Volunteer in Mission to Brazil

25 December 2006

Feliz Natal/Merry Christmas!

I almost forgot again that it's Monday. This was my first Christmas in summer weather, and it was strange but good. I'm a big fan of summer.

Christmas here is celebrated on Christmas Eve. Late yesterday afternoon, I went to my supervisors' country house to spend the holiday with their family. They invited a few people that didn't have family here, so there was one other non-family-member there in addition to me. She and I actually bumped into each other at the bus stop yesterday afternoon on the way there. It's a beautiful place about 45 minutes outside the city, with gorgeous landscaping and lots of wildlife. It was a very peaceful place to spend the holiday, and one special touch was that they were playing English Christmas songs on the stereo when we arrived. We ate Christmas dinner at 9:00 at night, and then some played games and others watched movies until midnight, when everybody gathered around the artifical Christmas tree and exchanged hugs and then opened presents. I actually didn't stay up much later than that, and we were warned not to be up and moving around before 10 the next morning, which was not a problem for me.

Other than my family, the one thing that was really missing from Christmas for me was church. That was largely due to laziness on my part--I could have gone by myself to a service at my roommate's church downtown on Sunday morning or gone to the evening service at my church, but it would have caused me to be waiting a long time for a bus downtown in the dark. My parents called me today, so I got to catch up with them and hear how they're spending the holiday. Pretty much everybody I've heard from in North America (including Canada) has remarked on their lack of snow and higher temperatures than normal.

Yesterday afternoon, I went with my roommate and her daughter and son-in-law to eat lunch at her family's house nearby. It was one of the "unofficial" events for their multi-day holiday celebrations. I got to see her two brothers and one sister from out-of-town and a few of her other relatives. Because it wasn't one of the "official" gatherings, only a small fraction of the huge family was present. I also was the object of teasing when one of the great-nephews started to imitate me ordering a pizza over the phone from the family pizza business last week. Apparently, my grammar wasn't exactly correct (the word "pizza" is feminine, not masculine--who knew??).

Saturday morning, I went downtown to the Central Market to buy the ingredients for a fruit basket to take to my supervisors' house. Talk about crowded! Lots of people doing lots of last-minute shopping...this is, after all, a last-minute country.

Friday night was our employee Christmas party for the projects in Liberdade and São Gabriel. Due to limited funds this year, it was held in the party room of my supervisors' apartment building. My secret assignment was to take individual photos of each employee and volunteer over the past few weeks. When I was the first to arrive at 7:45 (and to think that I was worried about being late; it was supposed to start at 7:00...), I went up to her apartment to mount the pictures in the magnetic picture frames she bought and put them in special gift bags. As I've previously mentioned on the blog, wrapping and presentation are a VERY big deal here. By the time I finished that task and returned to the party room, most of my colleagues had arrived. We had a very nice dinner and a gift exchange, and everybody received their framed picture and a pannettone (Italian fruit cake), which seems to be a popular gift here.

Thursday morning on a hunch, I called a real estate agency again that had advertised a nice looking, inexpensive apartment on the internet. When I'd called them about the apartment the first time, they told me it was already rented. I thought I'd call back to confirm, and this time they said it was available again. I made an appointment to see it that afternoon, but it turns out that just means you go to the real estate office and leave your identity document in exchange for getting the keys to the place you want to see, then you take yourself there and back. I was hoping (ha!) that a real estate agent would accompany me and drive me there, but instead, I had to take the two buses to the real estate office, one taxi and one bus to get to the apartment, two more buses to get back to the real estate office, and two more buses to get home. Whew!

I'm catching myself getting very culturally agravated at the non-user-friendliness of the Brazilian rental economy. To sign an apartment lease, you have to produce an inane amount of documentation (e.g. proof that you earn a salary at least three times the rent, proof of previous residency, etc.) for yourself and two co-signers, who are financially responsible if you don't pay your rent. That's if you don't qualify for one of the other rental mechanisms--leaving a huge deposit or using property that you already own as collateral and leaving a smaller deposit. "Unfurnished" apartments really mean COMPLETELY unfurnished--no appliances, toilet seats, lightbulbs, curtains, etc. I'm lucky that this place has cupboards in the bedroom and kitchen. I'm going tomorrow with one of my supervisors to try to sign the contract, so we'll see if it works out.

