Volunteer in Mission to Brazil

28 November 2005

Collective musings

I've been jotting down topics that I wanted to mention, so now that I have a little time, here we go...

Labor market & economy
As I mentioned in a previous post, there is a very large pool of people working for minimal salaries. In addition to the street cleaners (see below), you also have the money changers on the buses, the gas station attendants (all gas stations are still full-service), the security personnel, the street vendors, and of course, the domestic help. A large part of the glut of unskilled labor is the result of a mass rural migration to the cities during the military dictatorship (1964-1982). It is the same story of economic immigrants the world over--when a family is no longer able to support itself in the local economy, one family member leaves for the city to try to find a better job that will support the family. If s/he is successful, other family members may follow. Here, as in many places, the poor are being pushed further and further away from the cities, and the only affordable housing is a significant distance away from their jobs. Several of the people I've talked to with these types of jobs were not born in this city but came here looking for work.

Cost of living
The unit of Brazilian currency is the Real (pronounced "hay-ál"; BRL), and the plural is Reais (pronounced "hay-íce"). For reference, the current exchange rate is about 2.25 BRL to the dollar.

The minimum legal salary here is about 325 Reais/month. To take one bus to and from work costs 3.30 BRL/day or 66 BRL/month. More likely, however, one has to take one inter-city bus (more expensive) plus one local bus, which brings your transportation costs up to 8.10 BRL/day or 162 BRL/month. So right off the bat, you've lost half your salary just for transportation. Rent in the cheaper, distant suburbs can run around 250 BRL/month for a 2BR apartment. Rent where I live, in the closer suburbs can run around 400 BRL/month for the same apartment. [Note #1: It's difficult to get accurate information on rents here since the advertisements usually do not mention the property's rent--only a description of the property and a phone number. This is strange to me because the properties for sale do advertise the prices.]

You can budget about 60 BRL/month per person for food. [Note #2: Some jobs do provide bus tickets and meal vouchers for lunch.] So a person who has to rent a place has to really scramble to survive if his/her employer doesn't pay for transportation. Health care here is, in theory, socialized, but it can take weeks or months to get an appointment with a physician, and then many families do not have the money to purchase medicines if they receive prescriptions. Modes of survival include extended families living under one roof, selling one's meal vouchers (if one is fortunate enough to receive them), having all persons of working age employed, and eating lots of rice and beans, among other things. Only the "rich" kids are able to attend university full-time. The working class kids hold down one or more jobs during the day (if they can find them) and go to university at night.

Racial awareness
November is Brazil's "Black History Month" of sorts, and November 20th is a specific national commemoration of "Consciousness of the Black race." This does not seem to be widespread (e.g. my friends that are professors in São Paulo state were not previously aware of it and a Web search yields few results), but the educators at both of the projects where I volunteer had activities dedicated to this theme for the kids.

There is a big need for this positive reinforcement, because if you simply looked at the print and television media, you would have no clue how many brown people really live here. Rarely do you see pictures of brown people in newspapers or magazines or on television unless they are entertainers, athletes, criminals, or victims. The only Brazilian TV show featuring a mostly Black cast of which I'm aware seems to be a take off of the movie "City of God" about gang wars in a Rio slum. The telenovelas might have one or two brown actors, but not main characters with educations, professions, etc.

Dress code
The dress code here is very relaxed compared to the U.S. Employees in many businesses (stores, banks, etc.) wear jeans, and the women often wear tops that would be considered a little too racy for business attire in the U.S. The funny thing is that jeans (and not shorts) are the fashion--no matter how hot it is. One native of this city explained that in cities on the coast, people wear shorts everyday, but not here.

Bad TV
Brazilians are famous for their obsession with soccer. Each weekend when major soccer matches are broadcast live on television, I can hear the entire neighborhood reacting to the game, screaming, honking and shooting off fireworks. Last night the best team from this region suffered a major loss, and today the front page of the sports section is all black.

