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Life, Life, Life

I am starting to feel less and less in touch with the outside world, or at least with England. I went to the AIDS centre for the first time today, which was a real experience. We had to leave at 7.15 (and now I`m used to the heat so don`t wake up ridiculously early) to get there for 8, because the other girls usually worked from 8 until 12. To get there, you have to take a bus which takes about 20 minutes, and let me tell you, the buses here are LETHAL. If you’re wheelchair bound, frail, eldery, forget it. You have to wave down the bus (which doesn’t seem to have any specific route, it’s just where you can get it to stop) and then get on as quickly as possible before the bus drives off. (You often see quite a lot of stunned old people, looking bemusedly at the trail of dust the bus has left in its wake).

Once you manage to get on to the bus, it`s an assault course. There’s a tiny section, in between you and the door (which they often leave open as they hurtle forward) where you pay the bus driver 2.20R. (About 70p) and then he’ll let you through the clicky thing (you know those things they have in theme parks and stuff, that click open and you slide round once you’ve paid?) This clicky thing has absolutely no space whatsoever to turn, even if you were Kylie Minogue you’d have difficulty, and she’s a small lady.

Once you’ve passed the clicky thing you have to find a space to sit down. Bear in mind the bus is now moving at a speed previously unbeknown to mankind. Even when sitting down, you think you might die. They don’t slow for speedbumps, kids, anything. I’m sure there must be loads of casualties every year, but hey, this is Brasil. I bounced so hard off my chair today, I could have been levitating. But enough of the buses, they get you from A to B, albeit with no regard to dreaded, yet seeming now quite necessary, Health and Safety.

Once you’re off the bus, it’s about a 20 minute walk to the AIDS centre. I don’t know if you’d call the neighbourhood it’s located in a favela, but it’s definitely a very poor community. Most of the houses look like building projects that have just been started, yet given up on, but this is where people actually live. In Argentina, you can tell you’re going into a poor area of town, because the roads become gravel, I think here, it’s combination of the gravel and the rake of the road (if that makes sense?) The hills in this neighbourhood are colossal. No wonder everyone’s fit.
For the actual AIDS centre, I can’t actually think of a word to describe it. I’ll tell you what I experienced and you can decide for yourself.

We arrived at 8, were welcomed by ‘‘Mr Jose’‘, who seemed nice enough. I met some of the other staff, who all seemed ok, but I think Isabel the cook was the only one who actually was glad to meet me. (You will understand why later.) We started setting out the breakfast for the children – warm bread and butter (surprisingly nice, actually). The kids are absolutely lovely, as you can imagine. Not all of them have AIDS – for some its their carer, or parent, who isn’t able to provide for them all the time. They’re aged 2-6. The children have breakfast, then their coffee (yes, what?? It’s very milky, but still..) and then they go upstairs whilst we wash up, as the plates etc will be used again in a few hours.

The children do not go upstairs to play with any of the many toys that have been donated to the charity, or any of the many books that so many of them are fascinated by. Quite the opposite. They are made to sit down silently and watch The Fast and the Furious 2 whilst the carers make bracelets for themselves, which of course the kids cannot join in with. There weren’t enough chairs, so one of the girls came and sat on my lap, and started playing with some of my hair bands. We started playing the Potato Game (you know with all the hands on the table) and so Mandy, another volunteer, called over one of the other girls to come and play. The girl started playing but was immediately told off by one of the carers, and told to sit down and be quiet.

Mandy told one of the carers it was her fault, to which he/she (transvestite/pre op transsexual) smiled and said, ‘‘Not at all’‘ (though obviously in Portuguese). Every time the kids picked up a book they were told off, it made absolutely no sense to me. The one thing we could have helped with – playing with the kids, was out of bounds. The thing is, going into a centre like that, you have absolutely no authority over what goes on, and you can’t turn round and say that you disagree with the kids watching films all day, and the films that they are watching being part of the ‘‘Vin Diesel Collection’‘ (yeah, I didn’t know that existed either). As it is a centre for kids with AIDS, you don’t know if there’s a specific reason for why the kids only watch films all day. To be honest, I think it’s pure laziness on the carers part, having realised probably quite early on that no one monitors what they do, so being able to mess around, and do whatever they want.

I do not doubt that the centre helps the children – it is a fantastic charity, in the sense that it provides the kids with the basics for survival. They are given a good diet to help them cope with their medication, and their personal hygiene is maintained (they get a bath after lunch. Of course, after the bath, they go upstairs and watch more films.)

Basically, there’s absolutely nothing for the volunteers to do. I don’t know if the project rarely gets volunteers, but there’s no place for them, because all the workers have everything covered (apart from the recreational period, where they’re just pratting around and abusing their freedom). I felt like my presence there was more of a hindrance than a help.

I talked to Catherine, the volunteer coordinator, who’s setting me up with some English teaching volunteer work, where we’re going to meet the organiser tomorrow. At least I know, with teaching English, it’s the best thing I can do. I won’t be taking anyone’s job (in the volunteer centre, the other local people helping will be learning valuable skills, which is important) and there’s probably not many Brazilians who could do it better, in the sense that I am from England, with an English accent, and I know how a romance language works, so I’ll be able to note what the problems will be. Then, I’ll be passing on important skills, which could help people get a job, or a university degree etc.

Anyway, I’m going to go to bed because I’m shattered, I went out for dinner with some of the other volunteers for Chinese New Year. Two of them laugh all the time. And I’m talking all the time. At everything. Their own jokes, each other’s jokes, everything. These really loud cackles, or carcajadas mis espanolas. It’s very loud. I’m sure they’re nice people, in a loud way.

Anyway, I don’t know if I told you – Brasil’s really big on juices, they call them sucos, and I’m right next to 24h Sucos, which has about 40 different flavours of sucos. Today I had banana and pineapple, it was amazing. Truly wonderful. Also, my wonderful lovely mother sent me a brilliant book, so if any of you are looking for a good read – London Fields – Martin Amis, it’s brilliant.

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Quotes

On the plane over to Beijing nerves really started to kick in and the enormity of the challenge that I had set myself really began to sink in. It was the first time that I had been away from home in my nineteen years of existence. The chaos of Beijing, which I was to grow to love, hit me immediately at the scrum for taxis quickly followed by the complete mess that was the roads in Beijing. …looking back on my time in Beijing I have nothing but fond memories. From the city itself, the food and the amazing people that I met and have formed potentially lasting friendships with to the excellent opportunity to learn Mandarin. I can honestly say that I can't wait to go back, and will endeavour to do so as soon, as is possible.

Jeremy Holliday, Epsom, 2007

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