Volunteer in Mission to Brazil

31 January 2007

Nova Almeida (Part 2)

OK, a power glitch here just wiped out my draft update, so let's try this again (saving it every few minutes)...

Yesterday after our staff planning meeting here at São Gabriel, I wanted to update the blog, but by the time I thought about it, I had to leave to get to the computer repair shop to pick up my not-fixed laptop before they closed. Thankfully, they didn't charge me for the stuff the guy did that didn't fix anything, although the laptop is significantly dirtier and the carrying case was stained with hot glue or something. Next, my supervisors' son will take a look at it to see if he can diagnose and/or fix it.

The group from Randolph-Macon College brought a lot of craft supplies with them and quickly planned to do skits and music centering on five different Bible stories. They wrote up plain-language narrations, which I got help translating and then we read aloud to the kids while the group acted it out. The Randolph-Macon team divided up to work with the team from Belo Horizonte to do workshops in crafts, music and recreation. At the end of each session, there was a "gincana" team competition of relay races, obstacle courses, etc.

I helped with the music workshops, and we sang songs with the kids in Portuguese and English. The big hit was the "Boogaloo Song," which I'd never heard before. The leader shouts "Let me see you boogaloo!" and the group replies "What did you say?". After several iterations of this, the everybody recites a caveman-like chant and does a dance resembling the Pony. For the subsequent verses, the leader substitutes an action that the group has to pantomime while doing the caveman-like chant (e.g. "Let me see you climb a tree!"). A retired missionary couple in the area came to assist, and the wife was particularly helpful with providing resources (puppets, costumes, musical instruments and a CD with children's music in English). At any given time, part of the group would be working with the kids and the other part on the manual labor (yardwork and painting).

Overall, people were very good-natured considering the hardships they had to face: insect bites, rashes, intestinal disturbances, sun poisoning and a brief power outage. The boys immediately noticed that their accommodations in the old dormitory were quite inferior to the girls' accommodations in the new dormitory, which had ceiling fans in every room and screens on the windows. The fans really did keep the mosquitoes from pestering you all night (only when on high speed). Although I was trying to keep covered in insect repellent the whole time (thanks, Dot!), I still managed to get quite a few bites that are just now healing.

The group liked to sit around in the evening playing games (Uno and CatchPhrase) and sing with the guitar. They even composed a few songs--"Yeah, Brazil" and "G-O-R-D-O-N" in tribute to one of my supervisors. I will not miss, however, people trying to learn to play Tom Petty's "Freefalling" ad infinitum.

The group actually invited me to travel to Rio de Janeiro with them to help my supervisor, so I went with her by plane to Rio and waited in the airport there for the group to arrive on their later flight. I have the feeling that people didn't believe us about how dangerous Rio is; thank God nothing bad happened other than a couple of people losing a little money. We had good weather and the group was able to go to both Corcovado and Sugarloaf to see the city from above, and several even decided to try hangliding. We all went to the airport Sunday afternoon, and my supervisor and I got home in the wee hours of the morning on Sunday night/Monday morning.

It was weird to come home to my new, mostly-empty apartment. I must admit that although I'd lived by myself before for about 8 years without problems, I'm finding myself much lonelier here. Probably lack of TV and Internet don't help, although I don't really watch that much TV. Brazil is much more of a communal society, so I'm definitely feeling the lack of companionship. In this apartment, I feel much more like I'm "roughing it," but I do have a mattress and a chair and a stool and nicer accommodations than many of my colleagues, albeit unfurnished.

The next challenge is to figure out how and where to get my clothes washed because the handyman hasn't installed the drying rack on the ceiling in my apartment, and the place I'd previously found in the neighborhood that does laundry no longer has the sign out front.

Here are a few pictures from the Randolph-Macon group and the summer camp:

Some of the Belo Horizonte team relaxing in the Shade

The kids from the summer camp

The team from Randolph-Macon College

The team performing at the summer camp closing party

29 January 2007

Back to your regularly scheduled program

Sorry that I was unable to post to the blog last week. I was pretty busy helping with the Volunteers in Mission group from Randolph-Macon College and the radio internet connection at the Methodist Camp in Nova Almeida was extremely slow--when it was working. I hope to be able to post a few pictures of the group and the summer camp we hosted for the kids in the Nova Almeida Shade and Fresh Water Project, but I first have to install software at the community center to be able to directly download pictures from my camera (my laptop is in the shop for repairs).

