Volunteer in Mission to Brazil

27 August 2007


I'll start with the light this week. For example, there is a one-page "newspaper" that is displayed inside all of the city buses. I think it changes every couple of weeks or so. At the bottom of this sheet, there's a section called "Urban Etiquette" with tips about how to be polite when riding the bus. A couple of my favorites have been: "Don't fart on the bus" and "Don't leave your boogers on the bus seats." And this newspaper is for adults... :)

I bought a new purple (my favorite color) backpack when I was in the U.S., and the other day, I had on the backpack, a purple striped shirt and purple earrings. One of my colleagues said to me, "Oh--you're all matching--you've really turned Brazilian now!" I found it amusing that she thought matching was a uniquely Brazilian trait. But I guess that the Americans they usually encounter are on work teams and are dressed in their old clothes.

Because I was traveling almost the entire month of July, I expected to receive a much lower electric bill this time. Imagine my surprise to find out that it was the same amount, even though it clearly said that my usage for last month was half of what it normally is. That's when I finally learned that there is a minimum charge here that you pay no matter how much electricity you use, and then above a certain minimum usage, you get charged for the electricity you used above that minimum amount plus the minimum fee. I guess because I don't have a TV, I never got above the minimum usage.

I was thinking the other day about women's footwear and how silly it is that the shape of the most fashionable shoes is exactly opposite of the shape of our feet. Then I was thinking that, perhaps in a few hundred years, people will look back at our society and our primitive, damaging practice of wearing pointy-toed shoes, not unlike how we now look back at the Asian practice of foot-binding.

This Saturday, I said goodbye to the kids and my colleagues in Liberdade. About 25 kids showed up, and I was touched that they were freshly bathed and dressed up. The majority disappeared for a while, assembling two big gift baskets for me, as it turned out. They filled the baskets with snacks, fruit and some small trinkets. Who knew that Brazil has its own version of the ho-ho?

During the party, I passed out numbers and we drew for prizes to distribute the rest of the knitting supplies I'd brought back with me as well as a few other new or gently used things that I had to give away. I had one of the adults take pictures of me with the kids because I don't have many pictures with them (I am usually the one behind the camera).

When it was time to eat the snacks I'd ordered, we gathered in the dining hall. My friend who cooks for the project said they were going to play a special song for me, and as soon as I heard the first few notes, I recognized it and started bawling as I was hugging her. It was "Canção da America" by Milton Nascimento, one of the more famous Brazilian singers and composers who just happens to come from this state (Minas Gerais). The words go something like:

A friend is something to guard
Under seven keys
Inside your heart
Thus goes the song that I heard in America
But the one who was singing cried
To see his friend leave
But the one who stayed
Flew in his thoughts
With his song that the other one remembered
And the one who flew kept in his thoughts
The memory of what the other one sang
A friend is something to keep
On the left side of your chest
Even if time and distance say no
Even forgetting the song
What is important is to listen
To the voice that comes from the heart
Therefore whatever is to come, come what may
Some day, friend, I am coming back to find you
Some day, friend, we will meet again

The Liberdade kids

One thing struck me as I was making my way back to the city on the bus--the two people I felt closest to at that project weren't the ones with whom I spent the most time or with whom I had the most in common. Even though our backgrounds were so different, there was some invisible bond with these women. One of them, who has extremely limited resources, bought me several little trinkets, including a little figurine of a big frog with two little frogs to remember her and her daughters. I heard a lot things like "Remember us" and "Don't forget us"; I don't think they understand that there is no way I will ever forget these incredibly open, welcoming and loving people and the time I've spent in their beautiful country.

20 August 2007

Bye bye Brazil

Well, I've made a decision to accept the job and return to the U.S. The good part is that I'll be closer to family and friends, in my native culture and speaking a language that I don't have to think about. The hard part is to think about leaving the Brazilian people.

I feel like a patient with a terminal illness--I know exactly when I'm going, I have a lot of things to finish before I go, and a lot of people to say goodbye to that I don't want to leave behind. In a place where it can be an insult not to greet someone, I want to make sure I officially say goodbye to everybody I know here, so I might try to have a small gathering in both places where I've worked in Belo Horizonte.

I was talking to a young woman the other day about unplanned pregnancies out of wedlock. I'm not sure if this is reflected in actual statistics or not, but it seems like these pregnancies are more common here than in the places I've lived in the U.S. An interesting difference is that almost every single extended family I've met here has at least one child that was unplanned and born outside of marriage, regardless of class, race, etc. I'm not sure how much is the influence of the Catholic church's stance on birth control, the illegality of abortion here, the strong influence of sex in the culture, or possibly some young women's expression of power in a society where they can feel powerless. When I was visiting my neighbors the other day, I was surprised when the woman asked if I knew their older grandson. (My neighbors are a couple in their 60's with three grown sons, two of whom live with them.) I told her that I knew the younger one that they kept after school, but didn't know that they had an older one. She showed me his picture and then very frankly revealed the story of this grandchild--"John took this girl to a motel and got her pregnant. She's not from a good class or family, and she's moved to Spain, where she lives with a gigolo." She did have some good things to say about the child, though, and they do visit with him as often as they can. I found it challenging to keep a straight face and not have my jaw drop to the ground at her candidness.

