After weeks of anticipation, long plane rides, warm weather, over 1800 pictures, and time spent with amazing sisters and beautiful children of all ages, spring break in Brazil is one experience that I will never forget. Please enjoy this breakdown of my trip and how it helped me grow spiritually and learn how much more meaningful life is when God is involved.
Day 1: (Friday)
A small group of students, along with Fr. Killian and Fr. Jean-Luc, left campus on Friday, Feb. 28, to spend spring break in Brazil for a mission trip that was coordinated by campus ministry. We rode in vans to the Pittsburgh airport and waited eagerly as we received our boarding passes, checked our bags and walked through security. In the main area of the airport, we all ate lunch and waited to board the plane. We received news that our flight would be delayed for a few minutes because they were checking the brakes on the plane. We weren’t really worried at this point, because we had a layover in New York, where our connecting flight would take us to Brazil.
Finally, we heard the signal to board the plane and walked to our seats. The door closed, instructions were given and after buckling up, we were ready to go but...not so fast! After waiting longer than normal in our fastened seats, an unexpected announcement was made. The pilot exceeded his limit of hours for the day and we had to de-board the plane. One thought went through all of our heads: “Are you kidding me?” We were forced to wait longer in the airport by our gate until we could figure out other arrangements. We all sprawled out on the middle of the walkway while we waited in line. We were hoping for the best but the delay set us back too far and we ended up having to stay at the Sheraton hotel in Pittsburgh overnight and fly to Atlanta the next day. This was not the best of news, but we all tried to remain positive and while in the shuttle on the way to the hotel, the song “I Will Survive” played on the radio. We all laughed and appreciated an enjoyable meal and a good night’s rest in the comfortable beds of our own hotel rooms.
It all ended up working out, especially because we had a student who appreciated the extra night to overcome an illness and another student who was a day behind us because of Visa issues. We got to know each other better and geared up for our second attempt at leaving the Pittsburgh airport. Today I learned the importance of patience and trusting God’s will by knowing that everything happens for a reason.
Day 2: (Saturday)
Today, we woke up and had breakfast at the hotel then left the Pittsburgh airport for Atlanta. It was a pretty short flight and at the Atlanta airport, I had a cup of Starbucks coffee and a Nathan’s hotdog for the first time. Then, the group boarded the plane for the long trip to Brazil. This was the first time I ever had a meal on an airplane, and let’s just say I would be happy if I didn’t have to eat that kind of food again for a while. I sat beside a complete stranger who only spoke Portuguese and it was hard to find a comfortable position to sleep. Luckily, the invention of television screens made the time go by a little bit faster. I also didn’t realize that my seat reclined until we had about an hour left of the flight so I couldn’t wait to land. The traveling wasn’t as bad as I expected but I was glad to finally be in Brazil. Today I learned that the journey isn’t always easy but there’s always a destination to look forward to.
Day 3: (Sunday)
It is now early morning and we finally made it to Sao Paulo, Brazil. This begins the feelings of anxiety while everyone around us spoke a different language. The air was warm and the sun was out. I definitely was not missing the snow at home. We were received by two monks, Br. João Marcos and Br. Alexandre, and rode a bus to the place where we would be staying for the week. The hour long ride was breathtaking. We rode by beautiful scenery which included palm trees, a bright blue sky, tall buildings, colorful houses, and interesting graffiti everywhere. After arriving at our destination, a gate opened and we were welcomed at the convent of the Sisters of Christ. I could not believe how calm and peaceful it was. The girls and I made our way down to our sleeping area, which was one room with beds lined against the wall and 2 bathrooms. There was a door that led outside with a view of the scenery and it was just so incredible to be in another country and soak up an entirely different atmosphere. Mass was celebrated in the chapel and then we had our first meal in Brazil that was prepared by the sisters. I had rice with chicken and a mango and some really delicious fruit juice. There were also baked beans, but I decided to skip those.
Then, we all relaxed on the porch for a bit and were introduced to Samuel, a young man who would be translating for us for most of the week. After resting for a bit, we took a bus to Veneto and visited the Sao Bento Monastery that is connected to Saint Vincent. We had an opportunity to see parrots and monkeys that live on the grounds. Then, we walked a short distance to a replica of the Christ the Redeemer stature and took our picture. We had an amazing view of the city and visited a small museum that was attached. We then headed back to the monastery, and the altar in the church was designed just like the one in the Saint Vincent basilica. We sat while the monks said vespers and even though we couldn’t understand them, it was still really beautiful to see and listen to what they were saying and see how similar the process is. We ate pizza for dinner with the monks and then headed back to the convent where we were staying and played Taboo, which pretty much became the game of the week.
