I am off to Recife, Brazil. Most of us have heard of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, and the Capitol, Brasilia, but not Recife. Everyone asks me exactly where it is located in this large country. I had not heard of it before, but I now know it is in the Northeast on the coast. The trip from Saratoga Springs to Recife will take me 27 hours which includes a six hour layover in Atlanta. If you can picture the maps of North, Central, and South America, the continents look very close. That is deceptive. Brazil is far south and even further flying east to the coastline. The good part is that this area of Brazil is only one hour ahead of New York time. That makes it a lot easier on the body because I have fewer time zones to adapt to.
I am going to Recife because of a chance meeting at an anniversary party in December of 2010. The week before the party there had been an article in the local paper explaining how I was helping people in the world. When I met the Krils at this party, they recognized me from that article. They proceeded to tell me of the need for water in this area of Brazil. They told me about Karina who is helping the poor people in a village outside of Recife. That is how this trip was born and grew into maturity.
I was met at the airport by Karina, her mother Leda and Claudio who works for Habitat for Humanity in Brazil. I am always grateful and relieved when I am met the airport. Traveling can be stressful, but it is worse entering a country where you cannot speak the language-Portuguese- at all. So many things go through my mind as I head to the exit. They quickly evaporate when someone calls my name. I smile and meet my new friends who have worked so hard to make this trip successful.
My contact with the village of Varzea Grande has been Karina. The village is a remote farm area to the west of Recife. To set up this visit Karina has been working with the Methodist Church and Habitat for Humanity so the people will be helped in the correct way. Originally we had discussed funding a well, but there is too much salt in the soil. If I had drilled a well, I would also have had to donate a desalination machine. The machines are expensive and break down quite often. I decided against that. We decided on cisterns to catch the water during the rainy season. They are expensive costing $1350 with fifty needed so each family in the village can be helped. That is a lot of money, but I have decided to aim for ten cisterns to start this Project
Karina has connected me with Claudio who works for Habitat for Humanity in Brazil. He is working to get matching funds from a Non-Government Organization. I had first thought that Habitat was going to try to match my donation. I was wrong in that Habitat’s main thrust in this area is replacing the old adobe homes with newer cinder block homes. In the past Habitat has partnered with several NGO’s to build eighty-two homes in this and the surrounding area. One of these organizations is Sabia which is matching our donation with their knowledge and technical assistance. They also test the water in the cisterns periodically to make sure it is not contaminated. Varzea Grande is on the government list to get equal funding for cisterns, but it is a question of time. While I was in Recife, I thought I would be attending a meeting with the National Director of Habitat for Humanity, Claudio, Karina, the Bishop of the Methodist church, and a government representative to ask for additional assistance or funding to compliment or match the cisterns that I was donating. I was unable to attend, but Karina and her mother did attend. Karina felt the meeting was very positive, and our donation was the jump start the government needed. This group will visit the cisterns we funded next week. The ball has started rolling, and that is very important to me. Karina will keep us informed of the progress.
Traveling alone I have to be aware of my surroundings all of the time. This time I am carrying enough cash for another cistern in Varzea Grande. I carry the cash in a pouch on my body. I already sent a check at the beginning of August, and I will give them the additional funds when I am satisfied they are doing the job as I expected. I am eager to be relieved of this money for safety’s sake.
We travel to Varzea Grande after one night in Recife. It is in the country, and it takes us over two hours; the last twenty kilometers over rough dirt roads. The scenery goes from city to country quickly. The ride takes us through beautiful green rolling hills, similar to upstate New York. You would not know anyone lives in this area because all you see is green. This area of northeastern Brazil is supposed to be the largest semi-arid area in the world. Thus the greenery at this time of year, but also the dry color of brown the rest of the year when there is no rain.
This area is entirely farmland. The people have to be self-sufficient because the stores are few and far between. In fact, I do not see a store or shopping area my entire time in Varzea Grande. Most villages that I have seen in other countries have a central square where you can get the basic necessities. I do not see that here. These people have to be self-sufficient. I am far from the city. As we drive I notice fields and fields of corn, as well as fields of cactus. It is obvious that the cactus has been planted as a crop. Cactus contains water so they harvest it in the dry season to feed their animals, and they can also drain the water from it for themselves, if needed. I am sure they have learned this from their ancestors. In order to survive in the dry season, you have to be creative.
