Volunteer in Mission to Brazil

27 November 2006

Stuck in the middle

I've noticed it's even more difficult to finish things here in Brazil than in the U.S. And that can range from a conversation (being interrupted is quite common) to a project. I've always enjoyed telling long, drawn-out stories (that prompt the listeners to prod me to the conclusion after I've branched out on several tangents). Here I have to radically condense what I want to say into a soundbite that will fit into the brief uninterrupted space I can grab in a conversation. Finishing things has never been my strong suit, so it's even more of a challenge now. I haven't gotten too terribly Brazilian in my work schedule yet; the typical schedule here seems to include a mid-morning coffee break, lunch, a brief rest after lunch and a mid-afternoon coffee break. When I was trying to get something done last Friday afternoon, I had to joke with my colleagues to explain that I wanted to accomplish something on Friday afternoon because of my American work habits.

I'm still in the "initial" phases of looking for a new place to live. "Initial" meaning I haven't actually seen any places, but I need to try to move next month. I was surprised to see how few places are listed for rent compared to for sale in the newspapers here. I have yet to officially consult a local real estate person.

Here in Brazil, it's easier for me to avoid the holiday craziness because it doesn't "feel" like Christmas to me. I don't usually do much shopping here, so I haven't been too exposed to gaudy store displays and muzak Christmas carols. Also, in my mind, Christmas has always been cold, so when it's 80-90 degrees, it doesn't feel like Christmas. Just like last year, the fake Christmas tree got assembled in our apartment in mid-November. I do notice the sales advertisements (you can pay over 12 months with no interest, etc.) and people on the buses with large packages. When I was living in the U.S., my family had already started to draw names so you just buy presents (under a certain limit) for that one person, and we might be switching over to just buy them for the kids. Now because I have the excuses that, a) I'm poor and b) I'm not going back to the U.S. for Christmas this year and shipping would be prohibitively expensive, I haven't done any Christmas shopping at all. Here's the graphic I put together with pictures from the kids in the various Shade and Fresh Water projects that I've visited.

This past weekend, I helped with the women's Walk to Emmaus retreat that was held at the São Gabriel community center Thursday evening through Sunday afternoon. A lot of the components were familiar to me from having experienced the retreat last year in North Carolina, but other elements (particularly in the planning) were radically different. I know that in the U.S., the details are often planned way in advance, but here, we were still moving beds into rooms at 7:30 when the participants were scheduled to arrive at 8:00. The no-show rate seemed pretty high to me (9 out of 25) but the team members said that was about normal. A lot of the small things that are usually prepared in advance and donated by other groups were prepared on site during the retreat. I think these differences can be attributed to both a) a more spontaneous culture and b) a smaller Emmaus network to work with. It still seemed to be a powerful experience for the participants, and I was glad to work with the team members from various Methodist churches around the city.

I've met a few foreigners here in Belo Horizonte through the Internet, and we're trying to organize a monthly social event for foreigners here since there doesn't seem to be any established network. The other large cities in Brazil, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, have well-organized networks of expatriates. But now it looks like at least two of us may be too busy to attend.

Finally, when I happened to watch TV last week, I saw a movie for the Consciousness of the Black Race Day called Uma Onda no Ar. In English, it literally means "A Wave on the Air," but the English title of the movie is "Something in the Air." It was based on the true story of Rádio Favela, which started as a pirate radio station in a slum and eventually became a legal community radio station. This was particularly interesting to me because I used to be a volunteer DJ in Durham, North Carolina, and it turns out this radio station is here in Belo Horizonte. Also, I was excited to see on their web site that they have information on their web site about a program called "Ciência na Favela" or "Science in the Slum." I hope to be able to visit the station and find out more, especially about the science program, to know if we can reproduce it at the Shade and Fresh Water projects.

20 November 2006

This week's musings

I've been thinking a lot about all of the machines and gadgets that we have in the U.S. to "simplify our lives" and "save time" that aren't in general use here by the average person, like dishwashers, clothes dryers and microwaves, and I don't think they add to one's quality of life like the manufacturers would like you to think that they do. Even though the majority of people I encounter here spend a much larger fraction of each day accomplishing basic tasks (buying bread, taking the bus, preparing food from scratch) I think people here have a higher quality of life than the average person in the U.S. People are always singing and often smiling and laughing.

