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Volunteer Vacation in Brazil

On a service trip to Santarem, a college student explores
the many meanings of 'amizade,' or friendship

By Jessie Ammons

Vacations Magazine: Volunteer Vacation in Brazil
Courtesy of Jessie Ammons

(Scroll down to see a slide show.)

Friendship. Amistad. Amitie. Amizade. Humans have an innate desire for companionship, which typically manifests itself in the form of friendships. So when I learned about the opportunity to apply for a service trip to Brazil via the nonprofit organization Amizade, named for the Portuguese word for "friendship," I was intrigued. I was inspired by this concept and the opportunity to serve a greater good; I had no concrete idea of what I was getting myself into.

I incessantly journaled as my days in Brazil passed, sometimes fearful, sometimes frustrated, sometimes excited and often encouraged. I ended up learning more than I could have imagined about others, about myself and about this idea of friendship that intertwines us all.

Dec. 17, 2009, 10 days prior to departure: "I'm really starting to wrap my brain around this Brazil trip. It's going to change my life. Although, really, doesn't every single little thing do that?!"

Thus, I kicked off my Brazilian volunteer experience. From the beginning, I expected some sort of metamorphosis, although I had no idea what shape it would take.

Dec. 27, 2009, on a plane from Greensboro, NC, to Atlanta and, eventually, Brazil: "This is my first time truly going it alone ... I don't really know what I'm getting myself into. Philosopher William James once said, 'Wherever you are, it is your friends who make your world.'"

What is friendship, anyway? As I sat on that airplane, I was unsure. I know that I missed my friends from school, Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC. I missed their steadfast support and the feeling that embraces me when I'm close to ones I love. I was surprised at the anxious anticipation that suddenly overwhelmed me, the notion of literally flying into the unknown. Perhaps much of my fear stemmed from the knowledge that, at that moment, I felt utterly alone. Friendship brings comfort.

As our group of 10 students and one faculty adviser departed the plane in Sao Paulo, Brazil, we were greeted by a poster warning of the H1N1 flu virus, similar to the signs that saw us off from America. The airport's oppressively humid atmosphere, vibrant colors and relaxed vibe let me know that I was in an equatorial region, but airbrushed snowmen on a customs officer's manicured nails reminded me of the just-passed Christmas season. There is no snow at this elevation of Brazil, but Frosty has apparently become a universal holiday symbol. We do have common denominators.

Upon arrival, we met the Amizade staff members and got the lowdown on the next two weeks. Francisca Geli do Nascimento Oliveira, a young and feisty Brazilian native who goes by Geli, and her husband, Dan Weiss, the founder of Amizade, introduced us to the organization's missions and beliefs. Among them: "Do it over time, and do what you can." Our goal over the course of our trip would be to complete as much work as possible on a community center for children in a neighborhood in Santarem. The children are in school for only four hours a day at the most while their parents work full time. The center would provide a safe environment in which they could learn vocational skills.

Simply put, Amizade does the most that they possibly can with the resources accessible at that moment, as they become available. If that means they must stop for a few months, then so be it. Progress can be slow, but it is steady, according to Dan. I liked this notion. In developing economies like those of Brazil, waiting for sufficient funds before beginning a project could mean that no work gets done. Slow and steady can win the race, something I easily forget in my competitive, individualistic American college environment.

Dec. 28, 2009: "There is no language, but still laughter."

We visited our work site for the first time. It was a barren piece of red dirt-covered land behind an endearingly ramshackle community church. Surrounding it were rolling tropical hills and poverty-stricken homesteads. We began our first workday, which set the tone for our daily routine: a 7 a.m. breakfast followed by three hours of construction work, then lunch and siesta time. In the afternoon, we had three more hours of labor and dinner at 6 p.m. Four local children worked with us every morning, and another four joined us each afternoon. One day, these kids would use the community center they helped us build.

As we started shoveling dirt, we grappled with the Brazilian language, Portuguese. It's easy to underestimate what a barrier language can create, especially with children. All of the sudden, I became nervous. I came here to work with and for these kids, but I felt as if I wouldn't be able to remotely get through to them.

Yet by the end of our first three hours, we could all laugh at the comical pantomimes from the boys on our team and our unsuccessful attempts to teach one another our native tongues. I would desperately point at a rock, saying "rock" to Leiche, a 15-year-old girl, and she would just look at me as if I were insane and giggle. But, we had shared a moment. Friendship can be as simple as laughter.

Dec. 29, 2009: "I don't understand how they find purpose in life ... but, maybe I have to pull myself completely out of all things comfortable to focus on what I'm supposed to learn."

Fun and games soon faded, and I was plagued with a weird, bitter enthrallment. Being immersed in Brazil's colorful, low-key culture was fascinating and energizing, but it also introduced disconcerting tensions. The beautiful, tropical landscape was marked by extreme poverty. This was my first interaction with people who faced such hardships, and it seemed surreal. I felt guilty. How could I spend my days worrying about my own well-being when these people are lucky to get more than one meal a day?

Then, I questioned my motivations for being in Brazil. Had I applied for the glamorous idea of traveling internationally in the name of helping others? Would I just give myself a warm, fuzzy feeling and a pat on the back and return to my dorm room? What do I live for, anyway? The questions would not stop.

