Volunteer in Mission to Brazil

31 July 2007

Back to your regularly scheduled program--again


I have to apologize that I didn’t update the blog during my visit to the U.S. and that this is such a long entry. I didn’t have nearly the amount of spare time that I thought I would, but it was a good visit.

I arrived in Durham, NC just in time to be able to drive down to the memorial service for my former boss, who’d lost a long battle with cancer in May. It was nice to be able to share with his family some things that I admired about him, hear funny anecdotes about him and to see my former colleagues. While in NC, I also talked at my home church, went to lunch with some former colleagues and visited with friends, but as always, not as many as I would have liked. It’s very difficult to want to spend quality time with everybody within the short span of a few days, especially as lax as I’ve been about trying to schedule with people ahead of time. Natalie and her son, Christopher, were my gracious hosts in Durham.

My Durham hosts and family

Going to lunch with friends after church

From Durham I drove up to Lancaster, PA to spend four days with my family, which I enjoyed immensely. Unfortunately, my youngest brother was not able to make it. Logically, the focus changes when your group has small children; as opposed to tourist sites, we spent most of our time at the park behind the motel, at the motel pool or at restaurants. It was cute to watch my three older nieces and nephew play together now that they are old enough to really interact (2.5 – 5 years old). When her two Chicago-based cousins left, my DC-based niece was grief-stricken. Just a few hours later, I was astonished to find myself moved to tears after I left my family to drive to Richmond.


My mom with all four of my nieces & nephews

I spent a total of nine nights with two different hosts in Richmond. For the first part of the week, I stayed with Cheryl, a.k.a. “Little One,” whose pastor had participated on a Volunteers in Mission (VIM) work team to Brazil last October. Pastor Rodney “Yours Truly” Hunter co-organized my visit to Richmond and was also responsible for providing me with the surprise opportunity to give my first-ever sermon. It was clarified for me on Saturday evening that my 8 AM Sunday morning talk would not include a slide show or questions and answers—just talking ten minutes or less for the “message.” My other host and co-organizer was Dot Ivey, who was the leader of the October VIM team. All-in-all, I talked at five different churches. Thankfully, I was also able to raise some support; initially I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to pay my bills when I got back to Brazil. Highlights from Richmond included: patronizing the snow-cone stand (we experienced some very hot and humid days); lunches with “Yours Truly” and “Little One”; tutoring a student in General Chemistry; seeing members of the Randolph-Macon VIM team at three of my talks; visiting two fire stations in search of a toy firefighter’s hat; attending a dinner party before one of my talks; catching up with members from two different VIM teams who came over for ice cream; getting to speak Portuguese with Amado, a graduate student from Mozambique who was also staying at the Ivey residence; watching the Copa America soccer championship between Brazil and Argentina (Brazil won); getting together with a friend who I hadn’t seen in years and enjoying the wonderful hospitality of my hosts. On my way out of Richmond, I visited with the Mission and Global Outreach office of the United Methodist Church’s Virginia Conference.

Pastor Hunter and his 2nd mother

The Iveys and Amado

From there I drove to Washington DC, where I stayed for the last eight nights of my trip. While in the nation’s capital, I mostly visited with friends and family (in person and by phone) and shopped for the things I needed to bring back with me.

The trip back to Brazil was relatively smooth, considering the multiple possibilities for snags with flight delays, my visa (which is currently in the renewal process) and my abundant luggage. I actually had to buy an extra suitcase to bring back all of the yarn that people donated, and all three of my suitcases were pretty heavy. Although Delta Airlines did charge me for excess and overweight baggage, I was delightfully surprised when the agent for Gol Airlines in São Paulo told me that, as a courtesy, they wouldn’t be charging me for the extra bag. Originally when booking my flights, I was dismayed to have a four-hour layover in São Paulo, but it turned out to be a good thing to have that sizeable time-window between flights. The international airport in São Paulo (Guarulhos) was quite congested because flights had been re-routed from the domestic airport (Congonhas) where the crash recently occurred to Guarulhos. My last flight was delayed, but that worked out well because my international flight was also delayed.

On the way back to Belo Horizonte, a couple of different things made quite an impression on me. These are both good examples of something that I love about Brazilian society that is so difficult to put into words. First, on the last flight from São Paulo to Belo Horizonte, there was a young couple with a small baby that was screaming the last several minutes of the flight, probably due to the change in pressure affecting her ears. When we landed and everybody got up, people turned to look at the family, but not in disdain, like I would expect in the U.S. Instead, they ended up sympathizing with the parents, commenting on how cute the baby was, etc. The better example, though, is the following. Between landing in São Paulo and arriving at my final destination of Belo Horizonte, I ended up having brief exchanges with three different Brazilian families. It struck me how open the children in those families were in talking with me—a total stranger—and asking questions, and how all of the families bid me a friendly goodbye when we passed each other in parting at the Belo Horizonte airport. To be fair, though, I noticed how nice strangers were when I got to the U.S.—much nicer than I’d remembered, in fact. I’m sure that people acting/reacting positively has more than a little to do with what state you are in and what kind of vibes you’re giving off.

It’s funny how I thought I would have a lot of free time during my visit and brought four or five different books with me that I didn’t even open plus two different knitting projects that I rarely touched, even on the plane. Which brings me to something I included in my talks: how I’ve changed as a result of my experience in Brazil.


