Volunteer in Mission to Brazil

28 May 2007


I finally caved in and brought a small, no-stick frying pan to be able to make grilled cheese sandwiches now that it’s getting colder. Originally I was thinking that I would not buy any pots and pans until I had spare money, because that would encourage me to spend more money on food. In any event, I had to go to a special store to find sandwich bread because my local market doesn’t carry it. I also couldn’t find a plastic spatula in my market, so I bought the next best thing, a plastic slotted spoon. Well, the spoon wasn’t the greatest idea, as my first grilled cheese sandwich ended up a little overdone and on the floor (yes, I ate it anyway).

I’m not sure why I’d never given much thought to watching DVDs on my laptop (I don’t have a TV or a DVD player), but this weekend I finally signed up for a membership at the local video rental store and watched a couple of movies. It’s funny that during non-peak times, the store gives you these drawstring pouches where you can carry your videos. But when I went back during a busier time the following day, I only got a regular plastic bag. The good thing about watching the movies by myself is that I could use English subtitles to better understand what was being said. I was amazed at the number of different languages available for subtitles; that’s technology and globalization for you.

On Saturday, I needed to get out of the house after spending all morning cleaning, so I walked from my apartment all the way downtown for the first time. That direction is much easier as it is mostly downhill. I explored the municipal park for the first time, and it was teeming with activity. I knew that they had some gardens and some rides for kids, but I didn’t know they had tennis courts, basketball courts and a couple of ponds. It was the first time I’d seen Brazilians playing basketball. If you didn’t hear them yelling in Portuguese, you would have thought you were watching a pick-up game in the U.S. It made me reminiscent of the Saturdays we used to spend watching my dad play basketball. After the park, I walked up to Praça da Liberdade (“Freedom Plaza”) to people-watch for a bit before catching the bus back home.

I experienced another notable first this weekend. When I was crossing the bridge into downtown, there were several pedestrians on both sides, spaced apart, but hardly any cars. I saw a well-dressed man coming towards me, and from a distance, it looked like he was holding something in front of his pants. It’s quite common to see men scratching or, ummm, making adjustments in public. As he got closer, I realized much to my horror that he was holding something that should have been IN his pants. I couldn’t cross to the other side, and I momentarily panicked. I decided to ignore him and kept on going, looking straight ahead as he slowed down to pass me and said “Have a look!”. I guess it’s good that I made it this far in life without running into an exhibitionist until now...

On Tuesday when I was planning to return to work after being at home sick on Monday, I decided to take the metro because: a) it’s a shorter walk, b) I hadn’t eaten much in the previous 36 hours and was feeling weak and c) I had to carry my laptop in my backpack (heavy!). So I walk the 8 ½ blocks downhill to the metro, and...the gate across the entrance was closed. There was a small sign on the gate stating that the metro workers were on strike Tuesday and Wednesday. There was a security guard inside, and I asked him if the strike was for the buses too or just the metro, and he answered that it was just the metro. Here was a moment when I was wishing I had a TV and had watched the news or had read a newspaper so I would have known in advance about the strike. Back up the hill I go, sweating all the way. I decided to sit and rest a minute in the little park/garden down the street from my house, and then I continued on 20 minutes in the other direction to get to the bus stop.

I was thinking about the perfect country, and my idea of the perfect country would have the infrastructure (particularly the openness, green spaces, central heating and hot water heaters) of the U.S., weather from the mid-Atlantic U.S., the health care and educational systems of Canada and the social/familial structure of Brazil. I learned a little about the Canadian educational and health care systems from my Canadian friend who just moved to Peru, and I was teasing her that if they could just do something about the weather, I would be happy to live in Canada.

It made an impression on me the other day when a colleague mentioned with dismay that it had been 15 days since she had seen her brother because she had been so busy. Then yesterday, a child from church asked me if I liked living alone, and when answering her, I was able to articulate something I’d been feeling but couldn’t put into words. Americans live during the week, focusing on their work, and catch up on weekends. Brazilians live for the weekends, when they spend their time with family and friends. When you don’t have family and have few friends, the weekends can be quite long and lonely. Thankfully, I don’t have a problem doing things by myself, like walking downtown, and I spend Sundays with a family from church.

