Volunteer in Mission to Brazil

08 September 2007

Goodbye for now

It seems quite surreal to be back in the U.S., especially in the city where I lived two jobs ago. I wanted to record a couple of things and some of the last pictures in one last post.

Running around trying to wrap up the last things with my apartment and cell phone was interesting. My friends who were selling my appliances and mattress came on Thursday afternoon with a hired truck & truck driver to move almost everything out of my apartment because the real estate agency had scheduled to do a pre-inspection at 9:00 on Friday morning. It was a pretty complicated procedure because I had a load of stuff going to the community center at São Gabriel (some stuff to return to my supervisors and other stuff to ask groups to bring back for me), the refrigerator went to church, the stove went to the pastor's house, and then the rest of the stuff went to my Sunday family's house. Whereas in the U.S., this procedure would generally be done in as short a time period as possible, the Brazilians were in no hurry, and it took more than 4 hours. When we stopped at the church, for example, the women's craft project was meeting. They'd planned to surprise their teacher for her birthday, so the truck driver played "Happy Birthday" and one other song on the guitar while everybody sang, followed by cake and other refreshments. After all of the stuff was moved, I returned to my apartment to finish packing and took a cab with all of my suitcases to my ex-roommate's apartment, where I spent my last few nights in Belo Horizonte. I had requested a large cab, explaining that I had several large suitcases, but what showed up was a regular sized one (i.e. economy car). One huge suitcase took up the entire trunk, and after double-checking that I would be the only passenger, the driver was very creative about putting the luggage in every available space. I had about 18 inches of the back seat in which to sit with a backpack on my lap, with luggage piled up next to me and in the front passenger seat.

Friday morning, I experienced a first--the inspection guy was early. I was walking over to the apartment so I would get there at 9:00, and at about 10 minutes to 9, he called my cell phone to check if I was in the apartment or not because I wasn't answering the intercom. The inspection went pretty well until he said something about a crack in the window in the "service area." I brought out the addendum that I submitted to the first inspection, but the crack was not mentioned. I was pretty sure that it was already there, but just in case, when I got to the community center, I started calling glass places to see if somebody could come out on Friday or Saturday to fix it. (First, though, I had to ask what glass places were called in Portuguese so I could find it in the phone book.) Only one of the places I called said they might be able to come out and give me an estimate, but that they would call me on my cell phone. Thankfully, I had taken digital photographs of every single defect in the apartment before I moved in, so I called the real estate agency and asked them if the photo could serve as proof that it was already there even though I forgot to include it in my addendum. I breathed a sigh of relief when they agreed to accept the photograph as proof and didn't require that I would fix the window (especially since it seemed so impossible to make an appointment with somebody to fix it). I had to pay the fine for breaking the lease (it ended up being a little less than 4 months of rent). I was pretty nervous about carrying around that much cash and glad to be able to get rid of it.

Last Saturday, September 1st, I had the last goodbye party for people who lived in Belo Horizonte. I had planned it for 3-6 PM, but people only started showing up after 4 and continued to show up until 6:30. It was a nice assortment of people from the Sao Gabriel project, my church and others I'd met in the Methodist community here. I received some really nice gifts. It is amazing how generous people with limited resources can be. We had friend snacks ("salgados") and soda and sat around talking and listening to music. When it was time to trade elogies, I once again was crying as I was thanking my Brazilian friends and letting them know how special they are to me. Fortunately there was also a lot of laughter--especially after my "Sunday family" showed up. You know when you are laughing so much that your face hurts? I was in some major pain, but it was a good thing.

Two of my amazing colleagues, Lu and Silene, who work full-time and study full-time.

The final picture of me and my "twin" Chirlei (and her daughter Camila).

On Sunday, I bid farewell to my church and Sunday school class. That was another tearful goodbye. Here's a picture of my Sunday school class. The little kids usually finish their class before we finish ours and then they come looking for their parents.

The "young people's" Sunday school class.

I'll only briefly mention the two hours I spent on Monday trying to cancel my cell phone contract (and pay the fine associated with that). Only with some major persistence did I get the phone canceled, and I still will have to jump through some major hoops here to get the final bill paid.

On Monday evening, I realized that I should not bring an extra suitcase with me since my credit card had expired on the 1st of the month and I might have problems paying for it. Tuesday morning, I brought the suitcase to São Gabriel and did a final clean-up of my desk, etc. I almost forgot to turn in my keys, but thankfully remembered to go back and do that before I caught the bus. Then I was off to the other side of town for a farewell lunch with my Canadian friends. I was a little late because I got off at the wrong bus stop (it's amazing how after so much time, I could still be making new and different bus mistakes...) but lunch was nice with them in their penthouse apartment. Then I took a taxi back to my ex-roommate's apartment, arriving literally five minutes before my ride to the airport showed up 20 minutes early.

