Volunteer in Mission to Brazil

27 March 2007

Ups and downs

Had I actually been able to write this update last night, my tone would have been completely different. I just spent a good bit of time this morning receiving some constructive feedback from one of my supervisors. It was very difficult to receive for two reasons--first because I have a general difficulty receiving criticism, and second because it seems like my efforts to interact with my colleagues and the children at the projects have not yielded the results I'd hoped they would and thought they had. That's not to say that everything is terrible and nobody likes me, because that's definitely not the case.

Yesterday I was feeling some signs of hope like I might foresee a near future with a decent social life and was feeling pretty good, but then learning that I'm being perceived in some rather negative ways was a pretty big downer today. My initial reaction is to want to pack up and go home (what does "home" mean, anyway?), but I know that I need to wait, calm down and see what I need to change and how I can better adapt. That's one thing that really is difficult about living in another culture is that you are the one who has to do almost 100% of the adapting. Everybody else just goes about their business, but you have to watch every word out of your mouth, every gesture, every greeting or lack thereof, etc.

Earlier, I'd come to realize that whatever small things I might be "accomplishing" here are not the focal point, but, rather, what God is accomplishing within me. I thought that I was presenting the heart of a servant, but apparently my "servant's heart" needs a lot of fine tuning. One thing that came up in the discussion this morning that another friend had mentioned recently was not being so hard on myself. I didn't think that I am that hard on myself, but if it keeps coming up, it must be an issue. More fodder for endless self-analysis...

One big blessing in all of this was when I arrived belatedly in the kitchen to get some lunch, and the women there noticed my puffy eyes and asked if I was sick. I explained that I had been crying because of receiving some criticism, and then when I was eating, one of them began to read the Upper Room devotional for today about past mistakes, which I'd already read while eating breakfast but seemed to hold a special significance now.

Enough of the therapy and onto the usual observations.

One cool thing is that I pass a bakery on my way to the bus stop most mornings, and I was looking for Italian or French style bread to make my sandwiches. I talked to the owner, and she said she had a recipe for Italian bread, so she made some for me a few days later. It turned out to be ciabatta, which was great for my sandwiches. She actually wrote down my cell phone number and is now calling me whenever she makes some so I can go by and pick some up.

Junk mail here isn't delivered by the mailman, but rather in person by individuals hired by the respective businesses who are advertising. They walk around with stacks of flyers and put them into the mailboxes.

As someone who is lactose intolerant, I'm surprised and thankful about how easy it is to find soy milk here. Even the smaller grocery stores seem to carry it.

I see so many people smoking here that it seems like non-smokers are the minority. By law, cigaratte packs and display racks have ghastly pictures of various medical conditions caused by smoking (premature infants, mouth cancer, etc.), but the cheap price of cigarettes (US$1 for a pack of 20!) keeps them coming back. I'm guessing that the medical community here hasn't yet sued the tobacco companies to get them to help pay for the medical care necessitated by people consuming their products.

Last week I was looking for a used travel guide as a present for my former roommate's birthday (a new one would cost about 1/4 of my monthly rent) and called around several used bookstores to find something; the only option was a 1995 guide to Rome. I went to pick it up, and imagine my surprise when I arrived at a long, narrow store that has a counter all the way across the front to keep the customers away from most of the books. You tell one of the employees what you're looking for, and they go digging around and come back to you with whatever they find. I finally got the guy to let me in to browse through whatever few novels they had in English--nothing worth buying, though. I thought that the point of bookstores (especially used ones) was to browse.

Words that don't mean what you'd expect
You run across several seemingly familiar words that mean something completely different from their English meaning. For example:
"colegio" - college? no, primary/secondary school
"academia" - academy? no, gym (the place you go to exercise)
"pretender" - pretend? no, intend

I thought that "inflamavel" in Portuguese meaning "can be burned" was strange, but when looking up how to spell inflammable in English, I just found out that both "flammable" and "inflammable" mean "can be burned" in English. Who knew?

