This post is intended as a sequel to “Oh, the places I’ve been (in Brazil).”
What do a sorority house, the Amazon jungle, and a swanky gated community all have in common? They’re all places I’ve laid my head over the past three months.
CA sorority house (Ouro Preto, MG)
Ouro Preto (“Black Gold”) is a small university town nestled into the rolling hills of the state of Minas Gerais (“General Mines”). Once the center of Brazil’s colonial gold rush, its 18th-century population exceeded those of New York City and Rio de Jainero. Its onetime wealth is still evident in its art and architecture, Baroque revivalism featuring plenty of gilded churches that have earned the city the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ouro Preto was also the site of an early (failed) plot for Brazilian independence. Given the city’s historical importance, one guidebook likened Brazilian tourism in Ouro Preto to Americans visiting Philadelphia.
Anyway, I experienced this delightful town from the vantage point of a sorority house. This fact was not disclosed on my Airbnb listing, and it was something I only discovered when another woman walked in while my host was showing me to my room. We made some small talk, and I asked her if the house was a hostel or something. “No, it’s a republica,” she told me in Portuguese, before switching to English when she saw my puzzled expression: “Like a fraternity.”
The sorority’s inhabitants were pretty nice, but I still felt distinctly out of place—especially because the bathroom in my private room had no sink, and so I had to use the one right next to the women’s communal bathroom. The real problem was their neighbors, who played music (at one point so loud it literally shook the walls) until the early hours of the morning. This prompted my ever-gracious host to insist that I swap rooms for the second night, moving to the side of the house farthest from the obnoxious neighbors. I landed in a clearly lived-in double and displaced its proper inhabitants to who-know-where.
After leaving Ouro Preto, I also visited the nearby capital of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte. My living situation there was much more reasonable, a spare room in an apartment building that was exactly as advertised. Highlights included the Municipal Market, which featured amongst other animals, half-grown ostrich “chicks” for sale; Mirante do Mangabeiras, a beautiful lookout over the city from a neighboring hill; and A Pão de Queijaria, a restaurant serving the cheese bread that both the region and Brazil is known for. (I got a pão de queijo sandwich with pulled pork inside, along with pão de queijo ice cream.) I also rented a bike to ride around one part of Lake Pampulha, another UNESCO World Heritage (albeit a sort of disappointing one) that’s home to a collection of modernist buildings designed by the famous Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.
The Amazon jungle (Manaus, AM)
Manaus is the capital of the state of Amazonas and a popular portal to the Brazilian Amazon. I splurged on a three-day stay at a jungle lodge (which included an overnight stay in the forest), but that was during the latter half of my stay.
For the first two nights of my stay, I had the single weirdest Airbnb experience of my life. It featured a nonresponsive host and eventually being shunted off to his mom, who did not seem to understand that the address they gave me, when fed into Uber, spit me out in a pharmacy about a half-kilometer away. After being retrieved in a Christian book store by a Venezuelan housemate, I was given a tour of this crumbling Portuguese-style mansion that featured a political campaign office, round motel-like beds in every room, and a giant framed picture of my host’s mom (probably taken at least thirty years ago) captioned by the Proverbs verse about a virtuous woman being more valuable than jewels.
It was just weird, weird, weird. Half the upstairs was trashed from a previous occupant who’d been on the autism spectrum. My host’s mom asked (pointedly) if I had already paid, indicating she didn’t know how Airbnb worked. And my Venezuelan friend insisted on coming into my room to speak Spanish with me (and try to give me a foot rub), which I think he thought was a way of being friendly with me, but really just made me anxious about spending too much time in the house.
It’s always an adventure in a cheap Airbnb.
Anyway, the second half of my stay was a lot more fun. I stayed at Amazon Antonio’s Jungle Lodge, which has the sort of name that should turn you right off but the universally perfect reviews on TripAdvisor to draw you right back in. The lodge I stayed in was on Rio Urubu, a black-water Amazon tributary we spent forty minutes traversing via speedboat after driving two hours outside Manaus. I was joined by a dude from Wales and a couple from the Netherlands (netting me a R$300 refund in transportation costs that I deeply respected the company for repaying me), which actually made for a fun little foursome.
I could go on about this experience for hours, but highlights were:
- Catching piranhas that we then ate for dinner
- Paddling through an impenetrable fog at sunrise, watching submerged trees loom into view
- Tricking a giant tarantula out of its borrow, which helped me get over my fear of them by showing they would rather just hang out in their little hole than go on the hunt for wayward Americans
- Spending a night in the Amazon jungle
After the jungle tour, I had a bit more time in Manaus—visiting the famous Teatro Amazonas and taking full advantage of all the fresh juices on offer.
Swanky gated community (São José do Rio Preto, SP)
My last Brazilian excursion was with Elaine and Barbara to Elaine’s sister’s house in São José do Rio Preto, São Paulo (a city you may recognize from the sidebar!). Elaine’s sister and brother-in-law live in a gated community that looks like what I imagine a fancy California tech suburb would be: sleek modernist architecture, manicured lawns, various tropical flowers and trees. We took a few trips into the city center, but we spent most of our time in the house.
We ate really well—one day Elaine’s brother-in-law made churrasco for us, the next evening I made Kroll’s chili, and the following morning Barbara and I fixed an American brunch for everyone:
Also, we got to visit the farm that Elaine’s brother-in-law kept, eating mangos and blackberries straight from the trees. Elaine’s sister even knocked down and hacked open some coconuts so we could drink the water inside. I know life there was sort of charmed (two women came in every morning to help cook and clean), but it also felt a lot more like what I think most people would consider Brazil to be.
Clearly, there’s a whole lot of Brazil outside Caxias. And even if that means sleeping in the odd bed, I’m happy I get to experience it.