Most apartment buildings here have individual electric meters but a joint water meter, so you have to pay a monthly condominium fee to cover the water bill, pay for the woman who cleans the hallways, etc. twice a week and pay for the hallway and outside lights. As I am the only apartment with less than four people living in it, I am less than thrilled to be paying for everybody else’s two showers a day, doing laundry, etc. especially since the fee has gone up 30% since I moved in. Each apartment building has a superintendent of sorts who is responsible for collecting the condominium fees, paying the bills and arranging for repairs to the public areas of the building. My superintendent is, shall we say, less than efficient. I asked her in January for a copy of the apartment building rules, I asked her in writing in April, and here it is almost June, and still no rules. As a matter of fact, I had to go to my neighbors to ask who the superintendent was after I moved in because she never introduced herself. Anyway, she’s been complaining about astronomical water bills that started before I moved in, and since I met her in January, she said she needed to have a plumber come in and look at everybody’s apartment to see if there are leaks or other problems. The plumber finally came in this month. I heard from my neighbor that he didn’t find anything, but the superintendent never told everybody the results. I talked to my neighbors, and we talked about having a tenant meeting, so I requested a meeting in writing last week to have her tell everybody at the same time the results of the plumber’s inspection, to look over the water bills from the past 12 months (her body language when she talks about the increase looks to me like she’s lying), and to talk about the broken security grating in the garage (something my neighbor mentioned). I ran into my neighbor the other day and asked him what we can do if she doesn’t announce a meeting, and he asked me how long it had been since I posted my request. I told him it had been about four days, and he suggested we wait a little longer. I had to laugh at myself because I forgot that a four-day wait is nothing on a Brazilian time scale. We’ll see if there is any resolution or not.

The weather has been a little crazy. It was pretty good for a while because after the first windstorm, it warmed up and I didn’t need a jacket, even at night. We’ve had a few more days recently where a cold front has come in and it’s quite chilly. Yesterday morning, for example, I wore a turtle neck and a sweater and was comfortable, and then within a matter of hours, it was warm enough to wear just a short-sleeved shirt and raining. This morning, the mountains that I normally see out my window were completely obscured by fog. Another good thing about getting out of the apartment on Saturday was that it was about 10 degrees warmer outside than inside. When it’s that cold inside, the only place where you are truly warm is in bed, so it is tempting to go to bed before your normal bedtime and difficult to get out of bed in the morning.

Something that I think could have a major impact on the Brazilian economy would be to implement a massive student loan program like Sallie Mae in the U.S. There are so many people here that want to study, are unable to get into the top/free universities, and can’t afford the private universities. The government bank offers very few student loans, and the private banks don’t offer any that I’ve heard about. Assuming that there are enough “white collar” jobs for these prospective students, it would help an entire generation to increase their economic stability. The Methodist Foundation was recently able to partner with the private Methodist university here to offer 40 full scholarships to students who are socially involved and active in volunteering with their communities. While this was a ray of hope to several struggling individuals who already started studying there, the university’s stipulation that they first pay off their existing debt puts the scholarship just beyond their reach.

This week is another gathering for foreigners living in Belo Horizonte. We’ll see if anybody shows up, because none of the three people who came last month is in the country.

I’m going to see about trying to do more freelance translation here. The general rule is that it’s better to translate into your native language, so I do Portuguese to English translations.

It’s one month until my next visit to the U.S. I haven’t been back since September of last year. As the time draws near, the requests are coming in to bring people various items from the U.S. For example, I’ve shared “Extra” brand gum with many people, but now they want more. I’m looking forward to seeing my family and friends, and especially meeting my new nephew.

22 May 2007

Back to your regularly scheduled program

I’m writing this from home and not feeling too well, so we’ll see if it gets posted on Monday or Tuesday.

Both of my supervisors were finally back from their trip to the U.S. last week. It’s amazing how many individual lives they touch. As always after a prolonged absence, there were many people waiting to seek their help in resolving problems.

One of the cool things that I don’t think I’ll find anywhere else is such a beautiful work environment. Both of the projects where I work have lovely gardens, and I really enjoy sitting outside to appreciate them.

There are a couple of bus routes that I’ve been tempted to take just because of their names—“Blue Heaven” and “Happiness.” Who would guess that you could get to happiness for under US$1.50? :)

A couple of general observations...it’s interesting how we collectively decide as a society which animals/insects are scary and which aren’t. Clearly one guideline is something that can harm you should be considered scary. But why, for example, are we delighted by butterflies but disgusted by cockroaches? There are several things that, although I know they can’t hurt me, I do not like (e.g., the little lizards that are omnipresent at both projects). The other thing I was thinking about recently was how many cultures use the name of some type of female animal to insult women, but to insult men, you say something bad about their mothers.

