Volunteer in Mission to Brazil

25 June 2007

Strike again

I'll be keeping this brief due to the number of things I need to finish before leaving to visit the U.S. on Friday. That is, of course, if I am able to get out as planned because there is yet another strike of the air-traffic controllers. The international flights are not affected, but the domestic ones (i.e. the flight I have to take from Belo Horizonte to São Paulo) have been experiencing major delays.

I also was able to get to the Federal Police last week to get the magic letter explaining that I have the right to legally be in Brazil until my visa extension is either approved or denied. Hopefully that will prevent any problems like my Belgian friends experience on their recent trip. Outside the Federal Police building was hanging the same banner mentioning a strike that I saw the last time I went there in March. I asked the man who helped me if they were still on strike, and he said that the previous strike was for the police sector, and the current strike was a "paralyzation strike" in the administrative sector. He explained that currently on Tuesdays-Thursdays, only the boss is helping people who come in, so I was very happy that I was there on a Friday.

Thank goodness the metro strike was over last week and I could take the shorter trip to get to Liberdade. I was surprised to see the professional knitting results of some of the boys. It turns out that they used some type of contraption with nails that somebody's mother had around the house. They had a few different patterns telling you in what order to wrap the yarn around the various nails. The first thing that all three said about it was that it was much faster than knitting with needles. Whatever works!

Happily, the young man who was trying to participate in the international Methodist youth meeting in Minnesota was able to get his visa, although he missed the first few days because of the delay.

Brazil seems to have much more of a unified culture than the U.S. Almost everybody knows the same core group of songs, soap operas, celebrities (whether musicians, actors or athletes), etc. It's hard to miss when one person breaks into song and whoever is nearby quickly joins in. One day when the staff at São Gabriel, composed of individuals from various educational/socioeconomic levels and spanning an age range of about 35 years, watched a DVD of a pop star in performances with a variety of different singers over the past three decades, almost everybody recognized the majority of the guest singers as well as the songs. Culture in the U.S. is much more compartmentalized--different people who like country music are more likely to know the same songs, but chances are that a country music fan and an opera fan in the U.S. will not know the same songs. Moreover, soccer is clearly the endemic and dominant sport in Brazil, but I don't think that the U.S. could say the same of either football, basketball or baseball.

It's interesting to catch myself doing things in a way that deviates from the norm here. For example, one afternoon I answered the phone when somebody was calling to say that one of the patients in the physical therapy program at São Gabriel would not be able to make his appointment. Because I was getting ready to leave and the physical therapy interns had not arrived yet, I wrote a note and taped it to the door of the physical therapy room. As I was taping the note to the door, somebody asked me why I didn't leave a message verbally with one of my colleagues. The thought had never occurred to me. And if it did, normally I would be worried that they would forget to relay the message. But it turns out that the Brazilians I've encountered are generally excellent about remembering things like that.

When you have a health plan/health insurance, the Brazilian medical system is significantly better than the one in the U.S. I was already amazed at the amount of time the dermatologist took with me when I went for an appointment last year. Last week I went to a general practitioner for a checkup, and the doctor himself (!) took my vital signs and medical history. I did not have to pay a co-pay for either the office visit or the routine lab tests that were done. And you get all of this for a total cost of less than US$2,000 per year. The only exception is ambulances, which will arrive much faster in the U.S. than here in Brazil.

My wallet is feeling the affects of the falling dollar. When I first arrived, the exchange rate was 2.25 Brazilian reais to 1 U.S. dollar. Now, it's down to 1.93 reais to the dollar.

As I prepare for my trip to the U.S., I'm finding it very strange to be dealing with 7-digit phone numbers again after getting used to the 8-digit numbers here.

And that's enough for now...

