Sunday, January 31, 2010

Bill & Mel

"The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis,
but rather the feeling of being unwanted."
(Mother Teresa)

Saturday, January 30, 2010

40 days of rain

Floating cars on the cover of the local rag

Friday, January 29, 2010

Language Learning

Sometimes, learning Brazilian Portuguese is easy.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The commute

The bus stalls at the lights. It makes a welcome change from the usual screech of brakes and abrupt halt, followed by passengers tumbling in comic domino fashion. One lady bellows to the front that she wants to get off and the driver wearyingly obliges by opening the doors. Another to my left confidently asserts se quebrou! (it's broke), followed by another who repeats the phrase as a question. A rush for the exit ensues.

Five seconds later the engine starts and the whole gang are thumping on the (now) closed door, begging to be allowed back on.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Law Enforcement - São Paulo style

There is a bewildering, veritable cornucopia of law enforcement agencies in Brazil. I thought Italy was bad. Here, there are municipal cops, traffic cops, park cops, financial cops, subway cops, federal cops and even environmental cops (officer, there's someone illegally pruning their leylandii - arrest them!). I can't work out which ones I am meant to take seriously, but I generally go by weapon size.

We were with the kids over on Nove de Julho this week, playing ball and writing our names and outlining the kids contorted body shapes crime scene-style on the roadside with sidewalk chalk. At one point a city cop (she had a small handgun and so was to be taken relatively seriously) approached our group. Within a split second, drinks bottles filled with petrol and paint thinner were stashed under small tee-shirts, down trousers or thrown into the bushes. I can understand why the officer came over: there were thirty children collected in one place, having fun and taking a break from mundanity. Threatening stuff indeed.

A confrontation ensued with one of the girls (who must have caused some trouble earlier), but a broad smile (and, I am guessing, the presence of three foreigners) was enough to diffuse the situation and she withdrew. It's rare. When the police tire with the presence of the children on the street, they generally undertake a clean-up of the streets Giuliani-style. The operation is comprised of:

(1) high-pressurized water apparatus (see to the right of the photo below)
(2) a dust cart
(3) two police cars
(4) a police minibus

It operates thus: the street cleaners use (1) to forcefully remove the children from the area affected, the police use (2) as a container in which to dispose of what meagre possessions the children have and (guns poised) use (3) and (4) to take away children who demonstrate an unwillingness to co-operate.

police keep watch over our hockey game with the kids
call for reinforcements!

I always found Giuliani's policy of eradicating Manhattan's homeless "problem" to be rather tasteless, but this literal cleansing of the streets smacks of the worst elements of what some have called his "dispiriting political vendetta" against the homeless. At least Giuliani purported to find shelters for the displaced. Here, the unruly spend a night getting roughed-up in the cells and are then hearded-off to another part of the city.

Someone else's problem.


Police brutality is not new or, of course, exclusive to Brazil, but I do not think I will ever be comfortable with the site of weapons drawn at even the most minor infraction. Parked on a double yellow? Guns drawn. I can empathise to a degree - especially in our neighbourhood - but the gung-ho attitude of most cops here smacks of a machismo which is distasteful in a force which at the same time is attempting to mirror the UK model of "community policing".

The Street

I thought it would be helpful to post a few pictures of the kids (and adolescents) we work with in that part of downtown São Paulo known locally as The Valley (which in the 19th Century used to be a highway, but is now a pedestrianised area flanked on each side by skyscrapers - hence the name). I rarely take the camera, since I do not want to appear a gawking tourist or some self-interested hack, but when I do the children seem to enjoy having their photograph taken and oblige with a smile, a gang sign or sometimes just a blank stare.

Monday, January 18, 2010

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies

You may remember the people who live in the marshes out the back of Casa Elohim from here or here. In between Christmas and New Year - that strange period when the whole world appears to be in limbo (a phrase which, I was interested to note, has a curious etymology) - Mike, Thomas and Fran (from the girl's house) took a table, decorations and an abundance of food out into the muddy backlands that border the lake. In a small hastily made clearing, surrounded by shelters made of splintered wood, a Christmas meal was had with those that have been terrorising the neighbourhood these last few months. Tears were shed as a message of hope and forgiveness was shared with 15 homeless drug addicts, dealers and prostitutes.