Until they did. I realized that I had succumbed to the abyss of my own brain. I needed to snap out of it and do the most I possibly could with this opportunity. I looked around and noticed that Brazilians are full of joy. The children were so thrilled to be spending time with us and taking part in their own future. Geli was elated to see the smiling face of a childhood friend while walking to an Internet cafe one day. Old women relaxed in chairs on front porches after a full day of housekeeping, content to be enjoying time with family and friends. Friendship provides purpose.

Jan. 1, 2010: "New Year's Eve was like one big tailgate! Everybody was just hanging out in the street and along the river. I'm beginning to see why they have little need for living rooms in their homes; they hang out outside with their neighbors. Community is clearly everything."

Our service trip fell over the New Year's holiday, and our work was broken up by plenty of time for play -- and observation of Brazilians at play. We spent New Year's Eve on a boardwalk lined with people socializing, eating and drinking. There was dancing to a live band in the main square and fireworks at midnight -- no televisions, no Dick Clark, no massive crystal ball falling in a packed urban center.

For the first time, I felt the unique bond among our group of volunteers. We were at a point in the trip where initial awkwardness and impressions had passed and real connections were forming. As I walked amid the throngs of people, I considered everybody's different gifts and how they all meshed together on this project. Group dynamics can accomplish astounding things, and this realization brought me reassurance. Friendship is cooperation and acceptance.

Jan. 2, 2010: "There are some places in Brazil that you can't even drive to from Santarem, but the people here have such a tangible unity, anyway. Imory was talking about being grateful for people and not things ... I'm learning so much about the human spirit."

Before we resumed work after the New Year's festivities, we had some downtime to think and reflect. We recently had learned about Brazil's lackluster "interstate" system. Many roads are made of dirt and in awful condition; they are all-around unreliable avenues of transport and travel. Until now, I had never considered good roads, train systems and airlines a privilege. The members of this community maintained an incredibly happy outlook, despite their somewhat isolated locale. In my hyper-connected world, it is hard to fathom how any state of joy -- and not restlessness -- can be achieved when "getting out of this town" is not an easy option. Again, the necessity of community is inescapable; it can be your friends who make your world.

Jan. 3, 2010: "Tonight I went to a Protestant church service with Geli's sisters. When the congregation began singing "Hosanna," I cried. Big time. I felt so at peace despite being on the other side of the world, surrounded by a foreign language."

Human emotion transcends language, and music is a powerful thing. Friendship need not be spoken or defined, it can be felt.

Suddenly, my trip took an awful turn: I got sick. Quite sick. Sick enough to have to take time off from work and stay at the compound while my team went to the site. Luckily, I recovered quickly and was able to get back on my feet for the final few workdays.

Jan. 7, 2010, on the way back from our last shift: "As I pass by kids in dirty underwear with tattered kites, I'm reminded that this is their world. What got me through being miserably sick were thoughts of home, escape, relief. And so, what pulls these people through? Where is their motivation and hope? As if I haven't written this enough yet, it is community. It is love."

A sense of melancholy always seems to accompany goodbyes, and this was no different. I started thinking of all the additional bonds I could have formed, the conversations or playtimes I could have pushed one step further, the moments I could have savored just a little bit more. Then, a kid turned around and laughed. I stilled my brain, took a deep breath, and smiled. Amizade's mentality of "do what you can" resounded in me. We boarded our bus for our compound, for the last time.

Jan. 11, 2010, in a U.S. airport terminal, awaiting our last connecting flight home: "I'm just struck by our group dynamics and how cool this trip was. We all immediately went back to our American foods and habits -- eating Cinnabon, drinking Starbucks, reading USA Today, calling parents, checking e-mail on iPhones -- we are back in our isolated little worlds. But we sat in a hot, sweaty kitchen eating the same food every morning. We did the labor. We were completely removed from the comforts of home, and what an awesome experience it was."

The day I flew to Brazil seemed like a lifetime -- and a split second -- ago. I was ready to conquer this exotic experience, to feel independent and tackle a project with my peers. Our group was motivated, we were ready, and we were going to help. After two weeks of working in Brazil, we returned home to our families. But what remained was friendship -- links to the local people, the children and to each other.

As I make final revisions to this reflection some two months after my arrival home, I take a break to procrastinate on the Internet. I have a new friend request on Facebook: Gildeci Oliveira. Gildeci is Geli's sister, with whom I attended services at the Protestant church. Friendship is integral to Brazilian culture and, in a different way, to mine as well. My service trip to Brazil allowed me to physically throw myself into something and learn the value of spiritual friendship. And reconnecting with Gildeci reminded me that one should remain tied to people, not places.

The Vacations To Go Grant

Vacations To Go established the Vacations To Go Grant in 2008 as a scholarship for Wake Forest students participating in international service trips. Alan Fox, chairman and CEO of Vacations To Go, is an alumnus of the university, located in Winston-Salem, NC.

There are two portions to the grant: a need-based scholarship to help students with travel expenses and a photojournalism assignment that pays a stipend. The student awarded the photojournalism assignment for this service project, Jessie Ammons, traveled to Brazil in winter 2009.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in July/August 2010.

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