Volunteer in Mission to Brazil

29 May 2006

Something in the air

Before I forget, I wanted to say that I'm going to try to write regular weekly updates on Monday nights, so you can check here on Tuesdays for new postings.

That flu that I had was no joke. I stayed at home for almost the entire week, only venturing out to São Gabriel on Friday for half a day. I don't have a temperature or congestion anymore, but I'm still exhausted most of the time and am having a difficult time eating (normally eating is not a problem for me...).

One of the hard things about getting over being sick is that now seems to be the season for burning leaves, etc. It's pretty common to find people here burning trash, but now there seem to be fires burning everyday for most of the day, no matter what neighborhood I go to.

I'm slowly beginning to learn the names of our 100+ students at the two different projects. Both projects have undergone a lot of administrative turmoil recently as they had a budgetary crisis, couldn't pay the staff for months and had to shut down briefly. Now a majority of the teachers and staff at both projects are volunteers, and the projects have the same number of children participating with a fraction of the staff they previously had. I truly admire those who are giving so much of themselves to keep the projects going.

I don't know if my appearance or mannerisms have changed since the last time I was here (I suddenly look or act more Brazilian?), but I've definitely noticed more strangers asking me for directions, etc. then when I was here last year.

People here are very creative in adapting to various situations. For example, the mail service here is not known for its reliability, and express mail courier services are prohibitively expensive, so people generally use a network of personal couriers to get things from one part of the country to another. It's not unusual for Person A to call their friend, Person B, who they know is going to São Paulo, to ask them to carry something to Person C, who might either pick the package up at the bus station or might come by Person B's house/hotel to pick it up. This courier service is also used for shorter distances, like between downtown and Liberdade.

Chris and I spend a significant amount of time debunking myths about the U.S. People here see a lot of American television and movies and draw from them alot of assumptions about American society. It's interesting because almost everybody I've met has either a relative or friend working illegally in the U.S., but there are still so many misconceptions about how perfect life in the U.S. is. I realized a big difference between the Brazilian and American economies is that here in Brazil, you might be able to get a job and survive without a college degree, but you would never be able to save money, get ahead, etc. In the U.S., although it is certainly not easy, it is more feasible to work menial jobs and still save money, buy a house, send your kids to college, etc. It's weird that a huge group of people can collectively have such a low self-esteem, but I guess if you believe the international propaganda that a country's success is measured by the strength of its economy, you might feel sub-standard based on the Brazilian economy. I'm always trying to point out to people the strength of the families, friendships and culture here--very important but often overlooked qualities.

22 May 2006

The week in review

I have some time today to write as I am at home with the flu. I've gotten sick both times I've stayed overnight in the Liberdade neighborhood. I think it's because I am not accustomed to the cold, and that area (about 45 minutes outside of town) and the houses are much colder than where I live. I guess the neighborhood people have built up a resistance, and they find it very funny that North Americans who come from snowy lands get so cold. Thankfully, I didn't start feeling bad until Saturday night because Friday morning I had to run around to officially register as a foreigner living here, and Friday afternoon, I taught the English classes by myself because Chris, my co-teacher, was sick (he'd also stayed overnight in Liberdade).

Brazilian Bureaucracy 101
Just to give you a small idea of the intricacies of Brazilian bureaucracy, let me describe exactly what I had to do to register as a foreigner. My visa required that within the first 30 days of entering the country, I had to report to the Federal Police to register as a foreigner living here. Other than that requirement, there was no information about what this process required, and I couldn't find anything on the federal police website. Thankfully, the daughter of the woman I live with is in between jobs and offered via e-mail to help me get information on what I needed to do and which bus I needed to take to get there. She called the Section on Foreigners at the Federal Police and learned, much to my surprise, that this process requires much more than just showing up and filling out paperwork. She found out that I needed to bring two passport-size photographs, my visa application that had been returned by the Brazilian consulate in Miami, photocopies of the "principle" pages of my passport, the exact address of the Methodist Foundation for Social and Cultural Action (the Brazilian organization who officially invited me to volunteer here) and pay more than 100 reais (roughly about US$50) in fees. I'd been to the Federal Police once before to renew my tourist visa when I was here in October, but then I'd gotten dropped off with my boss, Teca, and we had to take a taxi back to my apartment to retrieve the "embarkation/disembarkation" paper that got stamped when I arrived in Brazil and went through customs. I was determined not to repeat that expensive mistake.

