couldn’t afford to drive at the slow speed that would have made it a slightly safer experience, because I would never have got anywhere, and the state of tension that driving produced would have been more protracted. So I drove at medium to high speed when I thought it might be OK, and consequently got it over with faster. Since the worst accidents I saw – cars completely squashed or sheered in half by trucks – were near cities, where there were often roadworks, I stayed away from cities as much as possible. When I did have to negotiate roadworks, I prayed. I often prayed. I sang and prayed, and showered gratitude upon my guardian angels as I drove. In two months I did 3,000 dollars worth of damage to two of my four rental cars – chipped windshields, broken mountings, murdered shock absorbers, dents and scratches – but I had no accidents.
After three weeks of driving around the state of Minas Gerais, I thought I had seen the worst of the roads. I was on my way to the town of Sao Roque de Minas, near the National Park of Serra da Canastra. Taking a tarred road would have involved driving an extra two hundred kilometers, without any guarantee that it would be an easier drive. So I took a dirt road, not knowing that there had been ten inches of rain in the previous week.
Early on, I came to a T-junction, with no signpost, of course, so I stopped to ponder my options. A man drove by in a pickup, and I waved him down. My Portuguese is pretty poor, but he told me which way to go, and I gathered from what he was saying that there was a very tricky spot ahead, where I should stay to one side.
Sure enough, I came over a small rise, and there was a sea of mud ahead of me. It was flat though, and consequently I didn’t take it very seriously, and didn’t gun it quite as much as I should have. Five yards from the end, my little VW slowed down and slid sideways, the wheels spinning ineffectively.
I got out to survey the problem. Many times I have dug my way out of mud, but here there was nothing to dig: the surface of the mud was so slick that the wheels were just spinning on top of it. I decided that I needed to wait for someone to push. Bemoaning the fact that I could not push and drive at the same time, I pulled out my little stove and made a cup of tea while I waited for the necessary ‘someone’ to arrive. Since I’m Scottish, tea always calms me down when I’m distressed. There didn’t seem any real reason to worry – this was an agricultural area, and I could see a tractor and house in the near distance. Help was not far away if it didn’t soon transpire right here. My principal concern was that this mud might recur further along the road. Perhaps the sensible thing would be to turn round (when help arrived), and take the tarred road. But how could I know?
As I sat on the verge drinking my tea, a car appeared at the other end of the mud. There was no way the driver could be sure of getting around my car, so I assumed he (since I was in rural Brazil it was safe to assume the driver was male) would stop there and come walking over to check out the situation. I was wrong. After a brief pause he drove on, slipping and sliding to and fro but moving steadily forward. My car was right in his path. I held my breath as he closed in, anticipating that agonizing screech of metal scraping on metal. Surely he would have to stop. No. Somehow he managed to get by, inches between the two vehicles. He reached the end of the mud and picked up speed, soon disappearing round a corner.
I stared after him in annoyed disbelief. How could he fail to help? Did he think I had stopped here for fun? Damn Brazilians, they are so like that, either very helpful or completely callous. Then I thought, if he can do it, so can I. The tires were completely covered in a thick layer of mud, which I removed with a screwdriver. I started up the car, and gunned it. She picked up a little traction. We inched forward. A huge flock of cackling green parrots flew overhead. The car got a grip. We shot off again, onto the hardpack.
With this success under my belt, I certainly wasn’t turning back. I drove on a few miles. At the next bad spot, on a hill, where another car was stuck, without any sign of its owner in the vicinity, my little vehicle made it almost all the way up until she slowed down and stalled. The thick red mud was as slick as any I had ever come across, and I slid onto my butt several times when I got out of the car. Taking my shoes off enabled me to get a better grip with my toes. Since the mud clung to everything it touched, I was already covered with mud from head to toe, and a little more on my feet made no odds. I could see that the tires would have a grip a little further over to the left. I dug a pathway for the car, with my hands, since I had no shovel, and we managed to inch sideways. Once again her tires grabbed, like they were meant to, and we reached the top. Grinning, I patted the dash. Good for you girl, you can do it.
But the terrain was getting hillier. As I slid down one steep hill, narrowly avoiding the huge troughs that had been created by a much bigger vehicle than me. This puts paid to any chance I had of returning this way, I’d never get back up this hill.
The grass in the fields beside the road was very green and lush; the black and white milking cows were quite presentable, certainly fatter than any I had seen in Brazil so far. I noticed splashes of milk spilt on the road in a couple of places where I stopped. It must be hell getting the milk to town when it rains like this, but if they can get in and out, so can I. Then I looked at my little rental car, and wasn’t so sure. A pickup passed me going the other way, which was reassuring, although I reminded myself that it was a four wheel drive, with much higher clearance than me. Still, some of these small cars have very good traction, and we’ve done very well so far.