Consistency does not seem to be too big of a concern here. Maybe that's due to everybody's extreme flexibility. For example, when I buy the same brand of the same type of granola at the same store, it will have different ingredients in it depending on when I bought it. I see the same thing in the newspapers--they will often misspell names of foreigners, but not consistently, just once or twice in the article.

I am a literalist, and getting correct information here can be quite a challenge. For example, I needed to buy special paper and other office supplies to print up Christmas cards for the Methodist Foundation, so I asked several of my colleagues where was a "paper store" (they have a specific word for this type of store). They told me there was one just a few blocks away in the neighborhood. I asked if they would carry printer labels and envelopes, and I was told, "Oh yes, they have that." We went there, and they did have a few different types of paper, so I was able to buy the special paper, but they didn't have the right envelopes and never carry printer labels. Then today, I asked my colleagues where there was a paper store downtown. They told me the name of a store where the project has bought things in the past and gave me directions how to get there. When I arrived at the store with the name they mentioned, I saw a toy store. I asked the woman standing at the front "Is this a paper store?" and she said, "No, it's a toy store." (Doh!) I pointed to the sign and asked if that was the same store written on the sign, and she said yes. I was trying to figure out why my colleagues sent me to a toy store, and she finally said, "Oh, we have some paper in the back." I went to the back and saw a small area selling school supplies. They had the envelopes I needed, but not the paper, and they never carry printer labels. I asked them if they knew of a paper store downtown or a place where I could buy printer labels, and they mentioned a store around the corner. I got to that store, which was finally, officially, a paper store, and they had everything I needed. I think part of the problem is a language thing and part of it is working with people who are not accustomed to buying printer labels.

Something funny for me to see is postal workers taking the city buses to get to their delivery routes. In the U.S., almost every mail delivery person would have their own vehicle. I'm not sure if I don't like the system here better.

Now that the weather is really beginning to warm up, I'm seeing a lot of men airing their beer bellies. It's common to see men and boys walking around the neighborhoods (but not so much downtown) without shirts, but it's very funny to see men with their shirts pulled up just over their beer bellies, as if that particular part of their anatomy needed to breathe or something. I'm not sure why they don't just take their shirts off.

There are still a few cultural things I haven't gotten used to--and for these particular things, I'm not sure I ever will. I think these things are probably all related to class, too. One thing is having to put used toilet paper in a wastebasket in most places rather than flushing it down the toilet. The first place I ever encountered that concept was in the Republic of Georgia, and unfortunately, nobody told us about it until we'd clogged up their toilets several times. I'm not sure why the plumbing in many areas can handle solid waste but not paper. Maybe it's a density thing. Another thing I have a hard time adjusting to is rinsing used cups and glasses just with water before re-use by a different person. I'd occasionally seen that in the U.S., but here it's quite common. The final thing is spitting on the street.

Last week, I learned that I should be trying to move to a new apartment earlier than I was previously thinking--hopefully by the end of the year. Now that I've started to do research, it's abudantly clear why the majority of people live with their parents until they get married and sometimes after--absolute financial necessity. Regular, unfurnished apartments here come with nothing--empty rooms, bathroom(s) and built-in armoires for storage if you're lucky (there are no closets here). Most importantly, the kitchen is empty, so you have to provide your own refrigerator and stove in addition to a bed and any other furniture. I understand it's like that in other parts, if not most of, Latin America. As far as furnished apartments, there are a lot of "business" type short-term residences (often called apart-hotels) with prices that assume your company is paying for it. I inquired this morning about the monthly rate at the apart-hotel in my neighborhood, which I thought might be reasonable since it's not that close to downtown...more than US$1000/month! Sometimes you can find an individual, furnished apartment, but it's less common and significantly more expensive than an unfurnished one. If you are renting either a furnished or unfurnished apartment, you usually have to pay the condominium fee and a local tax on top of the rent, which can double the cost. I'm trying to put out the word to see if people in my extended network (i.e. my roommate's and coordinator's networks) know of any possibilities. Tonight I learned of a residence with several furnished, tiny rooms, and it sounded promising, so we'll see if I can get on the waiting list if it turns out to be suitable.

