Volunteer in Mission to Brazil

20 December 2005

Insert your own catchy title here...

I wanted first of all to ask for prayers for my home church, Reconciliation United Methodist in Durham, NC (http://rumcdurham.org). They have just learned that the school in which they've worshipped for eight years has decided not to renew the rental contract, and the church will have to find a new place to worship starting in February 2005.

Here comes the sun
I am very grateful to report that we've finally had a lull in the rain with four mostly sunny days so far. It generally makes such a difference in mood, traffic, etc.

Christmas in Brazil
The two community centers with which I'm volunteering both performed the same musical called "A Little Christmas" about the birth of Jesus from the viewpoint of various groups of insects (bumblebees, spiders, ladybugs, lightning bugs, fleas).

I've heard a few familiar Christmas carols in church, and it seems that the words are not a literal translation. For example, "Silent Night" is called "Night of Peace," and instead of "Silent Night! Holy Night!" you've got "Night of peace! Night of love!" I should have assumed that, but it's still very strange to encounter the different lyrics.

The children at a church I've attended performed their Christmas cantata last Sunday, interspersed with high-tech, pre-filmed video. Their musical was based on the idea if Jesus had been born in Brazil. Two things struck me as cool adaptations--first, Mary & Joseph had to travel throughout the Amazon by river, and second, when they got to Bethlehem, the paper collectors (people who earn money by recyling) took them in. This musical had an indigenous flavor, which seems to be much more acceptable to the Methodist church here (I haven't visited any other denominations yet) than Afro-Brazilian music. It was explained to me that there is a hypersensitivity not to have anything that might appear to be associated with condomblé and the other Afro-Brazilian, polytheistic religions.

Keeping up appearances
It's very interesting to see the social differences here in appearances. It's common to have graffiti on the outside of buildings, but people are constantly sweeping and washing the floors. Also, it's strange to me how obsessed people are with washing their cars--especially now that it is raining all of the time.

This city does not have a lot of grass or open green space, but it does have a lot of trees. And in this place where you see litter all over the place, some people are obsessed with sweeping up leaves and spent flowers, while able to ignore the empty lot across the street strewn with litter. It might be somewhat akin to what I saw in Russia where the public spaces are not very well cared for, but people highly protect and care for their private spaces.

Brazilians love to take showers. It is not uncommon to have and use shower facilities at work. For example, all three of the places where I volunteer have a shower, and at both of the community centers last week, the teachers were showering right before the Christmas cantatas. This would be easier to understand if people had been doing hard labor and perspiring a lot, but I guess they must have the "one drop of sweat" rule. Their stereotype of Americans is that we are dirty (not bathing enough) and so are our cars.

Gift-wrapping is a very big deal here, and most stores provide some type of fancy gift-wrapping for free with your purchase.

I've watched teams at both community centers putting up new displays on the bulletin boards and have marveled at the perfectionism (and I, myself, am Type A).

And it was a whole new ballgame to see the children's costumes for the Christmas cantatas. Who knew that you could sew crepe paper with a sewing machine? I should have expected as much here in the land known for Carnaval and its outlandish costumes.

One of my "supervisors" was asking me what things were the hardest to adjust to here, and when I was describing a couple of things, he came up with a very appropriate word--anarchy. I think all societies have their own unique code of what constitutes rudeness, but here, talking while other people are talking, during free performances, during paid concerts and even during communion seems to be okay (I was surprised when somebody answered their cell phone during communion and had a whole conversation, even though everyone was standing facing each other in a big circle). During a recent concert, I was thinking how offended I would be if I were the artist and noone was really listening to my music, but then I remembered that they were from here and (hopefully) were accustomed to it. To me, this possible lack of attention is an odd counterpoint to all of the flowery pleasantries that one exchanges with any stranger.

I've had more than one "conversation" with strangers now where I said something like "I'm sorry, I'm just learning Portuguese, and I don't understand what you said." and the person kept right on talking.

