Volunteer in Mission to Brazil

23 July 2006

Night of a thousand stars

Last night I traveled by bus for about 11 hours to get to my friends' house in the neighboring state. There's not a whole lot you can do on these nighttime journeys without disturbing your fellow passengers. After knitting for a little while, I turned off the light and looked out the window and could see a bazillion stars because we were already in the countryside. I have to preserve that thought for when I'm experiencing the aches and pains of being cramped up for so long. Eventually I tried to sleep, but I've never had great success sleeping in planes, buses and automobiles. When I arrived early this morning, I called my friends to come pick me up at the bus station. It was cool that I already had a phone card to use in the public phone, and I'm slowly coming to realize that a lot of problems I experience that I think are a consequence of me being a foreigner and not knowing how things work are actually pretty typical failures. For example, I had to try three different public phones before I could find one that completed the call successfully. After I got to my friends' house, we ate breakfast, I took a shower, and then we hopped in the car to visit the husband's family. Although I saw this family just a few months ago, it was different this time because this was my first time there after his father died. We spent the day there, eating, visiting with the family and eating more.

I'm writing this on Sunday, by the way, because word has it we're getting back in the car tomorrow to travel to a different town to visit somebody who will be moving out of the country. There are a couple of interesting things I'm noticing this trip to São Carlos. This is the first time that I've picked up on the local accent. Also, I'm looking at the smaller town with new, more appreciative eyes after living in a much more crowded, polluted city for a while. It's more fun to be with my friends' 21-month-old daughter now that she has quite an extensive vocabulary, and I can actually understand some of the things she's saying.

The national Methodist Church conference that my coordinators went to was actually more important than an Annual Conference because they set church policy for the next several years. Unfortunately, a more conservative group got the Methodist Church in Brazil to withdraw from ecumenical (non-denominational) activities, which has been one of its foremost characteristics.

Many Brazilians have asked me what people in the U.S. eat on a daily basis. It's hard to explain because I don't think there's a real standard other than people eat more at dinner than at lunch (the reverse is true here). I'm finding it challenging here to eat what I think is a balanced diet. The number and quality of fruits here is amazing. But the selection of vegetables leaves something to be desired. You see rice and beans nearly everywhere (the type of beans will vary depending on where you are within the country) and there are many starch choices--rice, potatoes, manioc, squash, yucca and other roots. You also see salad (usually lettuce and tomatoes), but not too many other vegetables on a regular basis.

As I'd mentioned a while ago, birthdays are very big here, and my friends and colleagues did a great job of recognizing mine last week. On the actual day, I awoke to a nice birthday note from my roommate; we had ice cream at one of the projects that afternoon; I talked to my parents for free on the Internet (if you don't know about Skype and similar programs, it's worth looking into); the next day we went to dinner at a restaurant with live music; and then there was a party on Thursday afternoon at the other project for me and Chris, another American volunteer whose birthday was Thursday. I got lots of phone calls and e-mails from here and the U.S., so that was really nice.

Both projects are on recess for a few weeks; last week the teachers had planning and organizing and this week we have vacation (which is why I can visit my friends, who are university professors and also are on vacation). Time to try to catch up on some sleep.

17 July 2006

Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed...

As promised last week, here are some pictures from the two Junina Festivals (see last week's post for an explanation of these "country bumpkin" festivals) at the two projects where I volunteer. The festival at São Gabriel was Friday afternoon and just for the kids in the Shade and Fresh Water program there. The Liberdade project had their festival Sunday night on the street for the whole neighborhood.

Girls dressed up for the São Gabriel festival

The bride and groom for the São Gabriel square dancing

Square dancing at the São Gabriel festival

Liberdade before the festival

Two American country bumpkins (another volunteer, Chris, and me)

The fishing game at Liberdade

Square dancing at the Liberdade festival

One of the coolest things about these festivals was that most of the kids wanted to dance and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was particularly impressed when I was reviewing the photos I'd taken and noticed that even the children that don't normally smile were grinning the whole time while they were dancing. I guess the point was that they were getting to be children but also to participate in a popular cultural ritual. I'm constantly surprised when I see the children here do things that American kids would think weren't cool. That's a part of the Brazilian culture that's really great--a little less of the adolescent aloofness, rebellion and age gap.

