Man or Myth? : Ouro Preto, Brazil, January, 2007.

Ouro Preto, Brazil's city named for black gold , could hold its own with Italian hill towns that ripened over centuries. Steep cobblestone streets lead from one church to the next. Paintings of saints look down from the ceilings, giving the impression of watching the congregation.

Yet, Ouro Preto sprang up over some heady decades of a gold rush. Portuguese craftsmen, African slaves and children born from the two groups pretty much whipped up this city's treasures out of what had been far less settled land.

These workers brought improbably ornate Baroque churches to the New World, and filled with ornate carvings. While their style may be a little heavy on cherubs for my taste, their carvings and paintings are beautiful enough to give Ouro Preto another kind of gold rush.
Tourists fill its streets. Shops sell little wood carvings, paintings and jewelry. Many basements have been turned into restaurants and music clubs. A sign on the main street pointed the way to yoga classes down a little alley.

"So much rain," the host at our Ouro Preto hotel said in greeting when we checked in. We'd arrived in the earliest hour of the day's gray light, not much after 6 a.m. on the first of the overnight buses we would take in Brazil. Our $30-something room had a balcony with a view of the town, at first of little use to us. The porch at first gave mostly a view of rain. After we slept for about three hours, I woke to taunting bits of palest gray-blue poking through clouds. I woke David so he could see the clearest sky in days. We had a quick breakfast with good Brazilian coffee on the porch and headed out.
Rain in Rio had kept us from the beach. In Ouro Preto, dreary weather at least kept us cool as we walked up and down, up and down, up and down the cobblestone streets.
January seems a poor time to visit, although perhaps it thins the crowds visiting the churches. Never a bad thing to get some quiet moments alone in churches like the one shown here.

Sculptor With No Hands

Much of the best work from Ouro Preto is attributed to Aleijadinho, or Antonio Francisco Lisboa, the son of a Portuguese craftsman and African slave. The legend, perhaps true, is that Aleijadinho kept working after losing use of his hands to disease. He strapped a chisel to his arms to keep making saints and prophets.

There is debate about whether Aleijadinho existed. Researchers have questioned whether the regime of Brazil's 20th century dictator Getulio Vargas invented Aleijadinho, or at least expanded on a little known historical figure. Vargas needed a prototypical Brazilian after gaining power in the 193Os, and chose a person of mixed ancestry who overcame a handicap with creativity, according to theories of researcher Dalton Sala as reported in articles on the Internet.
It raises an interesting question. Vargas squelched the free press and punished dissidents during a political reign that ended in the 1950s. He shot himself to death when about to be pushed from power. Still, his regime may have chosen to glorify an artist with handicaps, a man with a history mixed like Brazil's own, when you think of what was going on in other countries at the time.

To the left is a banner about a show of Aleijadinho's work in Sao Paulo in 2007. Below are some copies of Aleijadinho statues that we saw later in a museum in Sao Paulo.

Did It Rain on the Emperor's Food?: Petropolis, Brazil, Jan. 3

Brazil's first and last homegrown emperor reigned for about 50 years, more than a quarter of all of its time as an independent nation. Dom Pedro II began in 1831, less than 10 years after Brazil broke from Portugal. He went into exile in 1891 as Brazil decided a monarchy was no longer in fashion.
Pedro's grandfather, Dom Joao, then prince regent, had fled to Brazil to avoid Napoleon's march on Lisbon in 1807. He stayed on there after becoming king in 1816, and split Brazil from Portugal.

That's how Dom Pedro II, a descendant of Habsburg and Bourbon kings, came to the New World's first native born European-style monarch. A man of a scholarly bent, he won praise from Darwin and studied the language of Brazil's Indians. He visited the U.S. to see inventions like the telephone. Brazil's planters forced Dom Pedro II into exile in 1889 after his daughter signed an edict accomplishing one of the king's great goals, freeing Brazil's slaves.