This group was the largest Volunteers-in-Mission group that I've helped with to date (24 students, 2 professors and 1 parent), and they were unique in that the students were participating in a class on service. Although their university is Methodist, not all of the students were Methodist or even necessarily Christian. They were coming to help host the annual summer camp for the kids in Nova Almeida plus do some yardwork (clearing overgrowth) and paint the new dormitory (where we were staying).

The team of 10 people (including me) from Belo Horizonte that was traveling to help with the summer camp left Sunday the 14th on the overnight bus to Nova Almeida. We arrived the next morning, and several of us proceeded to walk to the camp, which was about 3/4 mile away. The others with really heavy luggage without wheels waited for the caretaker of the Methodist camp to come pick them up in his car.

You may recall that I mentioned earlier on this blog how the human courier system is very important in Brazil for getting things from one place to another. This trip was no different. Our group was carrying frozen entrees as well as computer equipment to be delivered to Nova Almeida, and the American group was carrying computer equipment, suitcases to be returned to Belo Horizonte, stuff a former volunteer was sending to the folks in Belo Horizonte and stuff my parents were sending to me for Christmas.

The critical phase of the dormitory construction was completed only a few hours before the group arrived, and my supervisor and others were running around trying to clean it up and get everything ready in time. The students arrived Monday night, planning and registration for the summer camp was on Tuesday and the kids started participating on Wednesday. Nova Almeida is a sleepy beach town that wakes up a bit during the summer high season, but it generally does not receive a lot of foreign visitors (especially not Americans) so the group attracted a lot of notice everywhere they went. The residents of Nova Almeida were generally very friendly and curious, asking where the group was from, why they were there, etc.

We were not the only people in town from Belo Horizonte, however, because two large families from my church were renting houses for their vacation. That especially came in handy when we were walking with the group into "downtown" and I had a wardrobe malfunction after pulling on a loose thread in my halter-top. Thankfully, I was able to borrow a top from my friends as we passed their vacation house and re-join the group. The families also came over to the camp to play soccer with everybody a couple of times.

I'm torn at this point because I'm pretty hungry (and have no food at home and need to stop by the grocery store), so I want to keep this brief. I'm thinking I'll post Part Two tomorrow. To be continued...

10 January 2007

For all the saints

The title of this week’s blog is inspired by my new neighborhood, Sagrada Familia, or “Sacred Family.” Most of the street names here are names of various saints, including my street. It’s a little bit lower class than where I was before, and you won’t find any bookstores, movie theaters or chic cafes here (you can find those things in the upscale parts of downtown, for example). There are some small bars and restaurants and small businesses and a nice grocery store just a few blocks away. I’m going to try out the internet cafe tonight to try to post this update. I still need to find a laundromat because I didn’t buy a washing machine. Although it’s a bit further from transportation than before, I am very happy with the location. Now I can choose between taking buses or the metro system. The apartment and the neighborhood in general have beautiful views because there are more houses than high-rise apartment buildings.

This week I’ve spent two whole days waiting for deliveries. I wasn’t sure from the paperwork if the appliances might not show up on Tuesday, so in the morning I walked to the mattress store, bought a mattress, and went on to wait at the apartment. In theory, everything (mattress, refrigerator and stove) was originally scheduled to arrive on Wednesday, but after multiple phone calls, only the mattress showed up, and only at 6:15 pm. While I was waiting, my old roommate’s maid, Cleuzinha, and I cleaned the apartment, which was pretty dirty after being empty for a while and having paint and plaster work done. I bought one of the terra cotta water filters that are very popular here, and I thought it was funny that Cleuzinha told me it leaks because it’s new—she was totally unfamiliar with the concept that if something is brand new, it should be functioning perfectly—for good reason, because that is often not the case here.

Wednesday night, my old roommate, Márcia, helped me translate my addendum to the real estate agency’s inspection of the apartment (I think their inspector came before the painters did). On Thursday, I spent most of the day at the federal university helping a masters student edit and format his article in English for submission to a journal, then went to the real estate office to drop off the inspection addendum just on the last admissible day.

