Volunteer in Mission to Brazil

30 October 2005


The work team from College Place United Methodist Church in Brunswick, Georgia plus translator Jeane and Gordon & Teca Greathouse (United Methodist Missionaries and coordinators of Volunteers in Mission for Brazil and my bosses). I am very grateful to the team for bringing me the rest of my clothes and possessions. The team is at the Liberdade Community Center in front of a mural painted by one of the team members, who is appropriately nicknamed "Art."


The College Place UMC work team and Liberdade staff and volunteers at the goodbye lunch.


Teenagers the world-round just want to be cool. Here are a few of the young volunteers at the Liberdade center; they have nicknames like "Unlucky" and "Ugly Duckling."

26 October 2005

Observations and minor adjustments

I finally have a "home" and am sharing the apartment of a doctor/health administrator in Belo Horizonte who also volunteers for the church. Her daughters are grown and have moved away, and I am helping (?) to combat whatever empty nest syndrome she might have. Thanks to the work team from College Place United Methodist Church that came to Belo last week, I now have all of my stuff here with me, although a few things are still close by but in a location other than my apartment.

My first assignment was to help with the work team, staying with them in the rural hotel ("sitio") close to the Liberdade ("Freedom") community center, attempting rudimentary translation, and working alongside the team painting inside and outside, stringing new barbed wire, tying up bougainvillea, carting gravel and mixing cement for a new sidewalk. One highlight of our stay at the sitio was our Sunday service outside where the local dog (luckily the small, friendly one, not the larger junkyard one that was usually tied up) attended communion and one of the team members was baptized as birds built a nest in the background.

We also got to experience a worship/celebration service at the community center outside on the soccer court and learned a new game (badminton without the racquets). The work team brought with them toys and school supplies for the children, and by reaching deep into the recesses of my brain, I was able to remember how to play jacks in order to teach the kids.

The people working/volunteering at the Liberdade center are great. The youth, in particular, are a very animated bunch who love to tease and ask how to say things in English. Hopefully, I will be teaching a formal English class at some point. Lunch is served at the Liberdade center, and I am concerned about the potential effects of the delicious food on my physique.

Today, I went to the São Gabriel community center for the first time, meeting the staff, volunteers and children and serving as a guinea pig for the manicure class. For some reason, the idea of giving a pedicure to "American" feet was quite appealing, and I was temporarily a celebrity. I also attended a children´s music class and the weekly activity for the senior citizens. I will be working at both the São Gabriel and Liberdade community centers, so the next step is to learn how to take the bus to get to those neighborhoods.

Birthdays are a very big deal here, so in my 9 days in Belo Horizonte, I have already witnessed 3 birthday celebrations where the birthday song was sung (same tune as in the U.S.) and refreshments of some sort were served after the regularly scheduled activities. And speaking of birthdays, several streets here are named after historically significant dates, and I have already found a street with my birthday in my own neighborhood.

One huge difference between here and the U.S. is the much better utilization of space in houses, apartments, cars, etc. just as in Europe. Things are in much smaller portions here, including everything from glasses, milk/juice cartons to dishwashing liquid. I´m not sure what accounts for this apparent lack of hoarding, but it´s a very strange thing for me to leave the grocery store with enough food for only a few days (because everything is sold in much smaller packages, and the refrigerators and freezers are smaller as well).

In general, people are much more cordial or friendly than in the U.S., but there is still a distinction here between the city (where strangers don´t frequently speak) and the suburbs (where complete strangers will carry on entire conversations). Although I´ve been to Brazil before, it still takes some getting used to what I would describe as the "meat market on steroids." Men, in particular, spend a lot of time and energy appreciating the feminine form. For the first few seconds, this may feel flattering. After that, it begins to feel like you are a piece of meat walking down the street and that these "admirers" have x-ray vision. I had to make some mental adjustments to develop a virtual shield or coat of armor to deflect or ignore this unwanted attention. At least, according to my roommate, it is pretty much "look but don´t touch" and women are still safe walking alone (within reason).

I´m overdue for my dinner, which is more of a snack here because the main meal of the day is lunch, so I´ll stop here. Stay tuned for entering banks, local transportation and more...

17 October 2005

The first leg of the journey

Although things did not go as expected, I am very happy to be in Brazil. I was able to obtain a different visa for 60 days, and I left the U.S. on Thursday, October 13th to arrive in São Paulo on Friday morning. Rather fittingly, my travel day was also filled with waiting, as I had a sizeable amount of time to kill in both the Chicago and Houston airports. My friends in Brazil were kind enough to drive the 2.5 hours each way from their city to pick me up at the São Paulo airport. I spent a very relaxing weekend with them, getting to see their new house and their one-year-old daughter for the first time.

At first, I was overwhelmed with how little Portuguese I was understanding, but my friends have been very encouraging--particularly enjoying the opportunity to correct my grammar after years of my "helping" them with English.

The sense of time is very different here. For example, in my friends' house, I've only seen one clock, and that was on the microwave. Compare that to the average household in the U.S., where you might find a clock in every room. The majority of our time has revolved around socializing with family and friends, usually over meals. Hospitality is very open and generous. My friends were already hosting one visitor before I arrived, and then on Sunday another mutual friend came to visit during the afternoon with her small child, yet the meals and conversation still seemed like no major effort.

The people may be friendly and laid-back, but the traffic is crazy. Driving is one thing I do not plan to do here. Not only do cars, buses and trucks not exactly follow the traffic regulations, but you also have motorcycles, scooters and seemingly suicidal pedestrians to deal with.

The houses here are much more open to the outdoors, with doors and windows usually open during good weather. Because of the socioeconomic disparity, most middle- and upper-class houses are enclosed by walls, gates, fences and alarm systems. This imbalance also creates a very cheap labor pool providing most middle- and upper-class households with services such as cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, gardening and taking care of children.

There is no passenger train service here to speak of, so that leaves the regular people taking the bus to travel around the country. Can you imagine routinely taking 10-20 hour bus rides? Although Brazil has seen a few bargain airlines established in the past five years or so, air travel is still out of reach of the majority of Brazilians. I plan to take a bus tonight to get to my final destination, Belo Horizonte.