Volunteer in Mission to Brazil

27 February 2007

Who turned the lights out?

I found out just by accident last Friday at the grocery store that Saturday night was the end of daylight savings time in our area. Technically, summer doesn't end until next month, so it is very strange to have the sun setting at 6:30. Different regions of the country do different things, so some places are still on daylight savings time.

I got an e-mail message from my dad announcing that my sister gave birth to her son last night. Welcome to our world, Mark Anthony!! I regret that I won't be able to visit right away, but hopefully I can meet him in July when I go back to the U.S. to visit.

I've been trying to figure out what I can do to be able to use my laptop (other than replacing the motherboard at a cost close to the original price of the laptop) after a second opinion confirmed the same problem with the power. I think I may have found a workable solution to bypass the problem and just use battery power, using a battery recharger that's available only in the U.S. Because there's a 60% import tax to ship most things into Brazil from other countries, the only viable solution was to find somebody that can bring me the part from the U.S. Today I finally learned of somebody headed this way from the U.S., but he's leaving on Friday morning, so this afternoon I was rushing around trying to confirm that I was ordering the right stuff and trying to place an order that would get to the guy by Thursday. We'll see if it gets there in time or not. Then if it does, there's still the matter of getting it from another state in Brazil to here, which is much easier to do, relatively speaking.

We're still working out the schedule for the new semester at the projects, so thus far I know that I'll be teaching an optional knitting class to the Shade and Fresh Water kids at Liberdade and something to the older kids (15-18) at São Gabriel.

Yesterday morning, the real estate agency called wanting to come look at my apartment to confirm the corrections to the apartment inspection that I turned in the first week of January. I arranged for the inspector to come by that morning. Some of the problems on my list I'd already fixed (or paid to have fixed), which he duly noted (but that does not mean I'll get reimbursed--I won't). I couldn't believe that I had five days after signing the rental contract to turn in my corrections to the inspection and then they get two months (or more) to come and check it out. At least he showed up on time and didn't take too long. And I learned something...the same word that means "mirror" also means "faceplate for the door handle" or whatever official name that has in English. Who knew?

Perhaps the author of the Harry Potter books traveled to Brazil before penning her famous stories. Why, you may ask? Because here they have these bright green, roundish, hovering flies that I've never seen anywhere else, and they remind me of the "Golden Snitch" used to play quidditch in those books/movies.

Brazilians seem to have a thing about rearranging the furniture in their workplaces and homes. For example, the furniture in the office at São Gabriel has been moved around at least four times since I've been here. Sometimes it might be to improve functionality, but oftentimes it's just aesthetics. Maybe because there are so many things outside one's control here that people jump at the chance to be able to control something.

Somebody here came up with a t-shirt design that has become wildly popular and even spawned imitations. The slogan is "I love BH radically" [BH stands for Belo Horizonte]. I've now seen the same design used to support a local soccer team ("I love Galo radically") and Jesus ("I love Jesus radically").

Houses here frequently have tiled areas in front where people park their car(s). These areas are particularly striking when the tiles are white or beige. In the mornings, I see people using a lot of water and detergent to clean those areas (especially the light-colored tiles). I was thinking that perhaps the white tile parking areas here are the equivalent of the perfect green lawns of the U.S.--something that doesn't actually make a lot of sense in terms of stewardship of our planet, but they look cool.

Although I've long been an independent woman, at times I feel more vulnerable in this culture where women are generally accompanied by husbands, boyfriends, fathers, brothers, or at last other female friends.

I had a busy weekend. Saturday, I spent a great day with my old roommate, including lunch, pedicures, watching a video and going to meet some other folks at a teriffic dance performance downtown. Sunday I went to the church annual meeting in the morning and then out to Liberdade in the afternoon for a birthday party. It was a nice gathering with live music. One weird thing, though--I seemed to be the only one who noticed or cared that a 13-year-old was drinking.