We arrive at the local home where I will be staying. I speak no Portuguese, and no one speaks English in this village- NO ONE. I will live with Marcelo, Neide, who are in their late 20’s and their son Marcelo Junior who is eight years old. They are eager to meet me as I am the person who has given them the funds for a cistern. They show me my room and the bathroom. The bathroom has a toilet, but with no water connected to it. I have to get a bucket of water from the barrel in the back yard and dump the water in the toilet after I use it. I have done this before in Guinea so it is not a big deal. Next to the toilet is a 4’x3’ area for the shower. There is tile on the floor, a broom to sweep the water to the outside, but no faucets to give me water. In fact there is no plumbing in the house. That means I have to take water with me into this semi-curtained off area. Trust me, I will not use very much water this way. When water is readily available, we tend to waste it. When we have to carry it, we conserve as much as possible. This ought to be interesting because it is very hot in this part of the country, and I am staying here for a few days. Tomorrow is another day.
The day starts with sunrise in the village. The house that I am staying in has walls, but they do not extend all the way to the ceiling. That means we can hear whatever is happening throughout the small house. Neide is the first to rise, and I hear her chopping food in the kitchen. I join her before 6 a.m., and she has hot water for coffee ready for me. I am grateful. Within fifteen minutes I see Marcelo’s mother (Avanetti) leading her donkey to our house. Neide gets two empty water buckets and attaches them to the donkey’s saddle. Off we go to a water tank about a football field away. This is the meeting area for the local women as they need to get water daily. Most come with their donkeys, some use a wheel barrel and others carry the buckets on their heads. I see donkeys carrying water, corn stalks, cut grass to feed their livestock, etc. The saddest was seeing a man, whose face I could not see, being the beast of burden. He was invisible under the cut grass he carried for his animals. Without a donkey, he has to do the carrying. I do not want to be him.
The water in this tank we go to is salty so it is only used for bathing, washing clothes and dishes. Neide gets water for drinking and cooking from her mother-in-laws cistern. They take me to the location of the drilled well which is about 100 yards away. The government has drilled this well and pumps the water up to the holding tank. The problem arises when salt accumulates in the pump and shuts it down. Then they do not even have salt water for basics. We make two trips this morning delivering the salt water to another member of the family and then to our house. At the first stop the water is dumped into two old milk cans that have rusted out. I remember the barrels that held drinking water in the small village I visited in El Salvador. They did not clean them out periodically so they were dirty and infested with worms. I will not look in this barrel because I am afraid of what I will see. I am relieved it is not at my house, and we do not use this water for drinking. However, I will use it for bathing. Today we do not need fresh water from the parents’ cistern; we will do that another day.
In the back of the house where I am staying there is a covered area that has the toilet/shower on one side and the sink to wash dishes on another side. It is attached to the building, but really on the outside. It is here that I take my toothbrush to brush my teeth because there is no other place to do it. All three members of the family surround me as I brush. I then go out into the yard to rinse my mouth, and they follow to watch me. In our homes we brush our teeth in the privacy of our bathrooms. There is little privacy here as the living space is so small. It does not bother me; it is just different.
Returning home after our water run I see that Marcelo has started his day by cleaning the cement tiles he has made for the sides of his cistern. He made them a few days ago, and they have dried in the sun. He and his family have already dug the hole for the cistern. Neide’s job is now to feed the few animals they have. She breaks off kernels of dried corn to feed the three goats. Next she cuts off an ear of cactus and chops it up for the goats. She also cuts grass to give them. They eat it quickly.
It is now 7:30, and we break for breakfast. This is the only day we have breakfast so I think it is served because it is my first day. Cous-cous, a boiled root that tastes like potato, and rice and beans are served at most meals. It is inexpensive and filling. After breakfast Marcelo goes into the cactus field with his sickle to cut the weeds between the rows of cactus. Neide cleans, I write, and Junior sits and watches me. I brought a dictionary to translate from Portuguese to English from Karina’s house. Both Marcelo and his son look through this for hours. We are all trying to learn. I speak Spanish to them hoping we can connect on some words. Sometimes it works, but not usually. They laugh at me a lot as I ask the words for donkey, goat and slow. I have learned the word for slow in other languages. I think it saved my life in Guinea when I was riding on the back of a motorcycle. (I know, I know. I had an accident, but I kept saying slow down.) It helps me get the people to speak slowly so I can attempt to decipher what they are saying. It works quite well.