We have a printer/copier/scanner in our apartment, so I copied the first pages in my passport as well as the pages with the Brazilian visa, just in case. I also brought my official invitation letter, the embarkation/disembarkation card and a copy of my visa application (in addition to the original), just in case. But first I had to find a place to get the photos taken. My roommate told me about an instant photo place at the mall, which would require me taking a bus. Thankfully, somebody stopping by the apartment on Friday morning knew of an instant photo place within walking distance, so I went over there. The guy at the photo shop said I couldn't take the pictures with my white t-shirt because the contrast would not be good. I immediately started thinking what I could do because I needed to get the pictures right then, so first I asked if I could borrow the other employee's red sweater, but then I remembered that I had a red jacket in my bag, so I put that on top of my t-shirt. Moreover, I remembered a horror story of somebody going to the American consultate here and being told that her photographs were not acceptable because they needed to be without glasses, so I got four pictures with my glasses on and four without glasses (the minimum you could buy was eight).

Did I mention how nervous I was to be going by myself without any native speaker to help me? I caught the bus and asked the money collector on the bus to let me know when we were by the hospital where I needed to get out to walk up the hill to the federal police. He agreed to help, and I watched the street signs for the street that the hospital was on. Although he'd been chatting with another passenger, he saw me looking up the street nervously when we were on the right street and said "I didn't forget you!" and eventually signaled for my stop. I walked up the hill to the Federal Police (think San Francisco hills) and went through the metal detection and over to the section for foreigners. It was about 11 when I got there. After waiting 15 or 20 minutes, I finally got to the window, and guy #1 looks at my paperwork and gives me a form that needs to be filled out, another form listing the fees I need to pay, and says he needs a copy of every page in my passport that has a stamp on it (which, in my case, is all except two pages). I mentioned that my friend called and that they'd told her I needed copies of just the "principle" pages. But he wouldn't budge, and I know that what might fix the problem in the U.S. (arguing or getting angry and and asking to see the supervisor, for example) would only make things worse here. It's somehow a game that you can never get complete and correct information in advance, and it's just a given that you're going to have to jump through several bureaucratic hoops. I ask him if he knows of a place close by where I can make photocopies, and he tells me about a store at the bottom of the hill. So after asking what time they'd be closing for lunch (12:00), off I go to make the additional photocopies of my passport pages. Thankfully, there was no line at the photocopy place, and I got that done pretty quickly and then trudged back up the hill again.

By this time, it was getting perilously close to lunchtime, so I went straight to the payment place to pay the fees first before returning to the section for foreigners. The lady at the payment place was trying to explain something to me about something you needed from the internet to pay the fees, and that I needed to go to this guy across the room, who would do that (for an additional fee, of course). I didn't really understand, but I went to the guy, who typed my information into a web form, printed out two forms (one for each of the two fees I needed to pay). Then I waited in line to pay the money to the lady and get the receipts. After that, I went back down the hall to wait in line to talk to the guys in the section for foreigners again. Did I mention that they have protective windows with about a 4" space at the bottom, and it was impossible for me to hear them unless I put my ear down by the space at the bottom? First, guy #2 (a different one from before) tried to say that because I waited so late to go there, I would have to pay a fine, but I quickly explained that, no, I was still within the 30 days. When he re-calculated and realized that it was the last business day before the 30 days would be up, he said "you're like a Brazilian, doing it at the last minute." I made an excuse about traveling to help with a group, and he seemed to be appeased. This office, like many here, uses an interesting combination of paper and computer. They seemed to have some computer database where they typed in something (my passport number?), but there were only two computers for the office, and it's clear that people are not adequately trained in how to use them. Anyway, after fiddling with the paperwork for a little while, he sent me upstairs with another woman that was going to do the same thing, although he didn't tell me what (it turned out to be fingerprinting). The door was closed to the office where we were supposed to go, but, surprisingly, the guy actually opened the door when we knocked, even though he'd probably been eating lunch, from the smell of things. After doing that and coming back downstairs and waiting to talk to guy #2 again, I finally got the official stamp in my passport and a little piece of paper that verifies that I'm officially registered as a foreigner here. Then within two months, I'm supposed to get a notification in the mail, and I'll have to return to the Federal Police to pick up something (and ID card?).

But enough of bureaucracy--I wanted to relay my first experience with Brazilian telemarketing, since it was markedly different from any telemarketing experiences I'd had in the U.S. The other evening, I answered the phone, and a woman asked to speak with my roommate. I explained that she was away at a conference, and she said something I didn't understand, so I said I was a foreigner still learning Portugese and asked her to repeat it more slowly. She asked where I was from and said that my Portuguese was very good for a foreigner and that she was in São Paulo, where people were known for speaking very fast. When I answered that I was from the U.S., she got all excited and said "Oh, you should know telemarketing because it originated in the U.S.!" She then explained that her company had a promotion for cable television and internet access. I explained that we already had cable service and that my roommate had recently signed a new contract for internet service. She asked me if I knew which company, and I told her the name of the company. That ended the business part of the call, but she wished me good luck in Brazil before hanging up.

