Volunteer in Mission to Brazil

26 June 2006

The official and the unofficial

One of the most interesting things about Brazil is the existence of official and unofficial versions of many different things. And when I say "unofficial," that usually means "illegal but widely overlooked."

Here are a few examples:

Like most places, you have official taxis (here they are white with a "taxi" sign on top) and people driving their own cars as unofficial taxis, trying to pick people up at the bus station or airports. Here you also have the "perueiros" who drive along some of the bus routes in cars and vans picking up people who are waiting for the bus (usually charging the same price as the bus and even accepting the paper bus vouchers that some people receive from their jobs).

There are official lottery offices that sell government-sponsored lottery tickets, and there is the unofficial "numbers" game that uses different animal symbols and is very popular.

real estate
There is land that you officially buy and sell, and then there is land that people squat on. If the squatters are successful, they can even "sell" it back to the government if the slum needs to be torn down.

CDs, videos and software
Because of the extremely high prices of the genuine items compared to the average salary, pirated (illegal copies of) CDs, videos and software are often easier to find than the legitimate versions.

You've got people who apply for permits to sell things at local market fairs (e.g. there is a huge crafts fair downtown every Sunday morning), and you have the people who just walk around selling food, drinks and other items. Several people carry boxes or coolers around their necks, and the more sophisticated ones have shopping carts.

There are local branches of many widely recognized churches such as Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Assembly of God, but then are a lot of tiny churches that spring up overnight with no affiliation and a pastoral staff with no particular qualifications.

bus routes
On less-crowded buses in smaller neighborhoods, the driver will often want to veer from the regular route and skip some stops. The driver or the fare-collector will ask you where you want to go, and it's very difficult to negotiate these unplanned changes when you're less-than-fluent in Portuguese. There are also "official" changes in bus routes of which you may not be aware. For example, one bus I take went down a different street one Sunday, and only later did I find out why. There is a street fair and a lot of traffic on the regular street on the 28th of every month because the church is named for a particular saint whose "day" is on the 28th of October, but there is generally a celebration on the 28th of every month.

The team from Valdosta, Georgia flew back to the U.S. yesterday, and I spent the day with them before they left, going to the artisan's fair downtown, Sunday school, lunch, hanging out and then out to the airport. The church where they worked all last week gave them a royal send-off, and I hope they had an easy trip home.

19 June 2006

tor · cer (v)     to cheer and support one's team

Any proper update must start with news of the World Cup since that is the preeminent happening in Brazil. So far, I have watched both Brazilian games at people's houses (fairly low-key environments). Brazil has won both of its games so far (beating Croatia 1-0 and Australia 2-0) but Brazilian fans are aggravated that the victories haven't been more pronounced, as they fully expected them to be. That, however, does not stop people from setting off firecrackers and having parades and parties during and after the games. Other than the plazas set up with giant-screen TVs for public viewing, the streets are completely empty during the games. It seems that only 1% of the population isn't watching because they choose not to--everybody else that isn't working is someplace with a television (and many people who have to work have access to televisions during the games). Some of the other visiting Americans and I were trying to make a comparison to a similar event in the U.S., but there isn't one. The Super Bowl is about as close as it gets, and that does not involve a national team, and a significant fraction of the population doesn't watch it.

I think it was Wednesday when we visited one of the Shade and Fresh Water projects in the neighboring community of Betim because that was the project that our visitor's church was sponsoring. Even though the project wasn't actually functioning that day, several children and volunteers turned up to greet us. This rural area had mostly dirt roads, and it is located out past the "Industrial City" section of Belo Horizonte. The project serves about 50 children in two shifts, and the local women also do embroidering and other handicrafts to raise money. I'm including some photos that I took at this project.

Some of the kids examining the paper they made from recycled paper

A couple of shy little boys in Betim

Little feet

I have survived my first experience as the only guide for an incoming group from Georgia. Last Thursday, I took a bus (6.5 hours, which is starting to not be such a long bus ride for me) to Rio with the American visitor who was staying in our apartment. She'd never seen Rio, so she went with me to meet the work team and spend the day touring with them on Friday before heading up to meet the EvangeMed boat in Manaus. I knew that a bus driver would be picking me up at the hotel to take me to meet the team at the airport, but he arrived almost two hours early. Marcelo, the driver, was a funny guy, and I had lots of time to hear his interesting stories.

The team from Park Avenue UMC in Valdosta, Georgia arrived at the international airport in Rio late Thursday night. I was a little nervous because all of the flights above theirs on the display board said "delayed" or "canceled," and I thought there must be some issue with fog or something that was preventing planes from coming in. Marcelo pointed out that all of those flights were with Varig, the failing Brazilian airline. Before the team exited customs, I asked Marcelo if the currency exchanges were, as they appeared to be, closed. He went to investigate and came back with two alternate "unofficial" places we could have the team exchange money. It turns out the unassuming little man dressed like a porter who'd been standing by the door runs his own unofficial currency exchange, and he was able to immediately change some money for everybody. The bus driver spotted the team right away in their yellow t-shirts. He and I were both surprised at the amount of luggage they had with them--it turns out that they'd received several requests to carry stuff with them to deliver to folks here. The van we had was a 15-seater, but after some skillful packing, we were able to get all 11 of us and all of the suitcases in the van.