On trash collection days, you always see people with varying levels of resources collecting recyclables to sell. For example, the most basic level is people who put things in plastic grocery store bags, then there are those that drag a huge bag behind them, and finally you work your way up to having a cart that you pull. Downtown there is a huge cooperative for buying recyclables, and there are smaller places in the neighborhoods that buy them as well.

And the official trash collectors are very interesting to watch. Trash collecting here is like a sport. The collectors spend most of their time running behind or in front of the garbage truck. They also enjoy playing around and yelling back and forth, so it’s quite entertaining to watch.

Burning season is upon us once again, when there always seems to be something, somewhere burning, whether by accident or on purpose. When it hasn’t rained in weeks, it’s very easy for cigarettes thrown out the window to start fires that are usually allowed to burn out. Because it hasn’t rained in so long (and also probably because of the smoke) there is a noticeable haze hanging over the city.

Brazilians are very provincial, and there is a lot of competition between the various states. There are a few commonly held stereotypes for people from different states. For example, the people from my state (Minas Gerais) are known for being more quiet, kind of country bumpkinish (particularly the ones from rural areas), not quick to make decisions and very family oriented.

I have previously mentioned some of the things that women do here in the name of beauty, but for the first time, I saw a woman dressed up to go out wearing shoes that were at least two sizes too small, and her feet were hanging off the back. Another first was seeing a shirt from my alma mater, Texas A&M University.

One interesting thing I pass on my neighborhood bus route is the residence of someone I have dubbed “the medal man.” The medal man has a room on the first floor where the window is almost always open with the light almost always on. He has an entire wall covered with medals and pictures of him participating in various athletic events. I have occasionally seen him in that room, admiring his medals and photos, perhaps reliving his glory days.

May is family month, and family has been the theme at both of the projects. On Saturday, it was Family Day at Liberdade, where the parents were invited to participate in the project to get a taste of what their kids experience. It was specifically stated that the kids were not to come because they didn’t want the adults to be distracted. The event was supposed to start at 2:00, but people were showing up as late as 3:00. Each child was invited to send up to two adult family members. There were mostly mothers, but also one step-father, one grandmother, a few older sisters and an aunt. There were three workshops—in art, literature, and mine was English. The participants were divided into three groups, and after 35 minutes, the groups rotated so everybody got to participate in all three workshops. Then all of the groups convened for a “recreation” workshop where groups of 4 had to throw a ball over a net using a sheet and the other group had to catch it in their sheet. Finally, they went to the cafeteria to have snack just like the kids do at the end of their time at the project. It was a fun afternoon, and I think the parents really enjoyed it, but by 5:00 I was exhausted.

At the end of the afternoon, I noticed that I had a headache and felt strange, which continued on and off through today. We’ll see if staying home clears it up or not. I definitely think twice about venturing out and taking the bus or metro when I’m not feeling well...if I get worse and need to go home, I have to walk, wait for the bus/metro and walk some more to get home.

14 May 2007

What's going on

Irony of the week
I had occasionally heard what sounded like someone throwing pebbles at my bedroom window before, but last week in the middle of the night, it kept happening over and over, to the point where I got up and looked out from the balcony to see if somebody was outside. The thing I couldn't understand was that most of the window is covered by a grate, and the sound was something hitting the glass, not the metal grate. I couldn't imagine that somebody had sufficient aim to consistently hit that little part of the window that isn't covered by the grate. Only after 10-15 minutes of consternation did I realize that I had stuffed the curtains into the upper part of the window to secure them, and perhaps something on the top part of the curtain that was hanging out the window was making the noise. Sure enough, it turned out to be little curtain hooks I'd never noticed before that were sewn into the curtain. I got some scissors and cut all of the hooks off, put the top part of the curtain out the horizontal window and shut it and tried to go back to sleep. On one hand, I was proud of myself for figuring out what was making the noise, and on the other hand, I was aggravated by having been awakened in the middle of the night, and embarassed at the extent of my paranoia.

For the first time in my life this past week, I saw someone walking a pet bird. The owner was walking along holding his birdcage and singing something that sounded like "lassie" plus various obscure vowel sounds--I'm guessing that was his way of singing in English...

There is a common saying in Brazil that I thought I'd share: "If you run, the beast will get you and if you stay put, it will eat you."

I never understood the appeal of duty free shops in the airport because they all seemed to have equal or higher prices than the regular stores in the U.S. Then my perfume ran out and I went to see if a perfume store carried it, and they do, at double the cost (more than US$100). Perfume must be in the category of goods to which they add a 100% import tax.

