Ideas from Abroad | Investing in Strangership

Ideas from Abroad | Investing in Strangership

Welcome back! Now that a handful of our members have returned from abroad we’d like to share with you a series called, Ideas from Abroad.
Ideas from Abroad is a collection of snippets, moments, ideas, and reflections that find a home within each one of us as we explore both the world outside Dickinson and ourselves. These “ideas” and reflections find their source in an unexpected conversation, the research we pursue, impromptu travels, and a range of experiences we take on in our personal and academic adventures.

International Studies & Sociology
São Paulo, Brasil
Spring 2012

Missing Brazil

By G. Tiarachristie
Some of the biggest things I miss from my time studying abroad in Brazil are conversations with my porteiros, or as most people acknowledged them, the guys that open and close the front gate of the apartment.
These free-spirited conversations with strangers on the street are very “brazilian”. Besides the daily Bon Dia’s and Tudo Bem’s, and the awkward indirect reminders that I still didn’t have the right to claim fluency to the Portuguese language, my porteiros welcomed me into their lives through conversation. To this day, I remember clearly their grins and wrinkles as they described to me the ball of laughter from tickle-wrestling with their kids, the joy of watching old pai try to remember the names of his 40 grandkids, or the sweet smell of mangoes, papayas, and guava wafting through the windows on summer nights in the Northeast (from where many of the blue collar workers in São Paulo had migrated).
From their friendliness, intimacy, sense of simplicity and happiness, I always seemed to learn life’s most humanizing lessons.
São Paulo, Brazil, is the largest city in South America: eleven million people eating, breathing, thinking, exchanging ideas, and bustling around a collective space. But it was the contrasts between the passing of hundreds of colorful figures on the streets, and these intimate conversations through the windowpane of the guard’s box that made me realize: of the millions of people in this city, each individual has a Story.
Amid the street judgment of worth or invisibility with which we label them, each one is a daughter, a grandchild, a best friend, maybe sibling, and/or mother. Each one has insecurities, problems in the family, bad days, and good nights. And each one has an experience from life to share, an important voice to be heard, and an opportunity to affect our lives. With this in mind, I ended up with dozens of really interesting, often times obscure, yet humbling experiences.
At Dickinson, I’m usually spotted running around checking to-do-list boxes, putting the lives of dozens of students in danger as I speed-bike the awkward narrow ramp to D-walk from Britton plaza, with little mental space to think about chatting with passer-byers. But maybe ultimately, that’s what Brasil taught me—to live life at a slower, more reflective pace, and take time to converse with those you normally don’t.

In the Burgh

Yesterday, I took a bus to Pittsburgh to visit my mom. And in a half-asleep mode wonking onto the 61B to get to my house from the bus station and struggling to slip my quarters into the machine, I asked the bus driver “Hiii, how are you today?”
And after a friendly “fine thank you and you–good thanks!” exchange, I reached a fork in my journey and thought, I could continue dragging my suitcase towards an empty seat in the middle of the bus, or apply a bit of the Brazilian culture that I was missing so much: street conversation.
“Man! It’s good to be back in the Burgh. I just got back from Brazil for 6 months… What’d I miss??” I said. Guess I had chosen the latter.
So it began. I listened and asked questions. From talking about the weekend and the heat wave,we talked about the recent massive transportation cuts. And I learned that she was one of the drivers laid off and rehired. I learned that the was union making decisions about their wages and benefits without including the drivers in the conversation. I learned that the new routes and hours tug and pull on low-income families and senior citizens, and how the actual users of public transportation lack a represented voice in the decision-making. In between sentences, she had to stop and check her schedule and watch to make sure that she arrived at every stop not too early and not too late.
As she multitasked the operation of the big machine, her speech of the transportation system, and her watch, she paused to friendly greet each individual passenger. I was admiring it all; to think that drivers are seen as invisible, uneducated, or deserving only minimum wage. Drivers aren’t just drivers; they are guides, judges, advisors, care-takers… They have to watch the road, five mirrors, the time, the traffic, the pedestrians and other cars, the money machine, and let alone all the distractions behind them. It’s more complicated than we imagine in the mechanized mindset in which we live.
She proceeded: “But you know, I’m lucky. I had a driver that trained me that asked me:
‘Who is the most important person in your life right now?’
“…And I answered ‘God number one, then my kids, my mom?’.
“But he asked again ‘No no, no, who is the most important person in your life?’
“I was so confused, so I tried, ‘Um… I don’t know, my myself?’
“And he said again, ‘No no, think about it, Who is driving this bus right now?…’
“‘… … You…?’
“‘And who is the most important person in your life?…’
“‘At any moment, I can crash this bus into those cars. I could go drive all 51 of these passengers, these kids getting to school, seniors getting to the grocery store, that are sitting behind us, off a cliff. So who’s the most important person in your life? Don’t you let anyone tell you that you are not important’.”And even in her empowering speech for driver’s rights, she brought up: “But it’s not just about us. It’s the passengers too! It’s you guys too! The fare keeps getting higher and higher… And yeah there are those youngins that like to sneak the bus-pass between each other or have photocopies. But really, just be honest with me if you can’t pay! Just be honest, I’ll let you pass.”
Just as we both realized the extent that we were enjoying each other’s company, I had to break the news that my stop was the next: around the corner in front of the bridal shop.
“Oh I love driving by here, this is one of my favorite stops,” she shared, “I have two daughters, they’re twenty one and twenty two, but I’ve never been married! Looking through those big windows with the really pretty brides’ dresses makes me happy and dream that maybe, one day.”
I thanked her for such a wonderful conversation, and we shared names.
“Elbone. Nice to meet you.”
We shook hands and exchanged a final smile… As I stepped off the bus, I looked back and turned to her and said, “Thank you… for being the most important person in my life…”

Turning Right at the Fork

I didn’t want this to be just another “drivers-are-people-too” piece about the invisible hands in society. I wanted this story to give an example of the beauty and power of conversation, exploring, being curious, listening, building these street friendships: investing in “Stranger-ship”… Because these experiences with strangers that walk into your day, knowing that you may or may never meet again, enable us to share, grow, expand our understanding of reality, breed new ideas and tools, and remind us of our human collectivity–these are what really sustain us.
To think I almost turned left to sit in silence on that bus…
When we see everyone as deserving of our time and ears, our days suddenly become much more significant. So when you find yourself at that fork, challenge yourself, live life more slowly, let go of your fear of vulnerability, and be a little more brazilian. 😉
You’ll be surprised.
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