Pride before the fall
This weekend, it has become clear to me that God is working on diminishing/eliminating my pride. Every so often along my faith journey, some less-than-desirable quality has been brought to the forefront for modification (remember the "you always have to be right!", dear sister?). It's funny how each time my foolish ego can dare to think--"Oh, that was a big fault! But now there are only smaller things left to fix..." :)

In any event, this sojourn in Brazil has definitely been a place to address my pride. Ironically, the book I first read when I got here was Pride and Predjudice. Despite my fierce love of independence, I've had to learn how not only to be somewhat dependent upon people--for example, how to ask for directions when I love to do it "all by myself!". I've always taken pride in my appearance as far as wearing nice (not expensive, trendy or elegant) clothes, but here I have yet to wear the suits or most of the dressier clothes that I brought with me. Moreoever, I am well-aware that most of my blouses, t-shirts, jeans and shorts appear distinctly American, and I am not filled with the same sense of pride I would have while wearing them in the U.S.

One of the biggest things, however, is intellectual pride. I've always prided myself on my intellectual abilities (e.g. my facility with foreign languages), which is a funny thing--to be proud of things you did not earn but were given as a gift. In any event, I have recently been reminded multiple times that I have a pronounced accent and that any Brazilian speaking with me for more than 15 seconds can detect that I am a foreigner. To someone who has always tried to travel under the radar, undetected as an outsider, this is quite a blow. I can generally converse a bit with people who have a facility for languages, are educated or are used to speaking to foreigners, but those that don't/aren't usually do not understand a word I say (or at least vice versa). And in case you were wondering, just like I've seen in the U.S., I have encountered people here who just talk much louder when they realize that you are a foreigner, as though your comprehension were only a matter of volume.

Missionary in training?
I've had more than one conversation with my bosses about the current lack of Methodist missionaries in Brazil and the possibility to become a missionary here, should I be moved in that direction. It's funny how an idea that would have completely repulsed me just a couple of years ago does not sound so far outside the realm of possibility now.

They explained that these first few months here had been more of a "trial period" of sorts to get acclimated and figure out where I can best use my abilities. Hopefully when I return in the New Year (I will be flying home for Christmas and attempting a second time to secure the correct long-term visa, which may involve a waiting period of up to three months) I will be able to contribute more actively, teaching English or music, etc., provided, of course that I really improve my Portuguese over the next several months.

And now, more pictures...

The steep dirt road outside the daycare center in Sabará, in the mountains outside Belo Horizonte

View from Sabará

Appearances can be deceiving--this cool-looking housing project on the way to Sabará is apparently an extremely dangerous place after the government relocated numerous squatters there (in order to tear down slums)

"Backstage" outside the church in Liberdade prior to the Christmas cantata

Joseph, Mary, the spiders and the bumblebees look on as the flea circus arrives with the Magi at the Christmas cantata in São Gabriel

The lady bugs celebrate the birth of Jesus at the São Gabriel Christmas cantata (...if I weren't working on my pride, I might be tempted to mention who was responsible for the white face painting of each ladybug...but since I am, I won't)

19 December 2005

The future of Brazil

As usual, I have several more unrelated observations on my stint as a volunteer here in Brazil, but first I wanted to post some of the pictures from my visits to the various children's projects of the Methodist Church in greater Belo Horizonte.

The morning kids at the Alto Vera Cruz project

The afternoon kids at Alto Vera Cruz

Saying grace at the Betânia project

Arts & crafts at the Inconfidentes project

Reading time at the PTO project

Saying goodbye at PTO

Naptime at a daycare center in Sabará

Standing in front of the Christmas display at the Taquaril project

14 December 2005

The Noah syndrome

Can you stop the rain?
I am beginning to feel like Noah with major amounts of rain falling here nearly every day, for most or all of the day. It's very difficult to dress comfortably because what is comfortable when it is cold and rainy is definitely uncomfortable if the sun actually comes out. I've asked a few people when I can expect a change in the weather, and apparently, nearly constant rain is normal for December, and then in January and February, there are occasionally longer periods of sun. By March/April, it's supposed to be pretty nice.

I'm sure that having a cold intensifies my dread of the rain. The strange thing here is that every time it rains, traffic is absolutely horrible. Several years back, the river going through the city used to overflow its banks with each heavy rain, but that's been corrected. I asked some colleagues why the rain still causes traffic problems, and one answer was that many more people drive cars into the city on rainy days (rather than taking the bus). They do have an above ground transit train called the Metrô, but it currently has one line with about 20 stops (2 smaller lines are in the planning stages).