18 June 2007


Thankfully I had told some people how I didn't know about the last metro strike, because somebody mentioned to me on Wednesday that there was another strike. They bascially run the metro during the morning rush hour and that's it. So you can get to work normally, but to get home, you have to be more creative. For me, this basically meant getting up at 5:30 and leaving home earlier to take the additional bus to get downtown to catch the 2nd bus at its starting point. I think that I have seen more sunrises in the past 12 months than in the previous 5 years. But on the positive side, at least my apartment windows face east so I can see the glorious sunrises over the mountains that surround Belo Horizonte.

I'd previously helped a colleague in Liberdade type her paper for college, so this week she asked me to help her both Thursday and Friday typing papers after the project was over. Late Thursday night, I realized with a moderate amount of panic that I had not yet purchased my plane ticket to get between Belo Horizonte and São Paulo for my upcoming trip to the U.S. Since I was in Liberdade on Friday without internet access, I called my colleague at São Gabriel to ask her to research whether or not I could now buy a ticket on the cheap airline (Gol, the Brazilian equivalent of Southwest Airlines) with an international credit card. (Previously you could only buy a ticket online with a Brazilian credit card and a Brazilian social security number.) If not, I was going to have to try to get to an airport to buy the ticket on Friday afternoon, because after Friday, once I would be less than two weeks before my departure, I expected the price to increase significantly.

In an unusual turn of events, my cell phone rang during the day on Friday, and it was a young man who was one of the two Brazilian participants chosen to participate in an international youth meeting of the United Methodist Church in the U.S. My supervisors are both out of town, and they had given him my name and number because he was having difficulty getting a visa. He had talked to the coordinator of the meeting in the U.S., but he wasn't quite sure what she said about her conversation with the American consulate in São Paulo, so he did an international conference call to have me speak with her. (We still don't know if he's going to get the visa or not, even though the meeting started this week.)

After finishing typing up the paper on Friday afternoon, I took the bus into downtown to catch my neighborhood bus and went straight to the internet cafe to try to buy my plane ticket to São Paulo. While I was in the internet cafe, my cell phone kept receiving blank text messages from what used to be my Canadian friend's cell phone. After the 5th blank message, I was worried that maybe she'd been kidnapped or something. I finally sent a message asking if it was her, and got a message that it was a Belgian/Canadian acquaintance to whom she'd given her cell phone. He was trying to get me to call his wife and sent their home number. After some difficulties with the airline website, I finally managed to get the ticket and went home to decompress. But first, I called the Belgian/Canadian woman, who had recently returned from a visit to Canada. She and her husband were in the same visa situation as me--their visas were in the process of renewal when they left the country--and they had considerable difficulty upon their return with immigration in São Paulo. That makes me a little nervous about trying to get back to Brazil, but at least I'll go to the Federal Police office to get a letter explaining that I am in the process of renewal.

Originally, I was supposed to go to my friend's house on Friday night to be able to leave early Saturday morning with her family for the church youth retreat on Saturday, but I was so exhausted that I asked if I could meet them on Saturday morning. So Saturday morning I was up again at the crack of dawn to be able to get to the church by 7:15, even though we didn't end up leaving the church until much later. We ended up going to a pretty nice retreat center on the outskirts of a nearby suburb. It had a couple of small swimming pools, a sand volleyball court, a grass soccer court (of course!) and a small orchard. The highlights of the retreat were the 10:00 PM treasure hunt (I told my friend that I didn't think that grown Americans would ever go for running around in the dark out in the country) on Saturday night, and a Bible trivia competition on Sunday morning that included whipped cream in the face for your team's incorrect answers or the correct answers of your opponents. We left there yesterday afternoon to come back to Belo Horizonte.

On Friday night, I remembered that I'd forgotten again about Father's Day on Sunday, so I planned to go by the community center in São Gabriel on my way home from the church retreat on Sunday to be able to call my father over the internet. I sent a text message to the caretaker at São Gabriel to ask him to leave the building door unlocked for me to get in on Sunday afternoon. When I didn't receive a reply for him, I called him on Sunday afternoon, and he said he would be there.