I danced in both of the square dances at the Liberdade Festival last night. The first time was with Chris, another American volunteer (see photo above), and the second time was with the husband of one of the teachers, who was sober when he was introduced to me at the beginning of the festival but managed to be drunk by the time we had to perform. Then there was the official town drunk at the performance dancing next to the children (he had to be asked to dance outside the circle) and the neighborhood dogs, who were wandering around and kept getting in the way of the dancers. It made for quite an entertaining evening...

On Saturday, I went to my first Brazilian wedding. It was outside at a beautiful "country" location in the city. I don't quite understand why, but apparently it's quite popular to have outdoor weddings even in the winter. Woman were wearing sleeveless, formal dresses, and I was freezing with a blazer on top of my dress. Most of the elements of the ceremony were the same as weddings in the U.S. However, a few things I'd never experienced before at a wedding included fireworks, part of the bridal party processing to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and the bride recessing to "I Say a Little Prayer for You." Apparently that song is quite popular here, so I heard the "opera" version performed by the singers, violin, trumpet and keyboard for the recessional and then the band played played a more traditional version at the reception. Not only were glow-in-the-dark souvenirs (bracelets, blinking necklaces & rings) distributed during the reception, but there was also a novelty photographer there with various funny hats, wigs and boas to take photos of the guests and print them out on paper pre-printed with the image of the bride and groom for everybody to take home. The bride comes from a musical family, and she serenaded her groom as a surprise, and later, her father sang several numbers with the band. The ceremony was supposed to start at 4 and started closer to 5, and when we left the reception at 10:30 or so, it was just winding down. The experience made me wonder who originally came up with the wedding traditions that we use in the U.S.

And finally, last week I forgot to mention a soccer analogy that occurred to me when I was watching the World Cup games. It's much easier to see what's going on when the game is shown from above; that might be what God's perspective is, that He can see everything and how it's all interacting. On the other hand, when they show the view from the players' perspective, it's very confusing to see exactly who is where and what is going on. That's more like the human perspective, where you can't see in more than one direction or beyond a certain limited field of vision. And like life, it may look like nothing is happening during part of the game, and then, all of a sudden, events coincide to permit a goal, which might be interpreted in life as a success or a big change.

10 July 2006

The time of the year for...square-dancing

When I was here in Brazil from October to December, I remember seeing pictures of children at one of the projects dressed up as country bumpkins, and I was told about some festival in June, but I had no idea of the extent of these "Festas Juninas" or "Junina Parties." It turns out that the whole country has a series of country-bumpkin parties in June (but also July) whose origins are a combination of an homage to St. John (as well as Sts. Peter & Anthony) and a pagan solstice festival.

Some typical elements of these parties include:

  • people dressing up as country-bumpkins, specifically including a bride and groom and wedding attendents
  • bonfires
  • typical foods such as barbecue meat on sticks, corn-on-the-cob, fried pork rinds, stews, cotton candy, and hot drinks
  • "forro" music (sounds like a fast country two-step or quick-step)
  • a Brazilian type of square-dancing called "quadrilha"

I went to my first Festa Junina on Saturday night outdoors at somebody's country house, and I was surprised how inter-generational the party was. In addition, I have been practicing with the children at the Liberdade Project to dance quadrilha in their festival this coming weekend, and I have borrowed a rather large country-bumpkin dress to wear. (Stay tuned next week for photos...) For the past several weekends, I've seen children dressed as bumpkins going to and from these festivals in practically every neighborhood I've passed. I haven't found any logical explanation yet of why these "June" festivals are happening well into July, but that's very Brazilian.

I forgot to mention last week that I had an opportunity to visit a privately run home for chidren with major disabilities (mostly severe motor disorders) and senior citizens here in Belo Horizonte called "Caminhos para Deus" or "Ways/Paths to God." I was a little worried about what I might see there when I was told about a previous international visitor who was upset to be visiting the place, but my fears were soon relieved. It was unbelievably clean, calm and caring for the more than 300 residents that lived there. We visited nearly all of the "children" (some of whom were close to 40 years old), and out of this group, only one young woman could talk, and she immediately started to yell out when we got to the room where she was "Hey, over here!" over and over. :) She also could sing a children's song that my coordinator recognized.