Oh, and one cultural note on Brazilian motels. Here, "hotels" are for staying overnight while you're traveling, and "motels" are for sex, either paid by the hour, portion of the day/night, or whole day/night. I have not personally experienced this particular aspect of Brazilian culture, but I hear that they have some pretty fancy motels decorated in various themes, furnished with jacuzzis, etc.

The scientist in me has noticed something else about people breaking bones here. Four different people that I've met here have broken their feet/leg so severely that it required surgery with screws to put them back together. To me, that seems like a huge number of bones broken by adults, and I wonder if there's something about the diet, environment, etc. here that results in weaker bones. In none of these cases was a huge amount of force/weight involved.

Finally, I'll wind up with the most exciting moment I've had in the past few weeks...

Last Wednesday was a holiday here (for Our Lady, the patron saint of Belo Horizonte), and my friend from church invited me to go out for pizza early that evening with another acquaintance from church to try a pizzeria they'd heard about. Well, "early" means that we leave my friend's house at 8:00 PM and take the bus, where the acquaintance joins us en route. Normally, you can ask the bus driver or fare taker for directions or landmarks on their routes, but both the driver and the fare taker are new, and neither can tell us where this pizzeria is. Then the fare taker has a revelation and tells us to get off at the next stop. Well, after MUCH (more than 30 minutes) walking and stopping to ask various people on the street, we realize that my friend is confused and the place we want is actually behind us in the other direction, and the place she is confusing it with is even further away in the direction we are headed. Back we go in the other direction, and finally, with the help of a young woman we pass, we find the said pizzeria. The young woman actually walks with us there and then, noting that it is pretty empty, suggests that we try another place around the corner. We follow her advice and finally sit down at a table outside of a small bar/restaurant on the main street. We eat and talk and notice that there are a lot of young people heading down the street where the pizzeria is. We find out that there's a dance place for one of the current dance crazes, "baile funk," on the soccer court down that street. We finish eating, and then suddenly, we hear two shots ring out from the direction of the baile funk place. Much to my surprise, none of the other customers seem too perturbed and remain at their tables outside. We do see some kids who've left the dance place coming up the street. The next thing we know, there is a little military police car speeding down the street with an officer hanging his arm out of the window, brandishing a handgun. (Note: Seeing the police packed 4 or 5 into an economy car always reminds me of the clowns packed into the VW Beetle at the circus...) Within seconds, all of the customers literally vanish, the store across the street puts down its protective metal door in front, and we move to the inside of the restaurant. Hordes of young people are pouring onto the main street, fleeing the baile funk place. The waiters note that the problem is not the original gunshots, which are usually aimed at a specific person/people, but the high probability of getting struck by a stray bullet if the police engage in a shootout, which they are known to do. Thankfully, we got a taxi to our metro/bus stops, and everyone got home safely. I was thinking that people at home might freak out to hear about this incident, thinking that it must be so dangerous here, but then I remembered at least one similar occurrence at fraternity party in college.

Time to get back to winding things up here and trying to get things set up in the U.S. I'm not sure if I'll have time to do another post or not before leaving.

08 August 2007

Decisions, decisions

I'm going to keep it brief this week because I'm in the middle of making a difficult decision--whether to accept an interesting job offer in the U.S. that would require me to leave here pretty quickly or to stay here with an uncertain future. Even though, to this point, my social life in Brail has left much to be desired, the thought of leaving the warmth and closeness of the Brazilian people is grievous to me. When I planned to come here to volunteer, I knew that it would be a temporary stint for 1-2 years, but still... Someone I respect said that I could find the same things in a small, country town in the U.S., but it's not the same (and I don't think I would thrive in a small town).

Now for some lighter weekly observations.

I was waiting at the bus stop the other night when a bus passed by going the other direction. Nearly everybody inside crossed themselves at the same time, because they were Catholic and passing a Catholic church behind the bus stop. I've asked a few different people here what the ritual of crossing yourself is supposed to represent, and the answers I've received have varied widely. I think, like many rituals, people end up doing it out of habit and don't necessarily remember why.

When I was putting away my clean clothes the other day, I noticed that my jeans are now wearing out in new places because of constantly wearing a backpack.

There's an older gentleman in my neighborhood who I call (in my mind) the "Funky Grandfather." He's got to be at least 70 years old, and he is always sporting the latest fashions, including cool tennis shoes, sunglasses, jeans, etc. I could totally see him starring in some commercial (but I'm not sure for what product...).

I love how people are more comfortable with the human body here. For example, the other day I was in a doctor's office, and she had a beautiful drawing on the wall of a nude pregnant woman. I admired it and asked if she bought it or if it was a gift, and she said she had it made from a photo and, actually, it was her pregnant with her second child.

As I think I've mentioned before, there's always something in bloom here. Now, it's time for the spectacular yellow Ipe trees. I've borrowed the picture below from http://www.ipef.br/identificacao/tabebuia.alba.asp.

And finally, something I've wondered about for a long time. You know how some songs get stuck in your head, even though you don't like them? Well, I have a theory that there must be some "faulty" brain cells that record things and will continually bring them to your consciousness against all logic. I'm thinking about the repertoire of songs that I end up spontaneously humming. Some of the songs that always pop up in my head or that I find myself humming are songs that I don't even particularly like. Why, out of the hundreds/thousands of songs stored in my brain, those same few always float to the surface? I think those must be the songs that were stored in the defective brain cells/sectors. Profound, huh?

Wishing everyone a blessed week.