It's funny how when I used to read stories in the Bible, I was amazed at how the Israelites always forgot the amazing things God had done for them, but now I realize how much I do it in my own life. When I got the news about needing to move next month if possible, I began to panic. Slowly I remembered that God has brought me thus far and there's no point in panicking, because as a verse I read yesterday said, "Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful." (Hebrews 10:23, NIV)

13 November 2006

Monday, Monday

Frame of reference

When I was walking home from the bus stop tonight, I was thinking about how I no longer have anywhere near the same level of background information on my environment. For example, I really like plants and gardening, and in the U.S. had learned the names of many plants and trees, but here, I can only identify a few, and usually by their English names, not their Portuguese ones. I also could name most of the cars that I saw in the U.S., but not here. First of all, the cars here all look alike because they are so tiny and use so few different colors of car paint. Something that would be a small car in the U.S. (e.g. Toyota Corolla) is quite large here and stands out. The biggest lack of background information, though, is the language. When you think about it, you spend a good 16-20 years building up your vocabulary in your native language, so I guess it's not unusual that my vocabulary is currently sufficient to hold a conversation with most people but not to read the newspaper without a dictionary by my side. It's just a little frustrating at times.

Economic stereotypes and inequalities

Not only do you have an uneven playing field because of my lack of language or cultural background, but then there are daunting economic stereotypes to overcome. Generally speaking, any American that can come to Brazil has at least a moderate level of economic comfort. Many Americans have been generous with the projects and the people when they have been visiting, but then people begin to expect that with an American passport must come an unlimited bank account. I'm constantly having to remind people that I actually do not have a salary and therefore do not have the level of resources they expect I might. But this is only partly true, because this is a country where hardly anybody has any savings, and I actually have a small retirement savings account in the U.S. from when I was working.

Going to church

Attending church services in another language is a challenge. It's a good thing I was pretty familiar with the Bible before I came here, otherwise I'd be totally lost, because the names of the books and the characters in the Bible are different in Portuguese. Sometimes they are relatively easy to guess, and other times not. For example, Zephaniah is Sofonias in Portuguese and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, is Isabel in Portuguese. Thanks to my Sunday school teacher Ginni Davis-Cook, I can usually remember the order of the books of the Bible by using the song she taught us. Another specific struggle is to remember how to say the Lord's Prayer in English when I am the only one reciting in English and being drowned out by Portuguese. I guess I'll try to learn it in Portuguese, too.


One thing that I find very funny is that people eat cough drops here like candy. They even have some of the same brands that we have in the U.S. Thankfully, most of the food and sweets are not too super-tempting--otherwise I'd be in big trouble. It seems like the food (at least here in Belo Horizonte) uses a smaller number of basic ingredients, flavors and seasonings. It could also have something to do with the fact that I'm experiencing life in a lower class where people don't have the budgets to cook fancy stuff. But also, I'm not experiencing that much food that's been imported from other cultures because I'm not going out to restaurants, etc.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

I was so proud of how much I've changed due to my experience here with respect to some of my major personality, uh, "challenges," but then I was talking to my roommate last night trying to analyze why a particular type of situation was always bugging me, and she very tactfully mentioned several of the possibilities (which I thought I'd already greatly improved). "Well, it could be your control thing, or your perfectionism..." I told her she could only extrapolate to how controlling or perfectionist I had previously been in the U.S. before my mellowing experience in Brazil. :) I never would have taken a trip in the U.S. without knowing exactly when I was arriving and leaving and exactly what I would be doing while I was there, but that's what I did on my recent trip to Nova Almeida.

The reward

And for making it through the rambling, what, you may ask, is your reward? A few more pictures of the kids. This Saturday, three new English-speaking volunteers that live here in Belo Horizonte for various reasons organized a day of making Christmas cards at both São Gabriel and Liberdade to sell to raise money for the project (to buy the kids Shade and Fresh Water t-shirts). Saturday was very cold and rainy, but we ended up having a pretty good turnout at both of the projects.

The morning workshop at São Gabriel

The afternoon workshop at Liberdade

Until the next time...

06 November 2006

Speaking of which...

Because I already posted a lot of pictures and information about my trip on Thursday, I just wanted to record a few observations for the usual Monday post.

The first thing is that Brazilians tend to speak all at the same time, so any conversation will likely have two or more people speaking at once. I'm not sure how this affects one's listening ability, but it makes it quite difficult for a foreigner to understand sometimes, particularly if people are joking and laughing and voices are raised. It seems to be kind of a contest at first--the one who speaks the loudest and the longest wins so that the other one eventually stops talking and listens, or at least stops talking. Coming from a culture where we generally wait until the other person is finished talking, this is quite an adjustment for me.