I was hoping that my ride from the retreat would drop me at the community center, but no such luck (although they did ask me if I wanted to leave anything with them to pick up next week at church), so I had to wait more than half an hour for a bus to take me to the community center. But while we were en route, the bus turned a different way, at which point I realized I'd gotten on the wrong bus. (There are two routes with the same number and name that go to the São Gabriel neighborhood, but they have little signs in the window to distinguish the one that I take that goes right by the community center from the other one.) This meant getting off at the next stop and retracing the route to walk the rest of the way to the community center. Thankfully, I only had one big backpack with wheels with me. Then when I was about a block away from the community center, I realized that I didn't have my other set of keys with me to open up the office (where I needed to use the computer). I was hoping that maybe the caretaker had a key. When I arrived and asked him about the key, he said that he didn't have one. To try to get from São Gabriel to my neighborhood and back on a Sunday (when the buses are least frequent) was not feasible in less than two hours, so I called the secretary who lives in São Gabriel and asked if I could go to her house to borrow her key. This meant walking about 15-20 minutes to her neighborhood and then taking the bus back (rather than walking back up the steep hill). I finally got back to the community center and was able to make the call over the internet, but nobody answered. I called my father's cell phone, too, but no luck. I left messages in both places and then called my sister to make sure that nothing bad had happened to my parents. She hadn't talked to them yet, but assured me that they were probably fine. It turned out that they were in the backyard with my brother's family, who'd driven down from Chicago to visit. I waited a good while for the bus to go home and was surprised at the number of people getting on at the stop across from a local university. Then I remembered that several universities held their entrance exams this weekend.

At 9:00 last night, I was already nodding off, so I went to bed. My parents did call me at 10:00, so I talked to them briefly and heard about their day. I'm still feeling a major lack of sleep, so hopefully I can catch up over the next few days.

And now for the knitting update...
The kids at the project in Liberdade are bringing their work to proudly show me (or to have me fix problems). I've asked them to bring their scarves this Thursday to take pictures. It turns out some of the boys have already sold theirs--quite the entrepreneurs. An additional positive result is that the kids are also beginning to teach their family and neighbors how to knit.

It seems like people let their kids use pacifiers much longer here. I frequently see children who are 3 or 4 with them and have even seen children as old as 6 or 7 still using pacifiers.

The programs that my supervisors run at the two locations here in Belo Horizonte clearly make a huge difference, not only in the life of children, but also employees and the community overall. I have seen former participants in the programs as well as former employees come back to visit the Community Center in São Gabriel, and they always mention how much that place positively affected their lives. This month alone, at least one former student and one former employee came back to visit.

And now it's time to figure out how to get to the doctor's office for my checkup this afternoon.

11 June 2007

The week in review

I'm looking forward to going to Liberdade this week to see what the kids have done with the skeins of yarn they received. I saw that the boys immediately started trading long pieces so they could make multicolored scarves.

We had a three-day weekend because we had a planning meeting on the Corpus Cristi holiday last Thursday and got Friday off instead. At first, I was a little nervous about having that much unscheduled time to spend alone, but it turned out to be okay. I rented a couple of good movies, cleaned the apartment and knit a bit, among other things.