We went back to pick up the mother and one of the daughters of my Sunday family and then headed out to the airport. When I checked in, the airline told me that I had to pay for my ticket because it ended up not being charged to my credit card. Miraculously, I had the cash for the cell phone fine that the company did not let me pay. We chatted for a while, and then I was anxious to go through security to get through the gate. Finally they told me to wait for a few minutes because my "twin" Chirlei and her family were on the way. I couldn't believe that they got off work early and took the daughter out of school early to come see me off. I told them that I'd always noticed the Brazilians at the airports with their entourages to either greet them or see them off, and now I had my very own entourage. After yet another tearful goodbye, I went to my gate and waited for my first flight.

One of the first things that struck me upon returning to the U.S. was that, in Brazil, two families were at the airport to see me off, but when I arrived in the U.S., I got a taxi, and that was "normal" for us.

And so here I find myself, back in the U.S., looking for a place to live while living with a friend who always generously offers me a place to stay. Today I'll see my sister's family and my parents as we gather for my niece's birthday party. My mother has already told me excitedly of the things she has bought/collected for me to help me start all over again. While sad to have left my Brazilian friends behind, I am ready to apply some of the great aspects of Brazilian culture to my new life in the U.S.

I thank you for your interest in my mission work in Brazil and hope that, if you haven't already had the opportunity, you, too, may one day experience the beauty and warmth of Brazilian culture.

27 August 2007


I'll start with the light this week. For example, there is a one-page "newspaper" that is displayed inside all of the city buses. I think it changes every couple of weeks or so. At the bottom of this sheet, there's a section called "Urban Etiquette" with tips about how to be polite when riding the bus. A couple of my favorites have been: "Don't fart on the bus" and "Don't leave your boogers on the bus seats." And this newspaper is for adults... :)

I bought a new purple (my favorite color) backpack when I was in the U.S., and the other day, I had on the backpack, a purple striped shirt and purple earrings. One of my colleagues said to me, "Oh--you're all matching--you've really turned Brazilian now!" I found it amusing that she thought matching was a uniquely Brazilian trait. But I guess that the Americans they usually encounter are on work teams and are dressed in their old clothes.

Because I was traveling almost the entire month of July, I expected to receive a much lower electric bill this time. Imagine my surprise to find out that it was the same amount, even though it clearly said that my usage for last month was half of what it normally is. That's when I finally learned that there is a minimum charge here that you pay no matter how much electricity you use, and then above a certain minimum usage, you get charged for the electricity you used above that minimum amount plus the minimum fee. I guess because I don't have a TV, I never got above the minimum usage.

I was thinking the other day about women's footwear and how silly it is that the shape of the most fashionable shoes is exactly opposite of the shape of our feet. Then I was thinking that, perhaps in a few hundred years, people will look back at our society and our primitive, damaging practice of wearing pointy-toed shoes, not unlike how we now look back at the Asian practice of foot-binding.

This Saturday, I said goodbye to the kids and my colleagues in Liberdade. About 25 kids showed up, and I was touched that they were freshly bathed and dressed up. The majority disappeared for a while, assembling two big gift baskets for me, as it turned out. They filled the baskets with snacks, fruit and some small trinkets. Who knew that Brazil has its own version of the ho-ho?

During the party, I passed out numbers and we drew for prizes to distribute the rest of the knitting supplies I'd brought back with me as well as a few other new or gently used things that I had to give away. I had one of the adults take pictures of me with the kids because I don't have many pictures with them (I am usually the one behind the camera).

When it was time to eat the snacks I'd ordered, we gathered in the dining hall. My friend who cooks for the project said they were going to play a special song for me, and as soon as I heard the first few notes, I recognized it and started bawling as I was hugging her. It was "Canção da America" by Milton Nascimento, one of the more famous Brazilian singers and composers who just happens to come from this state (Minas Gerais). The words go something like:

A friend is something to guard
Under seven keys
Inside your heart
Thus goes the song that I heard in America
But the one who was singing cried
To see his friend leave
But the one who stayed
Flew in his thoughts
With his song that the other one remembered
And the one who flew kept in his thoughts
The memory of what the other one sang
A friend is something to keep
On the left side of your chest
Even if time and distance say no
Even forgetting the song
What is important is to listen
To the voice that comes from the heart
Therefore whatever is to come, come what may
Some day, friend, I am coming back to find you
Some day, friend, we will meet again

The Liberdade kids

One thing struck me as I was making my way back to the city on the bus--the two people I felt closest to at that project weren't the ones with whom I spent the most time or with whom I had the most in common. Even though our backgrounds were so different, there was some invisible bond with these women. One of them, who has extremely limited resources, bought me several little trinkets, including a little figurine of a big frog with two little frogs to remember her and her daughters. I heard a lot things like "Remember us" and "Don't forget us"; I don't think they understand that there is no way I will ever forget these incredibly open, welcoming and loving people and the time I've spent in their beautiful country.

