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.


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