For its Spanish and Portuguese explorers, the unknown American continents were truly a “New World”. There were cities of pyramids and misty mountaintop forts, rivers that ran black and white salt pans, canyons, vast swamps and unimaginable waterfalls, and all kinds of strange beasts from electric fish, to lizards that walk on water, to birds with hands.
But one by one, these mysteries have been revealed and explained (or destroyed). Few remain today. But one that does is the legend of the the minhocao. Named after the Portuguese word for “earthworm” – “minhoca”, the minhocao was a huge, worm-like creature that was once frequently sighted in forested areas of Brazil. Claimed to be up to 25 metres long, it would leave long,indented tracks ( people said) , and burrow underground causing houses and roads to collapse. Occasionally the creature would spring out of the ground or the water (it favored areas with rivers) and drag livestock away to be devoured.
Then, in the late nineteenth century, the sightings just stopped. Was it a myth that had fallen out of favor? An exaggerated account of the (already huge) anaconda that lives along the rivers of the Brazilian interior? A relative of the equally dubious Mongolian Death Worm in the Gobi desert, or some kind of lung fish? Was it just a folkstory, a fairytale, or was it something that we destroyed, even before we had a chance to understand ?
An artist’s impression
Today in Sao Paulo the minhocao lives on, if only in name, in the form of a huge freeway that snakes through the city, sliding through tunnels and flying on overpasses, right through the old heart of the city’s business district. With a characteristically playful Brazilian sense of humor, locals have dubbed it “the minhocao”.
LIke many other such developments of the 1960s, the Minhocao has come to be hated . To many, it is an eyesore, an obstruction, a huge concrete barrier that cuts right through the city. The development has been blamed for accelerating the decline of Sao Paulo’s historic city centre – once home to proud art deco towers and a gleaming New York-in-the-1920s-skyline. Those same towers are still there, but the district – now cut off from normal traffic – has fallen on hard times. Many buildings have been abandoned, and covered in grafitti. Huge camps of homeless nordestinos (poor immigrants from the country’s Northeast) have sprung up under the elevated freeway, and in the tunnels. The Minhocao had become, much like its namesake, a scary, powerful and unstoppable force.
But perhaps the tide is now turning the other way . The current mayor of Sao Paulo has pulled out all stops on a restoration project to bring back the old Centro district. Policing has been stepped up, and crime (though still high) has fallen. Today, the Minhocao is closed to traffic on Sundays to become a walkway for city residents – winding at third storey height through newly appreciated 30s apartment blocks, and under gracious nouveau towers. Peddlers sell African charms and remedies under the freeway, grafitti artists paint and spray and gay men cruise. The minhacao has become a symbol of all that is good and bad about Sao Paulo – the lively streetlife, the charm of its early 20th century buildings left to picturesquely decay. It is dangerous, dodgy, edgy and vibrant. It has even become a tourist attraction, and a popular filming site. The Minhocao starred in the video for CSS’ breakout tune “Lets Make Love and Listen to Death From Above”, and will appear in the upcoming and hotly-anticipated “Blindness” as the setting for a story above a civilized city that falls onto hard times and chaos.