What day IS it?
One of the difficult things for me is not only keeping track of the date, but especially of the day of the week because the names of the weekdays all refer to market or "fair" days. "Monday" in Portuguese is "segunda-feira" or "second fair," up to "Friday," which is "sexta-feira." This means instead of usually thinking about Monday-Friday in terms of 1-5, I have to remember that here it is 2-6.

'Tis the season
Here, as in most Christian cultures, we are thick in the middle of the Christmas season, and the engagements and holiday obligations are keeping folks quite busy. Just as in the U.S., someone mentioned to me that they could not find a parking spot at the mall last weekend and that all of the shopping areas are incredibly crowded now. Both of the community centers where I'm working will have their children's Christmas cantata performances this week, and there will be a joint one in the Central Methodist Church downtown. Offices around the city are beginning to shut down for the holidays (those that can often take one month of vacation).

Making the cut
A major happening this month is the administration of the university entrance exam, or "vestibular." Each university administers its own vestibular, which tests the prospective students on a range of general subjects plus their specific area of interest (what they would like to major in). The more competitive universities administer the vestibular in two stages--first the general knowledge and then, at a later date, the specific subject area--and other universities test for both the general and specific knowledge with a single exam.

The public universities offer free tuition for students that pass the vestibular and are admitted to a course of study. Students must pass the vestibular to attend private universities but must pay tuition. The largest and best public university in Belo Horizonte is UFMG (Federal University of Minas Gerais). With a current enrollment of approximately 30,000 students (2/3 of which are undergraduate), UFMG offered 4,674 openings during its recent vestibular for which 67,861 people were competing. The largest and best private university in Belo Horizonte is PUC Minas (Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais). I can't easily find their total enrollment, but nearly 20,000 individuals were competing for 6,335 places, in PUC's recent vestibular.

These statistics combined with harsh economic realities make it quite difficult for the average Brazilian student to enter, let alone attend college. Most public and private primary/secondary schools meet for only 4 hours each day, so it's hard to imagine learning all of those subjects well enough to be in the top 5-10% of vestibular, especially if some or all of your primary/secondary teachers are not college-educated. Assuming that you can hurdle that obstacle, then the next question is does your education guarantee that can you find a job. I'm not so sure.

Mental adjustments
Although everybody here seems to be one big, friendly, helpful family, I am going through a period of loneliness in the midst of many. Much to my delight, my apartment-mate is back after an extended trip abroad. There has been a constant stream of people since then visiting and hearing about her trip, as well as some group activities, but I still am feeling aimless and isolated.

I guess part of it is the same thing that happens anytime you move--you have to make new friends, and making genuine friends takes time. Already, I know quite a number of people, but I don't have any real "friends." Another part is that communication is extremely important to me, and, although I have been complimented on my grasp of Portuguese, I am still not able to express myself or understand nearly what I would like to. Finally, I really miss the environment and emotional support of my home church family. The people here at the churches I've visited are very nice, but none of the services or congregations thus far have resonated with me, and this makes attending church feel like an obligation. I know that my condition is aggravated by having a cold and experiencing the unending rain, but at least I know from experience that these feelings are temporary and will pass.

11 December 2005

What's in a name?

It's very difficult for me, as a foreigner, to tell how spiritual the average person is here. A lot of the people that I'm around pepper their speech with "thanks be to God" and other religious phrases, but it's not clear to me if it's usually heartfelt or just something that people feel compelled to say.

People don't generally say grace unless they are at a more formal function with a larger number of people.

Religious names are much more woven into the cultural fabric here. Can you imagine instead of "New Hampshire" and "Pennsylvania," having a state called "Holy Spirit" and another one called "Christmas?" Also, some people name their sons the equivalent of "Messiah."

And speaking of boys' names, names ending in "son" or "ton" are popular, even names that would be family names in the U.S. such as Johnson, Davidson, Welleson, Jamison and Wellington. Names that are perceived as "American" are considered chic by some of the people.