Last year, I missed out on summer, but this year, I'm experiencing my first Belo Horizonte summer. Now I understand why Brazilians take so many showers every day. If the sun is shining, you walk outside and immediately start to sweat (that's before walking up and down any of the monstrous hills). It's one thing to experience 95 degree weather when you are moving from one air-conditioned environment to another, but without the air-conditioning, it can get a little steamy.

Time to get this posted before the laptop juice runs out. Wishing you all the best of holidays and a great 2007! Thanks again for all of your support.

19 December 2006

Time flies...

when you're planning to, in the process of and recuperating from hanging out with 600 kids (as well as looking for an apartment). Because I spent yesterday walking around looking at the neighborhoods that had apartments available for rent, I forgot it was Monday and didn't post on the blog.

First things first, some photos from the Belo Horizonte Shade and Fresh Water Christmas party. It went pretty smoothly considering how many kids traveled in buses to arrive at the Central Methodist Church and were in the sanctuary for three hours. I rode on one of the buses with the group from São Gabriel, and I once again noticed how nobody counts the kids or takes role before setting out on the voyage. Somehow, that system works for them, but it still makes me very nervous.

Most of the groups at the Christmas party had a little performance to share (singing, dancing, etc.) and there was a ventriloquist as well as two clowns (one of whom became Spiderman). The groups processed with their respective banners, and everybody sang some of the songs from the Shade and Fresh Water CD. The idea was to hand out their gift bags and snacks on their way out so they wouldn't be eating (and littering) on the church property, but that didn't work out perfectly because of traffic limitations bringing the buses back to pick them up. All in all, the kids seemed to have a good time, and no one got hurt. Bonus!

Banners from the different Shade and Fresh Water Projects

Streamers and stars were distributed to all of the kids

A view from the top

Kids from the Betim project

Kids from the Betânia project

Kids from the Taquaril, Alto Vera Cruz and União projects

Kids from the PTO project

I spent most of Sunday researching apartments before going to church at night, and I decided to call some of the promising ads first thing Monday and walk to see the locations. In a city of 2.5 million people, it's mind-boggling to me that there are only two pages of apartment rentals in the main newspaper here. I've also been looking on the internet, but there aren't that many apartments listed online either. I walked for three hours Monday; thankfully it wasn't raining, although it was quite warm. By the time I got home for lunchtime and called a few of the places about making an appointment to see them inside, they were already rented. In the afternoon, I decided to try a different tactic and went to a real estate office in my neighborhood that had several interesting listings online. I figured I'd go to the source and then they could show me the places the same afternoon. It turns out that branch of the real estate firm was only for buying/selling, but they patched me through on the phone to their rental branch, and the interesting apartments they had listed online were already rented and they didn't have anything else. It's one thing to try to learn the real estate vocabulary and the bazillion different neighborhoods and try to set some criteria for what type of apartment and where, but it's something completely different to beat your eight million competitors to finding the place. All that being said, I am not panicking or super-duper stressed because I know God will come through with something wonderful--I just have to do my part. My supervisor has helped me enlist somebody to drive me around the day after Christmas, and hopefully I can find something.