Running a close second to soccer is the evening soap opera, or "telenovela." Imagine if Dynasty or Dallas came on TV every weeknight for months at a time, and if at least 5% of every form of media in the country was dedicated to discussing the story line and other mundane details, from Time magazine to the Washington Post and the CBS Evening News, not to mention the radio stations and all of the smaller, local media outlets. And it's not just the women who watch! You are totally left out of water cooler discussions if you haven't seen the latest soccer match or watched the most popular telenovela.

It is amazing, a) how much television programming is imported, b) how much is imported from the U.S. and c) how much BAD stuff is imported from the U.S. Particularly movies. It's hard to tell what movies are ahead of time because they are often given a different title in Portuguese. I saw something starting on HBO the other night that was in English with actors' names that I did not recognize, so I figured it must be British. Wrong! It was just a really bad American film that probably never made it to the theaters. I can't tell you how many times I've tried to watch TV here and just given up. Admittedly, I've never been much of a TV fan, but this is extreme. The other thing is that the cable guide channel seems to have a rather high error rate, sometimes having the completely wrong date, often listing the wrong names of programs.

Sensory overload
I'm not sure why, but the smell of sewage is semi-ubiquitous here. Even in our upper-middle-class apartment, for example, there is a nearly constant odor emanating from pipes and drains. My rusty chemist's nose tells me it's mostly the odor of sulphur, so I don't know if that's part of the water treatment or what. Add to that the heady frangrance of flowering trees and shrubs that are found all over the city, and you feel like you're crossing the battlefield of radically opposing scents as you move from one olfactory zone to the next.

Litterbugs extraordinaire
Many people here have the habit of throwing their trash on the street whereever they may happen to find themselves. While the city does employ a sizeable street-sweeping crew (who are often armed with rudimentary brooms made of palm leaves), they simply can not keep up with the supply of litter. Here, as in the U.S., there may be a weak connection between littering and educational level, but it's more likely a matter of how your family trained you. People also dump a lot of trash and debris in empty lots, so it can sometimes remind you of Eden's junkyard.

To flush or not to flush
Until I traveled to the Republic of Georgia, I had never encountered toilets where you were not supposed to flush the toilet paper but put it in a wastebasket next to the toilet. The toilets in several areas here are the same, and sometimes it's hard to remember where the paper goes in a particular location. The general idea, as I understand it, is that the paper will cause problems with the pipes. In many of the no-flush places, the water pressure in the toilets is not sufficient to remove the paper from the bowl.

The trickle up theory
One of the major problems here seems to be the trickle up theory. This economic system basically adds lots of fees and taxes that do not seem to produce noticeable results other than new Mercedes sedans or beach homes. Taxes on cars manufactured here are close to 100%, and are much higher for cars manufactured abroad. Banks seem to be some of the biggest offenders of trickling up. I have not done my economic research to understand the history and mechanism of the banking system here, but I can guess that at least part of it comes as a method of surviving previously unpredictable inflation and economic crises. The banks here not only charge fees for things like their counterparts in the U.S. (e.g. monthly fee, ATM withdrawal fee, etc.) but they also tack on a per transaction fee (less than 1%) for every single transaction.

They don't like him either
Bush was in Brazil a few weeks ago, and there was noticeable protest downtown during that time, including banners that declared him "#1 enemy of humanity." There was much speculation in the media here about potential comiseration between him and "Lula," the president of Brazil, whose administration is currently under investigation for corruption.

OCD nightmare
This is not the place to be if you like to have everything hermetically sealed and sterilized. In many restrooms, for example, you have soap and a communal towel. Cups and glasses are often reused with only a perfunctory rinsing (or none at all) between users.

Ants vs. flies
Insects are much more plentiful here--probably a combination of climate, less spraying of pesticides (by individuals as well as the local governments), lack of screens and habitat (on undeveloped land in this area, you see sizeable ant/termite hills all over). Ants, particularly the tiny ones, can seemingly get to any height within a building, and if there's sugar to be found, they're all over it. People are very tolerant of the ants, but not of the flies, which seem to multiply after it rains.