Irony of the Week
Well there are a couple to choose from...
First is the "Open English School" in the Sao Gabriel neighborhood which I don't think I have ever seen actually open. I've also noticed that even deaf Brazilians "talk" all at the same time in sign language.

On last Wednesday, I went with my supervisors and three visitors to the "Salão do Encontro" or "Meeting Hall" project in nearby Betim. Originally founded in 1970 with the goal of preserving cultural traditions and folklore, it has expanded to a huge social project in a forest-like setting with training (and selling products) for adults and children in woodworking, pottery, weaving, dried flower arrangments, basketweaving and rag dolls; a school; a day care center; and much more. Here are a few pictures from our visit to the project.

The kids learn make the paint they use from various clays. These kids were taking their jobs very seriously.

Step 2 in the paint-making.

Using the paint

Learning to weave together

Two dreamers--missionary Gordon (one of my supervisors) and Dona Noemi (one of the founders of the project)

19 March 2007

Dog days of summer

I'd like to send two personal shout-outs this week. First to my faithful reader, Lisa W. Thanks for your interest and support! Second to Travis, who helped me get a temporary solution to be able to use my laptop again. Wahoo! Thanks a million.

Some like it hot
This is my first time to be in Belo Horizonte during the end of summer because I was not here last March. It is HOT (90-95 F). Not as bad as it might get in the Amazon or in the northeast, but hot enough when most places don't have air-conditioning. I really think that the sun is stronger here. Just walking around during the peak hours can wipe you out. I went out Saturday morning to run a couple of errands, and by the time I got back home (before 11 AM), I was drenched with sweat. Saturday night, I was already falling asleep at 9 PM.

It's funny because when you see people waiting outside (e.g. for the bus), they seem to be in very strange locations/configurations until you realize that they are standing in whatever piece of shade exists. Normally I like to walk on the side of the street against traffic, but these days, I've come to value more walking on the shady side of the street.

Prayers still needed
We're still having some difficulties with the children at Liberdade. It turns out that one of the new girls has become the girlfriend of one of the boys who's been in the project for a while, and I'm not sure if that is the main thing that is causing the other girls to gang up on her outside of the project. In any case, the situation had most of the kids super-agitated on Friday, and even the kids in the morning were horrible for me. One of the male "educators" in the projects was so nonchalant as to say that we don't have to deal with what happens outside of the project, but all of these little and big conflicts so clearly contaminate everything we try to do.

Get on the bus
Being the nerd that I am, I am learning all kinds of things about the bus system here. Each bus has a turnstile, and there are a few seats in the front of the bus for passengers that don't need to pass through the turnstile. You've got two different categories of people in the front--those who need to pay and those who don't. (You've also get people that aren't supposed to be in that section sitting there; the faretaker is supposed to ask them to move when the seats are needed by people who have the right to sit there.) Pregnant or obese people and people with certain disabilities can sit in the front but need to pay. Senior citizens 65 or older, children under 5 and bus company employees don't need to pay. Some people with disabilities get a special bus pass to use and go to the back, and sometimes they even get the right to use it for a companion to accompany them. Police in uniform don't pay or pass through the turnstile; they enter and exit through the back door. Candy vendors try to get the busdrivers to let them in the back door, sell to people in the bus, and get out after a few stops. Sometimes you even see people asking for money--occasionally in exchange for a small trinket that they're selling "to make a living." These people have a well-rehearsed speech, and I'm always surprised how many people give money.

My uncompleted quest, however, is to find out the original logic behind the numbering system of the bus routes. I've heard rumors that there was originally a logic to the three or four different digits in the route numbers as well as the colors of the buses. You, too, gentle reader, will know as soon as I do.