I rescheduled the appliance delivery for Friday (I asked for morning, and the manager promised morning, but they showed up at 3 pm). Thankfully, the afternoon delivery left me enough time to go to the party store to buy a helium balloon, go home, shower and change clothes, and head back out to the monthly meeting of English-speaking foreigners that we’re trying to start. Last month, I was the only one to show up (and perhaps people didn’t see my little table-top sign), so this month I wanted to bring a balloon to make it easier to find each other. Thankfully, the participation increased by 100% even though the Canadian friend I’d already met was still out of town. A guy showed up who’s from Texas and is living here with his Brazilian wife and children. We had a good chat, and I shared my plans to try to better publicize the gathering. When I got home Friday night, I packed one load of things (mostly lighter stuff) into my suitcases plus a couple I borrowed from Márcia. Saturday morning, we loaded up her car to bring the first load of stuff to my new apartment, and I emptied the suitcases haphazardly to bring them back and pack up the remaining things. Thankfully I’d already scheduled with Eliezer, a friend from church, to come help me with the second load after lunch because my roommate was unexpectedly hosting guests from out of town that arrived Saturday at lunchtime. I was remarking to Eliezer about all of the different things that the renter has to pay here that renters in the U.S. don’t have to pay (condominium fee, taxes, maintenance, etc.), and he astutely pointed out that all of those additional costs are probably included in the rent in the U.S., even if you don’t explicitly see them. I unpacked and waited for the handyman to show up at 4:00 to connect my electronically heated showerhead; he called to reschedule for Sunday morning due to car problems.

Actually, I had to do quite a bit of waiting for the handyman—he was more than one hour late, and when he showed up, he didn’t have any of the supplies he needed to connect my stove or shower, so then I gave him the money for that and he disappeared for more than 1 ½ hours. Part of me was envisioning him stopping off at the bar with his friends to enjoy a couple of beers, but the realist in me thought he was probably just going from store to store trying to find a place open on Sunday morning that sold hardware stuff. Thankfully, the realist was right! I thought the natural gas was channeled through the building but found out it wasn’t, in which case I’d need my own little gas tank. My neighbor invited me in to use her phone and gave me the number of the gas place, asking if I was married to the handyman and announcing a few different times that she had two sons. To my surprise, the gas places are open on Sundays and they delivered; it’s very scary for me to watch the motorcycle delivery guys with three or more little gas cylinders strapped to their motorcyles... The gas place didn’t have the security valve I needed, so I told the handyman I’d buy it and scheduled for him to come back. Despite the waiting and confusion, it was worth it because he connected the shower heater, connected the stove to the wall outlet (that I learned doesn’t provide gas), and repaired the dripping kitchen sink, all for a labor of 25 reais, or about 12 dollars. Because doing handyman stuff is only his moonlighting job, he only can do stuff on weekends or nights, so he’s scheduled to come back tonight to connect the stove to my new gas tank with the new security valve that I finally found in the 4th store I went to on Sunday afternoon.

Although I love my independence and having my own space, I also miss the company of Márcia and Cleuzinha as well as the high-speed internet connection. It’s definitely less comfortable in my empty new apartment. I bought a plastic stool to be able to reach things, but it also turns out to be the only place to sit in the apartment besides on my mattress (I don’t yet have a bed frame). Before when I’d moved from place to place, I always had some hand-me-down appliances and furniture from my family and friends; this time, I did borrow some things from my roommate (e.g. towels and sheets) but I declined to take her 2nd TV because I will not have cable here and wouldn’t particularly spend a lot of time watching the Brazilian soap operas or the news. I might break down and get an Internet connection in my apartment, though.

I’m getting ready to head to Nova Almeida to help with the incoming work team of students from Virginia. Originally, rumor had it that we were leaving Wednesday night, but that appears to have changed and I have not yet received official word.

Sorry for the delay. I came to the computer place yesterday evening to try to post this before the handyman was scheduled to show up, but their internet was out (probably due to the rain). Now I think we're leaving on Thursday night or maybe Friday night for Nova Almeida. I was walking quite a bit this morning to run errands, and I was thinking about how much I'm looking forward to walking around in FLAT Nova Almeida. :)

08 January 2007

Will write tomorrow...

I've just moved to my new apartment and don't have internet access at home anymore, so I'll post the weekly update tomorrow during the day.