I’m finding myself concentrating less on material goods. I’m not so focused on trying to have the best music or book collection and rarely go out to eat or shopping for something other than groceries. My wardrobe is pretty simple here, and I usually wear jeans, a shirt and flat shoes. I haven’t worn a suit or pantyhose once since I’ve been here and rarely have the opportunity to wear skirts or dresses, although I like to do so. I wear very little jewelry and my shoe collection has significantly diminished. And I’m not withering away...

Out of necessity, my flexibility and patience have grown immensely. The minimum amount of both characteristics utilized in Brazilian society is significantly higher than in the U.S., which is probably why most Brazilians are so much more laid-back and easy-going. This also involves adjusting your expectations to fit your current situation. If, for example, I was expecting a bureaucratic procedure to be done on a North American time-scale, I would be wasting a lot of time and energy being frustrated when that did not transpire. In the Guarulhos airport, I noticed a woman waiting at the baggage claim, and I couldn’t decide if she was from the U.S. or Brazil. Then I saw her glancing at her watch several times, and on a hunch, I spoke to her in English. Bingo!

I’m now a fan of public transportation. Whereas a metro trip of one hour door-to-door was too long to even consider when I lived in Washington DC, now I don’t even flinch at the idea of taking public transportation for trips requiring more than 45 minutes and, in most cases, am happy to be able to leave the car behind. (I actually don't have a car in Brazil.)

Family and friends are more important to me. The Brazilian sense of family and social connection is contagious; since I have lived and worked in Brazil, I’ve been able to appreciate my family more and spend longer periods of time with them without tempers flaring.

When in Brazil, I’ve adapted somewhat to the Brazilian standards of personal appearance—ironing most things, always having my toenails painted if I’m wearing sandals, etc. It’s funny that when I went back to the U.S., I had no problem wearing somewhat wrinkly clothes because I blended in.

Now I am much more interactive and tolerant with strangers. Before I would usually view strangers trying to talk to me as an intrusion and an annoyance, but now I’m much more receptive to having conversations with people that I don’t know.

Although it hasn’t been easy for me, I’ve had to learn how to gracefully accept hospitality, because I have not been in a position to pay for hotel rooms since I quit my job. I previously prided myself on my independence, but now I see there’s value in learning to receive as well as to offer hospitality.

I have caught the “social impact” virus. Now that I’ve had a taste of working with projects that have a definite social impact, I measure all possible future endeavors by whether or not I think that they will make a difference.


The kids are on winter vacation from school until next week, and the projects aren’t running right now, so last week was a planning week for the upcoming semester. It was wonderful to receive such a warm welcome from my colleagues when I came back to the community center on Thursday.

This past weekend was the Adult Bible School in the Liberdade neighborhood. It was scheduled to allow working adults to participate, and there was a pretty good turnout. The staff was treated to a deluxe candlelight dinner on Saturday night (with fondue for dessert!) and an overnight stay at my supervisors’ country house, where the Bible School held its last day. Even though there were dire weather predictions for Sunday, everybody spent a lovely day outside. It was great fun to watch the teams compete in relay races and participate in activities based on a theme of peace.

In the heat of competition at the Adult Bible School

I’m not sure how well they were publicized in the U.S., but the Pan-American Games just ended in Rio. When watching the championship game for men’s volleyball on Saturday night (Brazil vs. U.S.), I noticed that the Brazilian team was wearing black armbands. I asked somebody who had died, and they said it was for the victims of the plane crash. Brazil won, which everyone delighted in reminding me the next day.

As the Bible School was drawing to a close, the temperature began to drop. I had two sweaters on, but it was pretty brisk with the wind. I was fortunate to catch a ride into the city, to catch a bus and walk another 15 minutes to my home, where I discovered that I was not in possession of my house keys. I looked through my entire backpack twice with no success. I began to call people to try to figure out where I left them, but I couldn’t reach the first few people I called. Thankfully, I reached my supervisor at home, and she located my spare keys. So I turned around and walked back to the bus stop, waited about 30 minutes for the bus, arriving at her apartment after another 30 minutes or so. It was great to get out of the cold, but I also got sucked into this television program where they choose a letter from an indigent family that moved to São Paulo from somewhere far away in the countryside and wants to return to their hometown. Then the producers pay for the family to move back, film the whole process (especially the family reunion) and furnish a residence for them. Multitudes migrate from poor towns/states with the idea that they will be able to work and become rich or at least comfortable in São Paulo (the commercial center of Brazil), but they almost always end up living in squalid slums, scraping to get by. When I was done crying over the family reunion, I splurged on taking a taxi to return home.

And finally, it’s time for an update on the latest developments in my visa renewal process. When I got back from the U.S., I had a letter from the Brazilian foreigner’s bureau that probably arrived on the day I left for the U.S., asking for: a) documents that have to be notarized at the Brazilian consulate where I originally applied (i.e. Miami) and b) something I don’t have with me—an official copy of my bachelor’s degree. I do, however, have a notarized copy of my graduate degree with me. I showed the letter to my supervisor, and she had some good ideas for how to get everything done before the deadline (90 days from when the letter was sent, but now I’m down to less than 60). We shall see...


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