Pajama party
Sunday morning I went to Sunday school and found out that the young people's class was going to drive out to a country house to have their class and lunch with the kids, who'd spent Saturday night there in what was called "Pajama Night" (the equivalent of a lock-in). I got a ride with somebody, and we arrived within 30 minutes. I was surprised to see that even though it was chilly and raining (a cold front moved through Saturday night) the kids were swimming. Sunday school was much more difficult to understand with children from 2 to 12 running around, but it was nice to see the kids having a good time. It was also an excellent example of what a small church with almost no resources can do to involve the children and youth.

Sick and tired
It seems like many people here show up to work when they are sick, and it prompted me to ask about the general sick policy of most employers here. It turns out that if you are sick and missing work, you have to go to the doctor and bring a note with you when you come back to work. I asked what you do when you need to go to the dentist, go for a check-up or when your kids are sick. It largely depends on your boss. Some will ask that you only make appointments during your lunch break or before/after work, and others will let you go during work hours. If your company provides a health plan, a lot of times, their doctors will be much more conservative with your excused leave. If you have some condition that an unaffiliated doctor would usually give one week leave, the company health plan's doctor is likely to give you only 2-3 days. For a society that has so much anarchy, this seems very controlling and paternalistic.

One morning I ran into a child in Liberdade who'd been "liberated" from school that day because something happened with his teacher. I was surprised to find out that a school would send one class of children home and not the whole school, but then it turns out that the public schools here don't have substitute teachers. If a teacher knows that s/he needs to be out, s/he can ask a friend to watch their class for them and/or prepare special activities for their class to do. When I was sharing with my Canadian friend my shock at public schools sending home kids without advance notice, she astutely pointed out that children here spend much more time out of school than in school here, so it's not that big of a deal to parents.

Since the first day I arrived in Belo Horizonte, people have been telling me how much I resemble Chirley ("Shirley"). I've been going to Chirley's church since October, and her extended family is very involved with the various projects here. I'm including a couple of pictures below so you can judge for yourself.

with our glasses

without our glasses

12 March 2007

And so it goes

Highs and lows of the week
Tuesday at São Gabriel, we celebrated International Women's Day early, and all of the women received a chocolate bonbon and a rose. On Tuesday night, a borrowed bedframe was delivered to my apartment and assembled by the handyman. No more mattress on the floor!

Thursday morning, I almost got run over by a horse and cart that were turning from a side street when I was walking from the bus stop to the community center in Liberdade. How many of you can boast that?

The kids at Liberdade were agitated and fighting on Thursday before they even entered the project, but I was able to have good knitting classes in the morning and afternoon. Thankfully, the weather was good so we could sit outside in the garden; otherwise, we would not have had a separate space. We broke them up into small groups, so I only had 5 or 6 kids at a time. Much more manageable.

Thursday night when I was returning from Liberdade and walking to my bus stop downtown, I was noticing how many women had received little gifts in honor of Women's Day and thinking about noting on the blog how Brazilians seem to be more observant of designated days like Women's Day, Earth Day, etc. UNTIL I ran into the traffic jam...

At my bus stop, I noticed that the traffic was backing up and not moving at all, so after waiting a while, I figured I'd be better off walking to the next bus stop further up so I'd have a better chance of getting a seat and would be able to wait out the traffic jam sitting inside the bus rather than standing at the bus stop. After a little while at that bus stop, the traffic was backing up there, too, and not moving at all. So I waited a while longer and finally walked to the next bus stop, continuing to head in a direction further away from downtown and also from my neighborhood. There, I encountered a number of military police, so I asked one of them if he knew what was going on. He told me there were two different demonstrations, one for Women's Day, and the other for homeless people, and that the women were just about to march down the street where we were. I waited a little while at that bus stop, watched the women march down and then walked up to a higher one, where I waited another 45 minutes or more. One of my buses passed by during that time without stopping because it was cram-packed full of passengers. The one that eventually stopped was also crammed, but the upside was the much-needed comic relief of a little girl (3 or 4 years old) who was flirting with the faretaker the whole way home. All-in-all, it took me an extra two hours to get home. My colleague who'd also returned from Liberdade with me but went to a different bus stop downtown eventually walked home.

