When you think of England you think of Trafalgar Square or Buckingham Palace or Stonehenge or Old Trafford or The Cavern Club or the Angel Of The North.
These iconic locations occupy less than 0.01% of the country’s landmass – the rest of it is made up of utterly dull towns and villages and suburbs and cities and motorways.
Brazil is no different.
I was intrigued to find out what the Brazilian equivalents of Warrington or Solihull or Neath or Tilbury or Kettering might look like – the ‘Nowheresvilles’ – places that exist solely to contribute to the country’s gross domestic product in lieu of any historical or cultural significance.
When my girlfriend and I left the beautiful historic gold mining town of Ouro Preto in the state of Minas Gerais we had our sights set on beach bum paradise Arraial d’Ajuda three states away in Bahia. Between these two picture postcard destinations lay some 650 miles of Brazilian Nowheresvilles for us to discover.
My girlfriend had been planning the journey meticulously for days – getting there would require four buses, four taxis and one ferry over an estimated 72 hour period.
Our inaugural bus ride passed relatively without incident. I sat next to an 80plus year old woman with ‘Jesus’ tattooed on her right forearm and Greensleeves as her ringtone. Outside the window was a mixture of luscious forest and sheer cliff faces.
We headed towards our first stop, Belo Horizonte, capital of the state of Minas Gerais and the third largest city in Brazil. It was described in our Lonely Planet guide book as being home to “a plethora of drinking dens.”
Two weeks earlier when we were in Rio de Janeiro I had been wondering where all the mid-wage earners were. People in Rio seemed either to be in grinding poverty or obscene luxury, with very little in between. As we rode into Belo Horizonte it dawned on me that those mid-wage earners had chosen to live here.
The city mainly survives from the processing of raw materials from wider Brazil. Fiat and Toshiba have factories here, as do numerous big name South American telecoms companies. It is one of the most visited cities in Brazil, but not by sightseers, by businessmen.
There was infrastructure and facilities in abundance, but a complete dearth of soul. The wealth of alcohol outlets was presumably the way its residents distracted themselves from the state of the architecture – so bland that no one cares enough to maintain it.
True, the people of Belo Horizonte have less chance of dying from cholera or gunshot wounds than if they instead lived a slum in Rio or São Paulo. Also, they don’t have to suffer the indignity of being unable to afford 99% of all the city has to offer. But still, I can’t imagine that they’re not already at least a little bit dead inside.
At least the favelas in Rio have some sort of order and logic to their design. Belo Horizonte’s flyovers and towerblocks intermingle like a splatter of vomit. At least the uber-affluent of Rio, in all their fluorescent green zebra print crassness, have character. Belo Horizonte is a faceless, shapeless, culture vacuum.
The most hideous recesses of George Orwell’s imagination would be proud of Belo Horizonte – so depressing that throughout our stay I took only one photo of a man cooking chicken skewers on a hot plate in the garage behind the bus station, where we ate our dinner.
At 5.30am our second bus pulled in to Vitoria which, despite being the capital of the state of Espirito Santo, didn’t even feature in the Lonely Planet. Things looked promising with its luxuriously spacious bus terminal.
It turned out bus number three wasn’t due to leave until 10pm the following day, which left us with the unenviable task of finding a place to stay for the night. Having failed miserably to book a room over the internet (you can always tell how welcoming a place is to out-of-towners by the availability of free wifi) we pinned our hopes on the tourist information booth, due to open in a couple of hours.
We watched the sun rise over the taxi rank.
Three hours later, the tourist information booth opened. Remarkably, the young man manning it spoke English. He gave us two options, either spend two days worth of backpacking budget on a Radisson or Marriot in the new end of town or try our luck in one of the three Hotel Ibis’s in Vitoria’s historic centre.
This is a recurring theme in Nowheresvilles wherever you are in the world, I think. No funky boutique budget hostels or bank balance saving independent inns – just chain hotels at extortionate prices. The young man manning the tourist information booth pointed towards the historic centre, and we walked in that direction.
Downtown Vitoria was a mess of peeling paint and crumbling concrete. It was Brazil’s biggest port city, and in the Santa Maria River (which smelt faintly of piss) tankers and cargo ships sailed past us towards the Atlantic Ocean.
Some buildings were half built and then abandoned. There were stacks of tubes and pipes and girders, waiting to be picked up by some giant machine. Much of the ground we were standing on was actually concreted over coffee plantation landfill from the late 19th Century.