The big event, however, was going to dance salsa on Friday night. Like I mentioned last week, I found out about a club that has a Latin band that plays salsa (and other music) every other Friday. The difficulty was staying awake until it was time to go out because I knew nothing would start before 11:00 pm. I was originally planning to take the bus, but opted for the safer but more expensive option of taking a taxi. I left my apartment a little after 11:00, and when I got to the club, the band had not started playing yet. (They started around midnight.) The music and the dancers were okay, but not terrific. Earlier in the day, I had been thinking how cool it would be to run into somebody I knew at the club who could give me a ride home, but then I thought, "Who would I possibly know here?". The best part was that it actually happened! I saw a man that looked familiar, and pretty soon figured out that he was the owner of a little restaurant close to the optical shop where I bought my glasses. When I first went to the optical shop, the guys working there asked me if I'd eaten lunch yet and insisted that I try the inexpensive restaurant in the same shopping plaza, so I ended up eating there a couple of times. When I got talking to the employees at the restaurant, it turned out that the owner lives on the same street as me. And that was the guy I saw at the salsa place. I decided to play it cool and see if he recognized me, and he did. He asked if I was there by myself, and when I said that I was, he said he would give me a ride home if I wanted. We left pretty early by Brazilian standards (a little after 2:00 am) when the band started to repeat songs they'd already played earlier. It was good that we live on the same street because I'd have no idea how to direct somebody to my neighborhood from the club. On the way home, I was telling him that I needed to get my glasses adjusted when the guy that knows what he's doing is there, and he said that guy would be working at the optical shop on Saturday. He even offered to swing by and pick me up on his way to the restaurant on Saturday morning, but I said I'd rather walk (and go later in the day). So on Saturday afternoon, I walked down to that neighborhood shopping area (about 30 minutes from my house), ate lunch at the restaurant and went to get my glasses adjusted. The guy in the glasses store invited me to sit and chat, so I did. I was thinking I would never spend two hours in the U.S. doing something that takes 5 minutes, but I felt very Brazilian, prioritizing people ahead of schedule--besides, I didn't have anything else to do.

After the optical shop, I walked to the mall to try to look for new, non-imported (i.e. cheap) perfume and a shirt. Salespeople here are more persistent (and usually get paid commission). I have to remind myself to be patient and let them help me even when I don't want their help. I already knew that trying to buy clothes here for myself is difficult, but there's something truly humiliating about the salespeople saying they have to go look in the back just to find a "large." It seems like the only sizes they display in the stores are "small" and "medium." The other thing was that the salespeople in every store automatically assumed that I was buying something for a husband/boyfriend because the Brazilian Valentine's Day (literally "Lovers' Day") is coming up.

Last night when I was coming home, I ran into the same guitarist who'd played in the park by my house, so I sang one song with him and listened to his friends singing (mostly shouting) for a little while before continuing home.

And now for the general observations...

People that are in serious relationships or engaged wear gold wedding bands on the ring finger of the right hand. Then when they get married, they can switch it over to the ring finger of the left hand. I think it's great that the men get "marked" too, unlike the American tradition of only the woman wearing an engagement ring.

It seems that several people here make and sell their own cleaning solutions. I would be concerned that people are mixing things that shouldn't be mixed, but people do buy these solutions, usually in 2-liter soda bottles.

Catalogue sales of makeup and toiletries are very popular here. Everywhere you go, somebody is selling Avon and/or Natura (a more upscale Brazilian brand).

I see a lot siblings here that have a larger age gap than you'd expect--on the order of five or more years. It's not that they're children of different marriages, so maybe it's more of an economic reason to wait until you can afford another child, or perhaps it's a cultural thing.

It seems like the majority of Brazilians who have legal jobs get paid monthly at the beginning of the month. This makes for long lines at banks and even stores, as people shop more when they have money to spend at the beginning of the month.

I was showing the kids some pictures of my family and friends, and one of the kids remarked on the lack of walls around the houses, saying "If we didn't have walls, we wouldn't have anything left in our house!" I don't have any statistics to know whether or not crime is really that much more prevalent here. I have the feeling that in non-touristic cities like Belo Horizonte, it's not too different from the level of crime in the U.S., but I could be wrong.

We've had some unseasonably warm weather lately--warm enough to be outside in short sleeves or no sleeves even at night without a jacket. For me, that's a welcome change. It's really nice that there's always something in bloom here, no matter what time of year it is.

04 June 2007


"Tricotando" means "knitting" in Portuguese, but it also means "chatting." This week I distributed skeins of yarn to the kids so they could make scarves. We were inside rather than our usual garden spot because of the cold, but even so, many of the kids were wearing shorts and sleeveless shirts. I checked to make sure that it wasn’t because they didn’t own warmer clothes. I finally remembered to bring my camera to take pictures of the knitters.