A Nation of Spectators
During my time here, I've noticed that Brazil is truly a nation of spectators. Not only are people very curious about car accidents and police activity, but they will stop and watch stuff that is not even clear what it is (e.g. an outdoor area that I later realized was being set up for a public exercise demonstration). And then there is television, with the soap operas and the soccer games that people are always watching.

World Cup fever is underway here in the land of Pelé and five World Cup championships. Even when the organized crime attacks in São Paulo were on the front page of the news, the only thing above those articles every time was news about the World Cup. Every possible item is being sold in the colors of the brazilian flag (yellow, green & blue). I even saw an ad on the back of a bus the other day for yellow and green condoms. I remember being in Boston when Brazil won the World Cup for the 4th time, and how the streets were shut down in the Brazilian neighborhood (surprisingly, the Boston area has a huge population of Brazilians) and there was a spontaneous block party. I can only imagine what it will be like to be here during the World Cup, although some I've talked to don't expect Brazil to win this time.

Noise pollution
Not only is air pollution more of a problem here, but so is noise pollution. First, you have the vehicles with huge speakers that drive around blasting advertising for local businesses. Then you've also got a lot of noise from your neighbors (e.g. music, children, pets) particularly in neighborhoods like mine with high-rise apartment buildings built very close together. Then there's the omnipresent construction, which, thankfully, doesn't usually start until 8 AM.

The need is great
In just two weeks back at the two community centers, I've already witnessed people at both places trying to find a place in the program. One morning at São Gabriel, two siblings about 4 and 7 years old came to the center looking for a place to go to get something to eat. The director got them a meal and interviewed them to find out why they were by themselves and weren't in school. The night I stayed at Liberdade, we were meeting with a youth committee at 8:30, and a woman came by to ask about finding places for her two children in the program because her husband had died and she was now working all day outside the home. The next day, Chris and I talked with the teachers at Liberdade about the proportion of children in the neighborhood that are in the program, and it turns out that the program only serves about 5% of the neighborhood children.

English classes
I'm happy to report that the other English classes have gone better than the problem class I mentioned last week. I think the children at Liberdade know me a little better because I spent more time there when I was here last time than I did at São Gabriel. In any case, there were even fewer problems with the classes at Liberdade. But speaking of English classes, I need to figure out lesson plans for the rest of this week.

Thanks for all of your prayers and notes of support.

15 May 2006

It's only Monday?

It sure feels like Friday. Today was the first day of teaching English to children at the Shade and Fresh Water Projects. It was officially decided last week that English classes should start this week at the two different community centers where I volunteer, São Gabriel and Liberdade. Thankfully, there is another American volunteer here for a few weeks, Chris from Portland, who is helping me get the classes started.

After we set a schedule last week, Chris & I talked about the different groups and what we would teach. Together this morning, we taught each of the three morning groups at São Gabriel in 40-minute shifts, teaching them the English alphabet and the ABC song. This also included a couple of segments of acting out the letters with our bodies, "YMCA"-style (the same way everybody starts to form the letters y, m, c & a whenever they play the song "YMCA" from the Village People).

We started by learning their names, which is not easy when you consider that Brazilian parents are just as creative if not more so than American parents in creating new and unusual names. The first two classes (6-7 and 8-9 years old) went pretty well. Then came the 10- & 11-year-olds...

It turns out that third, older group is known to be one of the most difficult in terms of discipline, and also that Monday is always their worst day for misbehaving, but we weren't told this until after the class was over. We could barely get through learning their names. Normally, you have one or two boys in any class that don't pay attention and are distracting, but even the majority of the girls were acting nuts. I think out of 11 kids, there were about 2 or 3 who were behaving reasonably. We asked who was not interested in learning English and if they would like to leave the class and allowed them to do so. After a while, I was so aggravated that Chris had to take over the alphabet portion, and even then, I walked out of the room a few minutes later in frustration. Thankfully, it turned out to be time for them to eat lunch, so I called them to go eat.

Tomorrow we have even older kids (up to 14) who have already been exposed to English, so we will see how it goes. We will also be teaching the staff at both places, who are eager to learn from native speakers. Although I brought a workbook of English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) worksheets with me when I returned in April, we don't have a curriculum to use, so we're trying to do some research on the Internet, talk to people about what works, and do things "on the fly." We will be asking the older kids and the adults what they would like to learn and working from that list.