The street that runs in front of my metro station has been closed for a while now while they are slowly doing some major construction. The pedestrian route through the area is constantly changing and not very convenient or safe, although it is always clearly marked. The route this week is like a beginner's obstacle course for mountain biking, with various bumps thrown in and a few thin pieces of plywood on top of some thin logs that is supposed to serve as a pedestrian brige over the ditch. One thing about which I am curious is the cultural differences that result in following or breaking rules. All kinds of people and children walk right through the middle of the construction site (i.e. next to the bulldozer) even though the pedestrian route is clearly marked. The workers have used orange netting and stakes around most of the perimeter of the site, but in some areas, they use black and yellow "don't cross this line" tape. I noticed the other day that the tape had been broken in many different places and retied. I'm guessing that's where people cut through (figuratively and literally). It's not that people are in a hurry...I noticed the same thing with people jaywalking across busy intersections. They aren't in a hurry to get anywhere; it's just that there's something that drives them to risk their lives and put their body in front of oncoming traffic. That being said, I have to admit that I've jaywalked, too, but never when cars are close by.

It seems that most people rarely do what they say they are going to do when they say they are going to do it. It's annoying if you're counting on them, but on the flip side, that's what contributes to the extreme social flexibility here and the more laid-back atmosphere that is healthier for living, I think.

I was on a bus Saturday afternoon and realized--you know you're in trouble when the pedestrians are going faster than your vehicle. There was a big traffic jam (it took about 45 minutes to go less than 2 miles) and I was waiting to see if it was caused by an accident or construction. It turned out to be neither; it was the traffic backed up from people trying to get into the mall parking lot to buy a present for Mother's Day.

It's ironic that the beauty standard for a particular place is often the opposite of people's natural features. Here where most people have naturally curly or wavy hair, the height of fashion is straightened hair. It's such a popular procedure to blow dry hair completely straight that in the salons they have these interesting moveable contraptions to hold the blowdryers.

Nicknames are so common here that it's not uncommon when people don't know each other's real names. Several nicknames are based on physical characteristics, but meant in a non-offensive way, for example "fatso" if you're overweight, "big black guy" if you're tall and Black, "little Black girl" if you're a black woman, etc. I have been called "little ant" on a number of occasion because of my sweet tooth.

I'm trying to get back to equilibrium so I can see the glass as half-full again rather than half-empty. I did see a free movie on Friday, and on Saturday, my Canadian friend called me and said they had an extra ticket to a concert if I wanted to go. I quickly researched how to get there, and thankfully, my neighborhood bus went through the area where the restaurant was. It turned out to be a belly dancing performance with live music, which was quite entertaining. I took a taxi home rather than risk waiting an hour for the bus to show up, and it turned out the driver was a Baptist minister. He was talking to me for 15-20 minutes after we got to my apartment building. When he asked me if I was going to stay here, I told him that I'm in a period of discernment. He said something very wise and helpful, but I can't remember what it was...

And finally, I thought I'd end with this image, which is what I see on Sunday mornings when I'm waiting for the metro. I realized one day that some of the shadows are sharply focused and others quite blurry. That made me think about life in general--how somethings are clear and settled and other things are blurry and unknown, but you never have it all perfectly in focus at the same time.

07 May 2007

In the neighborhood

This week, I thought I'd mention a few of the people who seem to be permanent fixtures in my neighborhood. First there's the chess/fake-CD-DVD man, who sets up a table on the sidewalk outside the supermarket and right across the street from the real video rental store. He always has a chess board and is either selling his wares, playing chess or studying chess moves in a book. Diagonally across from him (also outside the supermarket, which has a cafe selling snacks) is the kabob man. He has a gas grill that he sets up most evenings and even provides plastic stools for people to sit and eat their kabobs. Neither the kabob man nor the chess man work on Sundays, but most other nights, they seem to show up. There's a hot dog lady who stations her cart outside the internet/videogame cafe at night. It's also right across the street from a bar where they sell snacks. There are two things about these vendors that puzzle me. The first thing is their proximity to the competition. They all are located right next to their competitors. In my thinking, I would try for an "unsaturated market." The second thing is how any single one of them can make enough money to survive. There are so many people in Brazil that sell things for a living, especially "ambulatory" salespeople, and I have no idea how they survive with the amount of competition out there. I previously mentioned the large number of bars in my neighborhood, but now I've also noticed the plethora of beauty salons. Even though the majority of Brazilian women seem to make regular visits to the beauty salon, I still don't see how any of the smaller salons in my neighborhood makes enough money to survive. One last neighborhood thing--I keep meaning to mention the amusing name of one of the bars on my daily route to the bus stop: the Jaguar's Bad Breath Bar.