When I went back to the room, I found an unexpected surprise. There was a cockroach in my shower bag that I left open on the bed! I may have given a little shriek, but I was able to dump it outside. Luckily, this was the first of only a few creatures that showed up unexpectedly throughout the week. We were all settled in and ready to begin a new day. Today it was incredible to embrace the beautiful landscapes in a different country, experience a different culture, and visit the monks who openly welcomed us into their home.
Day 4 (Monday):
We woke up early and had our first breakfast in Brazil, which consisted of bread, lunch meat, fruit, and really good tasting coffee. Our group split up to help the sisters with odd jobs throughout the morning. We would have normally spent time with the kids at the schools, but the schools were closed on Monday and Tuesday because of the Carnival of Brazil taking place. Two of the girls and I helped the sisters sort clothes into different piles to be used in a second hand store that they have for needy families. For lunch, I had rice with chicken and gravy and tried papaya and a chili pepper for the first time. I am a pretty picky eater but I tried to step outside of my comfort zone a little bit and luckily, most of the food was more than satisfying.
After lunch, I helped to sort some books in the library with a sister who didn’t speak any English, so it was interesting trying to figure out what the books said while trying to understand where to put them. Then, I sat down and helped to sort receipts that that sisters have to organize each day. These small tasks seemed somewhat tedious, but it was rewarding to help the sisters in even the smallest of ways and become part of their everyday routine while feeling like a part of their community. We said vespers together as a group and had mass and a little reflection about our day.
After eating dinner and trying a soda from Brazil that was similar to ginger ale, we all walked a short distance to the mall to find a money exchange. There was a band playing music inside and a tree that spread through an opening right in the middle of the mall. We got ice cream and it was some of the best vanilla ice cream I have ever had. Samuel’s cousin and his wife came with us and they were so friendly and nice to talk to. On the way back, we stopped at a supermarket where I bought a shirt and some coffee and candy to take home. I was also excited when I found German chocolate eggs with a toy inside that I used receive when I was a child. It was so nice to walk outside in shorts and enjoy the beautiful weather.
That night while getting ready to shower, a little lizard came out of nowhere and scared me. I’m not sure why I was being targeted by all of the little creatures but I screamed really loud and one of girls captured it and took it outside for me. I was ready for another day. Today I learned the significance of helping with the smallest of tasks and witnessed true hospitality.
Day 5 (Tuesday):
Today after breakfast and Morning Prayer, the group traveled to Mae Magnificat, which is a home for the homeless and abandoned elderly that was started by a 24-year-old man named Amarillo, who is now just 31 years old. We had an opportunity to listen to his beautiful testimony and how he started his journey by attending to homeless people in the streets by cutting their nails and hair. With a call from God, Amarillo accepted the task of taking in the sick and elderly on the streets and even had to beg in their place. He said that most of his inspiration came from the Gospel in Matthew 25 where Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” It was so humbling to see a young man trusting in God enough to give up his personal plans in life and accept the challenge to help others.
We had some time to visit with the residents and even though we couldn’t really speak to them clearly, the joy in their eyes was evident. These men and woman now have a safe home to live in where they are clothed and fed, all because of one man’s sacrifice and the help of several volunteers. After lunch, we visited one of the best wineries in Brazil with the sisters and it just so happened to be a place that was visited by Pope Benedict and Pope Francis. After dinner, we had a great opportunity to visit the home of our translator’s sister and her husband and see how a typical working couple lived. The house was very small, clean and modern and we had to walk down steps from a garage next to the street to a lower level where the rooms were. There were only three rooms and it was pretty bare with little decorations, much different from our homes filled with clutter in America. There are no screens in the windows and the doors are always open to let in the warm and fresh air. We were welcomed by such great hospitality and enjoyed spending time with some of their family members while eating some Brazilian snacks.
Today I also remember Sr. Luciana, a younger, hardworking sister in the convent that spoke some English and also translated for us throughout the week, say, “My work is prayer.” She was such a great role model for what it truly means to surrender one’s life to God and do good works for others. I learned that serving others is a sacrifice, but as long as it is for God, there will be a great reward.
Day 6 (Wednesday):
This morning we listened to a human trafficking presentation by a woman who started an organization to help people who are facing horrible circumstances. The sisters also showed us how they are involved in the movement and go through extreme conditions to help others. They are even planning to build a house for children who need a safe place to stay. These amazing leaders risk their lives every day to save others from destruction, and they are a target and could even be killed for their selfless efforts.
