My First Ninety Days: Cynthia Dickens in Brazil

Dickens spring 2016In some ways, it’s hard for me to remember everything that felt new and that challenged us in our first months here; because so much of it has become commonplace now. But there are a few things that stick out in my memory.

We arrived in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, Brazil (specifically, the city of Caruaru), after a trip totaling about 30 hours. And doing such a trip with a 4 yr. old, a 2 yr. old, and a 6 month old- well, tired didn’t begin to cover what we felt! Thankfully, the missionary with whom we planned to work allowed us to stay in his home for a few days before we moved to a mostly-furnished apartment owned by someone in his church.

We were introduced early-on to the most prolific and “friendly” beast in Brazil. As we dropped, exhausted, into our beds that first night, I took care to cover as much of myself as possible, using both the sheet (pulled up to just about my nose) and a towel that I draped around my head and neck, leaving only my eyes and the top part of my cheeks exposed. We had, also, turned on the fan provided for us, in a bid to keep away as many flying critters as possible, while we slept. In the morning, I awoke to find that those friendly mosquitos had braved the fan to dot the only exposed skin they could find with “kisses.” The 30 or so small red welts made it look like I had the beginnings of chicken pox, but only on the tops of my cheeks! LOL! We laughed and said that even the mosquitos were welcoming us to Brazil!

In our first 7-10 days, I and the other missionary’s wife ran from shop to shop in the city’s downtown area, trying to find basic necessities for our family – dishes, linens, appliances, etc. I was thankful (and at the same time very challenged by the fact) that she is Brazilian. She spoke very little English (yet, still, significantly more English than my own few words of Portuguese – hence, the challenging part); but she was a pro at navigating the stores and bargaining for things. I was, in many senses, already “lost” in the city we then called home but would have been even more so without her.

As we settled into life in a developing country, we dealt with some standard sicknesses that come from getting used to both water and food in a completely different environment. Thankfully, there were no serious complications, and we were given an early introduction to the appropriate medicines, here in Brazil, for settling an uncooperative digestive system.

One of our first major purchases was a washing machine. With a family of five (at that time), we felt the investment to be worthwhile! Once purchased, it resided in a little cubby hole just off of our downstairs garage/car port. Clotheslines were strung throughout the car port, making it hard, once we got a car, to park the car there on laundry day(s). LOL!

I remember being down there working on hanging clothes one afternoon, when I heard some kind of large vehicle on the other side of our wall. It seemed to pause in its progress down the road, and suddenly smoke began to rise in (what seemed to me) menacing billows above the wall and garage door. The only thought that crossed my mind (although I knew it was irrational even at the time) was, “Why would they want to poison us with some kind of gas?” In instinct-only mode, I abandoned the clothes I’d been working with and dashed up the outdoor stairs, in a veritable panic, toward our apartment. With no air conditioning to speak of, most windows in this part of Brazil stay open as much as possible. So once I gained the apartment door and flung it shut behind me, I rushed through the small rooms, slamming and locking each window, before I allowed myself to peer through the only one with glass that looked out on the road … and the gas from which I’d just (I hoped) narrowly escaped. Imagine my chagrin to find that the billowing smoke from which I ran should have caused more panic for the mosquitos! And those city workers who were busily doing routine mosquito fumigation had no idea that they’d caused an inexperienced American missionary’s heart to beat nearly out of her chest!

About 10 days after we got to Brazil, the only English-speaking person we knew (the missionary with whom we’d come to work) made a short trip back to the US. On our first Sunday “alone” in the country, our 2 and 4 year old boys were chasing each other through the house (despite consistent admonitions to not run), while Joel and I worked on getting ready for church. Unfortunately, their squeals of play were, in a moment’s time, transformed to screams of distress, as the 2 year old (who was being pursued) ran headlong into the corner of a concrete wall.