Matheus is a particularly avid knitter.

This group turned out to be all boys just by accident.

On Thursday, I went to a free concert downtown to hear a band play music from several Latin American countries. It was cool that not only was I able to find out about a club where I might be able to dance salsa every other weekend, but also that I was able to run and catch the bus afterwards because it was pretty cold outside to be waiting 30 minutes or more for the next one.

A very nice practice that I’ve seen on buses and the metro is people who are seated offering to hold the bags/books/etc. of people who are standing near them. I try to remember to ask people if I can hold something for them, but it’s not automatic yet. I can’t imagine people doing that in the U.S. because you’d be too paranoid that somebody would try to rob you.

Just as I was giving up hope for the foreigners’ get-together, we had the biggest turnout yet on Friday. I learned something very interesting about how the Portuguese with less resources who couldn’t afford real molds used to make the terra cotta roof tiles by shaping them on their thigh, so there are a few words/phrases in the language with respect to the thigh that mean to approximate something. There was also another example of “it’s a small world.” One couple invited their Brazilian friend, who had lived in the U.S. and was fluent in English. When I said that I was a volunteer for the Methodist church, he said, “Oh, really? My ex-girlfriend is Methodist. She was studying in Spain.” and I knew immediately who he was talking about because it’s the daughter of my former roommate, Márcia.

One thing that frequently pops into my mind when I’m navigating the hilly streets of Belo Horizonte is “what goes down must come up.” It would be really helpful to have a map that would indicate where there are steep hills so you could plan the least strenuous route.

There are two different types of washing machines—the cheap ones that are called "suggar" that only centrifuge the water out of clothes you've washed by hand, and regular washing machines, which are much more expensive. I haven’t yet seen liquid detergent here, but there are many brands of powdered detergent.

The most common rolls here (“salt bread”) are interesting because when they are fresh, they are hard on the outside and soft on the inside, but the next day, the bread gets softer, not harder. The yogurt I’ve encountered here is thinner than the yogurt in the U.S. and is basically drinkable.

I was surprised to find out what the phrase “vide bula” meant because it’s the name of a popular brand of clothing. Can you imagine a line of clothing in the U.S. called “see the insert”? “Vide bula” is the phrase on the side of pharmaceutical boxes to tell you to see the insert for complete details.

You see a lot of tattoos here, like in the U.S., but I saw a young man on the metro who had quite a unique tattoo—a UPC bar code on the back of his neck.

Something quite popular here in stores is using announcers/entertainers with microphones to get people’s attention. When I walk to the metro on Sunday mornings, I can usually hear the guy who promotes the grocery store two blocks away. I’ve frequently seen people in costumes standing in front of stores. Once, I even saw two young women dancing rather suggestively in the window of a department store (something like Sears) to grab the attention of potential customers. I resolved right then never to buy anything from that store.

I finally asked about the lack of soap at the sink in some families’ bathrooms and was repulsed to find out that they wash their hands only with water after using the bathroom (especially since I have eaten in these homes). What can you do?

Just recently, I learned that the Catholic version of the Lord’s Prayer (at least in Portuguese) doesn’t add “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.” I looked it up in the Bible and realized that Jesus didn’t say that last phrase. I guess the Protestants just got a little fancy...

Rulers are an indispensable here because they are used not only for making straight lines but also for tearing paper.

It’s so common to meet other people with your first name (or the opposite gender version of it, for example a Fernanda meeting a Fernando) that there’s a special word in Portuguese to call somebody that has the same name as you--chará.

Finally, thanks to my friend Shanta for recommending neem oil as a natural remedy for getting rid of lice. It’s commonly used in India for that and many other purposes, and, with a little persistence, I was able to find a source of it here. With my new neem shampoo once a week, the lice seem to be staying away, thank God.