Claudio arrives with a woman who works with volunteers for Habitat for Humanity in Brazil. Joanna is from Brazil and graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in film making-can you believe that? What a small world. In addition there is a volunteer from Chicago who will be here for six months, and a representative from an NGO who has worked in a larger village funding cisterns. I am told of the history of the water and homes in the area. It is interesting because Habitat has built most of the homes in Varzea Grande. Part of the contract is that the families have to tear down their old adobe houses made with mud when their new home is completed. The reason is that there is an insect in that mud that stings the people and causes heart disease. By building the new cement block homes, it gives the families a nicer home and also eradicates a certain form of heart disease in this area.
Habitat for Humanity was smart when they built the cement block homes. They built each so cisterns could be added in the future. The roofs are ceramic and designed to funnel the rain water into one pipe that will go into the top of the domed roof of the cistern. The water can then be pumped out for use. The government put electricity in this village about ten years ago. The villagers do not pay for it. In Africa the villages I work with do not have electricity so I have to fund another form of power. That adds to the cost. Here they are more fortunate.
Claudio started the work with cisterns in this village about a month ago. The families who will receive a cistern are determined by several factors which include the number of children, their income, and whether they are elderly, handicapped or a single parent. Once that was determined, Claudio met with all of the families to explain their part in this program. Each family had to dig their own hole. The cistern holds 16,000 liters (4,230 gallons) of water so it has to be a big hole. Habitat says 16,000 liters of water will last a family of five for one year and three months in this semi-arid environment. Once the hole is dug, they have to make the concrete tiles that will be the sides of the cistern. Each tile is done individually and set in the sun to dry. The work that each family has to do gives them a sense of ownership as they have had a part in the construction.
Habitat then brings in men who have built cisterns for the organization prior to this. They know their job, and they progress quickly. Once the cistern is finished, they need two rains before they can use it. The two rains will wash off all of the dirt from the roof. Once that is over, the cistern can catch the rain water. I am concerned that I have funded these cisterns too late in the year to catch the rain water. However, I am told it is the perfect time to build them. During the rainy season, no truck or any vehicle can bring in supplies because the roads are impassible. They expect heavy rains in December, January, and February. I will be thinking of these families at that time and praying for lots of rain to fill their cisterns.
The first cistern I see is in Marcelo’s back yard. I should say I see the first dug hole for a cistern, as it is not completed at this time. I am so excited to see the start of what we are doing. We walk up the dirt road to see the progress of the other cisterns. We pass a tree that has a large sign tacked to it. It thanks a “Karen” for her help.” Is this me? It is. Marcelo has done this poster for the village to thank me. I have so much, they have so little, and they are so grateful.
Further down the road we stop at the first house. This cistern has the sides completed, and they are preparing to put on the roof. The father is working with the laborers. The mother comes out so I can take their picture next to the cistern. They have six children, with three of them younger and at home. The parents appear to be in their mid-seventies, but I am guessing they are younger, just weather-worn from this life. The mother is small, and I imagine it must be extremely hard for her to lift and carry the buckets of water. They do not have a donkey so the burden to carry the water is on this woman. This family desperately needs this cistern, and I am happy for them.
We are going to Junior’s school function, but the language barrier has made it confusing for me. I thought I was going to his school to give soccer balls to every class. First, Neide’s sister, Liz, arrives all dressed up. She comes in with make-up and nail polish for her sister. She does not live in this village, and I have no idea how she got here this morning. I can tell she does not get up every day and haul water with the donkey like we have been doing. I wish I could speak Portuguese so I could ask her where she lives and what she does. Then Avanetti arrives, and finally Neide turns into Cinderella with high heels and make-up. I feel under-dressed, but I decide to leave my sneakers on, and hours later, I am glad of my decision. I bring out the soccer balls, and they say No, No, No. Apparently we are not going to Junior’s school. Instead they are having a Fiesta where every school child is marching in a parade. It is miles from here, and we are to ride the local “school bus”. I see no automobiles in this village or adjacent villages. There are motorbikes, but not every family has one. So everyone rides the bus at no charge. The bus stops at our house. It is a large truck, covered with canvas to keep out the sun/rain. There are six benches to sit on, each the width of the truck. The truck is filled with children and their families. Getting into the truck, we have to climb the ladder at the back. This is not easy because the first rung is very high off the ground, but we all manage to do it. What a ride!! It takes us forty minutes over tracks that have been made in the mud and then hardened. We become friendly with our seat mates as our bodies are pushed first one way, then another on this trip. I am glad I am not driving.
