This night was different.
Amid the open sewers, mounds of rubbish, relentless heat, roaming chickens and mangey dogs, we were welcomed in.
“Amiga! How are you?”
“I’m good, considering what happened last night…did you hear?”
“No, what happened?”
“Two guys on a motorcycle went door-to-door, robbing houses.”
I looked around the lean-to shack that we sat inside, with water that poured in when it rained. Houses?! That’s a bit of a stretch. What on earth could there be to steal from people this desperately poor?
“Were you scared?”
“Yeah. But more for my brother.”
I understood little of where mum or dad were, only that this 15-year old girl was responsible for her seven year old brother, and that she was telling the story as casually as if it were about a flat tire.
That afternoon we visited families and played with kids, but mostly what we did was listen to peoples’ stories.
Amid the filth of this bustling favela, I couldn’t help but notice the immaculately kept nails of every woman we spoke to and I was reminded that in this country, to be Brazilian is to maintain beautifully manicured fingers and toes. I could never make it as an authentic Brazilian.
We headed out for street church as the heat of the day receded and darkness settled over the city, and I observed the streets coming alive.
Kids and families were out along the beach front like it was a sunny Saturday morning, but as we drove past them and headed deeper into the city, the local families seemed to congregate less, and the roaming street dogs noticeably more.
We pulled up to a dirty water fountain surrounded mostly by street kids, the homeless and transvestites. On stepping out of the van my eyes were drawn towards an extremely skinny, Brazilian transvestite dressed in skimpy shorts and a singlet. An empty Coke bottle half filled with yellow resin hung limply from her mouth as she stood up, swayed, and sat back down again. The filth from her bare feet reached half way up her stick-like legs and she turned her head towards me.
Were it not for the glue, we might have made eye contact but instead her eyes roamed aimlessly around the street. As we walked towards the mish-mash group of homeless kids and adults surrounding the fountain, she kept her head fixed in my direction; the lights might have been on, but there was clearly no one home.
We laid a large, red sheet down on the concrete and pulled out a series of nail polishes, paper, crayons and toys. The guys we were with unpacked their guitar and we sat around the fountain, playing music and hanging out. In many other countries this might have seemed like a normal street scene, except of course, for the abject poverty.
Most of the people seemed familiar with the Shores of Grace team and within minutes I was surrounded by a group of boys, repurposed Coke bottles permanently attached to their mouths, all showing sheepish interest in our collection of nail polishes.
“Aunty, pass that one to me, I just want to look at it.”
“Aunty, I want a boys’ colour, I want blue.”
“Aunty, give me your hand, I’m going to paint your nails.”
Okay. Time to enter their world. I pushed aside my thoughts of the filthy street with its’ occasional wafts of raw sewage, scanned the ground for used needles and sat down.
My hand was picked up by a good-looking Brazilian kid that seemed about eleven, and in bad need of a bath. Before he could open his blue nail polish, he was shooed away by the skinny transvestite. One of the Shores staff recognised her.
“Andresa! What colour would you like tonight?” Andresa inhaled from her glue bottle and stared hauntingly at the Shores staff member. She swiped aimlessly at the nail polish held by the eleven year old and presented it to me.
The Shores staff member secretly handed me a bottle of nail polish remover and whispered, “keep this in your pocket”. Seemed a weird thing to be secretive about to me, but I didn’t ask questions.
Andresa presented a grimey hand, and my surf instructors words sprang to mind, “No one likes hesitation. Just commit, or you’ll miss the wave.” Okay. For tonight, this is my wave.
I held Andresa’s hand in mine like she was my six year old niece, and started to remove last weeks’ nail polish. The staff member I was with reminded me to avoid the large, weeping blister on one of Andresa’s fingers so I carefully worked around it. Hmm, life moments you don’t imagine for yourself…
After I had worked my way through each fingernail, Andresa inspected her hands and sighed. As she lifted her nails to her nostril and inhaled, I realised why the nail polish remover had to be kept hidden.
Andresa switched from inhaling her newly polished fingernails, to more glue, lay down on the street, closed her eyes and lifted a dirty foot towards my lap.
I thought of the story of the holocaust survivors who, on being rescued from concentration camps, had chosen lipstick over bread, because that was what helped them to feel human again. I looked at Andresa and wondered how human she felt. If this helps you lady, then for tonight, this is my wave.
I worked methodically through each of Andresa’s toes, my hands becoming more sticky with each one. As I finished up the polishing I wanted my hand-gel. I wanted a shower. I wanted to not be a midwife who was aware of how many communicable diseases I had just exposed myself to.
I looked at Andresa, laid out on the street with her eyes rolling into the back of her head, and got the impression the only thing Andresa wanted was to not exist at all.
What if I had been born into a favela? What did I do to deserve a priveleged life in a first world country?
As I put away Andresa’s nail polish the young boys and their glue bottles crowded in for their turn, still making excuses, “I’m not going to wear any, I just want to see yours…” Andresa sat up, consciousness returning, and swiped them aside. Making eye contact with me for the first time, which seemed to be taking considerable effort, she managed her only word for the night, before wandering off to who-knows-where.
“Obrigada” (thank you).
I held her hand in both of mine and wanted desperately to reassure her that no one deserves this kind of life, that she is human, that she deserves love and care like any other person on this planet. But all of that escaped me.
I clenched her hand in mine and returned her eye contact, “Of course. You are welcome.”
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