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One caipirinha and Leah speaks fluent Portuguese!

I was 20 when I volunteered at Iracambi in 2000, which feels like yesterday and a lifetime away. It was the early days of the environmental education project and I was confident that one term’s Portuguese was enough to get me by. And it was…sort of. If you think that “Quê dia é hoje?” is enough. The day I arrived, it was the biggest festa of the year in Rosário da Limeira and everyone was excited at the prospect. I was simply confused and jet lagged. But that night the adventure began, as I was introduced to cachaça, seemed to meet half the population of Brazil in the village, danced until my feet hurt and suddenly became fluent in Portuguese…it was certainly an unforgettable start.

But then the real work began.

By real work I mean marveling at plants, insects and animals I had never seen, exploring places so unlike home, taking  children wiser than me around the trail, pointing endlessly at objects and asking “How do you say this?” and trying to put together resources and activities from very little. But I learnt fast. I learnt from the school children, the farm kids (Eliseu, Vânia, Miri and the rest who now probably all have children of their own), the church group who arrived unannounced at 8am on a Sunday, the mayor’s wife Maria Emilia. I learnt from doing a presentation to a packed classroom of primary teachers with Robin (I nearly vomited with fear), going on local radio with Binka (deep breaths required before and after!), sharing a BBQ with the local butcher’s daughter, chatting to the coffee pickers and being shown how to cut, strip and suck sugar cane from the field.

There was the day we painted the new centre, the day we had to work out how to get a lone sloth out of a completely isolated tree and back into the jungle (it involved a brave biology student shimmying up, and yanking the poor thing off the trunk while we waited with an open sack below). There was the day an admirer walked from the village to bring me chocolates but had eaten half of them. The day my friend Viviane twisted her ankle and couldn’t walk and a mysterious woman appeared and rubbed a herb on it and the swelling went down before our eyes. The day I finally saw myself in a mirror and realised 3 months of Dona Carminha’s cooking had really taken its toll…

…and then the day I had to say goodbye.

I made friends, made memories, grew in confidence, navigated local politics, grew in skills, hopefully contributed something and cemented a life long love of Portuguese and the environment. I may have volunteered to do something useful, but The Land of Milk and Honey gave me far more than I gave it.

Thank you so much and long may you continue your work!

Published on behalf or Leah D: Iracambista 2000 and still teaching! 

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