20 August 2007

Bye bye Brazil

Well, I've made a decision to accept the job and return to the U.S. The good part is that I'll be closer to family and friends, in my native culture and speaking a language that I don't have to think about. The hard part is to think about leaving the Brazilian people.

I feel like a patient with a terminal illness--I know exactly when I'm going, I have a lot of things to finish before I go, and a lot of people to say goodbye to that I don't want to leave behind. In a place where it can be an insult not to greet someone, I want to make sure I officially say goodbye to everybody I know here, so I might try to have a small gathering in both places where I've worked in Belo Horizonte.

I was talking to a young woman the other day about unplanned pregnancies out of wedlock. I'm not sure if this is reflected in actual statistics or not, but it seems like these pregnancies are more common here than in the places I've lived in the U.S. An interesting difference is that almost every single extended family I've met here has at least one child that was unplanned and born outside of marriage, regardless of class, race, etc. I'm not sure how much is the influence of the Catholic church's stance on birth control, the illegality of abortion here, the strong influence of sex in the culture, or possibly some young women's expression of power in a society where they can feel powerless. When I was visiting my neighbors the other day, I was surprised when the woman asked if I knew their older grandson. (My neighbors are a couple in their 60's with three grown sons, two of whom live with them.) I told her that I knew the younger one that they kept after school, but didn't know that they had an older one. She showed me his picture and then very frankly revealed the story of this grandchild--"John took this girl to a motel and got her pregnant. She's not from a good class or family, and she's moved to Spain, where she lives with a gigolo." She did have some good things to say about the child, though, and they do visit with him as often as they can. I found it challenging to keep a straight face and not have my jaw drop to the ground at her candidness.

Oh, and one cultural note on Brazilian motels. Here, "hotels" are for staying overnight while you're traveling, and "motels" are for sex, either paid by the hour, portion of the day/night, or whole day/night. I have not personally experienced this particular aspect of Brazilian culture, but I hear that they have some pretty fancy motels decorated in various themes, furnished with jacuzzis, etc.

The scientist in me has noticed something else about people breaking bones here. Four different people that I've met here have broken their feet/leg so severely that it required surgery with screws to put them back together. To me, that seems like a huge number of bones broken by adults, and I wonder if there's something about the diet, environment, etc. here that results in weaker bones. In none of these cases was a huge amount of force/weight involved.

Finally, I'll wind up with the most exciting moment I've had in the past few weeks...

Last Wednesday was a holiday here (for Our Lady, the patron saint of Belo Horizonte), and my friend from church invited me to go out for pizza early that evening with another acquaintance from church to try a pizzeria they'd heard about. Well, "early" means that we leave my friend's house at 8:00 PM and take the bus, where the acquaintance joins us en route. Normally, you can ask the bus driver or fare taker for directions or landmarks on their routes, but both the driver and the fare taker are new, and neither can tell us where this pizzeria is. Then the fare taker has a revelation and tells us to get off at the next stop. Well, after MUCH (more than 30 minutes) walking and stopping to ask various people on the street, we realize that my friend is confused and the place we want is actually behind us in the other direction, and the place she is confusing it with is even further away in the direction we are headed. Back we go in the other direction, and finally, with the help of a young woman we pass, we find the said pizzeria. The young woman actually walks with us there and then, noting that it is pretty empty, suggests that we try another place around the corner. We follow her advice and finally sit down at a table outside of a small bar/restaurant on the main street. We eat and talk and notice that there are a lot of young people heading down the street where the pizzeria is. We find out that there's a dance place for one of the current dance crazes, "baile funk," on the soccer court down that street. We finish eating, and then suddenly, we hear two shots ring out from the direction of the baile funk place. Much to my surprise, none of the other customers seem too perturbed and remain at their tables outside. We do see some kids who've left the dance place coming up the street. The next thing we know, there is a little military police car speeding down the street with an officer hanging his arm out of the window, brandishing a handgun. (Note: Seeing the police packed 4 or 5 into an economy car always reminds me of the clowns packed into the VW Beetle at the circus...) Within seconds, all of the customers literally vanish, the store across the street puts down its protective metal door in front, and we move to the inside of the restaurant. Hordes of young people are pouring onto the main street, fleeing the baile funk place. The waiters note that the problem is not the original gunshots, which are usually aimed at a specific person/people, but the high probability of getting struck by a stray bullet if the police engage in a shootout, which they are known to do. Thankfully, we got a taxi to our metro/bus stops, and everyone got home safely. I was thinking that people at home might freak out to hear about this incident, thinking that it must be so dangerous here, but then I remembered at least one similar occurrence at fraternity party in college.