Out of the mouth of babes
People often call each other "my son" or "my daughter" like you would hear terms of endearment such as "hon", "sweetie", etc. in the U.S. I really get a kick out of the small kids playing together and calling each other "my son" and "my daughter." For example: "No, my daughter, that is not how the game is played." But, of course, this is not said in an endearing tone, but usually moderate to loud shouting, in the case of the children.

Is there an echo in here?
Chances are, yes, there will be a HUGE echo wherever you are because the buildings are built from cement or bricks covered with plaster and have hardwood or tile floors. This adds an extra challenge for the foreigner trying to understand Portuguese.

Beauty vs. squalor
I've recently visited three different after-school projects in the Shade and Fresh Water network, a couple of which were in slums. I've been meeting the kids and volunteers and taking pictures for the Methodist Foundation here, which is trying to raise more money for the projects. One of the ironies that hit me last week was how the people living in these slums in the mountains outside the city have the most beautiful view of the city below, but only if they can look past the filth all around them--open sewers, litter and construction debris, etc.

In between worlds
Not for the first time in my life (and certainly not for the last) I find myself between two worlds. I am living in an upple-middle class apartment, with a comfortable bed, cable TV, Internet access and a person coming three days a week to cook and clean. My first Brazilian experiences were through my upper-middle class friends who live in a neighboring state, so this is not new for me. What is new for me is being in contact with and forming relationships with people in the communities who have so much less, and for whom life can be a daily struggle. I do not think I've ever worked with a group of people where as many as 15-20% of the people are functionally illiterate, where people live so much closer to the border of life and death.

My first couple of times to Brazil, I saw people darting across the highways to get from the bus stops to the poor neighborhoods, and occasionally, now, I am one of them. (Don't worry, Mom, I always look both ways and only go across one side at a time...) When I crossed the highway yesterday to go to Liberdade in the morning, I was stunned by the sight of an animal carcass completely covered with maggots--and I could only guess that it might have been a dog. Needless to say, they seem to have "organic" methods of dealing with roadkill here.

Eternal youth
I knew that Brazilians are very fashion-conscious and that plastic surgery was popular amongst those who could afford it, but I'd never realized the extent of the attempt to eternally appear young. I would guess that 80-90% of the women over 50 dye their hair, and a slightly lower percentage of men. Ironically, you'll see everybody in bikinis and speedos here--from age 10 to 100, pregnant, beer belly, or whatever.

02 December 2005

To live and die in B.H.

The funeral
This week I attended my first Brazilian funeral. A family in one of the communities where I volunteer had already adopted their three nephews a few years ago because both of their parents were alcoholics. The kids' father died last year, and their mother died on Wednesday morning, both from complications due to alcholism. Amazingly, sending off the dead must be the only thing that this country does quickly because the funeral/burial was the afternoon of the same day that she died. It probably helps that most families live much closer to each other here than families do in the U.S. They do not generally embalm or cremate bodies here, so the burial needs to happen quickly out of necessity. I'm not how characteristic this funeral was (the woman was not your typical upstanding citizen), but I understand it's not unusual for family members not to attend a funeral, particularly if they would have to travel from far away. People were very casually dressed (basically in their normal clothes) and wandered in and out of the chapel in the cemetary, where the body was displayed in an open casket with netting over the top, seemingly to protect it from flies; a friend also mentioned that in older times, this was a necessary method of preventing the transmission of infectious diseases. The pastor mentioned a few words about the deceased, read a few passages from the Bible, said a prayer for the deceased and her survivors, and that was about it. People were standing around talking (and even joking) when I left; I'm not sure if the others stayed to watch the casket be buried or not. The part that broke my heart was watching the middle son, who was old enough to remember a relationship with his mother, but also old enough to know how unhealthy that relationship had been, as he broke down sobbing upon seeing her body.

Hard lives
The more personal stories I learn of the families in the communities where I volunteer, the more I am in awe of the will to survive but also overwhelmed by the seemingly insurmountable obstacles they can face. I haven't done any formal research, but it seems that every family (and many are headed by women) has a history of some combination of inadequate education, unemployment, physical or sexual abuse, alcoholism and abandonment or being kicked out of the house. It is clear that the women, especially, have major self-esteem issues. I've begun to think about and discuss possible models to try to build up the young women's self-esteem; we need to have more detailed discussions, I need to research successful models, and then I'd like to talk to the young women to see what they think and what they would like to do--if I get confirmation that this is a direction God wants me to pursue (and if I get the visa to come back).

