It’s early in the morning and I am enjoying the way my medium roast coffee with milk tastes like home. Dawn is just starting to break across my front window. In the States, the days are getting longer as we press toward spring.
Earlier this week I was in Brazil, working and learning with teachers and students, seeing old friends, and starting my days with strong coffee and sweet pineapple. There, people told me they were looking forward to more fall breezes.
I have so many stories to share from this trip. This first one begins with an Uber ride and ends with a 6-year-old comedian.
An Uber Driver with 13 Siblings
Our Uber ride has arrived and the four of us pile in.
“Boa noite. Qual é o seu nome?” (Good evening. What is your name?)
“Boa noite. Sou a Kathryn.” (Good evening. I’m Kathryn.)
I look at the uber app on my phone to find the driver’s name. “Marcelo, sim?” (You are Marcelo, yes?)
“Sim. Você fala português?” (Yes. Do you speak Portuguese?)
“Estou aprendendo.” (I am learning.)
The drive is 15-minutes long. During that time Marcelo tells us his life story. We learn about his 13 brothers and sisters. We see photos of his lovely wife and daughter. He is very proud. We learn about the upcoming trip he is taking to visit a brother in Japan.
We learn these things in little bits, told with enough patience and pauses for me to translate them to my colleagues.
As we make our way, through the busy São Paulo streets, Marcelo asks us about our faith, our work, and how often we’ve been to Brazil. I translate the answers back to him.
The car feels like it’s moving at a slower, easier pace than the Saturday night blur and bustle outside. When we arrive at our destination, Marcelo says, “Eu vou desligar o carro. Eu quero dar um abraço em cada um de vocês. Obrigado por ouvir a minha história.” (I am going to turn off the car. I want to give you each a hug. Thank you for listening to my story.)
We embrace, all of us changed from this spontaneous connection.
What gives certain places weight in your heart?
On Sundays, Avenida Paulista is closed for traffic, which opens up a huge stretch in the middle of the city for artisans, musicians, and walkers. I’ve had the gift of so many Sundays on Avenida Paulista that I now know some of the artisans. I smile at the potter whose coffee cups have the most glorious glazes. I stop and buy more paper earrings from the young woman who has a fondness for wild designs and also a finicky credit card machine.
I think about a line from a poem I wrote last year:
When did this city evolve from being somewhere I visit,
to somewhere I return to?
What gives certain places weight in your heart?
After a rainy week, the sun is shining today. We weave through the crowds to an ice cream stand owned by a young woman. I buy us scoops of ice cream and ask the young woman if she will take our picture.
“Claro!” (Of course!)
We group together and smile at her. She laughs and comes out from the stand to take the photo from the other direction.
“Se você quiser tirar uma foto, deve ser com meu carrinho de sorvete.” (If you want to take a picture, it should be with my ice cream stand.)
The young woman beams as we pose in front of her stand. Sweet, sticky strawberry ice cream runs down my fingers.
She couldn’t have imagined this, but there she was
My friend is zooming through the streets at dusk to get us to the highest point in the city before sunset. She wants to show us the view.
“The lights on the buildings look like beads on a necklace.”
As we drive, she tells us about her mother who is recovering from emergency surgery.
“It can happen so suddenly,” my friend says. “One moment, you’re fine and the next you’re not.”
We nod. We’ve all experienced this with people we love. For a moment, her words blur and I am no longer in the car. I am with my grandma in another state, in another country, across the ocean.
Something pulls me back into the conversation. My friend is telling us about the under-resourced hospital and how she fed the strangers who roomed near her mother.
“They didn’t have anyone,” she tells us sadly.
She said she couldn’t have imagined this, but suddenly there she was cutting up meat, adjusting bed pillows, and bringing in extra linens for people she had just met.
We arrive at the overlook just as the light is starting to change. We take photos and watch the sun dip into the sea. The lights shine across the shore exactly like beads on a necklace.
Their secret handshake starts with a high five
The students will arrive in a moment. For now we are organizing crayons, preparing ourselves for the chaos and excitement of twenty-three 6-year-olds.
The first child to enter walks right up to me. In a few moments, we will learn that she is both the class leader and class comedian. For now, though, we are just meeting for the first time.
I lower myself to her eye level.
“Você fala português?” (Do you speak Portuguese?)
“Estou aprendendo, assim como você está aprendendo inglês.” (I am learning, just like you are learning English.)
She looks at me seriously and to make sure I am telling the truth, she quizzes me. “Um dois três…” (One, two, three…)
When I answer, “quatro cinco seis!” (four, five, six!) she giggles and gives me a hug.
Now that we’re such good friends, she teaches me their class’s secret handshake, which starts with a high five and ends with a fist bump.
In each of these moments, what gave us the grace and good sense to hold space for connection? Maybe it has something to do with being so far from home and feeling a little bit lost ourselves. Then again, it bears mentioning that sometimes even at home we still feel a little bit lost and searching for connection.
Regardless of where you go, almost everyone you meet warms when they show you photos of their families. Small business owners are always proud to showcase their work. When someone is sick they need our prayers and when someone is lonely they want to be seen and heard. These things transcend place.
What if these simple sparks of human connection are what tethers us to each other?
This may be my most important lesson from last week.
The more I travel, the more I’ve learned that it isn’t the unfamiliar landmarks that give us direction, but the familiar spaces we share.
With you for the journey,