IN THE UNITED STATES IT WOULD HAVE BEEN barbed wire, but in Brazil it was a shard fence. Glass wine bottles, drinking vessels, jars and containers had been smashed at various angles, and the biggest, sharpest, deadliest pieces had been pressed into the wet concrete at the top of the wall, so that when it dried, a glass shard fence capped the wall and kept out all intruders. Well, that was probably the theory, but even as a newcomer to Brazil, Brandon McCallister knew better.
Brandon was a young guy, after all, a young American guy. You put something like that on the top of a wall, and basically you're just challenging every young man in the city to show how macho he is, to get past it to the other side, and to taunt his friends into following him across. Of course, at some point someone would slip. A shard would rip into tender abdominal flesh. Open-eyed, the young man would flail around as the glass would further tear open his insides, his life blood streaming down the wall, his friends staring from the other side in disbelief. Pieces of glass would break off and work their way into those parts of his inner sanctuary where even the most macho guy is tender and vulnerable. If he survived at all, there would always be painful reminders.
Of course, Brandon also knew why the shards were there. Brazil had the third highest differential in the world between rich and poor. The rich were forever seeking ways to protect what had fallen to them, and the poor were forever desperate to snatch what they considered to be their share.
Brandon's attention was pulled away from the shard fence by the roar of an engine, an old engine, an obviously strained engine. He turned around and saw a lemon yellow VW bus pull up beside him. The man who emerged from the driver's side door was a balding middle-aged, dark-skinned Brazilian with an obviously energetic spirit. He thrust both arms in Brandon's direction.
"Bom dia!" the man said as he embraced Brandon and kissed him on the cheek.
"Uh…bone gee-a," he replied, attempting to replicate the greeting in Portuguese, while receiving the expression of affection as nonchalantly as he knew how.
The man pulled back and looked into Brandon's eyes. "You are Brandon McCallister, are you not?"
"Wonderful! Then I have not embarrassed myself with a complete stranger! I am Pastor Ronald Fernandes -- in English, it would be pronounced Rrronald, but in Portuguese it is pronounced Honald -- which is strange to you, I know, but what can I say? Portuguese is not English! Anyway, we have been looking forward to your coming. How has your trip been so far?"
"Fine," Brandon said, glancing over at the shard fence once again. "The family you set me up with here was a lot friendlier than their fence."
Pastor Fernandes also looked up at the intimidating splintered barrier, and grimaced. "Well, they are good people, and much better off than most of the people in my parish. They could afford to keep you for a night while we got ready for you."
The kindly man now folded his arms, looked Brandon in the eyes again and smiled. "But the question, of course, is, are you ready for us?"
The young man looked for a moment into the clergyman's eyes, but in a way that suggested his real focus was into the shadows of his own soul. Am I ready? He shrugged. "I don't know. I guess we'll see, won't we?"
The pastor just nodded his head. "Toss your things into the second seat, and climb into the front with me."
No sooner had Brandon done as had been requested of him, and shut the car door behind him, than the old VW lurched away from the curb and began careening down the winding streets of Belo Horizonte, Brazil. What little experience Brandon had with pastors had given him the impression they were basically cautious souls who always coloured within the lines. This car ride was quickly erasing that perception . Pastor Fernandes drove a car like Brandon's old college roommate drove playing the video game Smashing Drive, jumping curbs and narrowly missing parked cars as if a video score were the only variable in the balance, and it could be bettered with another set of tokens.
After the reverend sped past a sign Brandon was pretty sure said the equivalent of "stop" in Portuguese, and nose-dived into the heavy traffic of a congested boulevard, Brandon found himself slumping down in his seat and trying to focus on the buildings they passed, rather than the traffic racing along beside them. Graffiti snaked its way across every building, new and old, and Brandon smiled because at this point he understood the language of the graffiti better than the language of the signs and billboards. The figures were the same as he had encountered in downtown Portland, and the same as when he went to college in LA. Some just marked territory. Some were gangs insulting other gangs. Some were death threats.
He glanced over at the man driving, noting as he did that the reverend didn't seem nearly as concerned about his own driving as was his passenger.
"In the United States, they try to get graffiti like that off of the buildings as soon as possible," Brandon said. "They say it's the best way to discourage them from putting up more."
Ronald Fernandes shrugged. "Here the only reason for painting over such graffiti would be curiosity over what new graffiti would be there by the next day. Brazilian young people consider it part of their right of self-expression. So, the authorities have given up on that one. They are even helping fund classes in graffiti art -- I think with the hope they could at least have some influence on what kind of graffiti ends up on our buildings. Or maybe they're just all cynics, who knows? Anyway, you will see much more disturbing things than that when we reach the favela."
Pastor Fernandes quickly swerved, throwing Brandon against the door. The driver hit his horn and shouted something at another driver in Portuguese. Then he looked down at Brandon, who by now was practically on the floor.
"You are fortunate you are riding with me. Many drivers in this city are not so skilled!"
Brandon thought about that word fortunate. Of late he had not thought of himself as fortunate, even though the financial resources of his parents should have dictated he would have. They were among the more prosperous ones of one of the wealthiest nations on earth, but Brandon had come to learn that "fortunate" was not all about money. He had learned this lesson in a difficult way, but he didn't want to think about that now. Leaving personal trauma behind was part of what this trip was about. And even if he had been fortunate before, he really didn't consider himself to be so now, slumped down in an old VW bus, hoping it would not be the locale of his last breath. So it was the word fortunate that this trip was also about. He had always known in his head there were people in the world who were far worse off than he, but always before they had seemed far away and unreal. Then he had been contacted through his web page on Facebook, and all of that had begun to change.