Volunteer in Mission to Brazil

30 October 2006

You are here...

City: Nova Almeida
State: Espírito Santo

look for the red star

This seaside area is beautiful. One of the first things I noticed when we were in the general area at the end of our voyage was the coffee fields terraced on the hillsides, like the one shown below.

I enjoyed the time I spent with the teenagers. They were much better behaved than a similar sized group of American teens, although there were still greatly concerned with the opposite sex and looking cool. They left Sunday afternoon to head back to Belo Horizonte, and I spent today with the Shade and Fresh Water project that is based here at the Methodist camp.

Today they had a special day of beauty because October is Children's month. There were volunteer barbers cutting hair (with previous authorization from the parents) as well as teens and teachers doing fancy hairstyles and manicures. Tomorrow, I should get to see some of the other projects close by; it might take two days to see them all. Then I'll be off to visit two more projects that are longer bus rides away.

I will keep this very short and post many more details and lots of photos when I get home because I'm using dial-up internet access right now.

23 October 2006

Whirlwind visit of Brasilia

I am too tired to think of a catchy title, so I'll just call it what this past weekend was--a whirlwind tour of Brazil's capital, Brasilia. On Friday night, I went with my roommate, three of her sisters and three of her cousins on the overnight bus to Brasilia to celebrate their uncle's 80th birthday. My roommate had found out about a "touristic" bus that offered a good round-trip fare plus fewer stops and a shorter overall trip than the traditional bus, so everybody bought tickets to go Friday night and return on Sunday night. We gathered at the touristic bus hub downtown (not the regular bus station), and thus began our adventure. Six hours after we boarded the bus, we still hadn't gotten further than a one-hour's journey from Belo Horizonte. Why, you may ask? The bus broke down 15 minutes into our voyage, so we drove to a bus mechanic, where we sat for a couple of hours while they worked on the bus. Apparently, this bus company did not have a spare bus to send us on our way.

Peppered all along this adventure, notably, is a noticeable lack of information being given to the passengers. After the bus is fixed, we get back on the highway and after another 30 minutes or so, pull over at the highway police checkpoint, where we proceed to sit for a good three hours before the actual police board the bus and tell us what is going on. The people "helping out" the bus company, meanwhile, have counted the passengers several times and collected our identity cards. It turns out that the touristic bus company is supposed to have a list to give the highway police of all the passengers and their identity numbers, and this list apparently was not correct. This list is critical for insurance purposes, but also because that company is not licensed to just be selling bus passages between Belo Horizonte and Brasilia, which they actually were doing. The highway police gave the bus company a chance to come up with their own spare bus (we already knew THAT wasn't going to work!) and then comandeered another bus from another bus company to take us the rest of the way, at the expense of the first company. The second bus didn't arrive until just before 3:00 AM, and then the new driver informed us that we'd be making a few stops that the other bus would not have. We were supposed to arrive in plenty of time for the big family birthday breakfast on Saturday, but, instead, made it in time for lunch.

Only on the return trip did it become clear to me what the bus company was doing. They were not licensed to sell individual bus tickets--only "touristic" round-trip group tickets, so they would make up fake lists to make it look like their passengers were all going together on one day and returning the next, but we weren't. The group on the Sunday return bus had a few of the same passengers from Friday's trip, but also some different ones. It turns out that the company wasn't able to get a license to sell regular bus tickets, so they were trying to get around it, at the expense of the passengers. Just a word to the wise, never deal with the company Rota Mineira, and use great caution when with other "touristic" bus companies unless you are contracting them to exclusively transport your group. And this is where my American side came out, thinking, "they'd NEVER get away with this in the U.S. without providing at least a partial refund or some other concession to the passengers, and here they're getting away scot free!"

Oh well, at least the trip went safely, and I really enjoyed meeting yet another branch of my roommate's huge family. It still never ceases to amaze me how accepting and welcoming everybody is of me, an outsider. Despite the hectic schedule trying to visit several people and attend group events while we were there, two carloads of people took me on a whirlwind tour of Brasilia on Sunday to see the famous modern architecture of Brazil's capital. I'm posting a few photos below.

And Wednesday, I'm off to help chaperone the Liberdade youth group trip to the Methodist camp in Nova Almeida, in the neighboring state of Espirito Santo, where I'll also be visiting some of the local Shade and Fresh Water projects.

