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Brazil 2013 Letter Home
Written by: The Spring 2013 Health and Community – Track 2 group
Dear Family and Friends,
Greetings from Brazil! We arrived here about month ago. We flew out of Dulles International Sunday, January 27 and after an hour delay to our departure, we finally took off. We landed in São Paulo around 10:30 in the morning on Monday and despite the long flight, we were all filled with excitement. Once our bags were claimed and all successfully entered the country, we were met with two smiling faces, Glenda and Caio. We knew their significance to our experience on a professional level, but we quickly learned how significant they would be to us on a more personal level.
When we arrived in São Paulo we spent the first night in a hotel. After a packed second day, we arrived back at the hotel knowing our homestay families would be picking us up shortly. We were all slightly nervous about meeting the people we would be spending the next four weeks with, but those fears were ungrounded. We were met with warm smiles and introductions and in groups of twos or threes, we left the hotel for our new homes. Having now spent four weeks with these people, it is an easy judgment to make that we couldn't have been luckier. Our homestay families were all gracious and welcoming, and saying goodbye is going to be hard. While we live scattered around different neighborhoods in downtown São Paulo, we have all felt safe and secure with people who opened their homes to us. We've forged a strong connection that I'm sure will have us communicating back to Brazil long after we leave.
During our first week in Brazil, we explored the theme of Women’s Health to better understand the healthcare system here. After numerous guest and faculty lectures, and visits to hospitals and NGOs, it became apparent that women’s health is something that is extremely relevant here. The C-section rate is 90%, and a culture accepting C-Sections as a first-choice method of delivery has emerged, although an effort is being made to change this perception. Abortion is illegal, and domestic violence rates are high. Still, Brazil is very progressive policy-wise, providing incentives for companies to allow women six months of leave instead of the required four and also helping victims of domestic violence seek punishment for abusers with the Maria da Penha Law. Breastfeeding is also widely encouraged, and many offices provide rooms and fridges specifically for women to express and store milk.
We were also introduced to an amazing panel of women who shared with us their individual experiences with childbirth and the healthcare system here. Each woman had a unique story and demonstrated that sometimes no matter how much you plan for something, it may not always go as planned. Overall, the Women's Health learning cycle was extremely informative and gave us perspective on how different healthcare can be worldwide.
Our second week here we looked at the issue of HIV/AIDS in Brazil. We had a guest speaker give us a crash course on the history of the epidemic in Brazil. Just shortly after adopting a Unified Health System (SUS) in the late 1980's (in which every citizen could choose between private or free public healthcare), Brazil implemented a free comprehensive prevention and treatment program for HIV/AIDS. Free screening access, diagnosis, treatment, medication, social support and mass media campaigns for prevention were all parts of the effort to eliminate HIV/AIDS in Brazil. We were all amazed to learn that even though Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world, the free distribution of condoms is a federal mandate. Though there is still some controversy surrounding the issue of free condom distribution, the early government response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic truly reflects Brazil's belief that health is a fundamental human right. On our site visits to different NGOs (which included a reference center for the LGBTQ community, a house for children living with HIV/AIDS, and a support group for struggling parents of queer youth), we tried to find out more about how HIV/AIDS affected these vulnerable populations. However, much to our surprise, it turns out that HIV/AIDS is no longer the greatest threat to these communities. Of course, there are other unimaginable challenges, but it was exciting to see the success of Brazil's health system in action. I think we all walked away a bit more inspired and hopeful that, regardless of political beliefs, it is possible to put human health as a right above all. "Perhaps", we thought, "if Brazil can do it, the USA can do it too."
While we all have been working very hard and have learned a lot in Brazil, we also had a lot of fun outside of the classroom. We attended a Carnaval rehearsal for a group called Vai Vai that landed us on national television! We also went to a Carnaval event called the Sambodromo, which is a parade-like contest between groups of thousands of people with elaborate costumes and giant floats. During our rural visit, we participated in a Capoeira class. Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art disguised as dance. Some other highlights include the Santos futbol (soccer) game, a graffiti tour of São Paulo, and shopping at the various neighborhood markets for delicious fruits and amazing art.
On the 19th, our group left São Paulo for the week to visit a rural community called Barro do Turvo. For the first two nights we were away, we stayed at an agro-forestry coop run by a man named Pedro. Agro-forestry is an interesting technique where many different kinds of crops are planted alongside different kinds of trees and shrubs. The coop was extremely eco-friendly and presented to us a new way of living in harmony with the environment. What struck us the most was the concept of perceptions of poverty. The place we were staying is considered to be one of the poorest regions in the area; however, the people we encountered didn't consider themselves to be poor in so many ways. How do you define wealth? As we were standing on a hill near Pedro's coop looking out over the lush and incredibly beautiful landscape, he said to us, "How can a man be poor when he lives in a place like this?" It was a great experience to be able to stay there. We learned so much from the people there and how they live their daily lives, and it was a welcome break from the chaos of the city.
During our rural visit, we visited the Quilombo community, Ribeirão Grande e Terra Seca, and learned what it meant. A Quilombo is a safe gathering originally inhabited only by escaped slaves, and now their descendants. The community was very welcoming by treating us with coffee and snacks. The children played soccer with some of us. This day was especially fascinating because we got to learn about what traditional medicines the community was using as we hiked up a mountain and saw the actual plants and nature used for treatments. On the same mountain, we each planted heart of palm saplings. Getting our hands dirty and making a lifelong impact on the community was fulfilling. We can’t wait to return sometime in the future and enjoy the delicious heart of palm!
We arrived back to Sao Paulo after an amazing time in Barra do Turvo. We all felt enriched by our time there and met some people who definitely challenged our way of thinking. We were both sad and excited to return to the city, but more so we were excited to relax for the weekend. Many of us enjoyed the welcoming shores of Brazilian beaches, some went hiking, and others enjoyed activities with their homestay families.
This week we began the biotechnology learning cycle. We were able to visit the Butantan Institute, which has been the leading biotechnology research facility in São Paulo. It was founded by Vital Brasil in the early 20th century with help and support from the government. The intent of the Institute was to research the many venomous and poisonous snakes and spiders that inhabit Brazil. The Institute successfully produced anti-venom for all known species that inhabit Brazil, and continues to do research, not only in the field of serums, but also as a partner to many research organizations on a wide range of topics. For example, they are currently partnered with an organization that is studying ovarian cancer. We were all excited to walk through the Institute's "zoo" that displayed a sampling of the species of snakes, lizards, spiders, frogs, and fish that are studied there.
The rest of the week passed too quickly, in a whirlwind of completing end-of-country assignments and trying to absorb as much of Brazil as possible. The end of the week came and we had a potluck with our host families. We were all able to enjoy each other's company and give thanks back to our families and enjoy delicious homemade food. Our last weekend finally arrived, bringing with it hesitation and excitement. Brazil has been an incredible time, more so than any of us expected. We have been so grateful for our time here, the people we have encountered along the way, and the lessons we have learned. All of our hearts are excited to experience Vietnam, but they are also conflicted with the sadness we will feel to leave. Vietnam will bring many new experiences, cultural norms, relationships, and lessons. We are all looking forward to making parallels and contrasts from what we have already learned to what is to come. This day is bittersweet, but there is so much more adventure out there!
Vietnam, here we come! Until next time, Brazil.
The Spring 2013 Health and Community – Track 2 group