Time to get back to winding things up here and trying to get things set up in the U.S. I'm not sure if I'll have time to do another post or not before leaving.

08 August 2007

Decisions, decisions

I'm going to keep it brief this week because I'm in the middle of making a difficult decision--whether to accept an interesting job offer in the U.S. that would require me to leave here pretty quickly or to stay here with an uncertain future. Even though, to this point, my social life in Brail has left much to be desired, the thought of leaving the warmth and closeness of the Brazilian people is grievous to me. When I planned to come here to volunteer, I knew that it would be a temporary stint for 1-2 years, but still... Someone I respect said that I could find the same things in a small, country town in the U.S., but it's not the same (and I don't think I would thrive in a small town).

Now for some lighter weekly observations.

I was waiting at the bus stop the other night when a bus passed by going the other direction. Nearly everybody inside crossed themselves at the same time, because they were Catholic and passing a Catholic church behind the bus stop. I've asked a few different people here what the ritual of crossing yourself is supposed to represent, and the answers I've received have varied widely. I think, like many rituals, people end up doing it out of habit and don't necessarily remember why.

When I was putting away my clean clothes the other day, I noticed that my jeans are now wearing out in new places because of constantly wearing a backpack.

There's an older gentleman in my neighborhood who I call (in my mind) the "Funky Grandfather." He's got to be at least 70 years old, and he is always sporting the latest fashions, including cool tennis shoes, sunglasses, jeans, etc. I could totally see him starring in some commercial (but I'm not sure for what product...).

I love how people are more comfortable with the human body here. For example, the other day I was in a doctor's office, and she had a beautiful drawing on the wall of a nude pregnant woman. I admired it and asked if she bought it or if it was a gift, and she said she had it made from a photo and, actually, it was her pregnant with her second child.

As I think I've mentioned before, there's always something in bloom here. Now, it's time for the spectacular yellow Ipe trees. I've borrowed the picture below from http://www.ipef.br/identificacao/tabebuia.alba.asp.

And finally, something I've wondered about for a long time. You know how some songs get stuck in your head, even though you don't like them? Well, I have a theory that there must be some "faulty" brain cells that record things and will continually bring them to your consciousness against all logic. I'm thinking about the repertoire of songs that I end up spontaneously humming. Some of the songs that always pop up in my head or that I find myself humming are songs that I don't even particularly like. Why, out of the hundreds/thousands of songs stored in my brain, those same few always float to the surface? I think those must be the songs that were stored in the defective brain cells/sectors. Profound, huh?

Wishing everyone a blessed week.

31 July 2007

Back to your regularly scheduled program--again


I have to apologize that I didn’t update the blog during my visit to the U.S. and that this is such a long entry. I didn’t have nearly the amount of spare time that I thought I would, but it was a good visit.

I arrived in Durham, NC just in time to be able to drive down to the memorial service for my former boss, who’d lost a long battle with cancer in May. It was nice to be able to share with his family some things that I admired about him, hear funny anecdotes about him and to see my former colleagues. While in NC, I also talked at my home church, went to lunch with some former colleagues and visited with friends, but as always, not as many as I would have liked. It’s very difficult to want to spend quality time with everybody within the short span of a few days, especially as lax as I’ve been about trying to schedule with people ahead of time. Natalie and her son, Christopher, were my gracious hosts in Durham.

My Durham hosts and family

Going to lunch with friends after church

From Durham I drove up to Lancaster, PA to spend four days with my family, which I enjoyed immensely. Unfortunately, my youngest brother was not able to make it. Logically, the focus changes when your group has small children; as opposed to tourist sites, we spent most of our time at the park behind the motel, at the motel pool or at restaurants. It was cute to watch my three older nieces and nephew play together now that they are old enough to really interact (2.5 – 5 years old). When her two Chicago-based cousins left, my DC-based niece was grief-stricken. Just a few hours later, I was astonished to find myself moved to tears after I left my family to drive to Richmond.