Surreal Christmas
It is a very strange thing for me to be in a tropical climate and see everywhere I go the Christmas icons imported from the U.S. I understand that countries like to imitate each other (I would say the U.S. imitates Europe, for example), but it seems so strange to see a White Santa Claus dressed in a snow suit in a country where very few people are that color and it is very rare to see snow. I had a similar reaction when I visited South Africa and realized that the native Africans I encountered there did not have, as I assumed they would, pride in their physical appearance and culture. It makes you want to shake people and yell "Don't you see how beautiful you are and how priceless your culture is?? Love yourself, doggoneit!" But I digress...

Artificial pine Christmas trees seem to be the standard. As somebody who balks against the over-commercialization of Christmas and delays decorating for as long as possible, you cannot imagine my shock to come home one evening in mid-November to see that it was suddenly Christmas in our apartment.

Mommy muscles
I'm not sure if it's due more to lack of money to purchase them, lack of availability, the poor condition of the sidewalks, the common lack of elevators in smaller buildings or the inconvenience of trying to bring a stroller on the bus, but baby strollers are quite rare here. Generally, the parents (usually the mothers) are carrying the babies wherever they go. I also have not seen many wheelchairs--maybe one or two.

Waiting for Godot and everything/body else
In this country, waiting seems to be an art form that everyone practices. Anytime you pass a government office, bank, or the like, you'll see a line winding around. In many offices, they have those computerized systems that give you a number and then post on the screen which number is being helped next at which window. One day I went with the teachers from both of the projects on a retreat. We gathered early in the morning (translation for those that don't know me--8:00) to meet the big rented bus. Finally when the last of the stragglers showed up, we set out on our journey and got almost to the highway, at which point the bus driver pulled over to the side of the road. For the first 20-30 minutes, nobody interrupted their conversations to ask what was going on. I was in total amazement because Americans would have been screaming after 5 minutes. Finally, they asked the driver why we had stopped. It turned out that he had forgotten his official documents for driving the bus, and if he was found without them on the highway (each bus would be stopped, in theory), he would face severe punishment. Now in my mind, if you're a bus driver here, you need to remember just a few things--the bus, the gas and the documents. Anyway, we probably waited another 15 minutes for the driver's wife to show up with his documents.

It is not uncommon at the airport for a national flight to be delayed several times and finally canceled until the next day (or later). [You actually don't see that many airplanes and hardly any heliocopters at all in the sky here, by the way.]

What to wear
By the time I'd finished paring down my wardrobe to about one-fifth of its original size when I was preparing to come here, I felt like I had almost no clothes. Then I came here and I feel like I still have five to ten times as many clothes as the people in the two communities. Here they iron everything--probably because they have no clothes dryers (everybody hangs their laundry on the line to dry). Particularly when I lived in Texas, it was a point of pride not to wear the same outfit more than once every 2-3 weeks, and here, I feel like I've already seen people's entire wardrobes. High heels are very popular here, which makes no sense to me considering the condition of the sidewalks (and lack thereof), and rubber flip-flops are the footwear of necessity for many folks. And have I mentioned that this topography is a lot like San Francisco? I feel like Rocky Balboa every time I arrive at my apartment building in the evening after climbing up the steep hills.

And now for a few more thousand words

A neighborhood I pass on the highway on my way to Liberdade

A bus stop on the side of the highway
[Many are much closer to traffic.]

Suburban skyscrapers I pass on my way to Liberdade

Precipitous neighborhood close to downtown
[You can see how different the quality of construction is within neighborhoods. The brick buildings on the left are built on the side of a steep slope; you often hear about buildings like those being washed away during landslides caused by heavy rains.]

Prison? No--track/exercise area.
[This is a small, triangular area in the middle of heavy traffic where people go to walk and run.]

Apartment buildings in my neighborhood
[If you look closely, you can see the litter in the street. Graffiti is pretty common here in almost every neighborhood. The signatures ("tags") are often symbols rather than letters, so they often resemble hieroglyphics.]