Guiding the team was pretty easy because they actually followed the suggested rules (e.g. not going out alone, flashing money around, etc.). Thankfully, there were no major incidents. We went to Corcovado (Jesus statue on the mountain) in the morning and Sugarloaf (mountain with two cable cars up to the top) in the afternoon, and both places were crowded compared to my previous visit in May. It turns out there was a special promotion for locals to be able to go for 1/2 price that day. The weather held out just long enough for us to come down from Sugarloaf, at which point it started to rain. We then drove back to the hotel via several beaches, including one where many hangliders land, and we got to see two hangliders and one parachuter land right there. The team's flight to Belo Horizonte was moved to a flight early Saturday morning, so everybody was ready to leave the hotel at 7 AM to head back to the airport. Thankfully, again, there weren't any problems with them getting checked in and boarding their flight. My big accomplishment was finding and catching the right bus to take me back into town (after passing by the bus station, the other airport, and several other neighborhoods) and getting off at the right place to walk to my hotel. When I talked to the work team later, it turns out that a large group from their host church met them with banners and great fanfare at the airport in Belo Horizonte. I got to fly back to Belo Horizonte later on Saturday afternoon because my boss was able to find a really cheap flight.

Probably the hardest translation I had to do for the group was in Sunday school yesterday morning at the church where they'll be working this week. Thankfully, by the afternoon meeting to plan their work and the evening worship service, more qualified translators were there to help. It seems right now that translating English into Portuguese is harder for me than Portuguese into English.

12 June 2006

More than meets the eye

Last week I mentioned the kites are popping up everywhere. The teachers at São Gabriel had already mentioned to me that many kids play hooky and instead of going to the project go fly kites, but this week I learned of a new twist. For those who have read The Kite Runner, this will sound familiar, but I was quite shocked to find out they have the same game here, too. It turns out that some of the kids will glue crushed glass onto their kite's string with the aim of cutting the opponent's kite, just like the Afghanistani game in the aforementioned book. This became such a problem here with motorcyclists and others who were getting their throats sliced that the government outlawed it, but in a place where basic traffic laws are rarely enforced, there's no way you're going to get police out doing kite inspections. Ironically, I sliced my finger on a kite string that was not covered with glass last week when I was helping a child unravel the knotted string.

In the first week of the World Cup, many neighborhoods and establishments have been transformed into a riot of green, yellow and blue (the colors of the Brazilian flag). Tomorrow is Brazil's first game, and many businesses will be shutting down so everybody can go watch the game. There are even several large screens posted at plazas throughout the city for people to watch outdoors. This afternoon, we borrowed an antenna to watch the U.S. play the Czech Republic (and lose 3-0) at the community center. Before the game started, the Brazilian sports network was interviewing people on the street in New York city in awe that noone knew that the World Cup was going on, let alone that the U.S. was playing today. This past weekend, you could hear people throughout the city cheering against their least favorite neighbors, Argentina.

One thing that immediately caught my attention and continues to get on my nerves is the lack of brown people accurately represented in the media. Although Brazilians are constantly citing the fact that their country has the most people of African descent other than Nigeria, you'd never know it from looking at a newspaper, TV or magazine. I'll be the first to admit that the U.S. still has a problem with disproportionately representing Blacks and Latinos as criminals, etc. but this is really quite extreme. When I (try to) read the Estado do Minas newspaper or the Brazilian version of Time magazine to which my roommate subscribes, you'd never know that there were brown people living here other than criminals, abandoned children, entertainers and soccer players. Advertisements in all forms of the media are pretty much aimed toward Euro-Brazilian families. One noteable exception was the commercial I saw that was trying to convince maids/cooks that they needed to buy a certain brand of rice for the families that employ them. When the lay pastor who teaches music and Christian education at two of the projects was preparing a bulletin board display with pictures of families, I pointed out to her that none of the families looked like the kids in the project (i.e. brown). She spent the next hour looking unsuccesfully for a picture of a brown family in her magazines. All she could find was one picture of a father and daughter.

Hot water heaters are extremely rare here, so people have electrically heated shower heads that you can adjust to two or three different settings, and you can also regulate the temperature via the water flow. Above a minimum flow, a higher water pressure means a lower temperature. I still remember the my first experience with these shower heads during my first trip to Brazil, and I electrocuted myself trying to change the settings while the water was running.

Another interesting thing about "winter" here is that very few places have central heating (or air conditioning, for that matter). When buildings are built from concrete, they can get pretty cool, so if it's 55 F outside in the morning or evening, it can easily be 45 F inside the community center buildings. Thankfully, our apartment is much warmer.