My mom with all four of my nieces & nephews

I spent a total of nine nights with two different hosts in Richmond. For the first part of the week, I stayed with Cheryl, a.k.a. “Little One,” whose pastor had participated on a Volunteers in Mission (VIM) work team to Brazil last October. Pastor Rodney “Yours Truly” Hunter co-organized my visit to Richmond and was also responsible for providing me with the surprise opportunity to give my first-ever sermon. It was clarified for me on Saturday evening that my 8 AM Sunday morning talk would not include a slide show or questions and answers—just talking ten minutes or less for the “message.” My other host and co-organizer was Dot Ivey, who was the leader of the October VIM team. All-in-all, I talked at five different churches. Thankfully, I was also able to raise some support; initially I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to pay my bills when I got back to Brazil. Highlights from Richmond included: patronizing the snow-cone stand (we experienced some very hot and humid days); lunches with “Yours Truly” and “Little One”; tutoring a student in General Chemistry; seeing members of the Randolph-Macon VIM team at three of my talks; visiting two fire stations in search of a toy firefighter’s hat; attending a dinner party before one of my talks; catching up with members from two different VIM teams who came over for ice cream; getting to speak Portuguese with Amado, a graduate student from Mozambique who was also staying at the Ivey residence; watching the Copa America soccer championship between Brazil and Argentina (Brazil won); getting together with a friend who I hadn’t seen in years and enjoying the wonderful hospitality of my hosts. On my way out of Richmond, I visited with the Mission and Global Outreach office of the United Methodist Church’s Virginia Conference.

Pastor Hunter and his 2nd mother

The Iveys and Amado

From there I drove to Washington DC, where I stayed for the last eight nights of my trip. While in the nation’s capital, I mostly visited with friends and family (in person and by phone) and shopped for the things I needed to bring back with me.

The trip back to Brazil was relatively smooth, considering the multiple possibilities for snags with flight delays, my visa (which is currently in the renewal process) and my abundant luggage. I actually had to buy an extra suitcase to bring back all of the yarn that people donated, and all three of my suitcases were pretty heavy. Although Delta Airlines did charge me for excess and overweight baggage, I was delightfully surprised when the agent for Gol Airlines in São Paulo told me that, as a courtesy, they wouldn’t be charging me for the extra bag. Originally when booking my flights, I was dismayed to have a four-hour layover in São Paulo, but it turned out to be a good thing to have that sizeable time-window between flights. The international airport in São Paulo (Guarulhos) was quite congested because flights had been re-routed from the domestic airport (Congonhas) where the crash recently occurred to Guarulhos. My last flight was delayed, but that worked out well because my international flight was also delayed.

On the way back to Belo Horizonte, a couple of different things made quite an impression on me. These are both good examples of something that I love about Brazilian society that is so difficult to put into words. First, on the last flight from São Paulo to Belo Horizonte, there was a young couple with a small baby that was screaming the last several minutes of the flight, probably due to the change in pressure affecting her ears. When we landed and everybody got up, people turned to look at the family, but not in disdain, like I would expect in the U.S. Instead, they ended up sympathizing with the parents, commenting on how cute the baby was, etc. The better example, though, is the following. Between landing in São Paulo and arriving at my final destination of Belo Horizonte, I ended up having brief exchanges with three different Brazilian families. It struck me how open the children in those families were in talking with me—a total stranger—and asking questions, and how all of the families bid me a friendly goodbye when we passed each other in parting at the Belo Horizonte airport. To be fair, though, I noticed how nice strangers were when I got to the U.S.—much nicer than I’d remembered, in fact. I’m sure that people acting/reacting positively has more than a little to do with what state you are in and what kind of vibes you’re giving off.

It’s funny how I thought I would have a lot of free time during my visit and brought four or five different books with me that I didn’t even open plus two different knitting projects that I rarely touched, even on the plane. Which brings me to something I included in my talks: how I’ve changed as a result of my experience in Brazil.


I’m finding myself concentrating less on material goods. I’m not so focused on trying to have the best music or book collection and rarely go out to eat or shopping for something other than groceries. My wardrobe is pretty simple here, and I usually wear jeans, a shirt and flat shoes. I haven’t worn a suit or pantyhose once since I’ve been here and rarely have the opportunity to wear skirts or dresses, although I like to do so. I wear very little jewelry and my shoe collection has significantly diminished. And I’m not withering away...

Out of necessity, my flexibility and patience have grown immensely. The minimum amount of both characteristics utilized in Brazilian society is significantly higher than in the U.S., which is probably why most Brazilians are so much more laid-back and easy-going. This also involves adjusting your expectations to fit your current situation. If, for example, I was expecting a bureaucratic procedure to be done on a North American time-scale, I would be wasting a lot of time and energy being frustrated when that did not transpire. In the Guarulhos airport, I noticed a woman waiting at the baggage claim, and I couldn’t decide if she was from the U.S. or Brazil. Then I saw her glancing at her watch several times, and on a hunch, I spoke to her in English. Bingo!

I’m now a fan of public transportation. Whereas a metro trip of one hour door-to-door was too long to even consider when I lived in Washington DC, now I don’t even flinch at the idea of taking public transportation for trips requiring more than 45 minutes and, in most cases, am happy to be able to leave the car behind. (I actually don't have a car in Brazil.)