And when a concrete wall meets a 2 year old’s forehead, no matter how hard-headed the two year old is, you can rest assured that is it NOT the concrete wall that will bear the brunt of the damage. The blood running down our 2 year old’s face indicated that this was not something a mere band-aid and ice pack could fix. So we ran to the porch of our second floor apartment and shouted one of the few words we knew in Portuguese – “HELP!” – thereby managing to summon our landlords (who lived below and beside us and were getting ready for church as well). The evening progressed with our landlord misunderstanding us and driving at high speeds across town to the only hospital we had been told NOT to visit in an emergency. Upon finally grasping (in absolute amazement and bewilderment) that we were not taking our son into that hospital, he turned the car around and, once again, drove pell-mell back to the hospital that we could see from the front door of our apartment! There’s nothing to do now but to laugh about it all, but at the time we were far less amused. All the while this was happening, I bounced around in the back seat of the car, trying to hold the gash on my son’s forehead closed while attempting to not look at it. (I’m not good with blood – I would make a horrible nurse!) Eventually, our son was stitched up, and there even turned out to be someone who spoke reasonably good English at the hospital. We still have a post-hospital picture of Aydan with his head bandaged and an incorrigible grin on his face while he clutches a pack of Smarties that we’d brought from the US. And, yeah, he still bears the scar from that evening’s activities.

I won’t tell the story of one of my husband’s first shopping trips with our landlord and a young man who purportedly “spoke English.” Maybe he’ll share it, though. All I’ll say is … I’m just glad I actually ended up with something comfortable to sleep on that night! LOL!

After our fellow-missionary got back from his brief trip to the States, we began language school. Three times a week, we and our kids traipsed across our neighborhood to his house, where his wife and two other ladies from his church taught us the basics of Portuguese. Most of the time we walked there and back. (That, coupled with a much healthier diet, allowed me to lose 40 pounds total in our first couple of years on the field. Joel also lost quite a bit.) We enjoyed our language classes. Most days that we met, we had one hour of grammar, one hour of conversation, and one hour of reading. And on days when we didn’t have lessons, we supplemented with Pimsleur Portuguese lessons on CD and a computer program designed to help us learn the language.

The real challenge came, of course, in everyday interactions – at the corner bread store, in the fruit market, at church services and ladies’ or men’s meetings, etc. There is no professionally designed language course that can prepare you for the different ways that people speak their own language. You know how there are different accents in different parts of the US? It’s no different here in Brazil. You know how we cut off our words in English sometimes? “J’eat’yet?” Yup, Brazilians do that with different words, too. And I’m sure it’s much the same anywhere in the world. Unique accents and regional pronunciations and/or definitions may make you think that you’re listening to a completely different language than the one you’ve been learning. And even when you finally manage to understand what they’re saying, be prepared for native speakers to continue to look at you in confusion (when it sounds, to your ears, like you’ve imitated their pronunciation perfectly)! LOL! Eleven years into this journey, and we still get strange looks from our Brazilian friends regarding some of the things that come out of our mouths.

Before our first three months in Brazil were up, we found that God had blessed us with another child on the way. As I am a type 1 diabetic (AKA insulin-dependent diabetic or juvenile diabetic), we never intended to have a child in Brazil and even considered the possibility of me going back to the US for her birth. But before our first year was out, our Abigail was born and blessed with dual citizenship. We had no idea, at the time, that this would greatly facilitate the process of renewing our visas. Because of her birth, we were all eligible for permanent visas, renewable every 10 years, instead of the religious visas that we had to renew annually.

I’ve rambled here, I think, but the main thing that I’m reminded of, as I think back, is that God’s hand was in every situation and circumstance that we faced. Actually, it’s almost unfair to say it that way. Yes, His hand was in it. But it was much more than that. And I can say this in the present tense, because it’s something that I’m learning (having to remind myself of) to this very day. There is not a difficulty that I face – not a joy that I experience, no daily chore – no freak occurrence, no crisis of health I suffer – no jewel of blessing I receive that my Lord has not orchestrated precisely for me. Without a doubt He will do and is doing the same for you. I am praying for you!

Cynthia Dickens

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