They are starting experiments here with full-time public school. Previously, all public (and most private) schools would offer 4-hour sessions for three different groups of kids--one in the morning, one in the afternoon and one at night (usually teenagers). What they are doing to fill the extra time is adding in extra-curricular things that previously kids did not experience at school. It will be interesting to see if the idea of all-day public school takes off or not. Some of the kids who were participating in Shade and Fresh Water programs are now going to school all day, but there are always plenty more kids on the waiting list to take their places.

Yesterday afternoon was the final match in the Minas Gerais state soccer championship between the biggest rivals in Belo Horizonte. The blue team had to beat the black and white team by at least 4-0, so even though they won the game 2-0, the blue team lost the championship. I was so fortunate as to be in transit immediately after the game and subjected to the war-like atmosphere of loud fireworks going off at every corner, people honking and screaming, etc. One thing that's different here is that fireworks are largely used to make celebratory noise, not necessarily for the visual display. Many people use them at all hours throughout the day, when they're barely visible.

I'm noticing that MP3 players and earphones are becoming more common in public here, and especially on public transportation. The other morning when I was leaving my apartment building, I heard two women speaking loudly a while before I saw them, and it turned out that the mother and daughter were getting their exercise walking together, but both had on earphones while they were conversing. I hope that the earphone popularity doesn't negatively affect the public friendliness and warmth that I find so refreshing here.

On the holiday on Tuesday, I went with a family from church to the zoo. It turns out that admission is the most expensive on holidays. I was surprised at first at the huge number of families who were sitting on the grass on picnic blankets, but then I realized that grassy areas are not that common here, so it's probably a special treat.

For the first time, somebody I know has contracted dengue. A young woman from church was feeling quite ill last Sunday, and when she went to the clinic on Monday, the diagnosis was dengue. Apparently you have a high fever and a lot of pain. It's caused by a mosquito bite (a type of mosquito that only bites during the day, I think). A few weeks ago, I noticed when I was waiting in the morning for the metro that I got a couple of mosquito bites. Because that happened during the day, I was sure I would come down with dengue, but thank God, that was not the case.

Even though the Liberdade neighborhood isn't by any means the fashion center of Belo Horizonte, the kids have no problem criticizing my wardrobe. One day, they asked if my close-toed shoes with buckles were men's shoes. Last week, one of them poked me in the stomach when he was joking around, hesitated, and then poked me again for confirmation before remarking on his surprise that my jeans came up to my waist. Then several of the kids started to say how "country folk" wear their pants that high and do imitations. Is this just payback for how mercilessly we used to ridicule our father about the level of his waistband? :) When I had to leave Liberdade early on Friday, I said my goodbyes and started to head for the bus stop when the cook came after me. She realized that I was leaving early and was worried that I was fleeing from exasperation. I assured her that I had an appointment and everything was fine, but it felt good to know that somebody was looking out for me.

One of my colleagues asked me about holidays in the U.S., so I thought I'd draw a comparison of the federal holidays in Brazil and the U.S. The dates in parentheses are the dates on which the holiday falls in 2007.

New Year's Day (January 1)
Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15)
Washington’s Birthday (February 19)
Memorial Day (May 28)
Independence Day (July 4)
Labor Day (September 3)
Columbus Day (October 8)
Veterans Day (November 12)
Thanksgiving Day (November 22)
Christmas Day (December 25)

New Year's Day/World Peace Day (January 1)
Carnaval (February 19-20)
Ash Wednesday (February 21)
Good Friday (April 6)
Tiradentes Day (April 21)
Work Day (May 1)
Corpus Christi (June 7)
Independence Day (September 7)
Nossa Senhora Aparecida (October 12)
Day of the Dead (November 2)
Proclamation of the Republic (November 15)
Christmas (December 25)

Then the Brazilian states throw in some additional holidays for patron saints, etc.

One last thing about bank accounts. I didn't really want to bother with a Brazilian bank account, but it turns out that I'm not even qualified to open one. To open a bank account here, you have to show proof of your salary, not a minimum deposit.

Time to go see the chess man and the kabob man as I'll stop at the supermarket on the way home.