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I was walking out of Casa Dom Inácio de Loyola, wearing the beautiful white top I had just bought for fifty Reais on the Center’s street. Everyday, hundreds of tourists come from all over Brazil, North America and Europe to visit João Teixeira de Faria – alias João de Deus, John of God. To attend the center’s activities, we must be completely dressed in white. Hence the shops on the center’s street must make fortunes.
On the sidewalk, a woman stopped me. Waiting around the center, beggars know that we, foreign preachers, are very easily convinced to give our spare change. The woman was skinny and short, with brown eyes and hair, and dressed in pink. She handle a sheet for me to read. It was written, in English, that she was the mother of four children and needed help to feed them. I answered, in Portuguese, that I didn’t have money on me, only a credit card. A first quick reaction, one that we, rich foreigners, develop as we get used to be asked for money at every single corner. A lie, more or less – I had not checked. It is so much easier to just shut our eyes and pretend we can’t give – whatever the reason we invent for ourselves.
This morning, I was not on a hurry, so I listened to the woman, as she explained that she needed to buy milk for her youngest kid. She pulled out a cardboard from her bag: a peace of an old powdered-milk package. I understood this woman wasn’t asking money to buy drugs. She was really wanting to feed her kids.
- Vamos juntas no supermecado, I told her, preferring to buy food directly rather than giving her a 20-reais bill.
So we started walking towards the closest supermarket. On our way, I asked her few questions about her life, somehow confirming, through this sort of interview, that she really deserved my help. But who am I to judge, anyway – first-world citizen living in one of the best city on Earth? Anyway, the woman answered my questions. Her kids are 2, 6, 9 and 12 years old. The father has disappeared, “for embora”, as many fathers do in the Americas – North and South, and probably worldwide. She earns 30 Reais daily by washing clothes, and her rent is 600 Reais monthly. She has been living in Abadiânia for two years. Before, she lived in another village, not far. The woman was answering my questions simply, without shame. I wasn’t feeling pity either. We were just creating a human link. Sharing a part of existence, and its difficulties. Feeling closer even though we were born in drastically different backgrounds.
The supermarket was far; we got there after almost ten minutes’ walk. As we entered the first alley, the woman pointed out a coffee bag. She was asking my permission, not sure of what I would accept to buy her.
- Sim, sim, tá bom, I said, insisting that she could take what she needed; she knew better than me what she had to buy.
Feeling freer, she started to pick up few goods, after pointing them out to me – two bags of a kilo rice, sugar, beans -, and waiting for me to nod after I had seen the price – 10, 8, 5 Reais. I would say, each time:
- Sim, sim, tá bom. Take whatever you need.
But still, I was calculating the final bill in my head. It’s fine, I thought, I found a host for 30 Reais instead of 70. I am saving on my host fees; I can help her. It’s a natural circle – receiving and giving.
When she arrived at the fruits and vegetables alley – more expensive goods –, she asked if she could buy some. I knew she usually would not buy fruits and vegetables. But how could I say “no”? Fruits and vegetables are so important. I wanted her kids to have some.
- Sim, sim, tá bom!
So she filled plastic bags with potatoes, tomatoes and green lemons. She was now more confident about my charity, and was filling the basket more and more: powder lemonade, sausages, detergent for clothes and dishes… I stopped counting – it was useless –, even though I was feeling a bit stressed, as she grabbed more and more goods, torn between two impulses: wish she would stop at some point, or let go. I rationally acknowledged how impossible it would be to stop her: how could I ask her to stop filling the basket with cheap, essential goods? I couldn’t honestly say I did not have enough money to pay it: over the last five years, I accumulated enough savings to work on my writing projects without having to find a job for few more months. Really, there was no limit to what I could pay her today. Absolutely no limit that could honestly be “too much”. “Too much” for what I could give her, “too much” for what she could ask. Reasonably, I knew I could as well give her all my savings, thousands of dollars, and still be in a better position than she could ever be: I would just go back to Canada and start working to make good, easy money. She would always be here, striving to survive in a muddy village of Goias.
For myself, I bought two bananas and two lemons, feeling reasonable. Bullshit. Bananas are luxury. And if I stopped lying to myself, I’d acknowledge that later, I would buy an Açai for 8 Reais – yes, yes, way cheaper than the Açai that regular tourist buy for 18 reais at Frutti’s – but still luxury. Money isn’t a matter for me, first-world citizen born in a rich middle-class educated family. Even though I am trying to travel with the least expenses, saving few Reais here and there on hosting and transportation, saving money isn’t, honestly, a matter for me.
When I finally pushed the basket to the cashier, thinking I had given enough for today, the woman joined me with an armful of goods. I paid the 98 Reais. After entering my nip code, I glanced at her. She was standing silently, hands in prayer to her heart, sweet brown eyes filled with gratitude. I instantly felt a soft breeze across my shoulders, a shivering reaching down towards my heart. Before I left her – the employees would help carry the full basket to her home –, we embraced each other. Few seconds. Warmly. This was the best thank you. I was filled with love for my beautiful friend, filled with love for her children who would eat a delicious meal of rice, beans, potatoes and tomatoes… From there on, this love and gratitude would fill me many more times. My friend would share it through her hazelnut gaze anytime I’d meet her on my way out of Casa Dom Inácio de Loyola.
When I walked outside the supermarket towards the Açai bar, I was sure of one thing: this episode was part of the purifying process. Part of my experience in Abadiânia. Part of my experience with João de Deus.
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