Last night I got back to Rio after spending twelve incredible days in Ouro Preto.
I had originally planned to stay for five days, but was having such a great time that I ended up extending my stay. And I went by myself, which just goes to show that, while it’s always fun traveling with friends, you can sometimes have just as much fun (if not more) traveling alone.
A Bit About the City
For those who haven’t heard of it, Ouro Preto is a former colonial mining town located in the mountains, in the state of Minas Gerais.
It’s been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its beautiful baroque architecture. It looks and feels like a European town, with hilly cobblestone streets and red-roofed houses.
To add to the charm, the shop and restaurant signs throughout the city all look hand-crafted. Like this…
In addition to being much smaller than Rio (eliminating the need for taxis much of the time), Ouro Preto also feels (and is) much safer than Rio. I would feel totally comfortable walking home alone at night, for instance, especially in the center of town.
Another thing that makes Ouro Preto unique is the fact that it’s the only city in Brazil with fraternities/sororities. Ouro Preto is home to a massive student population and most of those students live in shared houses, called républicas (aka fraternities or sororities).
The Frat Culture
I stayed in two male républicas when I was in Ouro Preto (which I found thanks to couchsurfing!). I stayed in one called Républica Kome Keto for the first five days and then stayed in another called Républica Vaticano for the remaining six nights.
I had an especially awesome time at the second républica I stayed at (Républica Vaticano). The house was located in the center of the city and everyone in the fraternity was so welcoming and nice, making me feel right at home.
When I first asked them if I could stay six nights (which felt like a long time, and I didn’t want to overstay my welcome), they replied without hesitation: “Of course!! You can even move in here if you want!”
And even though some people had to share a room in the house (the youngest people of the house generally have to share a room), they were gentlemanly enough to give me my own room and everything.
Some of the républicas actually charge couchsurfers a fee to stay there, but Vaticano refused to accept my money. They treated me as if I were an actual guest and friend, not just some stranger occupying their living space. They also had their own personal chef, who came to cook delicious food each day – I’m already missing that food!
There are around 500 républicas in the city of Ouro Preto. Walking down the street, it feels like nearly every house is a républica.
Someone told me that in Ouro Preto, people even tend to give directions according to républica, rather than the street name. Each républica generally has about 11 students living in the house; most are either all male or all female, but there are some mixed/coed houses as well.
As you can imagine, living in a républica is super cheap. One guy told me that he only paid R$ 200 a month to live there (granted, he didn’t live in the center and had to share a room with two other guys…but he said that the price would be the same when he was upgraded to a larger room later on). He said you could rent a private room in the center of town for around R$ 400. Compare that to the average exorbitant price of around R$ 2000 one pays to live in the center of Rio…
The houses each have their own names and people in the house are loyal to that house/one another, much like a fraternity/sorority. Each person in the républica has an “apelido” or nickname.
Everyone calls one another by their nicknames–it’s almost as if the real names are a secret.
Each républica also has several “bixos” which are like the American version of pledges–they do all of the grunt work for about six months and only after that do they become officially part of the républica.
And of course…républicas also throw awesome parties nearly every day of the week (which rival any of the parties I attended in college). I learned the Portuguese phrase “virar a copa” (chug the cup), which I had never once heard during my nine months in Rio. Suffice it to say that the going-out/drinking culture in Rio is much more centered around sipping–rather than chugging–beers!
On Saturday, there was a churrasco (Brazilian BBQ) at the Vaticano and the neighboring républica (Républica Pureza), which was basically a 12-hour eating, drinking and mingling fest.
The parties (called “rocks” in Ouro Preto – pronounced “haw-ckeys”) are all thrown in some part of the républica houses. The last one I went to (on a Sunday night) was quite massive and in the center of the city–part outdoor, part indoor, with about five different rooms. One room resembled a club with strobe lights, while another room had a beautiful view overlooking the city…and of course, alcoholic punch could be found throughout the house.