We arrive two and one half hours before the parade is to begin. Neide goes with Junior to get in line to march so I stay with Avanetti and Liz. I feel like a little kid because they worry about me. If I walk away, they follow me. They constantly check to see that I have not moved. They do not know that I would not let them lose me. We are miles from home, and I do not know how to get back. Since I do not speak the language, I am an observer. I could identify every person who was at the parade that day. I should work for the FBI, but only if I did not speak the local language. It is interesting how everyone reacts when they find out I cannot speak their language. They all speak louder like I am deaf. Even when I say I cannot speak Portuguese, they keep talking to me. They want to believe I can understand them. I think that is a good sign. It means that they do not see me as different. Staying in this farm village with them shows I want to be a part of their family.
I was hoping the Fiesta would end before dark because there are no street lights and the roads leave a lot to be desired. It is not to be. Our family immediately went to our truck, and we were lucky to get a seat for the ride home. I thought we had a full load going to the fiesta, but I think we doubled our numbers going home. That meant people were sitting on laps, and many were standing. We were packed in like sardines. Once again, my fear was the transportation. I am in a location that it would be hard for someone to find me. When I cross country ski in the Spa Park at home, I carry I.D. on me. I had better carry it when I am 5000 miles from home. The last stop before our home, a woman thanked me as she got off the truck. She told everyone I was the one who was responsible for her new cistern. It seemed like such a little thing to do for these families that have nothing. It brought tears to my eyes. We arrived home with no accidents.
Soccer balls bring smiles to the players and the families. The first thing I did when I arrived in Recife was to buy soccer balls. I doubted if I could buy any in the rural, farm area where I was going. It is the middle of the week, and I do not see any games. I am hoping this will change soon because I want to surprise the kids. I do see sticks set apart to be a soccer goal. When I see boys together, I ask for them to bring me their old ball. Then I give them a new ball. With little money to spend, the need is great. There is seldom money left over for extras. These children have to make do with what they have. A new soccer ball is a gift all their own. That is a high priority when I make these trips.
On Friday afternoon I saw a soccer game in the village. The goals were sticks, and completely surrounding the field were cactus plants. It was a dirt field, and the boys played barefoot so when the ball went out of bounds, they had to go through the rows of cactus to retrieve it. I would not like to play under these conditions. They were quite skilled, and eager to show me how well they played with the new ball that I had given them. I was most impressed with one of the goal keepers. He was short, but denied goal after goal from players twice his size. He took several shots in the face with dirt from the field leaving an imprint. On a direct kick he put flip flogs on his hands to have a larger surface to stop the ball. What a creative idea!! I did not see the other team score a goal against him. After the game I shook his hand, and I gave him a soccer ball as the Most Valuable Player on the field. Needless to say, he was very happy. Making children happy makes me happy.
We have funded ten cisterns, but I have only seen five of them. These are in the general vicinity of Marcelo’s home. We probably only walked a mile each way to see them. Marcelo informed me the night before that we would walk to see four more in the morning. The location of the tenth cistern will be decided in the near future. After hauling water with the women, off we go. The first stop is only a mile trip, but it is hilly, and the hills are very steep. The next three cisterns are miles away. Numbers seven and eight are not easy to get to, but not super difficult. We are out of breath because our pace is fast, the terrain is rough, and it is hilly. Number nine is a test. We really needed a machete to cut the vegetation as we walked through it, but we did not have one with us. I would not even call it a path. It was formed by rain water going where it wanted. At home we hike because we like the scenery, and it is good exercise. Here they have to haul water over this path to live. Up and down, up and down we go. It is a good thing I work out at home. Marcelo is twenty-eight years old, and he is complaining about the walk. He makes me feel better because I am keeping up with him. Trust me, I am not saying it is easy, but I am doing it. We walked over three miles following this path made by Mother Nature until we came to an open area, and the number nine cistern. Everyday this family has to do this journey more than once to get water. The donkeys are really a necessity in this part of the world. They are sure footed when carrying a heavy a weight on their backs. By the time we reach home, we have walked at least six miles over rough terrain. I am tired.
I am surprised to hear that the children in the area I am living have to walk to school every day on the path we just walked. Once again, we are so fortunate. In the United States we have our parents drive us to school, we take the bus or we drive our own car. Here they walk for miles to get an education. I have just walked this in the dry season. I can only imagine the rainy season. The desire to learn has to be great to walk daily under these conditions. There but for fortune……
The person I most admire in this village is Marcelo’s mother, Avanetti. She is sixty-two years old, and works like a twenty year old. She and Marcelo’s father live about 100 yards away. The path from one home to another is well-worn from people and the donkey. She rises with the sun, cuts grass to feed her animals and tends her vegetable garden. Every morning Avanetti saddles the donkey, comes to my house and off we go to get the water that is salty. She, Neide and I make the trip at least two times in the morning, and she does it alone at night. The jugs are so heavy that I cannot lift them above my waist. Avanetti lifts them high to get them over the saddle on the donkey. I also see her during the day carrying these water buckets on her head 200 yards to her home. As a child she never had the opportunity to go to school, and she decided she wanted to learn to read.. After the sun sets, she goes to school to learn. I heard her read from the Bible, and I was impressed. She is so proud of learning to read; and rightfully so.