Today was the first day of our two-day year-end staff evaluation and planning meeting for Liberdade and São Gabriel. Once again, I'm experiencing the cultural differences as some of the things I'm proud to be in my culture (independent, gets things done) are not necessarily seen as good things in Brazilian culture. For example, it was driving me crazy that after Daniel decided to mow the grass and "plugged in" the electric lawnmower (i.e. he put the two wires directly into the outlet), a fuse blew and the lights went out in two different rooms, including where the teachers were assembling the hundreds of stars for the Christmas party. Nobody seemed to be interested in seeing if we could get the lights back on; they just said "oh, the fluorescent bulbs here never last very long." When I asked about the two rooms losing lights at the same time and the likelihood of a fuse problem, one person said "oh, I looked, but I didn't see anything." When I returned two days later, the star production had been moved to another room because the lights still weren't on. I finally bugged people to discover where the fuse box might be, tracked down the key, and flipped a fuse that seemed to be partially off, and that did the trick. To me it seemed much easier than moving all of the star stuff to a different building. However, one "needs improvement" thing that my colleagues wrote on my evaluation was "authoritarian." They also wrote, much to the amusement of my friends, I'm sure, that I need to talk MORE. I find myself doing a lot more listening here just trying to figure out what on earth people are saying.

One last thing...

It's mango season, and mangoes are one of my favorite fruits. People with fruit trees are very generous about sharing the fruit. Our household received some from my roommate's brother, and then the neighbor lady next to São Gabriel called to have the project come get another couple of buckets full. (She'd already given us some a couple of weeks earlier.) Here they don't "eat" whole mangoes and oranges, they "suck on" them leaving a lot of the stringy pulp behind. The oranges here are different, and actually aren't that tasty if you try to eat them like you would a navel orange in the U.S.

I almost forgot to show you a picture of this particular flowering tree that I'd never noticed before, but it just started blooming within the last couple of weeks. I haven't discovered the name of it yet, but it reminds me of fireworks.

11 December 2006

On the street where you live

Horizontal street banners made out of white cloth are very popular here, and they carry a variety of interesting messages, from "Happy Birthday!" to "Congratulations, you passed the college entrance exam!" to "Lost dog" to "Detour" and even "Baby, come back to me"...

I was noticing that I haven't been sick nearly as often as I was last year, and I wasn't sure if I'd slowly picked up immunity or what, but now I've got the cold that's been going around at the community center.

At São Gabriel today, we learned that the older brother of two of the kids in the Shade and Fresh Water program there was murdered over the weekend. It seems he was about 18 years old, and his death was probably related to drug trafficking.

We are still working on the decorations for the big Christmas party on Friday for the 600 kids in Shade and Fresh Water projects in Belo Horizonte. I also have a secret assignment from my coordinator to complete before the employee Christmas party on Friday the 22nd.

Because I'm exhausted today, I'll just mention a few things before heading off to bed a couple of hours early. Almost everything here has some kind of cover. I guess when you constantly have your windows open with no screens, you get a whole lot more dust and dirt inside. But oftentimes, the covers aren't necessarily super-functional but more decorational, as in case of the crocheted doily that covers our computer monitor.

Something cool about the language is that Portuguese has one word for both "to hope" and "to wait," which seems to me that the two concepts are more linked in this society.

When in the U.S., I was not in favor of talking on the cell phone while driving, but here where everybody drives a stick-shift, it's really a scary (and, unfortunately, all too common) sight.

I've seen several stores here that I find amusing. One is the diaper store, that carries only diapers, infant to adult sizes; it even has more than one location. Another is the store called "Just Laptops" that has a sign in the window explaining that they don't actually sell any laptops.

Finally, a note about songs. You can never predict which American songs will be wildly popular in other countries. I remember, in the Republic of Georgia, for example, everybody knew and loved "Hello, Dolly." Here, two songs that seem to be quite popular are "Say You, Say Me" and "I Say a Little Prayer for You."

And with that, I'll say thanks and good night.

04 December 2006

Here comes the rain again

We are once again entering into the rainy season as it is cloudy and/or raining most of the time. Today was a delightful exception. The conflict of man vs. nature is much stronger here in Brazil as huge holes can open up in the roads, walls collapse and other construction disasters occur when we experience heavy rains, as we did last Thursday. It's hard to dress for this weather because if the sun is out, it's pretty hot, and if it's raining hard, it can be quite chilly.