01 January 2007

Happy New Year/Adventures in Brazilian Bureaucracy

Happy 2007 to you and yours! This holiday-on-Monday thing is really throwing me off as far as the blog goes, but I wanted to write about my experience finding an aparment. It's hard to believe it's only been a week since I last wrote--it feels like at least two weeks. When I explain what I've been doing, perhaps you'll understand why.

On one hand, it was a surprise to find out recently that I should be moving out of my current apartment around this time. On the other hand, it's actually been good to be on "vacation" when the children's projects aren't operating and we don't have any meetings planned, because there's no way I could be getting all of this apartment stuff done and do my regular stuff, too.

Just to catch up, on Thursday the 21st I saw an apartment that I liked in a lower-middle class neighborhood close to where I live now (but a little bit closer to downtown). I told the real estate agency that I liked it and received the application forms for me and two co-signers to fill out. My roommate and my supervisors offered to be my co-signers, but it ended up being my roommate and my supervisors' son. Not only do the co-signers have to fill out the forms, but also they have to provide photocopies of their identity and social security cards, their paycheck receipts for the past three months, marriage/divorce certificates (married couples in Brazil count as one person), a recent bill as proof of address, the property tax receipt from the past year and a notarized copy of the deed to the property that they own. I gathered all of that stuff and brought it to the real estate agency on Tuesday the 26th. The actual deed could not be easily located for my supervisors' son, so we had another document that showed the property value, etc. That didn't count, but my supervisor, who went with me, asked them if it was really necessary to have two co-signers for such a low-rent apartment, and they admitted if I could get all of the documents approved for at least one co-signer, I'd probably be good-to-go. They looked at the deed from my roommate, but they didn't accept it because it didn't have her name on it. I called her to explain what the problem was, and she located the proper document that night.

On Wednesday the 27th, I returned to the real estate agency with the proper deed for my roommate's co-signing application. I got there when the one person who could evaluate the documents and approve my application was at lunch. I asked about the different things that would need to be notarized, but the representative I was dealing with encouraged me to wait until I got the approval before trying to get anything notarized. I was trying to be efficient...hah! She said she'd call me as soon as they had an answer, and that I could also call them. I did return back downtown and got a cell phone, which I'll definitely need in my new place because I won't get a land-line.

Then came the thunderstorm (thankfully, while I was inside signing up for the cell phone account). Figuring that I'd be making a lot of two-bus trips to the real estate office and various other locations, I went to the bus pass office and added money to my pass. (Normally the Methodist Foundation provides my bus pass, and I use it just to get to and from work. However, using the bus pass you get a discount on the 2nd bus that you don't get if you pay cash.) After that, I decided to go home and call the real estate agency from there, but was unable to get through for the rest of the afternoon because the storm wiped out their phone line.

Thursday the 28th, I called first thing in the morning and was told my application was approved, and that I could come and pick up the contract to be signed later in the day. I took my daily trip to the real estate agency (by this time, I'm a PRO with the bus routes to get there...) and get the contract. I ask about what needs to be notarized (particularly about the signatures of the co-signers) and am told that only I need to go to the notary. Actually, what she meant was only I need to be there in person, but I have to find out at what notary my two co-signers have their respective signatures registered to get them verified, and that I needed to register my signature at a notary so they could verify my signature, too. What I already knew was that I'd need to go to the Registry of Real Estate Deeds where my roommate's apartment is registered and get an official, notarized copy to complete my application documents.

First, I did a little research on the deed office that I needed to go to get an official, notarized copy of my roommate's deed. It was a good thing because the office had moved to a completely different neighborhood. I called to find out how much it costs and how long it takes to get a notarized copy of a deed, and it turns out it's pretty cheap (12 reais) and that office gets you your copy within a few minutes. I researched what buses I needed to take to get there and then to go on to the real estate office, and headed out. At the 4th Registry of Real Estate Deeds, I ordered and received a copy of my roommate's deed and also asked about in which Registry I could find the deed for my supervisors' son's apartment. The second deed wouldn't be crucial for my application, but I figured I could get the family a copy to keep for next time they might need it. Good thing it wasn't crucial for my application because the 5th Registry of Real Estate Deeds, which, thankfully, happened to be right around the corner from the 4th Registry, only provides the documents after five business days (another 12 reais). Then it was on to my daily trip to the real estate agency to give them the official copy of my roommate's deed and get the rental contract to be signed by me and my two co-signers.