Brazilians of the 20th century seem to be fonder of their long-time king. There are many hospitals and public buildings now named for Dom Pedro II. Brazilians brought his body home from Europe years after he died, and buried him in the town where he had a summer home, a little more than an hour from Rio.
Now named Petropolis for the emperor, the town has streets with Victorian homes. The royal summer home is now a museum. We saw no kitchen when we toured it. We wondered if there had been one in an outside building, from which servants world have brought dishes to the house.
David asked what they did when it rained, how they would prevent the emperor's food from getting wet. We'd had to buy umbrellas on our way to the museum. What had been a drizzle on a warm New Year's Eve had turned into dreary rain in the days that followed.
The winding road from Rio to Petropolis was built for heavy rain. There were little channels built into the hills to divert the water. There were several little waterfalls I would remember the rain when I later picked up an autobiography of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. He writes about rain in his native land was unlike "impulsivas" showers that crack like a whip in other climates and leave behind a blue sky.
Southern rains have patience, Neruda wrote, and keep on falling without a break from a gray sky. Brazil experienced unusually heavy rain during our visit. A company helping expand Sao Paolo's subway blamed the rain for a hole, 30 meters deep and 80 meters wide, that opened after walls collapsed in a station under construction, according to a January report from the BBC Mundo Web site.
We ducked the rain in Petropolis with lunch at a restaurant offering a set menu. The restaurant had a name that translates to something like home cooking. After we set down our dripping umbrellas, David insisted I take the seat facing a few little paintings on the restaurant's brightly painted walls. A teenage girl with a nose ring slowly explained chicken dishes available in Portuguese. She stopped to say good bye to us as her shift ended. Another teenager, wearing a hairnet, smiled as she brought us plates filled with tender chicken, warm black beans and white rice. The girls made sure we got the full course, including a tiny cup of the strong, sweet coffee known as cafezinho. It was one of our best meals in Brazil.

Harlem to Copacabana: Living in the Americas, Dec.30 to Jan. 2

When it comes to the theater of daily life, Brazilians may be to other Americans as James Brown was to other singers. They put on a show that would be damned hard to beat.

I'd seen James Brown play for the first time about four years ago at a Washington rock station's Christmas concert, which featured performers young enough to be his son or grandsons. Brown blew them away. Other singers stood with their guitars and sang songs with complaints. James Brown danced and entertained. My then boyfriend, now husband David and I caught two more of his shows after that.

We went to see people waiting to pay respects to James Brown before we left for Brazil in December. The Apollo Theater on Harlem's 125th Street held a wake for him. The line to pay respects stretched for blocks to the east and west of the Apollo.

Brazilian Innovation

The religious scenes played on Copacabana beach on New Year's Eve were a little like a James Brown show-- an intense celebration of the things that are important, love, passion and good wishes. Brazil has a religion called candomble, which mixes European and African traditions with homegrown Brazilian innovations.

Different groups set up little squares on the beach, roped off sections abut a third the size of basketball courts. The leaders of the ceremonies dressed in white. Drummers played. People waited in line for their meetings with the religious leaders, who blew cigar smoke on them, waved their hands over them and then hugged them before sending the visitors on their way.
People set up circles of candles in the sand.

There was live music from a stage including swing numbers and "New York. New York." We walked over to the more glamorous Ipanema neighborhood and then back to Copacabana. There were people who had set up tents or the beach for groups. Parents walked with children. Groups of teenagers, well behaved and laughing, traveled across the beach.

Copacabana is lined with high-rise hotels and apartment buildings. Most of the rooms in them were lit for par ties. A hotel had a stories-long clock counting down the final hours and minutes of 2006. People gathered at the water as midnight approached. The crowd stayed even though bits of drizzle. The fireworks went on for more than 10 minutes, exploding above a beach filled with people carrying umbrellas. Brazilians jump in the ocean on New Year's Eve and throw flowers. It's an honor to the goddess of the sea, Yemanja (Yeah-man-jah), another figure from African religion who has thrived in Brazil David and I joined in. We jumped in the waves, going in a bit above our knees.

`Launch' Counters

People in Rio smile much bigger than they do in the U.S. as a rule. They can be talking at a lunch counter and they have broad relaxed smiles like people in the U.S. have after a day at the beach. David and I quickly learned there were our best bets for eating during the day were Rio's "launch" counters, little restaurants where you sit at the counter or at tables outside. More formal restaurants charge $10 to $15 for pasta and chicken dishes. For about $8 or less, we'd sit at the counter and get two sandwiches and icy juices. The meat served ranged from tasty to tough. The bread was always good, rolls similar to French bread.

Our favorite juice was acai, a rich purplish berry with ice like a thick sorbet. The people working at the counter give out spoons for people to use for the acai. We had two good dinners in Rio, both at a place near our hotel called Nova Capela, which is where we are eating in these pictures. On our first night in Rio, we ordered there what seemed to us two pricey dinners. We learned that each plate had more than enough food for two. The restaurant reminded us of Ralph's in Philadelphia, a place with acceptable decor that puts most of its efforts into the food. On our last visit, we split a veal stew with potatoes I still remember. They were full of a rich flavor, unlike the ones I usually find at home.

Nightlife in Lapa

Our hotel was near the center of Rio, a short ride on the city´s subway from the beach. We worried that the area might be a little dicey at night.
We tried on our first afternoon in Rio to plot a well lit route through the area, called Lapa, so we could visit one of the local music clubs. That turned out not to be necessary at all. The streets filled at night. David and I would have a predinner drink at this little place, Carlito's, and look out on an aqueduct and the street scene.