18 October 2006

Coming full circle

It was exactly one year ago this week when I arrived in Belo Horizonte to start volunteering and immediately went to stay with a Volunteers in Mission work team that was here from Georgia, and this week I was staying with a work team from Virginia. This time, however, I had much more responsibility as the primary translator on the work site.

This recent team of 13 came from different churches in the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church and was the most diverse team I'd seen yet. They were painting (including a Shade and Fresh Water mural) and building a retaining wall at Betânia Methodist Church. It was a really neat experience to once again watch how the Brazilian hosts show so much love through their hospitality and how the American teams show their love through their labor and in relating to the people (and especially the children) they encounter.

It was a good but very busy time, and I enjoyed staying home today to re-charge. I had never before spent the night in the São Gabriel neighborhood, so staying with the team at the Community Center there involved listening to a different set of background noises, including a variety of roosters that crow throughout the day and night, dogs barking all night long and a local church that seemed to be having a midnight revival blasting throughout the neigbhorhood several nights in a row. Hopefully, I won't ever forget my earplugs again. The staff that had to get to the Community Center super early to make breakfast for the team was cheerful and efficient, in spite of their extra-long work days. The work team was also good natured about the accommodations, and, thankfully, this time the city did not cut the water off.

Some "serious" pastors from a previous work team will find it amusing that one of the members of this week's team initially thought I was very efficient and stern/serious. She thankfully revised her opinion as the week progressed, as I was informed when the group shared personal affirmations of me and two other staff members from the center who helped host them. The team members were very generous in sharing their histories, their time, their financial support and their love, in addition to some very neat and helpful things that they left with me. They are currently touring Rio and should be leaving tomorrow or the next day to return to the U.S.

Here are a few photos from the past several days.

The October Volunteers in Mission team from Virginia

Playing with the kids

Some team members practicing tai-chi in the garden

Faces of some of the girls from Betânia Methodist Church

I also went one afternoon to Planalto Methodist Church to take pictures of the Women's handicraft group

Now it's time to catch up and get ready for another busy stretch as I'll journey Friday night by bus to Brasilia, the nation's capital, for an 80th birthday celebration in my roommate's family, coming back Sunday night, and get back on another bus on Wednesday to accompany the youth group from Liberdade to the Methodist camp at Nova Almeida in the neighboring state of Espirito Santo.

10 October 2006

Still here

I just wanted to put out an apology for missing my usual Monday post. We are currently finding many opportunities to keep occupied with the Volunteers in Mission team that is currently here from Virginia, working at Bethany (Betânia) Methodist Church in the São Gabriel neighborhood. I´ll be back into cyberspace with more news and commentary after the 17th of October. Thanks for your prayers and support.

02 October 2006

Media madness

The past week has been a media frenzy as Brazil experienced its largest plane crash to date on Friday and the presidential election yesterday.

Friday afternoon, a commercial plane carrying 155 people from Manaus to Brasilia crashed in the jungle, possibly after colliding with a small, private plane which landed safely. There do not appear to be any survivors, and the news channels here were running special coverage of the crash and the search for survivors all weekend. Everywhere I went, people were talking about the tragedy (and the elections).

Sunday, I witnessed my first Brazilian election when I went with my roommate to watch her vote--the election officials actually wouldn't let me watch while she was voting, although they did let me look at the voting machine.

The political system, as expected, is significantly different from the U.S. system. First of all, it is mandated by law that all Brazilian citizens from 18 to 70 years of age must vote. You can start voting as early as 16 and continue to vote until you die (the news coverage of the election showed people more than 100 years old going to vote). Voters receive a little slip of paper to prove that they voted, and you need to show this paper in order to accomplish any number of bureaucratic tasks here.

Voting has been completely computerized since 2000; Brazil was the first country to adopt a nationwide electronic voting system that integrates voter registration, the casting of votes and the regional/national tallying of votes (Posner, 2006). The machines are basically composed of a 10-key number pad as well as buttons to confirm, correct and to submit a blank vote for a particular office. For each vacancy, you punch in the number of your candidate, which brings up the name, picture and political party on the screen. You then have a chance to correct it or confirm it.

