In the mid-1980s, I was living in Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro, and exactly a quarter of a century ago today, I had travelled to a small pretty colonial town in Minas Gerais state called Sabara. There, I chanced on a festival, which included a brass band contest and a marathon event. A month or so later, back in Rio, I went to my first auction there, and, experienced an astonishing coincidence, one which led to me buying a painting of a Sabara Church, one that I have so loved, it has adorned my lounge wall, wherever I’ve been living, ever since.
I’ve indulged The Diary Junction Blog twice before with entries from my own diaries, one about The Demolition Decorators and one about Love in Pyrghos. Here is a third indulgence from my Pikle website: an entry written on that day in Sabara 25 years ago, and another written about the aucton.
Sunday 14 July 1985, Sabara
‘Have escaped from the bustle of the city to Sabara where there is a different form of bustle - a festive jollity. A few dozen people gather in groups around two bands. One - wearing light green denim suits with even lighter green shirts beneath - consists of youths , and the other - in darker green military suits - wears blue ties with white shirts and hats. Now, though, in the distance we hear a third band marching towards us. The sun shines but is threatened by grey and dense clouds approaching. Several people, clearly organisers, carry papers and refer to them occasionally. Now the band is loud, just around the corner, a car is diverted from driving through the street. Here they are - blue suits and caps with blue ties. All three bands are similarly sized and similarly configured. Some of the younger women are tapping their feet to the melody. And yes, here comes a fourth band - light blue shirts and grey trousers. This one is half women (hence the absence of jackets).
It’s a band competition, of course. To see all the musicians file under the newly-painted grey and bright red arches wearing their clean and pressed uniforms, carrying their gleaming silver instruments, is a rare picture.
Why do I sometimes want to cry when I look into the faces of these people. It’s been happening a lot in the last few days, few weeks - a face at a window, a waiter in a restaurant, a shop assistant. I am sensitive to something without or within me - I don’t know what. Looking at these faces perhaps I’m aware in myself a lack of a sense of belonging or place, and, yes, for a framework in which I don’t have to struggle for emotional acceptance. But I don’t think it is so clearly my own yearning, or only my own yearning because I am also keenly sensible to the dramatic monotony of people’s lives - but, as an outsider, a voyeur, an escaper from the monotony, I have no right to engage in elements of pity.
Praca Rita. It is here, I suppose, the competition will take place. There is an air of preparation. It is an extraordinarily pretty square. Its centrepiece is a round wooden bandstand painted blue and white and built on a wall of slate, encircled by cobbles. There are several lawns and flowerbeds and mosaic pavement areas with white benches. Seven flat-topped trees have rowan style leaves and giant seed pods; the base of the trunks and the bulging root formations are painted white. In the bandstand are loudspeakers and two small tables holding various trophies. Food, jewellery and gift stalls are being laid out in the square, but in a quiet way, hardly disturbing the tranquil preparations of the organisers or the growing level of chatter among the arriving crowds.
A banner in Praca Melo Viana tells me that a marathon will take place, with 3m cruzeiros in prizes, and 34 trophies and 70 medals. This square is not so pretty, its various elements resting uncomfortably next to each other. At the narrow end is Dan Pedro II with its shops while at the broader end, some remaining walls of the church Nossa Senhora do Rosario dos Pretos stand as a focus for the centre of the village. The tourist info says this church is no more than a monument to the work and talent of slaves: its building was interrupted when slavery was abolished. To the left of the walls is an old baroque public fountain - the Chafariz do Rosario. A brass tap emerges out of the mouth of the two ugly pouting faces. Some women scrub their pots here regardless of the tourists or the festivities.
It’s around 10:00 and I’m back in Praca Rita. It’s full of people. The six or seven bands have been marching through the village, and now they’re back. It’s a stirring sound hearing them all play together. I asked the name of one appealing tune - Cisne Branco, meaning white swan.