After dinner, we wound up a club charging a cover of about $7 for a good band playing Brazilian music. The club had good paintings in a folk style on the walls. Teenagers, in couples and groups, shared the dance floor with people old enough to be their parents and even grandparents. This was another time I was reminded of James Brown. It's unusual to see people of all ages mixing at shows in the U.S.

My first ''Russian'' word-- fax

My husband points to a blue symbol, a circle with a line through it, on a sturdy white plastic bag. He's decided to use the shopping bag, a souvenir saved from his 2002 Central Asia visit, to help me learn the Cyrillic alphabet.
"You've seen that symbol on fraternity sweatshirts, " he asks me, making this a game, to pass time during a Christmas Day layover at Chicago's O'Hare airport. ''What sound does that make?"

"Phi, phi," I say. "Ffff."
An A and a K follow the phi sign. These are the same in the Russian alphabet as in the letters used in English. Next and last comes a C. Many Americans could guess how to pronounce that letter. We grew up knowing that one of the C's in the CCCP logos seen on Russia's Olympic team jackets stood for Soviet.

"Fax, that's fax," I say.

We move on to other words printed on the bag, which I'm using to carry my two straw sun hats onto planes. We will start a round-the-world trip after our holiday visits with my husband's family in Nebraska and mine in New York. Three of our destinations are former Soviet republics, where Russian is spoken. The bag also has an abbreviation for telephone and the word, center, as in shopping center, written in Cyrillic letters as they are pronounced in English. E-mail appears e-mail, without Cyrillic letters.

It hadn't occurred to me that shopping centers in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek, have e-mail and faxes. My husband's stories of Central Asia tell of a place so different from the U.S. He's told me of how people welcomed him in Kyrgyzstan, of how they took such time to make him dinners and show him the sights. It sounded like a place where people enjoyed talking with a visitor over hot tea and naan bread with sweet jam.

There's no reason that people can't do that and use e-mail too. People adopt new things and keep the familiar ones that work for them. Last year, a teenage waiter in a Myanmar restaurant served us our breakfast plates of noodles wearing a traditional ankle-length sarong and a T-shirt featuring Linkin Park, which Wikipedia describes as a U.S. "nu metal" group. I had to look Linkin Park up since it was a little too hip for me. The T-shirt was crisp, although not brand new. It looked like the kid valued it for being different.

Like most of the men we saw in Myanmar, our waiter seemed less impressed with the jeans and trousers visitors wear. Men in that hot-weather country, once called Burma, have been seen Europeans in pants for centuries. The local men stick with light cool wraparound skirts, which also may be easier to launder and replace.

(East Coast pizza from Google Images.)

I've thought of these chances to see what cultures adopt as ''focaccia-mit-tomate'' moments since seeing that dish on a menu at Frankfurt airport in 2005. That was Germans borrowing from Italians, who got the tomato courtesy of Spain's conquest of the New World and then improved it.

Pastas with a red sauce and focaccia with tomato seem so traditionally Italian. A few centuries ago, they were creative, even bold, new recipes like today's mixing of Asian flavors with fish from Chile in many restaurants. I'm sure I'll be spotting one of my favorite examples of fusion cuisine pizza, on this round-the-world trip. There also will be Starbucks stands, baseball caps with New York Yankees logos and ads for Hollywood movies.
What will be fun is seeing what remains truly Brazilian, Chilean, Australian, Moroccan, Armenian or Turkish. We'll wander to find it at neighborhood joints filled with local people for lunch and dinner, checking out what's playing on the television as well as what's offered on the menu.
We'll see whether people on local buses and subways crowd the doors or form neat lines. Do they smile at strangers in packed train cars or ignore them? What's on sale at the grocery store? Do people heading to offices on weekdays sit with the paper in cafes and use a proper cup and saucer for their coffee? Or, do they race through the streets carrying paper cups?
Please send any suggestions for what's helped you learn something surprising about a country in your travels. I'll be talking with local people as much as I can, given my limited or currently nonexistent knowledge of languages spoken in some countries we will visit.
I'm sure to run into many people who want to practice their English. This is one of the pieces of blind luck you get by being born in the U.S. We're all a bit like that cliche of the person born on third base who thinks he hit a triple.
We're raised speaking the bossiest language of our time. The French have adopted the weekend and Brazilians refer to their malls as shopping. A Vietnamese cab driver played the Eagles' "Hotel California" after picking me up from the airport in 2oo2.
It was a disconcerting first selection--what with the song's references to the guest who can never leave and stabbing with steely knives--for an otherwise bland stream of American pop music played on the drive to Saigon. Later on that trip, a hotel clerk advised me that the Vietnamese words for thank you, cam on, sounds like the expression, "Come on." He nailed perfectly the tone Americans use when saying," Oh, come on."