Baixo Petroleo (Below The Oil), Salvador

Exactly one week ago, I was the first of the Brazil fellows to be placed. I´ve been living in Baixo Petroleo, in this vast aggregation of slanted houses with walls of cloth or wood or concrete that look like the tottering results of unsupervised Lego use. Home is a community built on a meter-thick concrete foundation that covers up 40 years of garbage dumping on top of land that was previously underwater and an explosive oil drilling failure. It´s a neighborhood of 50,000 people and the one and only government employee I´ve seen within neighborhood boundaries sits on a metal stool on that old drilling site and makes sure nobody tries to dig. No public health clinics, no post offices, no government run schools.

I´ve been trying to stay silent, to keep my head full of judgments and my American perspective to myself and reflect before I write but I´m bursting.

I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of our world in my lifetime, but after a lonely week of trying my best to fit in here I would say I’ve never quite been present in a foreign country. I’m here without that relief of return I´ve always had in the back of my mind to lean on in tough times, without that comfort of thinking that soon I´ll be back where everything is as I expect it to be. In Massaranduba I’m completely mentally here whether I like it or not. With 6 months ahead, a large part of me has forgotten that I’m coming home–I’m lost in cultural translation and finding myself seems way too far off to contemplate.

Being lost in translation, I can understand a lot more than I can say, and listening for now is a good thing. I would have liked being able to speak fluent Portuguese yesterday when my father told me 9/11 was orchestrated by the American government or when my grandmother told me she would show me the truth of Jesus and I would eventually apologize for my current lack of faith. But without language I just watched silently today as a friend named Gordo stood outside the gate to our home, paint covered hands resting on the rusted metal edges as he conversed through the bars with my father and rattled off all the great things about the neighborhood–he smiled as he listed the people, the food and the energy here.

I ran into Gordo later on my way home from work and he stopped me, looked up and down the street and then straight into my eyes. For the first time I saw him without a smile, and he asked me if I would take him with me back to New York. I understood, but I just didn´t know what to say–he waited. We stood in the street, and he broke that bond between our eyes, looked to the ground, and came back up with that same smile I had gotten so used to. He gave me a hefty pat on the shoulders and walked away. I know so little about the mystery of where I am, so little about where I’ve stuck myself and who is stuck here with me.