The major downside I saw was that they post the list of candidates outside the actual room where you vote, so if you forget the candidate's number and didn't write it down, you can't leave to go look it up. My roommate's daughter did call on her cell phone from the polling place to ask for the number of one candidate. They didn't used to let you bring in a cheat sheet with you, but now they do. Supposedly they don't put the list of candidates and their numbers inside the actual room to not have people to dally at the machine.

Another point of interest--alphabetization in Brazil is usually done by first name. As a matter of fact, many of the candidates only went by their first name. Can you imagine in the U.S. "Jim for President" or "Shirley for Senator?"

There are now more than 15 political parties here, although there were originally just two after the military dictatorship ended in 1985. By law, the parties get free airtime on TV during the campaign season in the allotted time slot for political announcements, so one party's segment may include 10-20 different candidates.

In this election, each person could cast one vote for each of the five vacancies--president, governor, senator, federal deputy and state deputy. Each of the 26 states plus the Federal District elected a governor and a senator. In total, 513 "federal deputies" were elected (53 of them in my state, Minas Gerais) and 77 "state deputies" in Minas Gerais.

For the offices of president and governor, the candidates who receive more votes than the sum of all their competitors win the election in the first round. If that criteria is not met, there is a run-off election where the majority rules. For senator, whoever receives the most votes wins the office. For the federal and state deputies, the top X number of candidates win the X number of vacancies, so the 77 candidates for state deputy receiving the highest number of votes were elected to the office. There is a HUGE number of candidates compared to the U.S.; for federal deputy, for example, there were more than 500 candidates from which to choose.

The incumbent president, Lula da Silva, was initially favored to win the presidential election in the first round, but the well-timed "breaking" of an odd scandal and his decision to skip the nationally televised debate for presedential candidates helped him lose his lead. As far as I can understand, people from Lula's party supposedly tried to buy a dossier of dirt tying their rival party to an ambulance scandal. Lula says he didn't know anything about it. Now that part that I really don't understand is that his party supposedly bought this dossier from guys who were already in prison for the ambulance scandal, so I'm thinking if they are already convicted, isn't the evidence public? In any event, there will be a presidential run-off election at the end of this month.

People campaigned by radio/TV/newspaper ads, pamphlets that are now littering the entire city, painting walls with their names/parties/candidate numbers, hiring trucks with loudspeakers to drive around blasting propaganda (which almost always included a catchy song) and hiring people to wave their flags at busy intersections.

Interestingly, during election coverage tonight the national news quoted newspapers from other countries, mostly from the U.S. I don't think I've ever seen the U.S. TV news quote international coverage of a particularly story/issue, but I admittedly don't usually watch the news.

It's been interesting to learn about the electoral process here, but it's also a bit overwhelming with literally everybody talking about it wherever you go. I'm ready for it to be over, but I guess that's just part of how Brazil is a nation of observers, as I mentioned before. Not just observers but also commentators.

Preparations are in full-swing for another work team that will be arriving from the U.S. next weekend. I will be staying with them at the community center in São Gabriel, so I'm sure that will be interesting.

So what have I been doing? Well, I've been doing some PR, trying to prepare a display for a campaign the local Methodist churches to raise support for the Shade and Fresh Water Projects for Christmas; trying to figure out which printers are and are not working and how to optimize where they are being used in São Gabriel (this is especially where I'm feeling the absence of Chris, the other volunteer who was handling the computer stuff but has now, sniff, left us); painting with the other teachers; trying to find out whether or not I'll be doing English classes as the two projects (I will definitely start back teaching at Liberdade this week); helping to host potential volunteers; helping the two kids with their American penpals (now, ironically, it's bugging them to write back after they asked me to bug the Americans to find out why they hadn't written); hugging and helping with the kids (I haven't forgotten that this is the crucial part) and growing my patience. It is amazing how many times you can say that you need something done, purchased, etc. and nothing happens. I guess because the unexpected so often hinders what you are planning to do here that nobody puts too much stake in what you say you're going to do until it actually happens.

Today I was quite surprised by the reaction of the older (afternoon) kids when I showed them a multicolored autumn leaf I brought back from Minnesota. They actually paid attention and asked questions. That gives me an idea of how to change the format for English class to make it more interesting for them.

And finally, I must have jinxed us when I said before that the water was cut off in the poorer neighborhoods during this huge construction project but not in our neighborhood, because it appears the water was off for a few hours today, including when I got home. Thankfully, it seems to be back on.