It was a sunny day, I remember being sweaty under my bucket hat as I walked into the crowd. Sitting on my dad’s shoulder it felt like I was surfing over a sea of people surrounding us from all directions. To welcome Pope John Paul II to this part of Brazil, the city of Belo Horizonte had 2 million people invade its streets. Like everyone else, my dad and I were trying to reach the bottom of the ridge where a mass would be celebrated on a make shift stage. But there was no point to it. We were 4 kilometers away and the ocean of people kept growing. All culminated when sirens spread the people apart and a wave of people came and went, as my dad and I tried to keepbalance. The famous Pope-Mobil was passing by. People were waving and cheering: “Viva o Papa. Viva João de Deus.” That’s when I saw it. My heart was beating fast with excitement. And I could barely believe I was seeing something holy and precious with my own 6-year-old eyes: a white inverted bowl passing by. That’s all I manage to see on July 1st, 1980 – the pope’s hat.
The pope came and went. But what he left behind was sacred to everyone in town. Where the mass was celebrated a square was built and forever called Pope Square. For the next decade, my dad would take my sister and I religiously to this part of town. If we were not flying kites by the square, we would be venturing the Mangabeiras Park near by, where the reminiscent Atlantic Forest was somewhat preserved. And we refused to go home without driving on “Peanut Street” – a ghostly road where you put a car in neutral gear, let go of the handbrake and it mysteriously starts moving the vehicle up the hill. At 10, I would swear by it.
But, such gravity miracles didn’t seem to happen anywhere else in town. Cars were dammed by the city’s geography. Belo Horizonte sits 852 meter above sea level. There are hills every where. Add to it a tropical climate, with a rainy summer season, and you have an urban landscape with cascading waterfalls, for at least three months out of the year. My sister and I would spend countless hours observing the streets of the neighborhood become rivers with cars as its floating vessels. A deep red water poured down the streets as the city’s ridges bled away iron oxide. Avenues and streets were like veins. Tires would screech trying to climb the paved hills just to give up and drive away to find a less menacing one.
If going up a hill was hellish, going down was blissful. The Cotorno Avenue has three perfect slopes that turned any ride down hill into a perfect roller coaster. My dad would play with the gears to generate the most effect. And since, at that time, there was no such thing as wearing seat belts, my sister and I would bump our heads into the car ceiling. Asbonus, we would swallow whole any hard candy we had in our mouths. You see, my aunt lived in the south part of town, up the hill, and every Sunday we would leave her house with our pockets full of candy. Not any candy, but Bala Soft. A hard candy, colorful and translucent as sea glass, renowned for its smooth nature and a coin size shape to perfectly lodge itself into windpipes. But nothing so serious that a good exchange of back blows between sisters wouldn’t solve.
By the 1990’s, going up the hill had a whole different meaning. My dad like many others fathers, didn’t want his teenage daughters going up the hill. But the pilgrimage was a mandatory rite of passage for male heirs. Many stories of virgins and immaculate conceptions were written on the slopes of Pope Square. The Ridge of Serra do Curral stood as a silent witness and reliable confessional. The mountain didn’t even dare to speak of crimes committed against it. 30 years of mining left half of a mountain. Like an eggshell.
During my last visit in town, a neighbor offered cassava bread, guaraná soda and childhood memories. I was leaving the next morning. She asked me: “Have you been to Pope Square?” She protested when hearing my no. She took me to my destination but not without driving me to Pope Square. As soon as I stepped out of the vehicle, I was suspended at 1100 meters above sea; I had the Ridge of Serra do Curral behind me, and down bellow my feet, an entire city. I looked at a dozens of stars above. Millions below.