We stopped to consider our options and buy a Coca-Cola at a shop that mainly sold rotting fruit. There were no Ibis’s, no hotels or hostels of any kind, but plenty of bridal shops – I guessed that marriage was one of the most exciting things a person can do in Vitoria.
Eventually we found a hotel that looked structurally sound – ‘Hotel Cannes’ – which bore little resemblance to the identically named film festival hosting French town.
Our room had the ambience of a leisure centre. The bed was damp and the wifi didn’t work. I drifted off to sleep whilst my girlfriend used the shower to flood the bathroom and most of the bedroom.
It seemed we had found a truly excellent example of Nowheresvilledom in Vitoria – somewhere no one in their right mind would visit unless they stood to gain financially or had familial ties. That afternoon we set out to explore it in all its glory.
In the new end of town there was a big shiny shopping mall and a bridge named after Ayrton Senna (he was not from here). Down by the beach (which had particularly exfoliating sand) there was a statue of what looked like on the map Vitoria’s answer to Christ the Redeemer – it turned out to be a small statue of Iemanjá, African goddess of the sea and fertility.
We ate dinner in the Bermuda Triangle, a three street hub of bars and nightclubs which was almost completely devoid of other human beings on a Monday evening, but did contain a Hotel Ibis.
It was too much excitement for one day, so we drifted back to Hotel Cannes to get some sleep. The air conditioning unit sounded like a factory that makes nails.
Another Day In Vitoria…
We woke with only 14 hours to go until the next bus departed.
In the breakfast room we ate scrambled eggs and sausage slices in tomato ketchup whilst drinking surprisingly passable coffee. At the far end of the room were the toilets, which some bright spark had decided to wall off with frosted glass. My girlfriend pointed this out just in time for me to turn around and see the silhouette of a fellow hotel guest wiping her arse.
We once again set out to explore, this time giving the historic centre the benefit of the doubt. We dragged the wheelchair up several flights of stairs and headed towards the Metropolitana Cathedral where we gatecrashed a Mass.
The cathedral was busy – again, probably one of the most exciting things a person can do in Vitoria. I had no idea what the priest was saying, but I liked the music – light and bouncy with a flute and acoustic guitar.
Lunch was a block of chicken in batter on a stick.
Every once in a while we stumbled across diamonds in the rough – churches and government buildings – restored using taxpayers money to kick start regeneration in the surrounding privately owned buildings.
The brightest diamond of them all was the Palacio Anchieto, decked out with polished marble and priceless artworks. The whole thing looked like it cost more than the rest of Vitoria put together. We were invited inside for an English speaking tour. It had without doubt the best air conditioning we had encountered so far in the city.
We were treated to an ultra-slick promotional video extolling the wonders of Vitoria, narrated in a gravely North American accent. It told us how the palace was originally built by Jesuits in 1553, left to ruin, rebuilt, left to ruin again, rebuilt, left to ruin yet again, and then rebuilt.
In our experience so far the Palacio Anchieto seemed typical of Brazil’s attitude towards architecture – each time a building is built, it is done so at huge cost with cutting edge engineering techniques and the finest of materials. When the work is done, the building it is left to degrade until life threateningly dangerous and then it is restored. The idea of maintaining a building to avoid the need for restorations seems not to have occurred to anyone.
“Vitoria is now the third largest exporter of celluloid and iron ore in Brazil,” the video told us. We felt informed.
Our last stop was the Parque Moscoco in the very centre of Vitoria’s historic centre. It was quite charming with waterways and hump back bridges and the least amount of graffiti we had seen anywhere in the preceding 24 hours. We walked hand in hand and lapped up the sunshine, before stopping to use the toilets on our way out, in which my girlfriend encountered a freshly coiled turd on the floor.
Escape From Nowheresville…
The time to leave Vitoria had arrived. We spent our final three hours back at the bus station drinking beer and eating deep fried snacks. Over the next two bus rides and a ferry I got over the resulting indigestion. We spent the following eight hours sat on Mucugê beach in Arraial d’Ajuda with absolutely nothing to do but soak up its splendour.
I felt our time in Brazil’s Nowheresvilles had in no way been a definitive experience – no doubt we will encounter duller, more tedious cities between now and the end of our 15 month backpacking trip.
These are not the sort of places you see on TV or in travel guides or in newspapers – they are unremarkable, defined not by wealth or poverty, but mediocrity.
It is comforting to know that not everywhere is as boring as England.