I called my supervisors to ask if their son would be traveling for the holidays to figure out when I could get him to sign the contract. It turned out that his office was less than three blocks away from my favorite real estate agency, so I called him on his cell phone (now that I had a cell phone!) and dropped by his office to get his signature. Woo-hoo! I accomplished two things in a row and was feeling back to my efficient, American self. (I didn't know yet about the "verification" process required for the signatures...) I then go over the contract with my roommate that night, and she signs it. Along with the contract was an inspection report, which also needed to be signed by the three of us. My roommate told me that I would need to go to the notary office where she has her signature registered and get it authenticated. I called my supervisors to ask where their son had his signature authenticated, but they didn't know.

On Friday the 29th, my roommate took me to the notary office where her signature is registered, and asked them if my other co-signer's signature happened to be registered there, too. They said yes, and she gave me a high five. I wasn't celebratory just yet, and it turned out that they said the other guy's signature didn't match what they had on file, so they could just authenticate my and my roommate's signatures. At two copies each of the contract and inspection report and two signatures on each to be verified, that added up to 25 reais. I called my supervisor to ask about his son's signature, and called the son on his cell phone and at home without success (he is a famous sleeper). No luck. Finally, I went to meet my supervisor at their apartment, where we woke up his son (actually, he was just getting up on his own). He showed me his documents and that his signature was the same as it was on his identity card, etc. and wasn't sure what the problem was. In any event, we dragged him off to the notary. When we got there, he remembered that he'd been there many years before as an adolescent (which explains why his signature was different), and he officially updated his signature and they verified it on my contracts, to the tune of another 13 reais. And I forgot--one reason why I was trying to very the signatures early on in the day was because I would need my passport later to leave at the real estate agency in exchange for the keys so we could inspect the apartment.

[I'm already tired of writing about this...are you tired of reading about it?? But the truth must be known!!]

The idea was that I wanted my supervisor to help me go over the inspection report at the apartment to know before I turned it in whether or not it was accurate or if they left anything out. It's ludicrous that they have such detailed inspections because they owner will never fix anything; it's only purpose is to hold tenants responsible for any additional damage that wasn't on the inspection report. So my supervisor and I head up for my daily visit to the real estate agency with the idea of getting the keys to the place to go over it with a fine-tooth comb to make sure there isn't any additional damage not included in the report. However, when we get there, the lady says we can't get the keys because I'm already in the process of signing the contract, and now the only way they can give me the keys is in exchange for the signed contract (and paying the fire insurance). Hmmm...but at least she says I have five days to argue any additional damage that wasn't on the report. So I turn in the contract, pay the fire insurance (111 reais) and receive 13 keys (at least some of which are duplicates). The real estate agency calls the electric company, who, thank God, says that the power is already turned on. If it wasn't, I'd have to sit in the apartment for two working days (without power) waiting for them to show up and turn it on. And to think that people complain about having to wait during a four-hour period for the cable guy...

So my supervisor and I head over to the apartment, skipping lunch, with the idea to do the inspection in time to get to the community center for my English tutoring appointment at 3:00. At first, it doesn't appear that the power is actually on, but we head down to the garage, where we find a meter and a fuse box with my apartment number on them. With just a flip of the two fuses, we're in business.

After more than an hour, we're not even half-way through the three page report, and we have found several things that were not included. The problem is that even with a dictionary, I'm not going to understand the vocabulary of buildings and residences. At 2:30 we call it a wash and go through the Habib's (one of McDonald's biggest competitors here) drive-through and he drops me off at Sao Gabriel. My student is late, so I do have a minute to eat. When she shows up, we have about a 30-minute chat and then a two-hour class. Then, we stop by to visit a former employee of the community center who is visiting family with her newborn. When I finally get home, I am d-e-a-d.