One of the really difficult things to adjust to here is the pace at which things actually get accomplished. On one hand, the slower pace is one of the things that makes living here so much more pleasant, but on the other hand, when you want or need to get something accomplished, it can really be a trial of one's patience. I've noticed (but am not sure yet if it is an actual trend) that there seem to be two extremes that are combined: a) either nobody has the information/resources/authority to do what you need to do, or b) there are too many people with information/authority who complicate the decision-making process, causing decisions to be reversed two or more times after they are made. Again, I'm not sure if this is part of the culture or not because I don't have enough data yet. I'll have to get back to you on that.

The autumn weather is pretty nice so far and reminds me a lot of Texas. It can get pretty chilly at night and in the early morning, but it gets up to 80F in the afternoon. So far, we haven't had a lot of rain. One big surprise for me was that it gets dark at 6 PM. Up to now, I'd never been in Brazil when they were not under daylight savings time.

Mother's Day is a pretty big deal here, which is not surprising, given the strength and importance of family ties in Brazil. The news reported that stores in Rio were open until midnight so people could do their last-minute shopping. Apparently, they don't have too much teenage rebellion, and the kids generally don't leave the house until they get married. If the children are able to go to college in a distant location, they will often live with family or friends in that place. Almost every single Brazilian I meet asks isn't my family worried to have me living away from them. They are often shocked when I tell them I have not lived with my parents for half of my life.

And speaking of the news, I'm not sure if the story has been featured in the U.S. news, but this weekend, there was a huge retaliatory attack by an organized crime syndicate based in São Paulo against the police in São Paulo and several other regions because several imprisoned crime bosses were transferred to a remote prison. More than 50 people have died. To my knowledge, this has not affected our area, but a lot of innocent people have been killed. Another story of concern here is Bolivia's nationalization of oil and gas fields owned by companies from Brazil and other countries.

Finally, a moment of thanks for something I've never had to personally experience. I live close to a medical clinic, and, especially on the weekends, I see people walking up the hill from the bus stop to take themselves or their sick children there for treatment. I am so thankful that I have never had to be sick and take one or more city buses to get to a place where I could receive medical care. And as I've previously mentioned, most people here don't have strollers, so this means they're carrying their sick children in their arms. I am in awe of the physical and emotional strength of the Brazilian people.

08 May 2006

Hit the ground running

No, I didn't disappear off of the face of the earth--I just got to Brazil and jumped in, accompanying the Primetimers' Tour to São Paulo, Belo Horizonte and Rio de Janeiro.

Backing up, I returned to Brazil on Friday, April 21st and ended up catching a ride with my apartment-mate's daughter and son-in-law to São Paulo on Sunday in time to meet the Primetimers on Tuesday the 25th at the national headquarters of the Brazilian Methodist Church.

The group (including my parents) arrived safely, although one couple was delayed by a day. Their first day in Brazil, the group got to meet most of the Methodist bishops of Brazil due to a concurrent bishops' retreat taking place at the Methodist headquarters. Commencing the tour of Methodist social projects on Wednesday, the group visited a school for the disabled ("Semeador") and a homeless shelter inside one of the city's bridges. The group also visited the Methodist Seminary.

On Thursday, April 27th, we all flew to Belo Horizonte and visited the Shade and Fresh Water project at Liberdade. It was great to finally greet my friends and the children and to be able to introduce my parents to everybody. Our stay in Belo Horizonte also included visiting Shade and Fresh Water projects in Planalto and São Gabriel, the Santa Teresa Methodist Church, and the neighboring historical town of Ouro Preto (my first time there).

On Wednesday, May 3rd, we flew to Rio de Janeiro and visited Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar) in time to catch the sunset. During our time in Rio (also my first time there), we visited the People's Central Institute (Instituto Central do Povo), which was just about to celebrate its 100 anniversary, and a group home for abandoned/orphaned children. We still managed to visit the famous Corcovado on a beautiful afternoon (see below) before the group flew out on the 5th & 6th.

It was a good and, thankfully, uneventful trip.

Primetimers, headquarters staff and volunteers at the Brazilian Methodist Church Headquarters in São Paulo

Primetimers and children at the Liberdade Shade and Fresh Water Project

Primetimers and children at Liberdade, part 2

A visit to the Saint Sebastian Cathedral in Rio

View from Corcovado

View from Corcovado (part 2)

A familiar face in Rio