Family and friends are more important to me. The Brazilian sense of family and social connection is contagious; since I have lived and worked in Brazil, I’ve been able to appreciate my family more and spend longer periods of time with them without tempers flaring.

When in Brazil, I’ve adapted somewhat to the Brazilian standards of personal appearance—ironing most things, always having my toenails painted if I’m wearing sandals, etc. It’s funny that when I went back to the U.S., I had no problem wearing somewhat wrinkly clothes because I blended in.

Now I am much more interactive and tolerant with strangers. Before I would usually view strangers trying to talk to me as an intrusion and an annoyance, but now I’m much more receptive to having conversations with people that I don’t know.

Although it hasn’t been easy for me, I’ve had to learn how to gracefully accept hospitality, because I have not been in a position to pay for hotel rooms since I quit my job. I previously prided myself on my independence, but now I see there’s value in learning to receive as well as to offer hospitality.

I have caught the “social impact” virus. Now that I’ve had a taste of working with projects that have a definite social impact, I measure all possible future endeavors by whether or not I think that they will make a difference.


The kids are on winter vacation from school until next week, and the projects aren’t running right now, so last week was a planning week for the upcoming semester. It was wonderful to receive such a warm welcome from my colleagues when I came back to the community center on Thursday.

This past weekend was the Adult Bible School in the Liberdade neighborhood. It was scheduled to allow working adults to participate, and there was a pretty good turnout. The staff was treated to a deluxe candlelight dinner on Saturday night (with fondue for dessert!) and an overnight stay at my supervisors’ country house, where the Bible School held its last day. Even though there were dire weather predictions for Sunday, everybody spent a lovely day outside. It was great fun to watch the teams compete in relay races and participate in activities based on a theme of peace.

In the heat of competition at the Adult Bible School

I’m not sure how well they were publicized in the U.S., but the Pan-American Games just ended in Rio. When watching the championship game for men’s volleyball on Saturday night (Brazil vs. U.S.), I noticed that the Brazilian team was wearing black armbands. I asked somebody who had died, and they said it was for the victims of the plane crash. Brazil won, which everyone delighted in reminding me the next day.

As the Bible School was drawing to a close, the temperature began to drop. I had two sweaters on, but it was pretty brisk with the wind. I was fortunate to catch a ride into the city, to catch a bus and walk another 15 minutes to my home, where I discovered that I was not in possession of my house keys. I looked through my entire backpack twice with no success. I began to call people to try to figure out where I left them, but I couldn’t reach the first few people I called. Thankfully, I reached my supervisor at home, and she located my spare keys. So I turned around and walked back to the bus stop, waited about 30 minutes for the bus, arriving at her apartment after another 30 minutes or so. It was great to get out of the cold, but I also got sucked into this television program where they choose a letter from an indigent family that moved to São Paulo from somewhere far away in the countryside and wants to return to their hometown. Then the producers pay for the family to move back, film the whole process (especially the family reunion) and furnish a residence for them. Multitudes migrate from poor towns/states with the idea that they will be able to work and become rich or at least comfortable in São Paulo (the commercial center of Brazil), but they almost always end up living in squalid slums, scraping to get by. When I was done crying over the family reunion, I splurged on taking a taxi to return home.

And finally, it’s time for an update on the latest developments in my visa renewal process. When I got back from the U.S., I had a letter from the Brazilian foreigner’s bureau that probably arrived on the day I left for the U.S., asking for: a) documents that have to be notarized at the Brazilian consulate where I originally applied (i.e. Miami) and b) something I don’t have with me—an official copy of my bachelor’s degree. I do, however, have a notarized copy of my graduate degree with me. I showed the letter to my supervisor, and she had some good ideas for how to get everything done before the deadline (90 days from when the letter was sent, but now I’m down to less than 60). We shall see...

25 June 2007

Strike again

I'll be keeping this brief due to the number of things I need to finish before leaving to visit the U.S. on Friday. That is, of course, if I am able to get out as planned because there is yet another strike of the air-traffic controllers. The international flights are not affected, but the domestic ones (i.e. the flight I have to take from Belo Horizonte to São Paulo) have been experiencing major delays.

I also was able to get to the Federal Police last week to get the magic letter explaining that I have the right to legally be in Brazil until my visa extension is either approved or denied. Hopefully that will prevent any problems like my Belgian friends experience on their recent trip. Outside the Federal Police building was hanging the same banner mentioning a strike that I saw the last time I went there in March. I asked the man who helped me if they were still on strike, and he said that the previous strike was for the police sector, and the current strike was a "paralyzation strike" in the administrative sector. He explained that currently on Tuesdays-Thursdays, only the boss is helping people who come in, so I was very happy that I was there on a Friday.

