Being a nerd can be dangerous

Wednesday, August 6, 2014
1:00pm – 6:00pm
Warm and sunny

We had a difficult start today. Tamara and I were walking towards Av. Amazonas, in order to catch a bus that could take us to the “Contorno.” While walking Rua Tamóios, we were discussing ideas about how to integrate some of the articles we have read into our field notes; I was enthusiastically telling Tamara about an article on urban exclusion I had just read this morning, deep into my thoughts, and suddenly BOOM! I crushed into the metal handlebars of a wheelbarrow! I screamed loudly the worst Chilean insults almost in tears. Those construction guys – who had the brilliant idea to locate the wheelbarrow sticking out into the sidewalk – looked at me perplexed. Tamara took me to the nearest juice bar to sit down and get some ice. There are many of these places in Belo Horizonte – probably everywhere in Brazil – where you can get a snack – “salgados,” – different kinds of pastries filled with cheese, beef, or chicken, as well as fresh fruit juices and coffee. This particular one seemed to be very popular; prices were cheaper than in other similar “lunches” places and it was overwhelmingly packed. Tamara told one of the vendors about my incident, and she stopped by my seat to personally handle me a plastic cup with ice and to check on how I was doing.

After a few minutes, we resumed our expedition and ended up taking a taxi directly to the “Contorno.” I walked into the bar we had visited on our last walk, and the owner greeted me very kindly. I explained it was still too early to start drinking beers, and asked if I could have a few cubes of ice to refill my plastic bag. He sent the kid who was helping me to get some ice, and after grabbing the bag, I sat at one of the tables out on the sidewalk.

Our first stop was an old-school bar, where the music – some kind of salsa, but in Portuguese – was playing very loudly. The woman attending the bar was very nice and allowed me to take photos of the space, which was very colorful with what seemed to be hundreds of bottles of liquor in the back bar and many glass jars displaying all sorts of pickled vegetables. There was a middle-aged man, happily singing, but who claimed to be shy and asked me to keep my camera away from him. I wanted to stay at the bar hanging out but it was still too early to drink and we had just started our workday. We promised we would come back some time to have a drink and the woman responded with “e molto barato aqui” – this place is very cheap – in order to motivate us to come back some other time.

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Soon after, Tamara got stuck looking at a skirt at some very un-glamorous clothing store. Somehow, we always find the best stuff while doing fieldwork. I followed her into the store and started looking at a rack full of shirts. They had some interesting things – borderline of tackiness but still appealing – or perhaps appealing because of their tackiness. Tamara ended up not get anything, and instead I bought two glamorous – borderline cheesy – shirts and a silvery strapless jumpsuit for less than $30. I walked out of the store very happy with my new acquisitions.

While walking down the block, it soon stroked me the diversity of this part of the strip, in terms of density, architectural styles, uses, and social status of the businesses. The properties on the street seemed to be mostly commercial, but the smaller cross streets have many of the old houses that used to define the neighborhood back in the days. You can trace the history of Belo Horizonte by following this overlapping of styles and scales. There were many different types of restaurants, stores, boutiques, and services, and I was surprised to see how fast you can move from a very cheap clothing store, like the one where I bought my new apparel, to very chic boutiques – one of them displaying luxurious wedding dresses. It seemed like different layers of time, scales, styles, and uses are present on the same street, only few blocks from each other.

Coming from Santiago, where you can also find contrasted landscapes, but much further away from each other, this superposition always surprises me. One particular house, exhibiting the old-school architectural styles of the beginning of the 20th century, was hidden behind a huge empty billboard. Inside this stylish house, there was a hardware store.   Outside, there were piles of bricks and other construction materials and a huge antenna emerging somewhere in the backyard. This messy overlap of uses and times illustrates the eclectic character of the neighborhood. Huge, older houses sit side by side with tall buildings under construction. Smaller streets crossing the “Contorno” offered perspectives of dense areas, defined by high-rise buildings extending towards the outskirts of the city.

Within this diversity, parts of the strip had more of a commercial character. We walked by a large, new building where the campaign headquarters of a conservative candidate running for mayor takes place. He is very visible everywhere in the city; everyday we see young people waving flags in different areas of Belo Horizonte. The headquarters also evidence the amount of money this candidate is mobilizing for his campaign; the building was pretty big and seemed to be new, resembling a shopping mall. While looking at the people hanging out outside of the building, I heard a loud noise and turned around seconds after a car had crushed into a car in front and got to see in slow motion how a motorbike crushed into one of the cars, falling on his side. The accident was very scary, since it caught me by surprise, but luckily no one was hurt. Several pedestrians came to help the biker to get up and lift up his motorcycle.