The second thing I've noticed on multiple occasions is how Brazilians will be sitting down to a good meal and will have a whole conversation on other food that they have previously enjoyed or like to eat.

When an American visitor asked me about what types of jobs are common here, I began to think about Brazilian businesses that we don't have in the U.S. For example, I haven't ever encountered motorcycle couriers or businesses that only repair tires in the U.S., but here, both are quite common. Then there are other businesses that we also have in the U.S. but that play a much bigger part here in Brazil, such as bus lines, paint and construction material stores, recycling, bakeries, car washes and test preparation companies.

And speaking of Americans, my colleague, David, who has been volunteering in Brazil (in Belo Horizonte, Manaus, and most recently Rio) is getting ready to return to the U.S. after several months here. When he was in Belo Horizonte, he helped us with the English classes and helped Chris re-format the computers at São Gabriel. Now he'll head back home to finish up college and go to medical school.

On Sunday, I returned to Betânia Methodist Church, where the recent Volunteers in Mission team was working. I was suprised to see how much progress has been made on the retaining wall (I'll try to take pictures later in the week so the team can see for themselves). As requested by the team members, I conveyed their greetings, hugs, etc. and told the church how much the team is missing being here. Everyone there echoed their "saudades" for the group (how much they are missing having them here).

Finally, for those who know Daniel in São Gabriel, today he had a little mishap that was hilarious, although he did not find it funny at the time. After lunch, he was in the kitchen drinking some kool-aid, and he suddenly began to hop up and down, screaming and crying. Teresa, who was working in the kitchen, was frightened and unable to understand what had happened. Finally, Daniel was able to say "BEE!". It turned out that, unbeknownst to him, a bee was in the kool-aid, and it stung the inside of his bottom lip when he tried to drink it. When I came upon the scene, he was still hopping up and down and crying, but at least Teresa could tell me why. I went to prepare my mom's old remedy of baking soda paste to put on his lip, but he was too distracted to keep it there more than a couple of minutes. Later in the afternoon when it was time for him to go to school, I found him trying to cover up his fat lip with gauze so his classmates wouldn't tease him. I tried to explain that I thought the gauze would call more attention to his injury, but he was determined, so we used some small bandaids to secure gauze over his bottom lip, and off he went. Tomorrow, Daniel will accompany David and I to visit the favela close to the center in São Gabriel before David leaves.

There are two more things that I keep forgetting. First, my colleague's husband died the Thursday before I was headed to Brasilia. He had been in the hospital for almost three months. Creides' (I think her name means "believer") faith in the face of loss has been a true testimony to the Christian spirit. Their family is Baptist, and they had a 24-hour vigil with the body on Friday, which another colleague and I dropped by, and then we went to Creides' house because her family hadn't been at the church. The funeral was on Saturday, and several colleagues from both projects attended.

The other thing is that we finally have switched to "summer time" or daylight savings time, moving our clocks ahead one hour this weekend. We are now three hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time in the U.S. The original date to change the clocks was mid-October, but because there was a run-off presidential election and the election folks didn't want to have to re-set the time on all of the voting machines across the country, they post-poned daylight savings time for the whole country by three weeks until after the election. By the way, the run-off election was the Sunday-before-last, and Lula da Silva was re-elected.

02 November 2006

My camera runneth over

I arrived back home in Belo Horizonte early this morning after an all-night bus ride from Nova Almeida. This bus didn't have air conditioning, which was actually a bonus. I've been trying to sort through the hundreds (almost 400) pictures I took during my trip to choose a few to post here. And the winners are:

The youth group Saude é Vida ("Health is Life") in Nova Almeida

This was the group's annual excursion to the beach, for which they spend months raising the funds. I led one group discussion based on questions from the Would You Rather...? book (thanks, Polly!), and it was interesting to see how culture played a part in their answers. For example, every single one of them would rather earn a high salary over a year than win a smaller amount in the lottery. Also, everybody would rather be considered arrogant than a wimp.

The beautiful grounds of the Methodist Camp in Nova Almeida

The camp is about a 20-minute walk from the beach in the sleepy town of Nova Almeida. The caretakers have done a great job, and the grounds are very nice, with lots of plants, flowers and trees, in addition to a spacious soccer field, a sand volleyball court and a swingset/jungle gym. Mosquitoes provide the only interruption to an otherwise idyllic experience because the town is at the junction of a river and the ocean. Thanks to Linda for leaving her insect repellent for me!