Friday, we had another joint capacity-building/planning meeting for the staff at both projects where I work. These meetings really make me feel like I'm from outer space. First of all, the cultural style of meetings is different here, and then when we have group exercises, my thoughts and opinions are always way out in left field compared to those of my colleagues. I've always prided myself in being an independent thinker, but this is quite extreme. For example, one exercise was to meet in progressively larger groups and decide what things were essential for your survival. Me, being trained as a scientist, said "food, clothing, shelter" and then I threw in "faith, love and music" for good measure. By the time we got to groups of 4 or more, my colleagues were discussing things such as respect, work, friendship, family, understanding, peace, wisdom, etc. Perhaps I'm just too much of a literalist...

An interesting thing about working with people in the "lower class" here is that the majority of them have been downtrodden for so long, they have a defeatist attitude--but not 100%. It's hard to accurately explain. They expect things to go wrong and aren't particularly active about trying to resolve some things. They constantly experience a sense of powerlessness and passivity, but whenever they have an opportunity to speak with somebody who seems to be higher up in the chain than themselves, they grasp at the chance. It's for this reason that my coordinators are usually inundated with people trying to talk to them whenever they are at the projects. Even if people have problems that they know my coordinators can't solve, they still want to talk to them about it. It reminds me of how busy Moses was in the Old Testament before they appointed the judges over smaller groups of people.

Something I found very strange on the news here was that they sometimes make suspects re-enact their crimes for the police, and the news crews film and broadcast the process.

Friday night, I went by myself to try to meet up with other English-speaking foreigners at a cafe downtown. We'd advertised the new gathering on several websites for foreigners in Brazil. None of the English-speaking acquaintances I've already met here in Belo Horizonte could go, so I could only bring a little sign to put on my table. I also spoke to the manager and my waitress asking if there were any groups already there speaking English or if any foreigners were sitting by themselves because we were trying to start a new group but nobody would recognize each other. At least during my 90 minutes of waiting, they had a nice jazz guitarist and it wasn't raining too hard on the outdoor tables. I never did encounter other foreigners there--I'll have to bring a helium balloon next time and someone with whom to speak English so people can find us. I might also try posting a notice in the American school here as well as the British and Canadian consulates here.

At all of the Shade and Fresh Water projects in the area, we're preparing for a massive joint Christmas celebration December 15th. We're talking 600 kids in one location--pray for us! Part of the preparation is to make a shiny star glued to a popsicle stick for each child that will participate and to make enough extra shiny stars to decorate two Christmas trees. Most of the teachers and some of the other staff have been staying late each day to make these stars, and we even worked on Saturday. I went for a few hours on Saturday before going to check out a new neighborhood that has furnished rooms for rent.

After perusing the neighborhood, I took another bus downtown to the Central Methodist Church to help with the performance of the kids from the Liberdade project during the Christmas/anniversary celebration of this region of the Brazilian Methodist Church. The kids were having a hard time sitting still waiting for their time to perform. A particularly respected retired minister was giving a retrospective of his entire pastoral career, starting in the 1960s, I think. He finally worked his way up to the 1980s and then said something about "Thank goodness for that day in 1940" (I think in reference to his conversion) and the kids were all saying “Hey, he just went BACKWARDS to the 1940s?”. They were finally able to play their recorders and leave to go home. The service had already lasted 2 hours and was still going...

Today I went by myself back to visit a project in the PTO slum to take pictures and get an update to send to their sponsoring church in the U.S. I'd visited the same project last year with a colleague, and, frankly, was a little nervous about returning alone, but it worked out just fine. That slum has no ventilation because the buildings are built so close together, and the rooms where they hold the project are about 10-15 degrees warmer than the outside temperature. Despite the heat, the kids were very friendly, and many of them remembered me from last year.

Last week I was pretty down-in-the-dumps, so I took some pictures of beautiful things in my neighborhood to remind me of the beauty all around me. I had to do a little bit of research to positively identify these trees.

Sibipiruna tree

Flamboyant tree

Chuva-de-ouro or Golden Rain Tree

Signing out until next week...