A celebration for the cisterns has been planned for the day I am leaving this village. Members of the Methodist Church arrived with the Bishop and the Missionary in the morning. The young people from the Church in Recife were in their late teens or early twenties. Most of them had graduated from or were attending college. As a group they paraded down the road to invite all the children in the village to come to a party. With music, high spirits and clown make-up they led everyone to the meeting area. They served food they had brought, and then the entertainment began. They got all of the children to dance and sing. I gave out tooth brushes and tooth paste to all the children and adults in the village. These had been donated by dental hygienists at home. Karina had also put together a gift package for each child. The young people put on a play that had everyone laughing; myself included. These young adults had never been to Varzea Grande before, but that day they certainly made a lot of new friends.
The next part of the celebration was a church service. We went to someone’s home that was on a hill overlooking the countryside. The service was held outside with the donkey braying, the palm trees swaying, a breeze making it very comfortable, and the sun setting. Mother Nature is quite impressive. Avanetti read from the Bible (she is an inspiration to all), and then presented me with a gift. All of the women who had received cisterns, plus friends and family had crocheted a table cloth and placemats for me. I was deeply moved.
I left this village taking a lot of love with me. Marcelo and Avanetti were crying; it was very emotional. Someone asked how I could live there without speaking any Portuguese. Actually it was not hard. Everyone in the village knew my thumbs up sign, and every family invited me into their homes. The children wanted me to watch them play soccer; making every game The World Cup final. They also knew how happy I was to see their cisterns being built which would make their lives easier and healthier.
This is only the second trip where I have stayed with a local family in their village. The last time was when I stayed with a family in a remote area of Guinea. That was a difficult experience that I do not wish to duplicate. I stayed in Varzea Grande because this village is so far from Recife. The conditions were better than in Guinea. It did allow me to be a part of village life. Marcelo and Neide welcomed me as a member of their family. The entire village welcomed me as one of them. We made the trip back to Recife at night over the terrible dirt roads. Traveling during the day was bad, but at night this same road seemed much worse.
I attend church with Karina’s family on Sunday. I ask Karina if there are others in need that perhaps I could help. She tells me about Lita, a member of her church. Karina’s mother takes me to Lita’s house. We drive to a shanty town. There is construction on the street, and we cannot go any further by car. It is daylight (thank goodness), and the locals are sitting outside their homes on the street. The people remind me of watch dogs because they watch us and know every step we take. The location of this shanty town is prime real estate as it is near the river. Karina’s mother, Leda, is a public defender who has fought for these people to remain in their homes, but it remains a continuing battle. The government wanted to evict them, because they wanted to build condos in this area. I am really impressed with the efforts of Leda and Karina to help others less fortunate. Leda has worked and is still working to protect the rights of the poor.
From the outside of Lita’s house, I can see the roof is not in good condition. Upon entering it looks much worse. It leaks in several areas, and it will only deteriorate in time. Lita has been diagnosed with a non-contagious form of HIV. It takes on the form of arthritis as it destroys nerves. She will only get worse with time. She and her husband, who is suffering from cancer, are very poor. They could not afford a new roof with what little income they have. Bingo, I have found the place to help. Karina got estimates for materials and labor. The total came to over $1100. U.S. I have decided to give $500. U.S. to get the project started. My challenge to the church members is to match my amount. And that is what the Church is going to do. In addition, Habitat for Humanity may be able to keep the cost down by helping with both materials and labor. Hopefully, Lita will have a new roof by Christmas. Merry Christmas!!
This has been a fruitful trip. I have made wonderful friends. I will never forget my stay in the village of Varzea Grande. I grew up on a farm but our life was a lot easier than their life is. They work hard from sun up to sun down, and get up the next day and do it again. It is a very difficult life. They know all of their neighbors, and help them in times of need. One of these times is with water. If they have a cistern, they share their fresh water with their neighbor who has no fresh water. I am grateful for what I have, and I realize it more and more when I travel. I hope this Journal helps you, as a reader, with an appreciation for what you have. We each get caught up in our daily lives, and sometimes forget that there are others dealing with basic needs in this world. A little help goes a long way for these people.