After the youth group left on Sunday afternoon to head back to Belo Horizonte, I stayed on to visit the various Methodist projects in the area, starting with the Shade and Fresh Water program that meets at the camp Monday-Thursday. Run as a partnership between the Methodist Church of Nova Almeida and the Methodist Foundation for Social and Cultural Action (which also has an office in the state of Espírito Santo), the project serves 120 children from 6 to 14 years old.

Some of the kids and teachers from the Shade and Fresh Water project in Nova Almeida

Storytime for a small group at the Shade and Fresh Water project

The street in front of the camp was just recently paved; most of the residential streets in Nova Almeida are still dirt or grass. It was a big change to be in a town that only has one bus line (greater Belo Horizonte has more than 100). The town is pretty flat, and bicycle seems to be the primary mode of transportation. You see all kinds of acrobatic feats with two or more adults/children and assorted packages being balanced on a bicycle. I even saw a young man on a bicycle leading a horse down the street by the reins. I got a chance to borrow one (I got the good one that had working brakes just in the front) and ride around the neighborhood to take pictures. It was my first time on a bike in 2 or 3 years, and not unlike an experience I had growing up, this bike was too big for me, so I was more than a little nervous. Thankfully, I did not crash, although I came close... :)

The younger sister of one of the kids in the Shade and Fresh Water project at her house in Nova Almeida. She's using their customary means of entering the property--climbing the fence.

After spending one-and-a-half days observing the Shade and Fresh Water project, I was taken on Tuesday afternoon to visit the Mirim Halfway House for children in the care of Social Services and the Adult Homeless Shelter, both located close to the state's capital, Vitória.

Kids at the Mirim Halfway House

The Mirim Halfway House was just recovering from an outbreak of chicken pox, so several of the children were covered with pock marks. The modest facility takes care of up to 25 children who are sent their by the courts or social services until they are able to return to their families, be adopted, etc. It was founded in 1998, and the Methodist Foundation became a partner in 2003. Although the kids were sucked into TV when we arrived, it was their light and excitement that made it really hard to leave. As a side note, I found that these visits to projects were much easier because I could speak for myself.

My helpful guide, Viviane, and I then walked to the Homeless Shelter. It houses up to 14 clients, most of whom suffer from mental illness. It was founded in 2001, and the Methodist Foundation became a partner in 2003. The goal is to help them with their basic needs and psychological treatment (including medication, if necessary) until they are lucid enough to give information that allows the staff to locate their families.

Some of the clients at the Homeless Shelter

It was striking for me to find out by accident that the woman on the far right is the same age as me, born in the same month, although she looks closer to 55 or 60.

Wednesday, I was driven by Charles and Edinea to visit two different Methodist projects. First we went to one of the two locations for "The Young People" project. That location serves 150 adolescents from 15-18 years old with extra-curricular activities, job training and snacks, with the provision that the participants have to be going to school.

Max, a 16-year-old participant in the project

Max, pictured above, has been participating in the project for a year now. Originally, he'd dropped out of school and was hanging out at home and on the streets for three years without working before he joined the project. When I asked him what activities he like best, he mentioned the recent poetry recitation, which was his first-ever exposure to poetry. The facilities are very modest, but there are a lot of activities going on as far as literature (discussion groups and presentations to the local school), theater (performances on the roof), citizenship, sports/recreation, environment, health, drug addiction and other topics. I didn't get to visit the other location but learned that they serve an additional 175 adolescents.

The last place I visited on Wednesday was AMART, a home for drug and alcohol rehabilitation. It was founded in 1996 by the local Methodist church and serves up to 16 adult male clients at a time, who are encouraged to stay for a 6-month period. The grounds and facilities were well-kept and quite tranquil. The clients are the ones who do the cleaning, cooking, gardening, etc. I got an opportunity to interview three different clients, two of whom had been there since June, and one who'd arrived this week. Two were there because of crack cocaine and the other because of alcohol.

Some of the clients at the AMART rehabiliation home

I saw my first jack fruit tree on the grounds of the rehab home

for those who've never seen a mango tree, also at AMART

Although I was originally planning to take another bus to visit two more Shade and Fresh Water projects in the same state, it turned out that today (Thursday) was a holiday, so the projects weren't going to be operating, so I came back early. The trip was great, and it was nice to be able to visit the various projects. As usual, the Brazilian hospitality was outstanding, especially considering the fact that noone was expecting me.

Time to sign out and get some dinner...