And finally, the irony of the week...I saw my first Brazilian Elvis impersonator downtown last week (complete with red satin jumpsuit and shades, but no guitar). Ironically, he was singing one of Little Richard's hits in a very I-don't-have-any-idea-what-the-words-really-are kind of way.

19 February 2007

It's strange to be writing my blog entries by hand in advance, but the internet/gaming cafes do not provide the solitude necessary for condensing into digestible form the experiences and thoughts of the week.

I forgot to mention a few weeks ago that I finished reading Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins. (Thanks, Pastor Rodney, for sending it my way!) I found it to be quite compelling and have been thinking about how other countries pay for the economic excess of the U.S. For the last decade or more, I'd had a vague notion of horrible, self-serving things that the U.S. had done in other countries, but I'd always been too lazy to research it to learn of specific examples. I knew from my first experience with the African students at Texas A&M that they were very wary of foreign aid programs, and on my last job working with scientists from "third world countries," I was sensitized to the need to let people decide how they want to fix their own problems and to the negative image of the World Bank. Nevertheless, it's interesting to catch myself getting indignant at the things which are seemingly unavailable here in Brazil's third largest city. I know that you don't find the variety of imported goods in Belo Horizonte that you'd find in São Paulo (Brazil's New York) or Rio de Janeiro, both of which are home to many more foreigners. I'd gotten spoiled by being able to easily find European cheese,etc. even in a small North Carolina city. But I guess the real question is, at what cost to the rest of the world do these conveniences come? Enough of the soapbox for now...

Here's a little bit about what's happening at the projects. At both São Gabriel and Liberdade, there are new children in wheelchairs. The girl at Liberdade is in the pre-school there, not the Shade and Fresh Water program. What's interesting to me is that neither of those places could be remotely considered "handicapped-accessible." But the resilient Brazilians always find a way, and in this case, other kids in the program (at São Gabriel) or the teachers (at Liberdade) help the wheelchair-bound children get where they need to go--including upstairs.

You find the same situation here as in the U.S., where a child's family might enter into his or her schoolyard conflict. One difference is that in the U.S. , I'd heard of an older brother or sister threatening to (or executing the threat to) beat up another child in their younger sibling's defense. Here, extended families are so large it can be cousins, uncles, aunts, etc. The administrator at Liberdade spent most of Friday morning sorting through a school conflict with threatened participation from the kids' aunts that carried over into the project.

The kids are "on vacation" and not at the projects this week for Carnaval, by the way. (More about Carnaval later...) We'll have meetings on Thursday and Friday to plan out the rest of the semester at the two projects.

When I was walking in São Gabriel the other afternoon, I was horrified to see a man wearing a helmet driving his motorcycle with one hand and,with the other, securing a 9-month-old baby girl, who, of course, had no helmet. I thought that she looked a lot like baby Melisa, whose parents both used to work at São Gabriel, and then a moment later, I saw Melisa's mother pushing an empty stroller. I stopped to talk to her and asked her if that was Melisa on the motorcycle. She said that yes, it was, because she didn't want her to get wet. (It was raining ever so slightly and people here worry a lot about getting caught in the rain and catching the flu.) I begged her not to do that again and explained that riding on the motorcycle was extremely dangerous for the baby. When I shared the story with two of my colleagues later that day, one expressed the same horror I'd felt, and the other one was more matter-of-fact and said she'd used to ride on a motorcycle with her husband, baby and two other small children, and people used to yell at her "Take the bus!".

On the street
Streeet scenes are quite different here than other places I've been. For one thing, in the working class neighborhoods,it's very common (especially in the evening) to sit outside on the curb and hang out with your family/neighbors. And if sitting on the curb isn't for you, you can usually walk less than two blocks in any direction to find a small neighborhood bar. I remember hearing a statistic about the number of bars in Belo Horizonte--I don't remember if it was the greatest overall number or number of bars per population. In any event, I have no idea how they can financially survive in such close proximity to one another. Within a four-block radius of my apartment, there've got to be at least a half-dozen little bars (but don't worry, Mom, I'm really not living in a rough neighborhood).