Another “rock” I went to with some guys from Républica Vaticano was in an outdoor space in Centro (the center of the city). At the party, there were all different kinds of cachaça (cinnamon and peanut butter were my personal favorites), and there was a competition between the républicas to see who could drink the most shots of cachaça (Side note: Mineiros–people from Minas Girais–drink a LOT of cachaça!). The prize for winning the contest? A “date” with the female républica that hosted the party. And guess what? My républica (Vaticano) won!
At the parties, nearly whenever someone takes a shot, people in the corresponding républica raise their glasses in unison and chant the “reza” (cheer) of their house (each républica has their own cheer). The cheer of the house I stayed in went something like this…”Quém tem amor tem saudade..” (Whoever has love has saudade) and…I forgot the rest haha. I wish that I had recorded it–but here is the “reza” of another républica to give you an idea…
If you go to Ouro Preto (or any part of Minas Girais), you can expect to hear a lot of sertenajo music. This was one popular song that I heard almost everywhere I went…
Despite being the oldest person at these parties, I had a fantastic time. I gotta admit that I was/am seriously jealous of all the students living there; being there made me want to go back in time and be a student again…but this time in Ouro Preto!
Even better, there are very few gringos/foreigners that study in OP. As far as I know, I was the only gringa at these parties, which means that I got to speak almost exclusively Portuguese the entire time…and of course met a lot of people who were very intrigued by my foreigner status and where I was from etc. 🙂
Despite the fact that I sometimes felt a bit out of the loop and like I was repeatedly asking “what?”, all the guys were extremely patient with me and constantly telling me different “girias mineiras” (slang from Minas Gerais).
While in the US, the slang is fairly universal (as are the accents), in Brazil, the slang (and accent) differs so much with each region
In case you’re curious, here are a few “girias” from Minas that I learned…
fragar: sacar/to understand (very common)
passar fina: dar uma dica/give a tip
kamofa: mulher galinha/female player
uai (pronounced like “why”): basically can be added on to any sentence/used to express disbelief, admiration, impatience or to reinforce what someone just said (this is a classic mineiro word, used all the time by mineiros)
The Friendly People
As a whole, mineiros are known nationwide for being very friendly and warm. Go to any part of Brazil and everyone talks about how great mineiros are.
And they definitely lived up to their reputation! Whether walking down the street or in a shop or restaurant, random passerby would strike up a conversation with me.
People were very curious about where I was from and what I thought of Brazil. Even when just buying something from the pharmacy, for instance, the woman at the checkout counter, upon noticing my accent, curiously asked me where I was from.
And when buying something from the market the other day, the people who worked there struck up a conversation with me about where I was from, why I was there, differences between Brazil and the US…This type of thing happened quite frequently.
I was reading an article in the New York Times about a woman who was traveling around Minas and she said that, while driving somewhere in the middle of nowhere, she and a friend stumbled upon what seemed to be a “mirage in the dust.” She said,
Curious, we pulled up, wandered the out-of-place manicured lawn and found a gentleman farmer from the city examining his banana orchards. Rather than shoot us for trespassing, he invited us in for coffee and homemade guava paste. For me, that was a typical moment in Minas Gerais…”
I think that sums up the Mineiros (people from Minas Gerais) quite well…
Exploring a Nearby Village
While there, I also met a nice couple who picked me up in their car one day and took me to a different part of Ouro Preto called Lavras Novas (where there are supposed to be some great waterfalls – a.k.a. the “beach” of Ouro Preto!).
Once there, we had a few caipirinhas before going to grab dinner at a charming restaurant (which was actually someone’s house) in the town.
I believe that the guy we were with knew the owner, who was an elderly woman, but she welcomed us all and treated us as if we were her family or old friends, not customers. The large kitchen looked incredibly ancient (with one of those old stoves that I don’t think I have ever even seen in real life)…and of course the food was delicious.
The guy I was with helped the old lady out by making the caipirinhas himself. Only in Brazil…
Ouro Preto reminded me of why I love Brazil so much: the happy, friendly and hospitable people; the jaw-dropping scenery; the laid-back culture…and of course the fun parties don’t hurt!
Even though I can’t turn back the clocks of time and go back to student life, I think at the very least, I know where I will be spending my next Carnaval…