Thank goodness the metro strike was over last week and I could take the shorter trip to get to Liberdade. I was surprised to see the professional knitting results of some of the boys. It turns out that they used some type of contraption with nails that somebody's mother had around the house. They had a few different patterns telling you in what order to wrap the yarn around the various nails. The first thing that all three said about it was that it was much faster than knitting with needles. Whatever works!

Happily, the young man who was trying to participate in the international Methodist youth meeting in Minnesota was able to get his visa, although he missed the first few days because of the delay.

Brazil seems to have much more of a unified culture than the U.S. Almost everybody knows the same core group of songs, soap operas, celebrities (whether musicians, actors or athletes), etc. It's hard to miss when one person breaks into song and whoever is nearby quickly joins in. One day when the staff at São Gabriel, composed of individuals from various educational/socioeconomic levels and spanning an age range of about 35 years, watched a DVD of a pop star in performances with a variety of different singers over the past three decades, almost everybody recognized the majority of the guest singers as well as the songs. Culture in the U.S. is much more compartmentalized--different people who like country music are more likely to know the same songs, but chances are that a country music fan and an opera fan in the U.S. will not know the same songs. Moreover, soccer is clearly the endemic and dominant sport in Brazil, but I don't think that the U.S. could say the same of either football, basketball or baseball.

It's interesting to catch myself doing things in a way that deviates from the norm here. For example, one afternoon I answered the phone when somebody was calling to say that one of the patients in the physical therapy program at São Gabriel would not be able to make his appointment. Because I was getting ready to leave and the physical therapy interns had not arrived yet, I wrote a note and taped it to the door of the physical therapy room. As I was taping the note to the door, somebody asked me why I didn't leave a message verbally with one of my colleagues. The thought had never occurred to me. And if it did, normally I would be worried that they would forget to relay the message. But it turns out that the Brazilians I've encountered are generally excellent about remembering things like that.

When you have a health plan/health insurance, the Brazilian medical system is significantly better than the one in the U.S. I was already amazed at the amount of time the dermatologist took with me when I went for an appointment last year. Last week I went to a general practitioner for a checkup, and the doctor himself (!) took my vital signs and medical history. I did not have to pay a co-pay for either the office visit or the routine lab tests that were done. And you get all of this for a total cost of less than US$2,000 per year. The only exception is ambulances, which will arrive much faster in the U.S. than here in Brazil.

My wallet is feeling the affects of the falling dollar. When I first arrived, the exchange rate was 2.25 Brazilian reais to 1 U.S. dollar. Now, it's down to 1.93 reais to the dollar.

As I prepare for my trip to the U.S., I'm finding it very strange to be dealing with 7-digit phone numbers again after getting used to the 8-digit numbers here.

And that's enough for now...

18 June 2007


Thankfully I had told some people how I didn't know about the last metro strike, because somebody mentioned to me on Wednesday that there was another strike. They bascially run the metro during the morning rush hour and that's it. So you can get to work normally, but to get home, you have to be more creative. For me, this basically meant getting up at 5:30 and leaving home earlier to take the additional bus to get downtown to catch the 2nd bus at its starting point. I think that I have seen more sunrises in the past 12 months than in the previous 5 years. But on the positive side, at least my apartment windows face east so I can see the glorious sunrises over the mountains that surround Belo Horizonte.

I'd previously helped a colleague in Liberdade type her paper for college, so this week she asked me to help her both Thursday and Friday typing papers after the project was over. Late Thursday night, I realized with a moderate amount of panic that I had not yet purchased my plane ticket to get between Belo Horizonte and São Paulo for my upcoming trip to the U.S. Since I was in Liberdade on Friday without internet access, I called my colleague at São Gabriel to ask her to research whether or not I could now buy a ticket on the cheap airline (Gol, the Brazilian equivalent of Southwest Airlines) with an international credit card. (Previously you could only buy a ticket online with a Brazilian credit card and a Brazilian social security number.) If not, I was going to have to try to get to an airport to buy the ticket on Friday afternoon, because after Friday, once I would be less than two weeks before my departure, I expected the price to increase significantly.

In an unusual turn of events, my cell phone rang during the day on Friday, and it was a young man who was one of the two Brazilian participants chosen to participate in an international youth meeting of the United Methodist Church in the U.S. My supervisors are both out of town, and they had given him my name and number because he was having difficulty getting a visa. He had talked to the coordinator of the meeting in the U.S., but he wasn't quite sure what she said about her conversation with the American consulate in São Paulo, so he did an international conference call to have me speak with her. (We still don't know if he's going to get the visa or not, even though the meeting started this week.)

