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Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Volunteering in NE Brazil

Written by Jon Bones
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Vinhetas do Brasil - Vignettes of Brazil


brazilThis year I made my fourth pilgrimage to the Nordeste, Brasil’s northeastern coast. Although my travels in Brazil have taken me into both the rough interior state of Goiás and the urban sprawl of southeastern cities Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, the state of Ceará on the northeastern coast has been my first and faithful love. It is the Brazil that I know best and that has had the greatest impact on me; it is the land of red dirt, brown skin, and white smiles. I am drawn not just to the foreign terrain, or the luau of exotic fruits, or the sweet sway of the samba. I am called to the children. I need to go back and see how Wellison is doing. Has Dalmo been taking care of his sister? I wonder what Tayane thinks about the pictures that I sent her.

Davis Lar

minha familia extendida – my extended family

brazilNowhere have I felt the bonds of family greater than at the Davis Lar, an orphanage located in a small rural village of Fortaleza called Araças. Literally meaning “Davis Home” after its American founders, the orphanage houses approximately 100 of the most active children imaginable. With ample space to run around, the kids wrestle and wiggle every free moment they have. The dress code of the children is the first feature that I noticed when I entered into their world. Buzzing blue shorts, scorching yellow tank tops, and vibrant green Havaiana sandals, the clothes that the children wear were so bright that I felt as if I were seeing color for the first time. My thick shoes and socks suddenly made me feel constricted and out of place. Most of the older boys sport thin ball caps worn backwards and pushed back far on the head so that they cover the neck. Donated clothes from America create messages that the kids are proud of but do not know the meaning of, such as “I ♥ My Body” and “Camdenton Rowing Champions 1994”.

A remarkable fact about Brazil is that the majority of the population are children. While many orphanages are working to fix the nation’s problem of abandoned children, there are still overwhelming numbers of street kids who have learned to live by robbing tourists and doing drugs. The Davis Lar is full of children with these perilous backgrounds. Underneath their joyful and colorful surface is a pain that lies dormant. It is the common hardship of their lives that brings the orphans together. As I have returned many times to their home and proved my devotion to them, the children have welcomed me as a father figure. It was strange for me to realize that at a mere 19 years old, I had become a significant male role model for a large group of fatherless children.brazil

I have often said that the word resilient sounds a lot like Brazilian. This is the quality that I see in these orphaned children. They are a special breed; able to fly homemade kites in a world that seems to have forgotten them.


cruzando culturas – crossing cultures

My main purpose for traveling to Brazil is to staff and play music for a Christian recreation center. Located in Patacas, a modest pastoral village, the center is strategically placed there because of the lack of a Christian church in the area. We called the center Cruzando Culturas, which means “crossing cultures”, a pun on the word “cross” in both languages. We spent every weekday from 2pm to midnight keeping the center open for whoever wanted to come. I owe my true acculturation to this place because after spending countless hours conversing and playing with the children I began to speak Portuguese. I would learn sentence structure from listening to the missionary translate my team member’s testimonies. My vocabulary drastically improved after a few weeks and I discovered that there is no deeper sleep than that of a language learner in a foreign country. My dreams would sometimes be trilingual—English, Spanish, and Portuguese.

brazilI designed a skateboard with John 3:16 on the bottom for the kids in the neighborhood to share and it was a hit. We would often take it to the school across the street and take turns rolling around. Sometimes we played Frisbee, sometimes volleyball, but never a day passed with out a game of soccer. Known there as futebol (pronounced foo-chee-bow), soccer is the national sport and unity creator of Brazil.

I was lucky enough to be at the rec center during the first games of the World Cup. As can be expected, all of the irrational emotion and fanaticism of the games swept through Brazil. Billboards hosted Brazilian players advertising everything from bank accounts to bodywash. Old men and little children sat on their porches adjusting the antennas on their radios and TVs. Patriotic streamers and chalk art decorated every street corner and plaza. I got a headache one day from the sheer amount green and yellow that penetrated my eyes.


We took advantage of the opportunity and drew enormous crowds of kids into the rec center by projecting the game on a wall. It was difficult not to chuckle when I saw that the first match was to be against Croatia. I was surprised to see how close of a game it was, but I would not voice my opinion for fear of the consequences! All of the people I have gotten to know and love in Patacas were present. My friend Nego was there. He was hit by a car at a young age and consequently developed some mental problems and slurred speech. Miraculously, I was able to understand his garbled Portuguese better than the Brazilians and made a point to befriend him. My acceptance and patience with him led to his being received by the people of the village.