It made me think about demonstrations. Obviously rush hour is the best time to get everybody's attention, but it's not necessarily going to be positive attention when you purposely impede people's journeys home. I'm still torn on that one.

Friday was much worse in terms of behavior at Liberdade. I'm sure a lot of it had to do with being one teacher short (it was the day when they took turns going to the bank downtown to cash their paychecks). In the morning, the kids pushed me to the point of tears (which is one of the few things that seems to get their attention). Friday afternoon was even more stressful (the afternoon kids are always more agitated for some reason).

They were supposed to watch a movie in one big group, but we had to separate out some of the rowdier kids, who I took down to the library. When snack time finally arrived at the end of the afternoon, there was a small dispute between one of the girl bullies and a skinny, effeminate boy who had earlier been cursing the other teacher who'd expelled him from the movie. [Normally, he brings flowers for the teachers everyday from his grandmother's garden.] The boy got up to look for his baseball cap when somebody took it and the girl was told by the other teacher to move and sit at that table. She sat in his seat, and when he came back, he asked/told her to move. Now I'd already learned from previous experience that this girl is one of the most stubborn in the bunch, so I and the other teacher were talking and pleading with her to move, and to my surprise, she eventually did, but threatening to beat the boy up after they left the project. And sure enough, when everybody left the project (late because of all the behavior issues), she got him outside the gate and was squeezing his arm so hard with both hands that I thought it might break. I was also well-aware that this girl bully is the same one whose family always comes to her defense and tries to fight everybody. I was trying to leave and catch my bus, and the other teacher and I were pleading with her to let him go, but she just continued to squeeze harder. I tried to reason with her and find out why she was so angry at him, and she said because he was gay (I responded, "That has nothing to do with you"), he'd taken her seat (which was really his seat to begin with and she knew it) and he'd made fun of her earlier on the street (bingo). Eventually, when it became clear she was not going to let him go, the other teacher went to call the boy's family to come escort him home, and I pried her hands loose, all the while imagining her entire family storming the project to burn me at the stake. [Note: I was surprised and disappointed to see that as much as I pray, I still forget to pray WHILE I'm in precarious situations.] It made me so sad to see how violent that girl is and to know that she has learned it at home.

I finally got to the bus stop, completely depressed and exhausted, only to hear from a passing friend that a young man I know in the neighborhood is not only drinking excessively (which I'd seen the previous day) but also using cocaine. He's had a hard life--both of his parents are dead, I'm not sure he finished high school and he's never taken to holding a job.

On Saturday, I was able to recuperate and spend a lovely day in the countryside at a luncheon for my former roommate's birthday. Sunday morning, I went to Sunday school, where the most exciting event was when the man who came to spray against dengue fainted in the driveway because he hadn't eaten breakfast. When I was returning to the metro station, I passed a man leaning in a doorway who said, "Passing right now is the daughter-in-law my mother asked for." Pretty catchy, but the beer in his hand before lunch killed any remote possibility there. :)

The rest of Sunday was spent grocery shopping, cleaning and reading. And so we arrive at Monday.

The apartment
In terms of furnishings, my current apartment is the simplest that I've ever lived in, although it's pretty large for one person. I have:

a twin mattress, a borrowed bed frame, a pillow and borrowed linens
a small, plastic chest of drawers that serves as my nightstand
a tiny, weak reading lamp
an armoire built into the wall that came with the apartment
kitchen curtains left by the previous owner closed in the top of the window (they are too short to hang from the ceiling)

one chair that unfolds to become a narrow foam mattress
a plastic stool
my little MP3 player and travel speakers

a small refrigerator (shorter than me), stove and propane tank that I bought
a plastic table, table cloth and two chairs (all borrowed)
4 plants that the previous owner left (in various rooms)

my empty suitcases lined up

And I'm here to tell you that it's not about the stuff. I'm perfectly happy now that I don't have to get up from my mattress on the floor anymore. I'm waiting until I can earn some more money to buy pots/pans, a blender, curtains, and maybe, eventually, a sofa. I don't normally cook too much in the summer, so I've just been making sandwiches.