Asking for directions
I must admit that one of the games that I've always played when traveling abroad is the "pretend to be a native as long as possible" game. I would take extreme pride at not whipping out my dictionary, not asking people if they spoke English and not asking for directions. Here, everybody asks for directions (even the men!) when walking, on the bus, etc. It's normal to strike up conversations with strangers, so people are used to being approached by strangers. I have even been asked for directions here as I've been waiting for the bus. I am slowly re-training myself to whip out the "I'm sorry--I'm learning Portuguese. Would you please repeat that?" phrase much less reluctuantly. The results have been great. It's just a matter of quieting the inner "I want to be independent and do it by myself!" voice.

25 November 2005

Picture this

Time to upload some photos...

One of the morning classes at the São Gabriel Community Center. These kids range in age from about 6 to 10.

Lunchtime at the São Gabriel Community Center. The children in this class come for activities in the morning and eat lunch before heading off to school in the afternoon. Then the sparrows fly into the room after the children have gone to glean the crumbs from the tables and floor.

Lighting the candle to celebrate the 1st week of Advent. The children at both community centers are preparing a Christmas musical that they will perform separately in their respective communities as well as together in the main Methodist Church downtown. The musical tells the Christmas story from the viewpoint of various insects (fleas, lightning bugs, spiders, etc.).

A memorial service in the garden for an American volunteer who was so affected by his participation in two workteams to Brazil that he requested that part of his ashes be scattered at the São Gabriel Community Center.

Looking out the kitchen window at the São Gabriel Community Center, you can see this tree is home to something besides bananas.

One of the views from the São Gabriel Community Center.

21 November 2005

Doing and being

A friend e-mailed and asked in a very polite way about something I, myself, have been wrestling with (my blog, my prerogative to end sentence with preposition! :)

He basically wanted to know exactly what I am doing in my capacity as a volunteer--just being a general helper, or do I have specific duties and responsibilities? That's been an interesting lesson for me to learn--how to just be and not feel like a failure. Particularly as a native of the U.S., I am used to thinking of my "work" in terms of goals, duties, responsibilities, etc. It is quite a change to learn how to show up, build relationships and try to figure out how to make a positive contribution.

I'd already been thinking, "If somebody was reading my blog, they would not understand how I am doing any 'mission work' here." Right now, I am working two days a week at the Methodist Foundation for Social and Cultural Action (http://methodistfoundation.org.br), two days a week at the Liberdade Community Center, and one day a week at the São Gabriel Community Center. At the Foundation, I am helping with the content of the new Web site as well as helping research donors and communicate with U.S. churches. Thus far, this has been the only role with clear "duties" for me to accomplish. At the community centers, it's more a matter of helping with some of the kids' classes, getting to know them, and answering their questions about English and the U.S. When I first was introduced to a group of children at the Liberdade Community Center, one of the more expressive children blurted out, "I've never seen an American that color!", to which I replied "Don't you have a mirror? You live in South America." My coordinator had already told me before I arrived that she thought it would be a very good thing that I was African-American because the kids had not been exposed too much to brown foreigners and tended to think that all Americans were Anglo.

I just wanted to add one thing to lighten things up a bit before I go watch something on TV that's actually supposed to be worth watching, unlike the nightly soap operas, or "novelas," to which the entire country seems addicted (only second to soccer games). The money changers/ticket takers on the buses seem to be a hybrid of gymnasts, reference librarians and talk show commentators. Gymnasts because they vault over the turnstile several times a day to open and close windows, collect money from people that are in the front, or on longer bus rides, they wait until a few minutes into the ride to collect the money from all of the passengers. Reference librarians because everybody asks them questions, particularly for directions but also other information. And commentators because many will strike up a conversation with any passenger on the bus, adding their thoughts on the current state of affairs in the city, state, country and/or world.

Coming soon to a blog near you--smells, economy and more!

16 November 2005

Under the rainbow

Last night after arriving at the bus station in Belo Horizonte, I experienced a major personal triumph in being able to give a taxi driver directions to my apartment building the Brazilian way--not by address, but by landmarks (which in the case of my neighborhood, funny enough, is the McDonald's). This was not a flawless affair; when he suddenly drove up on the sidewalk in front of a hotel, I re-explained that the turn was a few blocks after the hotel. The crazy thing is that I have not yet memorized my address or phone number; I'll have to make a concerted effort to do so.