My mind is fertile today, and I want to make an observation about taking advantage of the fun, the novelty, the optimism of fairs and festivals. When I travelled I was always grateful for help given me by people met here and there. I was aware that I was taking from the world, and never giving back. I was, thus, determined to pay my debt back in terms of giving lifts and hospitality. I believe I have gone some way towards doing that. But now I realise that I owe a sort of festival debt. All the celebrations, fetes, festivals, fairs I’ve attended leave me in the red. When, if, I settle down I will owe the world, time and effort towards making the monotony of life more colourful.
The crowd is milling. One band has moved to the stand and begins the competition. After the first piece, a luxurious deep and rich voice joins the band, the words she sings are full of hope and nationalism. I wanted her to go on forever.
I found some public toilets with toilet paper. I was most grateful for I haven’t defaecated in three days, and it was the first time I’d used toilet paper in months - it’s a much less clean method than water.
Within the confines of the thick and roofless walls of the ruined Rosana is another, smaller church. It is modest by comparison, but the inside is charming, painted white with strips of blue (like Praca Rita). A sizeable platform has been erected in the square for a dance, presumably tonight, with seats all around.
Praca Rita 1:15. The bands still continue to play taking turns on the blue and white bandstand. The marathon runners, now exhausted, are scattered round the village; some alone are taking off their shoes; others are exercising their limbs; others stand casually around, their faces streaked with salt, talking to admiring friends or relations. I slept for a while in Praca Melo Viana, comfortably on my back with the sun on my face. Now I sit in a blue and white restaurant waiting for the inevitable rice and beef. (After yesterday’s rice and beef at the university canteen, I desperately wanted a toothpick or dental floss to clean the unnatural crack between my lower left molars - all day it nagged, and yet all day, as it happens, I’d carried my bag around and it held both floss and toothpicks!).
Museo de Ouro 2:30. This must be one of my top ten of small museums (I remember another wonderful one in Arles). Gold panning and mining instruments are displayed in the cellar rooms, along with scales of various types. 17th and 18th century furniture fills the upstairs rooms.
I should have known the bus station would have a queue a mile long. I walked and walked along the river seeing truck drivers bucket water over their dusty vehicles, children flying kites, boys sitting reading or dreaming on rarely used railway tracks, women carrying burdens on their heads making their ways along well-worn paths. Fortunately, a coach stopped for me. I ran up its steps full of gratitude and virtually fell into a wall of tracksuited smiles and gleaming gold and silver trophies.’
Friday 16 August 1985, Rio
‘I also treated myself to an auction. Here is the sequence of events, the synchronous events. I was interested in buying a windsurfer (that will be a real treat if I ever get round to it) so I bought Rio’s equivalent of Exchange & Mart - Balcao. Of course, my eye wondered to the book and antique section where I found an auction advertised for that very evening. How could I resist. I found the auction room near the old tunnel. It was a long narrow room with perhaps 30 rows of six chairs. The auctioneer looked like a business shark - in one hand he held a miniature wooden hammer, and in the other a small microphone. A few pictures were hung on the walls and I could see a few paintings piled on the floor. Only one painting caught my eye - a glass-framed rough-coloured sketch of a church. I sat as close to the front as I could. Middle class, young-to-middle-aged painting lovers filled the room to bursting. A waiter idled up and down the corridor offering glasses of wine (good idea that). I flicked through a catalogue and only one item attracted my eye - Igreja da Sabara - and this was because I’ve been to Sabara very recently, and loved it. Lot 44. I decided to wait patiently for lot 44 before leaving. As the sale progressed I did not see one painting brought to the front and auctioned that I would ever consider hanging on my wall. Prices varied between 200,000 and 5m. I was surprised, but pleased, to be able to understand the auctioneer’s figures. Honest to the laws of mathematics, it never occurred to me for a minute that lot 44 would turn out to be the same painting as I’d noticed and liked on the wall. The synchronicity was pure, and - as a consequence I’m sure - a spell fell over the entire audience of maybe 200 people allowing me to buy lot 44 for the minimum price of 200,000. I slipped away thoroughly pleased with myself.’