My days of playing and preaching hard at the rec center changed my outlook on life. For once I felt like I was doing something that had eternal effects. The first year, three young men believed in Christ. The second year, it was twenty children and teens. The results have been exponential. I feel God is proud of us all.


boiando – drifting


I was astounded when I first saw the capoeristas on Iguape beach. They had dark, leathery skin and bleached blond hair from the ocean and were taking a break from surfing. A small group of them were doing cartwheels and started to move back and forth in a foundational swinging step called the ginga. In a string of acrobatic attacks, the players of the “game,” as they call it kick over each other’s heads, carefully avoiding physical contact. When done in a larger group, a circle, or roda, is formed, and the berimbau string is droned along to a tropical rhythm. Players tumble in from all sides of the circle and join the sparring in the middle when one of the partners grows tired and rolls out. As I videotaped, the Iguape capoeristas spun on their head, did cartwheels with no hands, and executed series of twists and flips. The leader of the pack, a buffed-out man with bright red shorts and sun-scarred skin, started a chain of back handsprings and headed into the ocean, still managing to carry out each turn as the water got deeper and then finished with a backflip that was four feet in the air.

Even the most obese children in Brasil can do flips and handstands because capoeira and soccer are their form of P.E. Children do not have fast food or cars and do not stay indoors all the time and so they learn how to use their bodies and train them to do amazing athletics. Capoeira was invented in the state of Bahía by former slaves who trained themselves physically for escape or confrontation. Their masters thought that they were doing an African dance when in reality they were training to fight. Turning adversity into art is a Brazilian forte.

A half mile north of Iguape is Jangadeiro (zhan-ga-day-roo) beach. I just love buzzing the word out of my mouth. The name Jangadeiro means “sailor” and is ultimately derived from jangada, a name too sultry for a simple sailboat. They float around 300 feet off shore, lying anchored to the sand beneath. The constant battering of wind causes their wrapped-up sails to crook over like fishing poles with big catches on their hooks. There usually seem to be 10 abandoned jangadas to every occupied one. Shirtless sailors rise early in the morning to catch fish, lobster, and sting ray to sell to the restaurant cabanas that line the tourist beaches.

I spent a weekend there with Brazilian friends and drifted in and out of comprehension. I was able to contribute to common conversation, but if I was not engaged and listening I would get lost in the sounds. The Portuguese term for this sensation is boiando or “floating.” One conversation that I remember vividly was with my friend Reuel. We were discussing stereotypes and prejudice and I asked him what he thought about Americans before he met one for the first time. “Americans don’t like to lose,” he told me after some prodding.


a longa jornada para casa – the long journey home


A remarkable feature of the Northeastern landscape is the sand that covers the ground as far as 10 miles inland. Most of the roads that diverge into the countryside are composed of compact sand and smoothed over stones. This leaves skateboarding off the list for recreational transportation. One day when the rec center was closed, I had the urge to get some exercise and so commandeered one of the missionary’s bicycles. I rode slowly and peacefully down the sand path, enjoying the silence and fertility of my surroundings. About two miles down the road, I stopped to take a picture of a crude ditch filled with dark water and when I hopped back on my bicycle was dismayed to realize that the back tire was locked up and unable to be fixed on the spot. I was forced to inch my way back home, balancing the bicycle on its front tire because the back one would not so much as budge. I soaked in the beauty of the trail as I progressed further, but was reluctant to make my way back on the long journey home.

Brazilians have a special word for homesickness. They call it saudade. It is a word that is intrinsically tied to the land and it communicates more than the English word for “missing”, as in to “miss home”. Whenever I leave Brazil, I always have my trip back planned.

brazilThe people and places of Brazil have penetrated me to the core. When I close my eyes I can keenly see the faces and landscapes of my second home. As I learned in the post-travel awkwardness that arose between my girlfriend Karen and me when I returned last summer, it is impossible to convey the depth of one’s journey. Brazil has changed me. I find myself speaking, eating, laughing, dancing, playing, and, Heaven forbid, driving like a Brazilian. Every time I cross the equator I am stripped of the excesses of North America and left to refine and define myself.

© Jon Bones

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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