I slid down a particularly steep hill to a bridge over a fast flowing muddy river, where a big truck was parked, or stuck, at the side of the road. The driver standing beside it waved me down for a brief conversation. I figured out he was asking me if I had come all the way from the last town. When I said yes, he looked impressed. I asked if this was the road to Sao Roque de Minas, and he gave me the thumbs up. I carried on, negotiating two more tricky uphills, by patrolling them first on foot to see which side of the road looked easiest, and then taking them as fast as I could. The downhills were terrifying since I felt like I had no control, and, indeed, I probably didn’t, since the car would simply slide until she hit a big ridge of mud that stopped her. Finally I got stuck on an uphill where the existing ruts were so slimy and deep, that my little car was saddled on her belly. I considered going to a farm nearby for a shovel to dig myself a pathway, but even if I did manage to dig myself out, how many more hills were like this? I reckoned I had at least another ten kilometers to go.
Since it was only three thirty in the afternoon, there was a good chance that someone would come by, although I had seen no vehicles going this direction so far. I made another cup of tea, attempting to reassure myself as I waited: I had everything I needed in the car; this wasn’t a bad place to spend the night, with beautiful green folded hills and ridges all around. I constantly imagined I heard vehicles, which kept me on edge, though I probably wouldn’t have had much luck relaxing anyway; my brain was too busy going over possible solutions to my predicament. An hour or so passed before I heard a vehicle that really was coming my way.
It turned out to be a truck with chains on its tires, towing another truck, which was swinging all over the slick surface. The little convoy inched up towards me at about two miles an hour, engines roaring. I stood on tenterhooks by the side of the road, not sure whether to worry most about the possibility that they would not help, or the likelihood that the second vehicle, which appeared to be quite out of control, would smash sideways into my car. I prayed busily, promising that I would never again risk a road like this, almost closing my eyes to avoid seeing the inevitable, and then the driver somehow managed to swing the other way at exactly the right moment. I waved at the driver of the first vehicle, who nodded and waved in return, so I knew he was going to come back for me when he could stop. He’s one of the helpful Brazilians, I am so lucky.
I walked up to meet them at the top of the hill, where they stopped to unhook the towed vehicle, which then set off on its own, leaving the one with chains. In Brazil people are always traveling in the beds of trucks, and a whole gang of women, kids and a couple of guys were standing up in the back of this one, laughing and joking. They eyed me up with puzzled expressions, trying unsuccessfully to pigeonhole this very dirty gray-haired person with tattoos and no shoes, who was traveling alone, something very rare in Brazil. I rattled off a few sentences in my bad Portuguese, but what I needed was obvious. The driver, a small man with a sweet smile, backed down to my car, and one of his (male) passengers tied the rope underneath. I started her up and off we went, no problem. At the top, we undid the rope and I offered him money along with profuse thanks, but he pointed ahead, saying, “Hasta Sao Roque,” which I took to mean we hadn’t reached safety yet, and he wasn’t going to abandon me. I didn’t try to remonstrate.
We set off again. I slid down a hill behind him, and put my foot on the accelerator to make the corresponding uphill, but didn’t manage it. He backed down again to tow me, and from then on, he kept me in tow. On one hill, even he started losing traction, and as his chained tires spun, they flung up mud, spattering my windshield. I winced at that clicking sound that small stones make when they hit glass. At the top of the hill, we had to stop and clear a space on my windshield for me to see through. In this way we drove about five kilometers, until the road flattened out a little, and ceased to be so deeply rutted. I was greatly relieved not to be towed any more, since the rope was short, which made the possibility of sliding into the truck in front a very realistic fear.
I followed him, at a safe distance, to a small gas station which was clearly the edge of the town. All his passengers dismounted here to go their own way. Again, I tried to pay him, but he shook his head and asked me if I wanted to go to a hotel. Then he took me to a posada round the corner. Two big jeeps with huge tires were parked outside. He pointed at them and then at me with a laugh, clearly saying, this is what you need. I agreed heartily. He still refused my money, which was a surprise. Brazilians are a strange mixture: some see foreign travelers only as a useful source of cash; others, who have met very few foreigners, see them as weird oddities, not quite human; and yet others, like my rescuer, want to help them. Perhaps it was my obvious plight that made him feel so generous, but the fact that he didn’t use it as an excuse to demand money set him apart from many of his countrymen.
He left me in the care of a shorthaired older woman with a sweet smile. She burst out laughing, throwing her hands in the air, when she saw me all covered in mud, and then was clearly impressed when he explained how I got that way. She showed me to a small room, and I got immediately in the shower, peeling off my clothes under the flow of water. I never did get them completely clean, but I successfully rinsed the mud off my skin. As soon as I was presentable, I walked a couple of blocks up the cobbled street till I found a place that served food, where I ordered a hamburger with all the works. I wolfed it down with gusto. As I ate, a ten minute torrential downpour left the streets pouring with water.
I considered my luck, and talked to myself sternly: Really, Mikaya, you need to be more careful, you’re always getting yourself into trouble because you don’t consider things before you do them. Of its own volition, another voice inside responded: Yes, but you’re fine now, aren’t you? Help always arrives when you need it. And wasn’t it exciting?