This reflection was written by Richard Miller, father of current Global Citizen Year Fellow Karyn Miller, after visiting his daughter in Brazil.
A long plane journey coupled with a ton of fresh memories is a good recipe for recording and sharing some thoughts from a visit to the settlement (or, in Portuguese, assentamento) that Karyn has been living in for these past five months in Nova Suica, Bahia, Brazil. It was a quite remarkable experience, worthy of me dusting off my pencil (so to speak) and a strong candidate for a “top ten lifetime experiences” list.
The trip to Nova Suica served as the main course of a meal which began with a number of appetising starters. Fortunately, now-fluent Karyn was able to be the expert Portuguese tour guide, and quite capably paraded all of the sights, sounds, and smells of Salvador during a four day tour. I’m now a convert to acai and acaraje, though not to milky, sugary coffee . I’m also now a convert to sipping beer out of tiny glasses while a large bottle sits on the table in a self-contained cooler, so that the beer doesn’t get warm in the glass–such an obvious and practical concept that it’s amazing nobody is doing it in other hot and humid climates elsewhere in the world! But I digress.
On the fifth day of our stay we set off from the beachside hotel in Salvador, en route to our main course in the interior of the state. The ride took 90 minutes, uphill all the way on a decent but busy four lane highway, winding through hills that initially were completely covered with shanty towns – a quite stunning sight– and thereafter with completely contrasting, lovely green pastures. The ride was interrupted for 30 minutes by what turned out to be a stalled car in front of us. It completely halted traffic, we didn’t move an inch, and while that meant we were deprived of our breeze, uncomfortable, and thrown off schedule, not one person so much as raised their voice. C’est la vie, whatever, it happens. Such is the approach Bahian Brazilians seem to have toward day-to-day life. So I napped, no worries!
The bus passed through the town of Santo Amaro, which felt like a frontier “wild west” town: beautiful Portuguese architechture, petit, tightly wound houses and shops all tucked together in a very small space. And then, suddenly, we were out of our seats and off the bus, thrown off onto a dusty road like the cowboy and his one bag in an old western movie. Here, though, we did not encounter wilderness: there was life, a school, a padaria, and the health post where Karyn’s host mother works.
We walked along a long and winding dirt road, scattered with potholes full of remnants of the last big rain. Lorries, tractors, motorcycles, and bicycles passed occasionally, and Karyn acknowledged all who passed—she knew some and laughed as saw others, exhibiting the same laid back Bahian approach she has herself inherited and is so unique and refreshing. Clearly, we had now arrived in her backyard.
We continued into the assentamento, which doesn’t have any particular demarkations to tell a visitor they’ve arrived and was spread out over hundreds of acres. Soon enough we came upon “her” house: a plainly constructed brick square with a simple tiled roof, like all others in the settlement. But it seemed to me that the house itself was there as a necessity, because we all need shelter from the elements. Real life happened outside: as you emerge from the kitchen you find tables, prepping stations, and the most incredible thing—an abundance of everything fresh and growing. Countless trees in a garden ten times the size of the house: coconuts, mangos, huge avocados, limes, pineapples, bananas–all manner of great fruits and vegetables.
Raquel (pronuounced “Hackelle”), Karyn’s host mother and the owner of the house, struck us as a woman of intelligence, experience, and sacrifice. From what we saw, people there seemed pretty happy. I guess I was expecting less and feel a bit guilty to have harboured preconceived and perhaps condescending perceptions. They may not have everything they want, but they have good humour, they enjoy company, they laugh, they debate.
We walked around – to the small school where Karyn teaches English, to see the building where harvested manioc is peeled and then ground into finished farinha, and then on to my favourite, the football field! The field is pretty much all dirt but has wonderful wooden goalposts and crossbars, bringing back memories of English playing fields and glorious long summer evenings playing football through the night. The daily dusk-time pickup game, involving various ages, was just getting started as we were leaving. It was a further 20 minutes back through fields, past locals who were loading up on fresh water from the pump to take back to their homes. Classes had just ended at the high school and students were fanning out with typical full-on energy, walking or on bikes, wheelying their way around the school parking lot. We wondered what the introduction of a couple skateboards could fashion…
The ride back to Salvador was rapid and the return to the surroundings of the four star hotel was slightly unsettling. To say that, after our trek, it felt strange to later enjoy the infinity pool with its swim-up bar is an understatement. I was struck by many feelings, mixed feelings: gratitude for what we have, guilt for what we don’t appreciate enough, humility, and appreciation for having the chance to learn and experience such a new place. For Karyn those feelings will no doubt be magnified. I was so impressed with her courage and fortitude, not to mention her sheer skill at being able to learn a new language and assimilate into a very different environment. I hope she finds that all of her efforts are rewarded in her final month as she enjoys her now well-developed relationships.
Even if you don’t go to an assentamento, a trip to Bahia needs to be on a to-do list. The world will learn a lot more about it soon as the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics showcase the country and region. It is blessed with a wonderful coastline, beaches, farmland, and other natural beauty. More than that though it possesses a unique and proud population, a culture all its own.