Another thing I've only seen here is people getting tattoos on the sidewalk downtown. I'm not sure who, in these days of HIV, would want to trust the sterility of the equipment of a tattoo artist who works on the sidewalk, but I've seen that they do have customers.

This past weekend through today is Carnaval, Brazil's internationally known party. Belo Horizonte is not known for its Carnaval celebrations, so people that can afford to travel to other cities that have more lively festivities or just get out of town.

I had the urge to try to see whatever movie in English on Saturday night, but I didn't have any information on what movies were playing where or when. I ended up just taking the bus to the trendy neighborhood where most of the foreigners and the many of the well-to-do live. I couldn't believe what a ghost town the place was, in marked contrast to my neighborhood,where it's pretty much business-as-usual. The only major thing I noticed in my neighborhood was that my normal internet/gaming cafe is closed, so I had to try a different one, where, unfortunately, they also have several Play Stations set up without earphones. I tried posting the update on Monday night, but only had 30 minutes before they closed and didn't finish. Thankfully, internet access at these places is very cheap (about US$1/hour).

As someone who has a phobia of seeing people vomit plus someone who didn't enjoy going to the pre-Carnaval festivities by myself, I'm in no hurry to try to witness Belo Horizonte's version of Carnaval and am actually just treating it like a long weekend. I'm feeling more introspective and okay with being alone this weekend. The party stops on Wednesday, businesses downtown open up on Thursday, and then the Brazilian year starts in earnest. A lot of people joke that things only get accomplished in Brazil between Carnaval and Christmas.

Mystery solved
I never knew the source of the mysterious electronic "Ave Maria" (think ice cream truck music) that always floats through the neighborhood exactly at 6:00 PM everyday until the bus took a detour this weekend at 6:00 and, lo and behold, there's a Catholic church in the neighborhood that must play that to call people to mass. I was surprised to also find a commercial radio station interrupting a song at 6:00 PM to play a different version of the "Ave Maria." So it's clearly a Catholic thing, but I'll have to do more research and get back to you.

Ironies of the week
I went to the "Hippie Fair" on Sunday morning and was amused to see Brazilian style reaching to the extent of modifying ugly Birkenstock-type sandals to have a glitzy buckle with fake gemstones (appearing more feminine?). After the fair, by the way, I bought a beef kabob (aware that you can get food poisoning from poorly cooked chicken but not beef...) and went to eat lunch at Liberty Plaza, one of the nicer parks in the city.

I've wondered what is the purpose of people locking rooms or closets to protect what's inside but then leaving the key in the lock on the outside.

And finally, saving the best for last, I passed the very ironically named "Church of the Open Doors," which appeared to have every window and door bricked shut.

15 February 2007

Promised photos

My neighborhood has several quaresmeira trees, which are named for their tendency to bloom around Lent.

I don't think the photos quite capture the intensity of this purple.

There is a hibiscus tree in front of our building.

A view of the full moon from my window

12 February 2007

Do you hear what I hear?

Over the days and weeks, I'm becoming accustomed to the sounds of my new neighborhood. There are the things you'd expect to hear in any city in the U.S.--kids, birds, dogs, cats, cars, buses, motorcycles, the occasional train--and then there are the neighborhood sounds that I've only encountered in Brazil--roosters; screaming soccer fans (and firecrackers and car horns belonging to the same); ambulating salesmen (a truck broadcasting music to sell cylinders of natural gas, a bakery guy with big baskets on his bicycle and a bike horn, and somebody I haven't seen yet who sounds a cowbell); a loudspeaker driving around announcing the specials at the grocery store; and the unique sounds of Brazilian building reformation. It's good that the dwellings here don't burn because they aren't made of wood, but anytime you want to reform a building, there's the constant pounding of mallets breaking through tiles and concrete walls.

[Note to Hillary: I saw my first real Brazilian firetruck at the pre-Carnaval festival downtown this Saturday. It looked just like an American firetruck (and might even have been manufactured int he U.S.).]

