Destination São Luís, capital of the state of Maranhão.
Images of the landscape in Minas Gerais, between Belo Horizonte and Ipatinga.
Friday, 4 PM
The picture below shows the bus that we could consider our riding home for more than one hundred hours. A coach with comfortable, adjustable seats, and a restroom. There was a DVD player just above my seat. The bus had no air conditioning system, but all windows were opened at day, and quickly shut, when chilly night breezes tried to penetrate. Especially in the high mountains it can sometimes feel very cold. Two drivers were about to drive us to the state of Maranhão. In the cargo compartment (lower left of the picture, but the tailgate is closed), there was a mattress for the driver who had to rest. Ricardo and Rodrigo were our drives. Ricardo is the same experienced driver who drove us to Salvador and Floripa. When I saw him, he came towards me, and greeted me in the typical Brazilian way: shaking hands, followed by a touch on the shoulder and flank. His ten-year old son would travel with us. For him it was not the first time to travel with his daddy; despite his young age, he already may be considered was a very experienced traveler.
Some readers may notice that the wheels have extra brakes. They are essential, when driving in the mountains, and when the road surface is wet. Where did I have my seat in the bus? I sat in front, on the right, and of course a window seat, allowing myself to take photographs of the landscape. I was fortunate that I was one of the first passengers could choose my seat. And because of the extra leg space, this place was very popular. The picture shows a deep blue sky and only a few tiny clouds. A typical picture of the sky in wintry Belo Horizonte. Below left, the lawn appears to have died. It has barely rained since last March. A new raining season will start in September or October.
It was scheduled that the bus would depart at 2 PM. If you would depart from Amsterdam, you may leave at the maximum of five minutes later than the scheduled time. And everyone would arrive on time, in order not to fear missing the bus. In Brazil, punctuality is not the keyword. A scheduled departure time is only a scheduled time. Many only will remember to arrive at the meeting point at 2 PM. And everyone will wait patiently until all passengers have arrived. Only at 4 PM, Jader, our organizer and self-made leader, called everyone to enter the bus. Bus driver Ricardo sighed with relief, when he finally could start the engine at 4.30. We were on our way! The picture above shows part of Avenida Antônio Carlos, still under construction at that time. This avenue is one of the main arteries of Belo Horizonte.
More road works were to be observed along the highway. Just outside Belo Horizonte, near the historic town Sabará, and a bit further away near Caeté (known from the Serra da Piedade), large-scale projects and drainage works were going on, as shown in the picture below. In January, when I headed for Itabira, a city located about 100 km from of Belo Horizonte, I passed that section, and to my surprise, soldiers were present at these road works. The soldiers in uniform, their equipment – from bulldozers and excavators to rollers – was painted in camouflage patterns. When I informed about this, it was made clear to me that there were some tensions with local residents – they were forced to leave, but tried to resist -, and soldiers were sent in order to prevent additional delays and problems.
At 5 PM, the sun was almost near the horizon, and illuminated the landscape with a reddish glow. A breathtaking view, as if tiny flames had set fire to the landscape.
We were just over half an hour on the way, when the bus had to go past a checkpoint of the highway patrol, the Polícia Rodoviária. They have checkpoints along the highways close to any city of importance. Ricardo reduced speed to almost walking pace. He had to maneuver the bus along a column of cones and to pass a barrier. Brazil also has many speed-reducing traffic barriers. And some of these thresholds are that high, that one may damage the exhaust. The picture shows the police officers sit together, while one of their colleagues is spying on the vehicles passing by.
Later, just before Ipatinga, about 200 km from Belo Horizonte, the bus was stopped by police officers of the highway patrol. Three officers entered our bus, their hands on their firearms. As a precaution. One of them walked to the back of the bus and checked the hand luggage. Officer number two was checking the tachograph, the documents of the bus and of Ricardo, and the passenger lists. The passenger lists have to be complete with full name and identity number. All luggage should be labeled; the corresponding adhesives are attached behind the name on the list. Officer number three stayed in front of the bus, and was keeping an eye on his companion in the rear; he constantly kept a hand on his gun. And what was number officer number one searching for? Not hard to guess: narcotics and weapons. Fortunately none of us had carried narcotics, but I already know some cases, in which the bus was sealed and the bus passengers were taken to the police station for interrogation. But nobody was arrested then, just one big reprimand of the prosecutor on service. And in our case, the officers made no comments, and we were allowed to continue our journey.
When you travel by bus along the numerous villages and towns in Minas Gerais, it is very interesting to observe daily life along the highway. The pictures above and below demonstrate two moments of life in a village just outside Sabará. Very simple shelters made of large bricks and corrugated iron. Some houses have real roof tiles, but they are usually too expensive for these poor people. They live their simple lives, undisturbed by a speeding bus with fifty relatively rich students and a crazy Dutchman.
We left Sabará and Caeté behind us, towards Ipatinga, and then to Governor Valadares and Teófilo Otoni. Higher and deeper in Minas, northwards. During the night, the bus driver drove us through Minas, until early morning, when the state border with Bahia was crossed. Please do not think to observe any road obstacle or barriers: only a minor road sign indicating the borderline. The reddish evening glow was quickly replaced by total darkness. At locations free of light pollution, one may realize the immense number of stars in the sky. The sky is not black, but dark grey due to the illumination of the stars. A phenomenon that cannot easily be observed in Europe, particularly in densely populated countries as The Netherlands and Belgium. I remember the sky during the nights in Death Valley and Bryce Canyon, United States, where the air was rare enough and free of light pollution, to observe a multitude of stars that you’re normally accustomed to observe in the Netherlands.
The last two pictures demonstrate the winding highway, the highway that follows the slopes of the mountains. Because Minas and the south of Bahia are both mountainous. These mountains are not like the Alps, but more between the Eiffel and the Alps. Fortunately, the quality of the highways in Minas is improved, the highways are quite easy accessible. And yet, still many accidents take place. A week before our trip there was a serious accident with a bus involved. Four passengers died. IT was a pure coincidence that two of our fellow travelers were passengers of that bus. One of them accompanied the bus driver in his compartment; the student did not yet overcome the moments of fear. We admired his courage to travel with us.
We trusted upon the broad experience of bus driver Ricardo. He would drive us through the darkness in Minas Gerais. At about 11 PM, almost everyone was quiet. Everyone seemed to be tired. Tired of the intense work in the week prior to the travel. The passengers made themselves as comfortable as possible to sleep in a seated position. Thanks to the monotonous hum of the bus engine, it was not difficult to sleep…
Below: a Brazilian road sign.
By Dr. Adriano Antoine Robbesom
Original text in Dutch, translation with help of Google Translator