Last week I had my first Brazilian doctor's appointment (don't worry, Mom, it was just a dermatologist). Just like in the U.S., many practices can be so full that you can't get an appointment as a new patient for months. Thankfully, I have connections (my roommate) who helped me to get worked into the busy schedule. My coordinator went with me to help translate. As I was leaving the apartment, I thought to ask if doctor's offices here in Brazil accept credit cards, and it was a good thing that I did, because they don't. Although credit cards are generally accepted nearly everywhere in the U.S. as a consumer convenience, here they are not due to the extra fees that banks and credit card companies impose. A lot of times if credit cards are accepted, the businesses will past on this additional cost to the consumer. But I digress...

One cool thing was that the doctor's office had a digital fingerprint recognition machine, which I had never seen. I think that was for people on certain insurance plans, because I didn't need to use it. I was surprised that they asked for the full name of both of my parents, but it turns out that is a routine thing to do here because you have many more people with the same name. Because we borrow first names from around the world in the U.S., it is not so often that you know three or more people with the same first name, but here it is very common. For example, I already know at least four different "Fernandas."

Like busy doctor's offices in the U.S., we waited for an hour before getting to see the doctor. Her examination was much more thorough that anything I'd experienced in the U.S., and true to Brazilian style, there was more chatting than you would normally have with a doctor in the U.S.; she even told me to be sure to convey a hug to my roommate. (People here are always virtually sending hugs and kisses if they don't have a chance to do the real thing in person.) Another nice surprise was the bill at the pharmacy. The doctor prescribed four different things, and the total bill for all four was less than US$35. The doctor's appointment cost about US$70.

Today things went surprisingly well for the two English classes. One thing I constantly have to remember is to show the children an excited, loving face. The other American volunteers currently here, Chris and David, in addition to helping with the English classes, are working on getting the computers into shape, reconfiguring some, building a new one from parts, etc. I'm also trying to update and finish translating the Methodist Foundation's website. (I'll post a link when I'm done.) My coordinators and most of the local Methodist pastors are off to the national Brazilian Methodist Annual Conference this week in the neighboring state.

I found out today that the music/Christian education teacher is still out, so I'll be substituting again for her at both projects. This should be the last week of children at the two projects where I work before their school vacation (although some schools have already finished the term). Next week, the teachers and administrators will meet to plan out the activities for the coming semester, and then the week after that is vacation for us. I'm hoping to visit my friends in São Carlos in the neighboring state of São Paulo. In addition, I'm already making a list of things to bring back from the U.S. when I visit in September because there is an odd assortment of things that are either unavailable or ridiculously expensive here (e.g. sunscreen).

And it was very un-Brazilian of me to almost forget to mention the World Cup finals. We watched the second half of the runner-up game on Saturday between Germany and Portugal and all of the final game yesterday between France and Italy. Even though Brazil wasn't in the finals, many stores that would normally be open on Sunday afternoon closed early for the game. It's very funny for me to realize how much new soccer knowledge I have absorbed in these past few weeks. Now I can recognize the coaches and star players from a handful of countries, as well as having a better grasp on the rules (e.g., at which stage in the tournament there is overtime). We were happy to see Italy beat France, and, apparently, so were most of our neighbors. It's very interesting how emotionally involved and entertaining the Brazilian commentators are. In the U.S., if I have to watch sports, I generally try to do it without sound so I don't have to listen to the commentators, but here, it wasn't bad (it probably didn't hurt that I can only understand about 40-50% of what they're saying...). So now Brazil has another four years to re-group and try to re-claim its title as soccer world champion.

03 July 2006

You win some, you lose some

At first, I was going to say that Brazilians have been pretty gracious losers after France beat Brazil 1-0 in the World Cup playoffs on Saturday; most of the reactions I heard at first were things like "France deserved to win because they played much better than we did." Then today I heard grumblings even from the children at the project that the game had been fixed. In any event, things were very quiet around town yesterday as the country seemed to be in mourning. I watched the game on Saturday at a birthday/game-watching party (see the picture below) before heading back to our apartment for another birthday party in the recreation room downstairs. Almost all of the people at the game-watching/birthday party were family. With such huge extended families, who needs friends? (This picture represents only about 50% of the number of people at the party...)