General observations
Brazil's relationship to the rest of South America is a lot like the United States' relationship to the rest of North America in terms of size (both are geographically dominant on their respective continents), economy (strongest on their respective continents) and culture (both countries are barely influenced by their geographic neighbors). I had somewhat expected to find here the solidarity and cultural cross-pollination that I'd seen among various Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America, but like the U.S., Brazil is more a big island, with few of its inhabitants actually living close to other countries. I don't hear hardly any music from neighboring countries, for example. I'm sure the fact that Brazil speaks Portuguese rather than Spanish also contributes significantly.

After living in Brazil for one year, I can better understand my German friend's frustration at the lower quality of almost every product and service in the U.S. compared to Germany. Most products (and definitely the customer service) are of lower quality in Brazil than in the U.S. A million examples come to mind: scissors, tape, push pins, safety pins, plastic disposable cups, pots and pans, knives, paper towels, napkins, cars, etc. But just like in the U.S., that does not mean that you can't find higher quality goods if you spend enough time and money. Basically "luxury" quality here usually compares to "everyday" quality in the U.S. Because the average standard of living is much lower here, there is less of a market not only for luxury quality items but also for items that are generally considered luxuries by the lower classes (books, authentic CDs and DVDs, computers, napkins, tissues).

Time to go catch a bus...

06 March 2007

Belated irony of the week

The only name anybody here knows for these beautiful trees is "cat pee," referring to the smell of the liquid contained in little pods. I've done a little internet research but, so far, have been unable to find the real name of the tree.

05 March 2007

And here comes March

One thing I realized today is that I really enjoy just sitting and talking with the kids in the projects, but there isn't a whole lot of time to do that because they have their project "workshops," their snack, and then they leave. I'll have to see if maybe I can arrange a few extra minutes just to chat. They are very curious and have lots of questions. There are quite a few new kids at both of the projects, and it's funny to watch the returning kids who've already been in the projects explain authoritatively to the newbies, as though I were part of show-and-tell: "She speaks ENGLISH! She's not from here. She's from the United States."

It's quite amusing to watch myself gradually become what I would normally call a "hippie." I just finished reading a book about changing the world (you know, something light). The book wasn't that great, but at least it got me thinking about changing my mentality and how to work toward a sustainable world where everybody has enough. A few of my friends have already been moving in that direction for some time, now (and I used to think that they were just "hippies" of sorts--now I'm thinking they're pretty smart). I'd already realized from an environmental project I'd worked on at my last job that the climate is in much more trouble than I, even as a former scientist, realized. The final report was just launched--if you're interested, see www.confrontingclimatechange.org for more info. The book talked about a mentality of enough for all versus a mentality of scarcity, where more for you means less for me. I would say the majority of people I encounter here have the scarcity mentality.

The first time I officially thought about this duality was when my sister mentioned her husband's observation that some people think that the "pie" is limited and therefore whatever you get limits the size of their piece, and other people have a vision of unlimited pie. It's devastating to see the effects of scarcity mentality, but it's really cool to see what can happen when you come at people with an abundance mentality, making them re-think their assumptions. The book also mentioned that at least rich people know that money won't solve their problems, but poor people still dream that it will. I definitely have a hard time convincing poor folks here that having a lot more money and possessions is not the answer, but having enough is.

I still struggle with people seeing me as a bank or source of interesting (and cheap) imported goods. I enjoy sharing what I have and receive with my colleagues (toiletries and gum from a recent care package, for example) but feel conflicted when people start to request or even demand more.