My guess is that we won't be having any more sleepless nights for a while.

The C Count

Sweeping the kitchen floor in the morning is always a revelation to me.
This was a 4C day.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Ongoing cultural challenges

As the pastor's wife nattered away to her friend in the pew in front, oblivious to her husband's zealous exhortations from the pulpit, was I the only one becoming increasingly irritated?

The local baptist church with whom the rescue house has close ties (1a Primeira Igreja Baptista Jardins Imbuais - so good they named it twice) runs a helpful and interesting "sunday school" for adults on Sunday mornings. I had gone the previous week to the seminar on anger (how to prevent it, so-called "righteous" anger, etc - you get the drift. All pithy comments will be deleted, mum). The poor lady trying to deliver her carefully prepared presentation not only had to deal with what must have been three or four pairs of constantly chattering couples animatedly discussing goodnessknowswhat, but also an audience member who was clearly depressed and was anxious to share the news of her recent - multiple - suicide attempts with the room. By the time the two stray dogs entered the room from the back door (which had been left ajar due to the stifling heat), I was so seething that I genuinely thought it may have been some weird test of my own anger threshold. I wasn't angry merely because I couldn't concentrate on what promised to be a fascinating discussion; it was more frustration for the speaker, mixed with embarrassment to be associated with the audience.

After a generous round of laser beam eyes at the culprets (righteous anger? probably not), I was about to start shooshing when the presentation ended (and when I say "ended" I mean the speaker carried on talking while people gradually got up from their chairs and left the room because her allotted time was up). Maybe it shouldn't have come as a surprise to me that the exhortation "shhh!" is not part of the Brazilian idiom. I thought that it would be one of the few expressions I would not have to translate to make myself known to the boys, but I was wrong.

o que significa "shooosh"?
[index finger raised to closed lips]

There are certain standards which transcend borders and cultures. There are, for example, what those in the legal profession call, "human rights". Others talk of a "universal morality". Although I believe both are unattainable and somewhat unattractive fallacies, there is (like most fallacies) an element of truth in the concept of standardised - for want of a better word - manners. I am not suggesting that genuine local custom and convention be done away with simply because they may somehow offend my western middle-class sensitivities (whatever those might be), but I do believe that there are certain standards of behaviour which should not be excused. I am saddened when bona fide selfish or stubborn behaviour masquerade as "cultural norms". It is not right and it is not fair to turn up to a team meeting 20 minutes late! It is not "British" punctuality or "Swiss" efficiency that dictate such standards. It is manners, plain and simple.

ooking around the room, however, I also noticed this: nobody was getting their knickers in a twist like I was. I felt convicted and then I felt rather silly.

And then a wider truth dawned upon me.
If I am the only one affronted (even the speaker - onto whom I was vicariously channeling frustration - didn't look in the least bit concerned as the chatter level rose to such a crescendo that she had difficulty making herself heard) then I myself must check my attitude. This is not so much morality by majority, but more a realisation that I should respect what others might not consider to be important. To put it another (less clumsy) way, sometimes one must refuse to be offended and concentrate on more important matters.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The silly season

January here is like August in Europe. The country heads to the coast.

The mass evacuation from São Paulo is staggered, but generally commences around the second week of December and - well, this is Brazil - isn't reversed until March.

conveniently falls in February which means most people take that month off too, effectively producing a three month mega-holiday which, three weeks in, is already driving me nuts because I need to get things done and nobody seems to want to do anything in this heat.

Happy New Year!

What fools boredom breeds

Is it only me who can see the grime on the walls and the broken tiles? Are missing light bulbs and flaking paint in the children's rooms just small things, invisible to the normal eye?

As part of the frenzied two week period just gone, I have been waging a one man war against the dirt. The stinking pond which passes as our swimming pool has become my bête noire (or should that be bête vert?).

I suppose that cleaning a pool is a little like working with children at risk. It's a deceptively complex and sensitive process requiring daily attention, patience and care.

Neglecting these responsibilities - even for a day in this searing heat - can result in a return to stagnation and a lot of hard work to achieve restoration.