Once again, I'm sick with what appears to be a cold. I'm not sure how much of it is living in a new country, adjusting to winter when there's no heat in the buildings here, simply a side-effect of working with children, being in a society that is always hugging and kissing, or a combination of the above. The other volunteer, Chris, also seems to be getting sick more often than he did at home, and many of my Brazilian colleagues have been catching colds, so at least I'm not alone.

I continue to be amazed with people's flexibility and resistance. People that have traveled on a bus overnight and were unable to sleep or who have been out of town for several days arrive and continue to host not one but two-and-a-half days of birthday festivities and visits and overnight guests. I know in the U.S. I would be tempted to cancel the events or at the very least, call somebody else to take my place. I had a very tiring weekend with the parties and guests, but it was a very welcome relief to spend time at my coordinator's house last night eating fondue for the first time, conversing in English and playing Skip-Bo (a card game a tiny bit like Uno).

The cultural safety standards are different here. For example, most people do not have working seatbelts in their back seats, and some people don't use seatbelts in the front seats. A lot of people will release their seatbelts as they get close to (but not yet arriving at) their destinations. Almost nobody seems to use carseats for babies, even in the middle/upper class. Rarely do you see somebody doing a job with all of the safety equipment they'd be using in the U.S. I think part of the reason for these different safety standards is due to lower economic resources, but I think the other part is that they don't have an "I'm going to sue you" culture here like there is in the U.S., which is refreshing.

Last week I helped write a small grant application for a U.S. funding program we learned of less than one week before the application deadline. I guess that I passed the test because my coordinator (she doesn't like being called my "boss") has given me more applications for which we can help various projects apply.

I'm going through some predictable difficulties that I'd seen international people in the U.S. experience, but now I'm going through it up-close and personal. It's not anything extreme as a major depression or an "I hate everything here" or even an "I'm so homesick" thing. It's just more of a compilation of little things that build up to make me get the blues and feel like: I can't really communicate with folks and nobody really understands me (although I know it's not that extreme--I can actually manage okay most of the time); I'm all alone in the midst of all of these people because nobody speaks my language (but in reality, there are several English-speakers here and several people are watching out for me); I'm tired of the seemingly herculean effort necessary to do something that would normally be effortless for me in the U.S. like buy a specific item or get a haircut (it's usually not that bad once I get off my butt and take the first step); I'm sad that I don't have friends here to hang out with (there actually are a few people who've invited me to do things--I've mostly been too lazy to follow-up or take the initiative); I'm sad that church services here so far aren't fulfilling for me (I've been meaning to visit other churches but haven't yet gotten around to it), etc.

It's interesting because I knew from seeing the experiences of my many international friends in the U.S. that the first six months are especially difficult in adjusting to a new country, language and culture. I was reminded of that today when I talked to my coordinator about my blues. I actually used to get a little annoyed with international people's tendency to only hang out with other people from their country, but now I understand it a little better. Even though being a fellow countryman in no way guarantees that someone will be a nice person or a suitable friend, it does allow you the comfort of having, more or less, the same cultural mores. It's nice to be able to talk to somebody and not sound like a 5-year-old. And this too, shall pass...

Finally, I feel like my personality is once again "under construction" and going through God-directed improvements, but I am currently struggling in the uncomfortable, unresolved state of seeing what the issue/problem is but not yet having overcome it. I feel like I'm a pretty generous person and that I was able to give up most of my connection to material goods to come and volunteer here, but I've been shown multiple times over the past six months how I'm still attached to things in that I get very annoyed when people use my stuff without permission. But it's not just "people" but particularly people that I deem are somehow "undeserving" that really prompt this strong, knee-jerk revulsion. This includes spoiled children and people that are experts at procuring and using other people's resources but who don't give in return. I find it much easier to ignore or overlook things that "nice" people inadvertently do. This is just another facet of the judgementalism that has been firmly rooted in my brain from a very early age. I guess it boils down to feeling like selfishness or self-centeredness is something I find it extremely difficult to tolerate, although I don't have a problem being assertive about my own interests or doing things for myself from time-to-time. So now the point is to find the will and the means to extend Christian love and hospitality to these people, who are certainly considered my "neighbors" in the Biblical sense.