Yesterday was the national holiday for the founding of the republic (not Independence Day, as I'd previously reported to some family and friends). This was the second national holiday this month. As an acquaintance was scheduled to defend his thesis last Friday and celebrate over the weekend, I planned to travel to São Carlos (in the state of São Paulo) to spend the long weekend with my friends there. Luckily, we realized that I needed to renew my current visa before heading out of town, and my coordinator, Teca, accompanied me on the quest for the magic visa stamp. Imagine our delight when the bureaucrats informed us that they needed to see the entry form that you get stamped when you go through customs, which of course, I did not have with me because I did not wish to lose it (a previous experience in Uruguay impressed upon me the importance of this piece of paper on one's planned exit of a country). Silly me--I tried to ask why the same exact stamp in my passport with the same exact date was not sufficient. Alas, a US$20 (can somebody please stop the dollar from falling?!) round-trip to my apartment was required to fetch the essential paper. And then, of course, the line was much longer when we returned. Hours after our first arrival, I was finally in possession of a visa that would not expire before I went home to the U.S. for Christmas.

But back to the São Carlos trip--another friend was kind enough to drive me most of the way back to a bus stop where I got the bus to take me back to Belo Horizonte. This was not the "executive" class which I'd previously taken, which was fine with me because it was more affordable and didn't freeze you to death with air conditioning. I'd brought a book with me and was recalling that in my bus trips thus far, I had not really seen other passengers reading, knitting, etc. as I tend to do on long trips. When thinking about possible reasons for this, I decided I was very glad that I bring my activities. At one point, I looked up from the book to see part of a large rainbow, and pointed it out to my seatmate, noticing upon further inspection that not only was it a full rainbow, but it was a double rainbow, and we were going to drive right through the middle of it. The lady then replied that it was actually the 3rd rainbow we'd already passed. Here I was feeling sorry for my fellow passengers who were only looking out the window and occasionally conversing to pass the time, and here I was missing all of the natural splendor through which we were driving.

The landscape here is really stupendous after you leave the city. The soil is a very intense reddish-brown, and it will easily put up a fight against the strongest laundry detergent. I've noticed this time as in my previous visits to Brazil that the clouds seem much closer to the ground. I don't think its because of elevation, but I haven't done any serious research to figure out why.

06 November 2005

And the beat goes on

It is so difficult to find the "perfect time" to write--I will need to learn to record just a few things and not wait until I have hours to record everything I had in mind. But to catch up from a previous post, banks are quite different here. First of all, they have several type of ATM machines, but many of them are only for specific types of transactions (i.e. not withdrawing cash) and are only for customers of that specific bank. Knowing this from my previous visits to Brazil, I went in search of an ATM machine that I thought would do the trick. There are several banks in my neighborhood, so I saw one had a sign with the kind of ATM I needed ("24 hours") and ventured inside. After several unsuccessful attempts to withdraw money, I decided to try to go inside to the teller area, that maybe the machine was there or I could ask somebody. There was a revolving door manned by a security guard, and I tried unsuccessfully to enter--the revolving door would not push any further--and the security guard asked me if I had any metal objects. Who knew?? It looked like a regular revolving door to me, but apparently it's equipped with a metal detector more sensitive than the ones at the airport. After removing my keys and trying to figure out what other metal objects I could possibly have besides coins, the guard finally let me through on the 3rd try. It turned out that the type of ATM I needed was actually down the street at the drugstore.

I'm slowly learning the bus system. It's interesting because each bus here is manned by two people, a driver and a ticket taker/money collector, even though most of the buses now accept electromagnetic cards on which you can deposit money and have the bus fare automatically deducted by holding the card up in front of the sensor. You can also buy paper tickets for specific bus routes. These tickets are often provided by employers (and frequently sold by the employees).

Unless you are a senior citizen or other exception, you enter the bus through the front door and squeeze through the turnstile to go to the back 2/3 of the bus, where you sit or stand, and from which you'll exit. I was relieved to see that I am not the only person who has difficulty with getting past the turnstile and that it's not solely a function of your size but also what you're carrying, the age of the particular bus, etc.