After finishing typing up the paper on Friday afternoon, I took the bus into downtown to catch my neighborhood bus and went straight to the internet cafe to try to buy my plane ticket to São Paulo. While I was in the internet cafe, my cell phone kept receiving blank text messages from what used to be my Canadian friend's cell phone. After the 5th blank message, I was worried that maybe she'd been kidnapped or something. I finally sent a message asking if it was her, and got a message that it was a Belgian/Canadian acquaintance to whom she'd given her cell phone. He was trying to get me to call his wife and sent their home number. After some difficulties with the airline website, I finally managed to get the ticket and went home to decompress. But first, I called the Belgian/Canadian woman, who had recently returned from a visit to Canada. She and her husband were in the same visa situation as me--their visas were in the process of renewal when they left the country--and they had considerable difficulty upon their return with immigration in São Paulo. That makes me a little nervous about trying to get back to Brazil, but at least I'll go to the Federal Police office to get a letter explaining that I am in the process of renewal.

Originally, I was supposed to go to my friend's house on Friday night to be able to leave early Saturday morning with her family for the church youth retreat on Saturday, but I was so exhausted that I asked if I could meet them on Saturday morning. So Saturday morning I was up again at the crack of dawn to be able to get to the church by 7:15, even though we didn't end up leaving the church until much later. We ended up going to a pretty nice retreat center on the outskirts of a nearby suburb. It had a couple of small swimming pools, a sand volleyball court, a grass soccer court (of course!) and a small orchard. The highlights of the retreat were the 10:00 PM treasure hunt (I told my friend that I didn't think that grown Americans would ever go for running around in the dark out in the country) on Saturday night, and a Bible trivia competition on Sunday morning that included whipped cream in the face for your team's incorrect answers or the correct answers of your opponents. We left there yesterday afternoon to come back to Belo Horizonte.

On Friday night, I remembered that I'd forgotten again about Father's Day on Sunday, so I planned to go by the community center in São Gabriel on my way home from the church retreat on Sunday to be able to call my father over the internet. I sent a text message to the caretaker at São Gabriel to ask him to leave the building door unlocked for me to get in on Sunday afternoon. When I didn't receive a reply for him, I called him on Sunday afternoon, and he said he would be there.

I was hoping that my ride from the retreat would drop me at the community center, but no such luck (although they did ask me if I wanted to leave anything with them to pick up next week at church), so I had to wait more than half an hour for a bus to take me to the community center. But while we were en route, the bus turned a different way, at which point I realized I'd gotten on the wrong bus. (There are two routes with the same number and name that go to the São Gabriel neighborhood, but they have little signs in the window to distinguish the one that I take that goes right by the community center from the other one.) This meant getting off at the next stop and retracing the route to walk the rest of the way to the community center. Thankfully, I only had one big backpack with wheels with me. Then when I was about a block away from the community center, I realized that I didn't have my other set of keys with me to open up the office (where I needed to use the computer). I was hoping that maybe the caretaker had a key. When I arrived and asked him about the key, he said that he didn't have one. To try to get from São Gabriel to my neighborhood and back on a Sunday (when the buses are least frequent) was not feasible in less than two hours, so I called the secretary who lives in São Gabriel and asked if I could go to her house to borrow her key. This meant walking about 15-20 minutes to her neighborhood and then taking the bus back (rather than walking back up the steep hill). I finally got back to the community center and was able to make the call over the internet, but nobody answered. I called my father's cell phone, too, but no luck. I left messages in both places and then called my sister to make sure that nothing bad had happened to my parents. She hadn't talked to them yet, but assured me that they were probably fine. It turned out that they were in the backyard with my brother's family, who'd driven down from Chicago to visit. I waited a good while for the bus to go home and was surprised at the number of people getting on at the stop across from a local university. Then I remembered that several universities held their entrance exams this weekend.

At 9:00 last night, I was already nodding off, so I went to bed. My parents did call me at 10:00, so I talked to them briefly and heard about their day. I'm still feeling a major lack of sleep, so hopefully I can catch up over the next few days.

And now for the knitting update...
The kids at the project in Liberdade are bringing their work to proudly show me (or to have me fix problems). I've asked them to bring their scarves this Thursday to take pictures. It turns out some of the boys have already sold theirs--quite the entrepreneurs. An additional positive result is that the kids are also beginning to teach their family and neighbors how to knit.

It seems like people let their kids use pacifiers much longer here. I frequently see children who are 3 or 4 with them and have even seen children as old as 6 or 7 still using pacifiers.

The programs that my supervisors run at the two locations here in Belo Horizonte clearly make a huge difference, not only in the life of children, but also employees and the community overall. I have seen former participants in the programs as well as former employees come back to visit the Community Center in São Gabriel, and they always mention how much that place positively affected their lives. This month alone, at least one former student and one former employee came back to visit.

And now it's time to figure out how to get to the doctor's office for my checkup this afternoon.