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We decided to look for a place to eat, since I needed a bathroom badly and both of us were getting hungry. Also, it was very difficult to take photos at this time because the sun was very high and there was too much contrast. We spotted a restaurant with outdoor seating across the street but getting there was a not-so-easy mission, since at this point, the “Contorno” begins to turn into an open-ditch highway. With a lot of patience, we managed to cross the street, waiting for a while on the middle island by a tree, and made it to the restaurant at the other side, in front of a small park. The restaurant offered fixed menus – all of them involving meat – as well as a buffet and Middle-Eastern food. The buffet looked pretty sad, and even though the restaurant was not fancy at all, it seemed to be overpriced. We ended up getting a beer and sharing a plate of humus with pita bread to hold us until dinner.

After our brake, we continued our walk on the shaded side of the street. The sidewalk became very narrow as the highway became deeper. Like everywhere else in Belo Horizonte, I noticed many electrified fences, barbed wire, and security signs. Buildings continued to be very eclectic in terms of architecture and uses. An old-school barbershop stood in front of a new shopping center and many buildings undergoing construction. There were also a couple of bars and restaurants with tables on the very narrow sidewalk. A long, bulky overpass crossed the highway, violently landing on each side of the street. While Tamara found this prefab overpass pretty, I thought its massive scale, with 3-flight landings on each side, felt too invasive for the scale of local streets. While taking photos of the overpass, a grumpy homeless man carrying a shopping cart started screaming at me that he did not want to be photographed. I tried to explain I wasn’t taking photos of him; in fact, I had not even seen him before he started complaining. I approached him and showed him the photos I had taken, but he did not even want to see anything and continued to mumble insults. He seemed pretty messed up; either drunk or high, and I noticed that he was not able to open his right eye. I gave up on trying to reason with him and walked away.

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After passing a building under construction, the sidewalk seemed to have a dead end at the intersection of Av. Álvarez Cabral. From this high point, we could see the “Contorno” emerging below and a view of the surrounding hills. There was a small park at this intersection, and the sidewalk continued going downhill, taking us to a complete different landscape; it suddenly turned into a very posh area. Compared to those last blocks of chaotic construction and superposition of uses, this place was the radical opposite. There were a lot more green spaces; large trees decorated the street, which was surrounded by primarily upscale residential buildings. Some properties were safeguarded by slick glass walls, instead of the messy barbwire and electrified fences we have seen in other neighborhoods. Later, I found out that these fences are equipped with modern laser systems. We passed a large building named Wall Street, which seemed pretty funny. Who knew there was a Wall Street here in Belo Horizonte! I thought it was a lot less interesting to walk across an upper-class neighborhood; there were less things to pay attention to than in more chaotic and hybrid areas, except for the widespread use of security systems, which I obsessively keep documenting. Even religious buildings are equipped with security cameras.

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We passed by several boutiques, a furniture store, a veterinary center, and a very fancy design store. There was also a strange Chinese restaurant displaying a sign that read: “smile: you are being recorded.” I have seen many of these signs in other commercial spaces. In between this landscape of posh stores, there was a small cachaça store that seemed to resist time and changes in the surrounding area. A couple of men were hanging out in the store and tasting different kinds of cachaça, a liquor made out of sugar cane, which is original from Minas Gerais. I was surprised to see endless rows of bottles covering the entire space – some of them very old and covered by dust. “This place is like a cachaça museum!” – I said, and they seemed to like the nickname I gave to this historical spot. Soon after, I was tasting different kinds of cachaça, some of them were made out of fruit and were very sweet; others were straight up liquor. The owner was very funny and told us his store had been there for a very long time. After hearing I was from Chile, he affirmed that Chileans like to drink a lot, to what I had to agree. After hearing Tamara was Polish-American, he diagnosed she would not drink too much like us South Americans, but we soon clarified that Polish do drink a lot – “Bebem muito vodka!” We walked out of the store with a bottle of “pinga” to make caipirinhas at home, and walked for a couple of blocks more until we called it an end for the day.

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