Although the bus system is probably the main form of transportation for the majority of folks, there is also a flourishing illegal taxi/bus service that is nicknamed "perueiro," taken from the name of a popular type of van, the "perua." These vans/cars will wait at the major bus stops and holler out their destinations, which follow the major bus routes. If they don't round up enough passengers at the main stop, they will continue to drive along the bus route, stopping at the various stops along the way to holler out for more passengers. The perueiros accept the bus tickets as well as cash. Generally, people that live in a more distant neighborhood will ride only with perueiros from their neighborhood that they know. I have not attempted the metro/subway system yet because it does not come to my neighborhood.

Many of the cars here operate on alcohol, natural gas, gasoline or a combination of two or more of those. Gas is very expensive (about 2.25 Reais/liter which works out to approximately $3.70/gallon). Despite the number of environmentally friendly vehicles, the pollution here is still formidable because of the numerous diesel trucks and buses that spew black smoke into the air.

I already knew that I would not feel comfortable driving here because it makes New York, Boston and even Italy look tame. You have the motorbikes that zoom in and out of traffic, pedestrians appearing from nowhere (even on the highways sometimes), and then the added throwback of horse- or mule-drawn carts (moreso in the suburbs). Even the ambulance drivers here have to play "chicken" to get through the traffic. And although it's been said many times before, stop signs and even traffic lights are just a "suggestion" much of the time.

It's spring here, and the rainy season, although the rainy part didn't really kick in until this past week. The temperatures have ranged from about 65-75 F last week and 68-90 F the week before (which was unseasonably warm). It's funny that when it's less than 70F, you see a few people in turtle neck sweaters and such.

This state is called Minas Gerais ("General Mines") and the people are called "Mineiros." They are known for their love of cheese and bread, among other things. Cheese appears everywhere at every meal. Pinto-type beans and rice are a staple of every lunch, and the barbecue meat that can be found throughout the country is also popular here.

One of the fascinating things about experiencing a new culture is to see how different flavors are used and combined. For example, I bought some mint/pineapple tea in the store. One of the country's popular sodas is called "Guaraná," and it is made from a fruit which grows on trees in the Amazon region. It has a lot of caffeine and was described by a visitor as tasting like a combination of apple juice and ginger ale. The selection and taste of tropical fruits here is great. I'm not sold on the oranges or tomatoes, which always seem to be a little underripe.

The Brazilian people are really spectacularly beautiful. I think you can see every possible permutation of features derived from the combination of African, European and Indigenous peoples. It's funny that you never know where very curly hair will pop up on a fair-skinned, blue-eyed child, or light-colored eyes or straight hair on a darker-skinned child. Despite this thorough mixing of the races and cultures, there is still a very distinctive color line. The middle- and upper-classes are very noticeably lighter-skinned than the lower-class, and this is seen in neighborhoods, in workplaces and also in the churches. The worship service I attended at the Liberdade Project, which was not affliated with a particular church, had a majority of brown people, but the three Methodist churches I've visited thus far have been predominantly White. At first glance, I was discouraged because the congregations seem somewhat detached from the disadvantaged population, but then I have to go back to learn more about their programs in the community, and, besides, this situation is very similar to that of the Methodist churches in the U.S.

So far, Brazil feels like one big family. For example, the woman with whom I'm staying has connections not only to her biological children and extended family, but also "adopted" individuals who are honorary family members. It seems like everybody knows somebody that you know, so the degrees of separation are much less than six. People that just meet you invite you for dinnner or to call them if you need anything, and they are serious. Although I've only known the people at the Liberdade Project for three weeks, they already feel like family, and I feel like hero returning from the war everytime I simply show up. The staff, volunteers and children at both projects are very warm, friendly and helpful.

To wind things up for this post, I had my first "live music" experience last night, when I went with new friends to a restaurant that was featuring live "forro" music (kind of upbeat country music to which many people dance). You don't pay the cover charge until you want to leave, which is very different from the U.S. As a matter of fact, you can not leave without the receipt saying you've paid for your cover charge plus anything else you ordered. All the waiters I've seen here so far have been men. The crowd was a nice mix age- and color-wise. So even though they may not so much equality or mixing at home, work or church, there definitely is more on the social circuit.