I forgot to mention last week that should there be any doubt about the influence of the American media here, the Academy Awards were broadcast (live, I believe) on the major non-cable television network here. Can you imagine NBC, CBS or ABC broadcasting an awards program from Europe or Japan?

I was startled when my upstairs neighbor came and told me somebody had called her apartment looking to leave a message for me to call her back. Then I remembered that the phone book here is listed by name but also address, so you can see all of the people living on a particular street and their addresses, if they have a regular phone. It's actually very useful to have the businesses listed that way, especially when the phone book also lists the address of each cross-street. It turned out to be the secretary from the insurance agent where I'd called to update my address, but she found out I had to update it myself directly with my health plan.

On Friday, I went downtown for another occurrence of the monthly meeting for foreigners that I've been trying to organize. Not only was I not the only one to show up (bonus!), but there were two new long-termers from Australia whose husbands work for a mining company plus a Texan who'd shown up before. We had a good chat, and I was excited to learn of a store where I could supposedly buy imported American peanut butter and taco shells. I'd already heard a little bit about this store (kind of like a Whole Foods), so I took the bus on Saturday afternoon to check it out. They were actually out of American peanut butter, but I brought the Brazilian kind (which I'd never seen in other stores). Brazilian peanut butter, as it turns out, tastes like peanut butter cookie dough lacking flour.

In that store it was quite intriguing to see gadgets imported from the U.S. and other countries. Gadgets in Brazil are pretty rudimentary (e.g. can-openers), and while I recognized gadgets from the U.S., I saw things I never knew existed, especially from Japan and Germany. I realized that the level of a country's economy determines how many fancy products you have to design and convince people that they "need" for their "convenience."

Saturday I had also planned to go downtown in the morning to a large crafts store to try to get more knitting needles and yarn for the classes I'll be teaching at the projects. On my way to the bus stop, I actually found a little neighborhood variety store that was going out of business, so I got a really good deal on all of the needles and most of the yarn that the guy had.

You know how people often will mentally label you when they meet you, and then regurgitate all data or anecdotes they have stored in their brain regarding that label? Normally when I meet people here, they will label me as "American" and will instantly mention anyone they know who has lived or is living in the U.S., if they've traveled there, etc. For the first time a few weeks ago, I met a Brazilian who labeled me as "Black American" and began to download all of his anecdotes regarding Black Americans, including a warm reception that his delegation received in a Black church in the U.S. "even though we were White." It was strange because color isn't as prominent here as it is in the U.S. By the way, I didn't have the heart to tell him that in the U.S., he's not considered White.

There seems to be quite a prominent double-standard here regarding beauty. Women are expected to spend inordinate amounts of time and money on their physical appearance--even moreso than in the U.S.--and as far as I can tell the men don't do a whole heck of a lot. Some guys might go to the gym and maybe dye their hair, but women do all kinds of waxing, dyeing, tanning, special hairstyles, manicures/pedicures, dieting and surgery. You see the same thing that you see in the U.S. where a woman will be in a nice dress and heels, and her companion will be in tennis shoes, jeans and a t-shirt.

There are several variety-type TV shows with various acts singing, dancing, etc. and most or all of them have a squad of cheerleader-type women who are scantily dressed and doing some choreographed dance routine. I was trying to figure out why I disliked those dance routines so much and why they appeared so awkward to me, and I finally realized it was because they are dressed like prostitutes (always with super-high heels), and it seems so out of place to me. I was joking about it with some friends yesterday, and the men admitted that having those women dancing in the background gets them to watch something they normally wouldn't. I don't get it because men here watch the soap operas, which occasionally have a scantily clad or semi-nude woman, but not entire squadrons of them gyrating around. I'd noticed similar dancing girls on the Spanish-language variety programs that are broadcast in the U.S.

#1 The rainy season seems to be over!
#2 I went to the Federal Police this morning and found out that, indeed, I can renew my visa here in Belo Horizonte and don't need to do it from the U.S.

I'm thinking that's enough for now. Until next time...