Last week was the kids' first week back to the two Shade and Fresh Water Projects since before Christmas. It's disturbing to me that I forgot a lot of their names after just 7 weeks. At least I usually remembered the first letter of their names, for some reason. The kids are very curious and eager to learn new things (as long as it doesn't involve reading or writing). They are very affectionate and sweet on an individual basis; it's just a real challenge interacting with them in groups, where a minimum of 50% seem to be acting up at any given time. Last week and this week, we're doing a different schedule of activities at São Gabriel and Liberdade. I'm teaching music workshops in Liberdade. We're repeating a lot of the same activities we used for the vacation Bible school in Nova Almeida. I'm teaching the "Boogaloo Song" in Portuguese, and it's a big hit. It's interesting because I can usually guess children's ages in the U.S., but here, (at least at the projects) the children are much smaller. I'm not sure how much is genetics and how much is poor nutrition. The average Brazilian adult is smaller than the average American adult, but the difference between the children of the same age is much more prominent.

My laptop is still out of commission, so the administrative work to do for the Methodist Foundation is piling up. I've received a pretty high quote to fix it at a different shop, so we'll see if they fix it or not.

We had four or so lovely, sunny days--a welcome respite from the constant rain, until today, when it was back to precipitating. I tried without too much success to find people to hang out with and things to do this weekend, so I spent a lot of time finishing a bad book (I agree with your assessment, Pearson!) and knitting. The aforementioned pre-Carnaval festival on Saturday turned out to be the gay Carnaval in Belo Horizonte. There were all kinds of people there and lots of, um, interesting things to look at. Basically, though, it consisted of groups of friends hanging out, getting drunk and listening/dancing to different types of extremely loud music that was slowly driving by on three huge floating stages. I walked up and down a bit, drank a soda and took the bus home after about an hour.

Saturday, I thankfully found out in advance, was also the biggest annual soccer game in Belo Horizonte, between the two archrival teams here. I say "thankfully" because otherwise, I would have completely freaked out on the bus heading downtown when we passed a very loud firecracker at very close range. The faretaker on the bus had a little portable radio and was listening to the game. When a fellow passenger heard the telltale "GOOOOOOOOOOL!!!!", he jumped up to ask the faretaker which team had scored and ended up standing at the turnstile for the rest of his journey to listen to the game.

When I walked to find a hardware store on Saturday morning, I saw two men in the street in front of a house that repeatedly pulled a rope into the middle of the street and then walked back with it, and I couldn't figure out what on earth they were doing. As I got closer, I could see that several men were constructing walls on the second floor, and the rope was attached to a pulley to lift up big buckets full of cement to the second floor. From my recent wall-building experience with the work team at Betânia, I know exactly how heavy those buckets can be and completely understood why it took two men to hoist each full bucket to the second floor.

It's interesting how things that are supposed to benefit you often can work against you. For example, employers here are required to pay for your public transportation, but there is quite a bit of discrimination against people who live more than one bus/metro ride away (and would cost more). A very capable young woman in the Liberdade neighborhood who successfully completed a training program was not hired because she lived two buses away (and the second bus is quite expensive).

And speaking of the two buses to get to Liberdade, last week I walked to the busstop after teaching at Liberdade, and, thank God, I listened to the little voice in my head asking if I had my keys, because I didn't. Thankfully, I was able to only walk up the hill to get them and avoid having to either take four extra bus rides back and forth between Liberdade or two 15-minute walks + two bus rides to get to my supervisors' house because they have my spare key.

I had two different experiences this evening in my neighborhood where people unexpectedly called me by name (people I didn't expect to know/remember my name). For a brief moment, I began to wonder if I'm starring in the Brazilian version of "The Truman Show."

