This is my second post about Brazil, but unfortunately it is a bit of a fib to call this a dispatch from Brazil -- I’ve been back in Canada for just over a month, and have begun working on my new master’s degree at the University of Guelph. Please don't anyone take this as a betrayal! Western is still dear to my heart, as is Brazil.
For those who were able to read my previous dispatch (link here), I promised I would write an update about the progress of the project and go into detail about the experience of working abroad as an engineering graduate.
Getting friendly with the Navy's boat.
I am glad to say that my involvement in the project went well and I consider it a success. The work is by no means finished, so Marcos Bernardes and his team will continue to monitor and evaluate the conditions of the Buranhém estuary in hopes that it will be a relatively clean source of water for the people of Porto Seguro, Arraial D’Ajuda, and the surrounding area.
In mid-August, while I was still with the research group, we hosted a team of researchers from some different corners of the country (Itajubá and São Paulo, each a fair distance from Porto Seguro). They were to bring equipment (like an acoustic doppler profiler) that would help us with an intensive field campaign in which we would collect the bulk of the data required for describing the estuary. The fact that researchers were summoned from hundreds of kilometres away is perhaps a testament to a relative scarcity of research funding available for a brand new university, but it is also a testament to problem-solving spirit. Despite the adversity of receiving less funding than was promised, the leadership of the research was able to find a way to make it work. Another obstacle we needed to overcome was when, on one of our final days of monitoring, our boat driver from the municipal government told us last-minute that he didn't want to go on the water because it was too cold outside for him (it must have been around 23 degrees Celsius that day -- but to give him credit, he withstood a rainy day with us the prior day).
One thing about Brazilian culture is that the presence of the military and the police is not normally received well, due to the combination of historical and current contexts of the relationship between the public and the government. This is a lingering effect of a military dictatorship in the later half of the 20th century. In light of this, I was surprised to see the willingness of the Porto Seguro chapter of the Brazilian Navy to be a part of our fieldwork. They not only allowed us to attach monitoring equipment to their dock, they also loaded about ten of us with an equivalent weight of recording equipment onto one of their boats. They actually took selfies with some of us while we were on the water, and weren’t shy to pose in the pictures we took while we sped upstream along the mangroves.
Possibly the least good looking members of our research team.
I’ll use this as a segway to talk about the culture I encountered in Porto Seguro and Arraial D’Ajuda, and how it informed me and influenced me as a person and as an engineering student. The most immediate and most important thing to know is that hugs and physical contact in general becomes commonplace. I will never forget the first time I met Carolina, Marcos’s wife, and I nearly jabbed her in the hip as I extended my arm for a handshake while she moved in for a hug. Another illustration of how much the people I met loved warmth and comfort: the university, despite being only two years old, already provided hammocks for use on campus. I have to confess that, even though I was given a good desk, I spent lots of time working in a particularly comfortable yellow hammock.
More important is the work ethic that I learned from Brazilians and the sense of community that is just a little different from what I was accustomed to. Every student and every professor I met had a high opinion of inclusivity and community service. I spoke with professors about their ongoing projects, and they were all oriented towards bettering the society around them, whether it was monitoring coastal health or tackling environmental law. The students took it upon themselves to make sure that if the campus environment had any obvious trace of colonialism (which is still common propaganda in Brazil’s federal institutions) it was erased. My favourite example of this is a large cloth banner adorned with the names of Indigenous tribes of Brazil, which hung over a mural that originally stated “Brazil was born here!”, a reference to the fact that Porto Seguro is where the first Portuguese settlers landed at the turn of the 16th century.
The study area with the corrective mural mentioned above.
The sense of community is so strong, so different from ours in Canada, that I found it common for students and professors to add each other on Facebook, follow each other on Instagram, and call each other by their first names or by nicknames. And I, as a foreign researcher, a gringo, was extremely warmly welcomed by every human, dog, and chicken wandering the campus grounds.
My experience in Porto Seguro serves as a motivation to contribute to my community in ways that ensure fundamental human needs are fulfilled, in order to make way for the warmth of people to come without avoidable suffering. While the people I met make a habit of saying “well, I still love my Brazil!” whenever a bureaucratic, political, or environmental problem is brought up, I can only imagine the potential of the same people without the threat of corruption of their governments or contamination of their waters.
I am still connected to the Buranhém in the sense that in my free time (if it still exists -- I have been wondering that for years), I plan to add the data from this field campaign to the existing data set and continue to practice my Portuguese by translating a paper produced from the research. But my connection with Brazil has no end in sight -- my hope is to orient my masters research project so that I can base the fieldwork in the Porto Seguro region. So, despite the fact that I am situated back in Canada, there may be a Dispatch #3 coming in the future.
Many thanks to Mitacs, Marcos Bernardes, Clare Robinson, Marg Cooper, and all others who I met on the way who helped me or are helping me along the journey.