My first priority on Saturday the 30th is to get the locks changed in the new apartment; before that happens, I don't want to put anything there because anybody could have made a copy of the keys when they got them from the real estate agency to look at the place. I look in the phone book and find a locksmith who will come out and do it that morning. I was also hoping to have somebody come help me clean the apartment, but that didn't work out. I walk over to the apartment (it's about a 30-minute walk from my current apartment) to finish the inspection and wait for the locksmith. I figure by myself, I can at least find every single thing wrong with the place and take pictures of the problems, and then I can go over the report when I have help later. The guy is late (~45 minutes) but pretty quickly pops the three locks out to ride his motorcycle back to the shop and change the inside of the locks and make two new keys for each one. It's pretty cheap (50 reais--much cheaper than in the U.S.), but like a lot of services here, he doesn't do a 100% job. I feel like a dork but run around and test all 6 keys in the locks before I pay him and he leaves, but then the second he's out of the building, I try to close the front door and it won't close properly because one screw is sticking out too far. And, of course, I don't have any tools. I manage to lock one of the locks on the bottom and then finish the inspection. In a 25-year-old building, there are lots of little (and big) things wrong, and when their report talks about missing screws in light plates, my counter-offensive has to be just as thorough.

I think about walking directly home but decide to go out of my way to stop by a bed store, which happened to be closed. Then I thought briefly about catching the bus for the last 3 stops to my apartment (90% uphill) and end up walking. I get back in time to catch the end of a family luncheon for members of my roommate's ex-husband's family who are visiting from the U.S. I don't think I left the house again on Saturday, but it's all a blur.

Yesterday, the 31st, I went downtown to the "Hippie Fair" to look for a few household items. Then I came back from that, ate lunch, and reluctantly followed my original plan to go to the mall and look for appliances and household items. I'd already researched used and new appliances online and in the newspaper, and decided because of energy efficiency, it would probably be worth it to buy a newer refrigerator. The cheapest appliance store also happened to be the only one open, and I ended up bargaining with the salesman to get a better price for buying both a refrigerator and a stove (1150 reais for both). I call my supervisors to verify that it truly is a good deal and that it's not a dumb thing to do (amazingly, the store lets you call for free, even though this call was long distance). Then it was on to the 24-hour megastore (like KMart) to buy a few basic necessities (trash cans, cleaning supplies, etc.) and take a taxi to leave all of the bags at the new apartment and return to my old apartment.

Then I had about an hour to eat and relax(?!) before it was time to take a shower and head out to the 10:00 PM New Year's church service. I decided I really didn't want to miss it since, a) I really missed not going to church at Christmas, and b) it would be the first time I was ever at church at midnight. A word to the wise for you pastors unexperienced with midnight services--keep the prayers short! I was having a hard time staying awake during the prayers, and from the snores coming from across the sanctuary, somebody else lost that battle. One funny thing is that the pastor taught his toddler son to chant for his favorite soccer team, but now his son likes to holler it out at various times throughout the service. :) It was about 12:15 when the service ended, and I called a taxi to return home to the old apartment.

In addition to the apartment stuff, I've recently started tutoring English again and am editing/formating a scientific manuscript for a student in the Chemistry department at the local federal university. Tomorrow, I'm headed over to wait for the appliance delivery in case they show up. The salesman said it wouldn't be until Wednesday, but then on the order, he wrote Tuesday. I doubt they'll show up, but I don't want to risk not being there. At some point, I need to buy a bed and move my stuff.

Conclusions? Getting an apartment here is not for sissies! It's been an incredibly drawn-out process compared to renting in the U.S., and I'm actually not getting the sympathy I've been seeking because people here are used to it and don't realize exactly how much of a shock this has been to my system. Especially doing this mostly on my own and adding in the complication of having to run all over the place using the bus system. Thankfully, the bus system here is pretty efficient, I am able-bodied, and people have been nice about helping me and occasionally giving me a ride, but every time I've gone to the real estate agency on the bus, that's another 6.50 (reais) out of my pocket and 2-3 hours out of my day. I don't know how people from efficient/organized countries like Germany survive here, because you can feel like a real failure when you run around all day and only get one thing accomplished, if that.

And here's your bonus for making it all the way through this--like staying through the credits of the movie and seeing some additional footage--my new view:

ALL that being said, it has been only by the grace of God that all of the apartment stuff has worked out and I now have a nice, new place to live. The goal is to get completely moved in before January 12th, when I'm off to Nova Almeida (the beach town with the Methodist camp that I visited before) to help with a large group of American volunteers.

Wishing you a blessed 2007!