The majority of people graduating from high school do not pass the entrance exam for the free, public univerisities, so if they want higher education, they often have to pay for it at the private universities. (Ironically, the private universities here are much lower in quality that the public ones.) That means they usually have to work full time and go to school at night. Many of the people I know here go to university from 7 PM to 10:30 PM or later, and the ones that live in faraway places such as Liberdade don't get home until 11:30 or later every weeknight. I don't know when they find time to study. Another interesting thing about these students is that nobody has hardcover books. People might have spiral-bound copies of books or, more frequently, photocopies or downloads of reading material. Book prices here seem to be at least double what they are in the U.S., so I can totally understand why students are not buying $300-500 books for their classes.

Finally, this is one flesh-eating people. There are about 20 different cuts of beef alone, and butcher shops and sections at the supermarket are quite popular. The middle and upper class seem to eat beef almost exclusively, with an occasional foray into chicken, fish or pork. The lower class have to stick much more to cuts of chicken and pork that are used more for flavoring. The middle and upper class have barbecues or go to barbecue restaurants ("churrascarias") almost every weekend. The barbecue restaurants are all-you-can-eat where they come around with different types of meat on a skewer and cut it directly onto your plate. It is beyond a doubt the best meat I have ever tasted.

I think that's probably enough for this week. I still need to figure out our plans for watching the first Brazilian game tomorrow because we have an American guest staying with us for a few days to visit my bosses and some of the local children's projects. Later this week, I'm headed back to Rio to meet another work team that's arriving from Georgia. This should be a big test since I will be the only translator. Stay tuned for next week's update.

05 June 2006

Let's go fly a kite

I don't really watch the news (I didn't in the U.S. either), but it seems as though a general announcement must have gone out this weekend that it was time to break out the kites. I was walking on Saturday and saw quite a few kites soaring in the sky in the unlikeliest of places (crowded neighborhoods full of trees and powerlines, for example). A cold front came in, so maybe that's the signal for kite-flying weather. When I actually got to see some kites up close today, I realized that they are mostly made out of plastic grocery bags, sticks and other recycled materials. People are very inventive here.

I got up early this morning to tape the news because my roommate was being interviewed on regional television about a new law requiring public hospitals to allow a relative/friend to accompany pregnant mothers in the delivery room. Apparently, the private hospitals previously allowed a family member or friend, but those who couldn't afford the privilege of a private hospital were required to give birth without a familiar face in the room.

I knew from my previous experience outside the U.S. and from my international friends who live(d) in the U.S. that our country tends to be extremely introspective as far as news, curiosity and knowledge go. I started calling it the "big island syndrome" because the U.S. is so vast with oceans on two sides that it seems kind of like a big island where most of the citizens don't have any contact with the neighboring countries or countries outside North America. It's completely different from smaller countries that are in close contact with many other countries and may even speak more than one language. I have seen many times that people in countries other than the U.S. tend to know much more about the world outside their own borders. Brazil is also a huge country (almost the size of the U.S.) with a lot of coastline, but people here tend to be a little more extrospective. I can think of two recent examples to illustrate my point. First, today seems to be World Environment Day, and I was surprised to learn of it from several different venues, although clean air, recycling and the like are not very prominent here in Belo Horizonte. I don't know that I'd ever heard of World Environment Day before, although it's a United Nations event. The second example is the gospel song "O Happy Day." A lot of the people I've met here are familiar with that song even though gospel music is not popular here and that song is from the U.S. and in English.

I was reading some postings on my pastor's new blog (http://christianconversations.blogspot.com) about illegal immigrants, and one thing that people neglect to realize is how much propaganda the U.S. sends out worldwide, touting ourselves as the economic paradise and spewing our (mostly horrible) films and music in such quantity to overshadow the local cultures. You would not believe the junk imported from the U.S. that they show on regular and cable TV here, not to mention all of the less-than-stellar American pop music.

Finally, I'm still finding it difficult to be between the two Brazils, the Brazil of the privileged minority that I first knew, and the Brazil of the underpriviliged majority that I have come to know since October. There really is such a huge gap between people who have two or more residences, who can frequently eat at restaurants, who can afford decent medical care, who can pay for the private classes necessary to get into college, who can pay for a college education, who can travel abroad, who can afford to hire people to cook and clean in their homes and who can live in a manner similar to middle- and upper-class Europeans and Americans, and those who don't/can't. It is very strange to live in one Brazil and work in the other, but I am the first to admit I prefer to live in the middle-/upper-class Brazil. But I guess it's all relative. The young woman in the apartment below us went on a missionary trip to Indonesia with her church (before the earthquake), and her mother shared some of the photos and stories with me, dwelling on the poverty there. I guess it's like my mother has always said--you can always find somebody better off but also worse off than yourself. You could also turn it around and ask me why I went to volunteer in Brazil when we have some pretty serious poverty within the U.S., and the answer is that I didn't come here based so much on a logical choice but based on an intangible "pulling."