From a mountaintop…of sorts

Dear reader,

I am writing this blog from the top of a mountain, an even higher mountain than I used to live on. In front of me there are rolling green hills dotted with a small town in a valley. If I look up , the stars select multiple partners, weaving themselves  into beautiful pictures, telling stories of religion and hunters. To my right there is a child in red pants throwing rocks down the mountain, as his parents wag their fingers in disapproval. To my left there are grayish-black rocks sticking out of the dirt like daggers or spikes.

As I sit here immersed in the beauty around me, I realize how much my journey in Brasil has meant to me. I just came from the kitchen helping  a fellow Bowdoin alum make homemade pizza on a whole grain crust, while simultaneously dancing to Bob Marley and sipping the finest red wine I have ever tasted.  It was these moments that I hoped travelling would bring me. Here I was in front of a fireplace, discussing race and politics in Brazil. Here I was comparing slavery in the United States and Brazil using music and dance to tell narratives, my former professor Judith Cassleberry would be so proud.

In India I felt as if people could benefit from reconstructing the urban landscape. I felt as if poverty kept different social classes from enjoying “green spaces,” within the city. Many of the middle classes left Delhi to experience beauty not considering Delhi a place of beauty, but a place to make a living. Many of the extremely marginalized benefited from this thought because they used these green spaces for living and natural resources like water. In Delhi I believed if there could be a way to let all Deliwalas take pride in a beautiful Delhi that more people could realize the hidden treasures in their cities, then maybe there could be a socially conscious effort to help the marginalized in Delhi have access to basic resources, and allow for safer spaces to recreate.

In South Africa, I felt as if the urban landscape was still tarnished by apartheid. That cities and natural endowments had been designed as far as way as possible from black South Africans in major cities. It was in the more rural areas that you can hear stories of more traditional use and pride in natural landscapes from black South Africans. I also found that this was a place where eco-tourism took its ugly turn. At places like Kruger National Park, you could see the “Venda people” perform traditional dances and live traditional lives. When going to the place where the Venda people live you can see that the days of grass huts, if ever there, were long behind them, and that they practiced their culture in new ways. Beauty and race went hand in hand in South Africa, the most exclusive were also the most white. Nature in South Africa highlighted the larger issues of implicit segregation and explicit inequality in South Africa.

Brazil on the other hand confused me. Questions of race here are tangled in a history of mixing of cultures and language. There is a shared history of independence that prides all Brazilians. There is a real appreciation of the Afro-Brazilian impact on culture-especially in dance and food. Just from observation, it seemed like Brazil was beyond race. I am in the south of Brazil, so my experiences with Afro-Brazilians are extremely limited. Everyone that I came across in Belo Horizonte promised me that no one cares about race that racism is mostly in the North. It seemed to be true, I mean what I observed was a complete and utterly uncomfortable feeling around poverty, not necessarily around non-white races.  Still others told me that that the racism was in the South and shared stories about how there are, minus a few exceptions, Afro-Brazilians in office. I can attest that there are very few Afro-Brazilians on television; I have yet to see any advertisements that have Afro-Brazilian models. While skin color is not obsessed about in Brazil like in India, there are after all plenty of brown people on the covers of magazines, race matters here.

I will say now that my trip to Brazil has been amazing. I have met people who have quickly adopted me into their friend circles and families. I also must admit that I have around many Brazilians who are in doctorate programs, who have travelled around the world, and who have probably taken into account that I am American and an English only speaker. I am one of two darker people in my friend group.  Yet, I know that my friends care about me as I do them. Maybe my happiness has kept me from being able to define race in Brazil, but it has not fooled me. I think that my journey is too short to be able to define race, so I must instead focus on social class.  The social hierarchies in Belo Horizonte are acute and at times painful. In South Africa people say keep your windows rolled up when you drive. Here I watch good friends of mine roll up their windows and lock their doors whenever they see a child or barefoot adult approaching, and then as soon as the “poor” person passes, he unlocks the doors and rolls down the windows. He can literally do this process twenty times on longer trips. Blindness and apathy. I have seen wealthier people detach themselves from social conditions of others and pretend that they do not exist. I have seen children who miss school days because the electricity in the school was shut off. I have seen children with little hope turn to violent games to give them community in a place that reeks of inequality, lack of resources, and crime. I fell in love with my kiddies not because of pity, but because before I knew anything about them they showed me so much love and kindness. These same children are eager for me to teach them English and play games with me. They are eager to teach me Portuguese so that we can share stories. They help me with my capoeira angola and futball skills. Before knowing them as marginalized groups, I knew them as children who could have easily been my nieces and nephews. So learning about them over these last couple of weeks has been both disheartening and yet wonderful.

On Friday we had a group meeting on gang violence among the children as young as nine years old. I was shocked to hear that boys and girls, some who I have taught personally and grown very fond of have turned to chasing people down throwing rocks at them. It was a hard day for all of the staff at Casa does Jardim, my base in Brazil. Some of the culprits started crying, and I was unsure if it was out of remorse or out getting caught. I did not know how to share my own concerns and experience with violence pervading my community and schools with the small amount of Portuguese I have.  I did not even know if they would care, because the poverty I witness is ten times more extreme than what I faced in the United States. Still I shared my story, and hoped that one person would listen.  It made me think of all the things that kept these children from thinking about so many other things. Here I am sitting on top of this mountain overlooking a spectacular view of trees and exclusive houses, writing about how nature consoles me, and these children who also live among trees and on top mountains, and yet,  do not have the time to sit and write down about how it makes them feel. Some of them live in abusive households, some of them are scrounging for food, and other others are running around throwing rocks at people-expressing their frustration with their conditions in very negative ways.  So  here in Jardim Canada, I would not suggest equal access to beautiful places or for people to re-think about beauty. I would actually suggest a beginning of more recreational uses of the outdoors that is abundant in Brazil. I would suggest more hiking and sleeping outdoors under the stars, more dialogue. For me being outside isn’t just about the activity, it is about being free to be honest with myself and others, it is about being free to release my frustration, knowing that I will be consoled and helped.  I want these children to have the same things. I would say that the “natural landscapes” that surround there town can be used as retreats to talk about solutions to problems, to encourage collectivism and high self-esteem.

There are days here when I just want to run away an hide. Not because of any personal challenge or tragedy, but because I have so much love for all of the children I interact with, and sometimes when I say reach for the stars, i doubt that it will help. At the end of the day, who will pay for them to get the new school they so desperately need. Who will pay for them to go to college or receive job training, or to see the world.

I know that this year abroad was supposed to be living out a passion, and finding myself in ways impossible to do within the limits of a “home.” Yet, after tn months out of the US, I realize that I was never lost. I always had the passion, but not the courage. The heart, but not the patience. Working in Brazil has ignited a life in me that I thought died years ago. I realized how much my privilege impacted my relationships with people all over the world and in my current situation. That I now have a responsibility to take what I learned and make sure that more people can learn it. I know I cannot  sponsor trips around the world, but I can encourage more people to find multiple pathways to success, as I have this year. I can re-build relationships that I have let burn, because I gave up on people, and try again. Because I have learned that you can never give up. I show other people how to fight for their dreams, because I have learned that every dream is worth fighting for.

I still have two more countries to travel to, but everyday I see growth in myself. I see myself becoming the person I want to be, a person I can be proud of. I hope that no matter where you are in the world when you read this, that you have the opportunity to be the person you are proud of too. It is a freeing experience.

Here is wishing you all love and kindness!

From the woman on the mountain,

Teona