As the date of my departure gets closer, I continue working through the seemingly never-ending to-do list that accompanies a year-long trip to Ecuador. But about 2 weeks ago, my preparation was interrupted by a visit to another South American country: Brazil. Almost every year, my church sends a group of about 20 members of its Youth Group to work with an organization called Seeds in Hope in São Paul, Brazil. The organization has built an orphanage and trade school in the slums of the city and plans on building another school as well. So, although I am an Ecuador fellow, my introduction to South American life came from a few hundred miles southeast of Quito.
Having gone on the same trip two years before, I had a few expectations of what it was going to be like: 1) Since I didn’t know a word of Portuguese, relationships with any of the kids we were working with would be pretty difficult; 2) the work we did was not going to be very taxing; 3) the food would be delicious, and 4) we would play a lot of soccer and get crushed every time.
If that were a test, I would have gotten a 50.
When written down, Portuguese and Spanish look very similar, but when spoken, the two languages barely sound like they have the same Latin roots. My 5 years of Spanish in school were almost no use to me as I tried to communicate with the children in the area where we were working, and the children in the area knew equally as little English as I know Portuguese. Needless to say, the conversations were a little awkward. Eventually we were able to learn a few words in each other’s language (for example I learned that the word for “afro” in Portuguese is “Black Power”), but it never got much farther than that. Any improvement in our ability to communicate with each other was due to honing our skills of pointing and charades rather than any mutual understanding of each other’s language.
My second correct assumption dealt with food, and it was exactly as I remembered it: plentiful, filling, and delicious. Along with the beans and rice common to almost all South American countries, Brazilian cuisine is very heavy on meat, so steak, chicken, and pork were common staples in our diet. And it isn’t just for dinner; a ham and cheese sandwich is a common Brazilian breakfast. Don’t even get me started on the dessert.
Unfortunately, my correct predictions ended at the dinner table. Since it was a mission trip, we spent most of our time working on the project assigned to our team. Two years ago, I spent almost all of my work hours painting, which was certainly very painstaking, but not very physically taxing, and I expected this trip to be similar. That expectation was dashed as soon as we finished mixing our first batch of concrete. Here in the States, we have the luxury of concrete mixing trucks that do all the hard work for us, but in the slums of São Paulo, no such convenience exists. Almost every day we would make countless piles of concrete, manually mixing the sand, limestone, powder concrete mix, and water. When we got a break from doing that, we would put up roofing or pick ax the ground in order to lay a sidewalk. Despite waking up so sore that I could barely move every morning, I loved the work that we were doing. Every day I felt like we really accomplished something, and we visibly did. By the time we left, we had applied stucco (a weaker, more spreadable version of concrete) to the whole building, built a sidewalk, applied roofing, and built a fence.
To say that my final prediction was completely wrong would not really give me enough credit: we certainly played a lot of soccer, but to our surprise (and the surprise of the locals), we held our own. Despite losing the first game we played 9 to 1 (even with our desperate but horribly ineffective “triple goalie” strategy) we left Brazil with a record of 2-1-1. Not having played competitive soccer since 2nd grade, I wasn’t much help on the offensive end, but I was decent at defense since I could just boot the ball downfield. Even after mixing concrete for 6 hours, if the kids wanted to play soccer, we would, and there was never a shortage of a field. It didn’t matter if there was no clean water, indoor plumbing, or proper shelter, there was always a soccer field (granted I use the term “field” loosely, it was usually just a dirt clearing with goals made of PVC pipe at each end). But I guess that explains why Brazil’s men’s soccer team was in the Olympics and ours was not.
Overall it was a fantastic trip. I was a little anxious before I left because it completely halted any momentum I had gained on my summer campaign up to that point, but I am so glad I went. And now I can enjoy one more month in the States before I head back down to South America. Thanks for reading!