I've been trying to take some pictures of beautiful scenes in my neighborhood to help keep myself out of the dumps, and I'll upload a few on Wednesday when I am at São Gabriel. Weekends were difficult for me in the U.S., too, but here, in such a linked society where the average Brazilian seems to have such a large network of family and friends, two days spent on my own are particularly challenging. I keep saying that I'm going to take/am taking steps to build a social life, but no major results thus far. I'm hoping that will change soon. [Just a little bit of reality for those who are imagining that I'm living this glamorous life in Brazil... :) ]

05 February 2007

Simple pleasures

I'm overjoyed to be able to report that today I was able to pick up my clean, ironed laundry from a lady in the neighborhood who does laundry for people, and unlike the last neighborhood person, she didn't try to rip me off. I also am the proud owner of a new hanging drying rack (more about that later) and can wash some easy things (underwear and socks) myself and hang them to dry inside the apartment in the laundry area.

I'm trying to memorize the street grid in my neighborhood because the street signs are often missing. I have also noticed in the process that no two maps here are alike, nor is any one 100% accurate.

January in Belo Horizonte was great because the city was empty--everybody that can goes out of town on vacation. Not only was traffic much lighter, but also lines everywhere were much shorter and the overall environment was much more pleasant. But, alas, it's February and they're all back as school is starting up again.

I've noted a few ironies with respect to the warm climate here. First of all, hot synthetic fabrics such as polyester and acrylic seem to be much more popular here than cotton. I've also been looking for cotton yarn in the many knitting/craft stores here, and the only cotton yarn I can really find is the very fine stuff used for crocheting doilies and the like. As I noticed my first time in Brazil 10 years ago, long hair is very popular for women here. Personally, I can hardly stand to wear my hair down on sunny days this time of year because of the river of sweat that so quickly forms on the back of my neck.

Today was an interesting return to the Shade and Fresh Water Project in Liberdade. In these first two weeks of the term (before Carnaval) we'll have special activities for the kids at the two projects. Today was just the welcome and a snack, but it was significantly more chaotic than usual because...

Well, last year, the town of Riberão das Neves rented one of the rooms at Liberdade and paid for administrative and cleaning staff to have one classroom of 5-year-olds housed at the project due to serious overcrowding in the city's schools. At the end of the year, the town approached my supervisors about increasing the number of students by 3- or 4-fold in 2007. There was no way they could take over all of the facilities because it wouldn't leave any room for the Shade and Fresh Water program. In the original discussions, the town said all or nothing--that they wanted to have all of the students there or none, so it seemed that the school was going elsewhere. However, a couple of weeks ago, they came back asking to just double the enrollment at Liberdade and use one more classroom. They wanted to do that plus rent an empty house in the neighborhood to house the other classroom and staff. When I arrived today, many things had been moved around (e.g. the library, which has now become the additional classroom), but there were many extra school employees around, and, I found when I went upstairs in the other building, a third classroom of schoolkids was meeting there because the house the city had rented wasn't ready yet.

I had kind of a blah weekend, but church was very uplifting last night, and the message about waiting was very timely as I had spent two hours that morning waiting for the handyman to arrive and three more hours for him to finish hooking up my gas stove, fixing the leak in the water valve, and installing the drying rack that hangs from the ceiling.

One other pick-me-up was briefly seeing my old roommate on Saturday morning and hearing that her daughter's precious two-year-old nephew, during his recent visit to her apartment, immediately went to my old room, looked around and asked where I went.

I've noticed that many trucks here have slogans painted on the back of them. They range from the expected "Keep your distance" to "Thanks--Hosanna--Lord!", "Everything with Jesus", "Enlighten me Lord!", and "Read the Bible." I'm not sure if people really feel that strongly about the religious slogans or if they're more talismans to ward off trouble. You also see religious slogans on all kinds of businesses here, too.

I'm really at my limit of listening to American rap music and young people yelling at each other as they're playing games at my local internet cafe.

Hopefully, if my laptop can be fixed, I can get internet in my apartment. Finally, I want to send an ALOHA shout-out to my parents, who are in Hawaii (and, I hope, having a good time).