After lunch, another student and I spent time with a few kids and played games with them. I was actually pretty easy to interact with them, especially because most of them were learning a little bit of English in their school. Then, a large group of smaller kids and their teachers came out for recess and played musical chairs. It was satisfying to give attention to the kids and learn ways to communicate to them through simple words and hand gestures. One little girl even gave me a kiss on the cheek when I left.
After another delicious dinner, our group from Saint Vincent traveled to the city of Jundiai and participated in the Ash Wednesday mass that was celebrated by the Bishop. The church was beautifully decorated and the music was unlike anything that I ever heard in a church. It was also interesting that ashes were sprinkled on top of the head when we were used to having them placed with the sign on the cross on our foreheads. This notion that they accept in Brazil corresponds to the Gospel that states how we should not boast about our prayer or fasting but keep it hidden.
After mass, we all got a group picture with the Bishop, who stood next to me and kissed me on the cheek after joking with me when I shouted to the sister who was taking the picture to tell her where the button was. We ended the night playing games as a group and sharing in more laughs and fun. Today I was happy to share my joy with the children I met and I saw the beauty of celebrating mass in a different culture that has unique traditions but still practices the same Catholic beliefs.
Day 7: (Thursday)
Today our group spilt up and half of us went to a school close by while the other half stayed at the school connected to the convent. I went to the other school first where there were different age groups of children. When we first arrived, a group of kids were in gym class and as soon as they saw us, they ran to us and grabbed onto us, especially Fr. Killian who attracted them like magnets. We spent most of our time playing with the younger 2-3 year olds and they were so full of joy. I held a little girl who kept crying because she missed her mom and she was so sweet and loveable. She even reminded me of one of my nephews at home which is why she stole a special piece of my heart. This same girl fell asleep while Fr. Killian held her and then I tried to feed her lunch but she didn’t want it.
All of the kids took a nap in a room filled with little rod iron beds, almost like it was out of a movie. In the afternoon, I helped served lunch to some of the kids and then played outside with some of the older kids. They enjoyed getting their hair braided and playing jump rope. For dinner, we were taken out to a surprise dinner at a Brazilian steakhouse where they walk around with all different types of meat. It was delicious and unlike anything I ever experienced and it gave our group a good time to bond and reflect on our week. Today I learned how attached I could become to young kids who were basically strangers and that we can all communicate as children of God, no matter where we come from.
Day 8: (Friday)
Today we passed out toys and stuffed animals to the kids at both schools that we collected and brought with us to Brazil. The kids really appreciated these gifts and were full of excitement and energy. While our group was taking a break in the afternoon, a bunch of kids came in herds and gave us hugs on the porch and it was a great feeling. In the afternoon, we went to the city of Sao Paulo and visited the monastery where the two monks lived who translated for us and provided us with transportation throughout the week. The building and the church was beautiful, and there was even a room marked off where Pope Benedict had once stayed. It started pouring down rain but we had an opportunity to do a little bit of shopping for souvenirs.
We concluded the day by visiting a local mall and, luckily, we had a translator to help us order our dinner. At one of the places, a cashier asked us if she could take a picture with us because we were the first American she ever saw. It was pretty interesting to hear but we all joyfully participated. Today I learned the importance of giving and how small acts of kindness can mean the world to someone.
Day 9: (Saturday)
After we packed and cleaned the room we stayed in, we all had a farewell meal with the sisters. After lunch, we sang a thank you song in Portuguese and played a little bit of music with the sisters. We all took group pictures and enjoyed being in each other’s company. Some of us took a last minute trip to a local supermarket and I was surprised to hear Shania Twain’s song “You’re Still the One” over the intercom. It was bittersweet to think that our time in Brazil had come to a close. We left for the airport and took the long trek home. Today I really appreciated my time spent in Brazil and was truly thankful for the hospitality and generosity that surrounded our group the entire week. We were served while we served others, which was a beautiful dynamic to experience.
Day 10: (Sunday)
We finally returned home and it was definitely hard adjusting to the colder weather and trying to get back on a regular sleep schedule. It seemed strange to hear English regularly again and I wanted to blurt out Portuguese words everywhere I went. Classes started the next day and it seemed like spring break never happened because it went by so fast. There was so much preparation and it was over in the blink of an eye. However, the memories and experience from this trip are something that I will carry with me forever and I would definitely not be opposed to going again next year. Being able to offer my time and love to others who are less fortunate is so remarkable and I felt at peace the entire week.
Overall, I would like to thank everyone who made this trip possible, especially those who donated money, sent their prayers, and coordinated the trip. This was my first time out of the country and I am so happy that I decided to overcome any inhibitions and attend the trip. Our entire group meshed together well and we became friends rather quickly. My faith has grown stronger and I hope to apply the lessons I learned every day of my life by growing closer to God.