Samba, Santarem and Cement

It’s the first evening of spring break. A group of HBS students are having ice cream at a streetside caf‚ in Santarem, Brazil. Suddenly a loud pop is heard and the locals jump up from their tables and rush inside to safety, hugging the walls. Alarmed, we follow and wait for a few moments. Was it a gunshot or just some kids playing with firecrackers? We’re still unsure – according to our 20 year old hosts, Regiane and Geli, gang related shootings are not uncommon in certain parts of Santarem. But everyone seems strangely sanguine and we return to playing cards and having ice cream, with one thought – we had underestimated just how “alternative” our spring break would be!

Led by the inimitable Theresse Kawarabayashi, six HBS first years – Sara Gubins, Sarah Jacoby, Aparna Piramal, Craig Robinson, Michael Shangkuan, Wendy Ware – and two of Theresse’s friends, Lisa Funabashi and Lawrence Talbot, spent 5 days in Santarem, Brazil – a town of 250,000 in the heart of the Amazon. We had volunteered for a community project administered by Amizade, a 6 year old US based nonprofit seeking to provide employment opportunities in impoverished regions in Bolivia, Brazil, Nepal and Australia.

In our case, we were to help build a guesthouse in a school for handicapped children and young adults that would be used for vocational training in basic hotel management. While the task sounded somewhat daunting to us novice construction workers, we realized that the hours weren’t quite as grueling as expected – with a three hour break for lunch and siesta and several “snack” stops during the day! Nevertheless, a natural stratification into the “Workers” and the “Slackers” took place over the week, probably due to both inclination and incompetence – while all of us plastered, chiseled and sieved, Wendy, Sarah, Craig and Lawrence were significantly better placed to admire the fruits of their labour!

Luckily for all of us, Steve Alexander, the crusty program director ensured that we had enough time off during our stay. A tall American in his late 50s, he visited Brazil more than 20 years ago and made it his home. Describing to us how he met his wife, he chuckled as he recalled long boatrides down the Amazon and warned us of the dangers of slinging hammocks – “2 get in, but 3 get out”

Steve put together a range of recreational activities during the day – we took an ecological tour in his lush jungle reserves as he carefully pointed out the diversity in plant and insect life (sorry Craig – no piranhas!). One of the highlights of the trip was a day long boat ride down the Amazon – we saw the incredible changes in the colour of the water with the confluence of the coffee coloures Amazon with the clear water Tapajos. Anchoring outside a flooded forest, we took it in turns exploring the jungle in a tiny dinghy. In the silence beneath the sheltered canopy, we whispered and pointed excitedly at the typical parrots, giant Iguanas, sloths, monkeys and spiders. To cool off, we relaxed on the white sands of the Alter De Chao – the “Caribbean of the Amazon”, and learnt more about Indian art at one of the largest museums of indigenous art in the world – the Centre for Preservation of Indian Culture.

What made the trip really special however was the presence of our two vivacious Brazilian hosts – Regiane and Geli. Their combined energy, charm, warmth and sense of fun completely took us over (not to mention their good looks!). Whether it was singing silly songs at karaoke, grooving for hours to the `pagode’, the local samba, or just simply gossiping over drinks, the girls made us feel at ease, and much less like gawky tourists. So much was the bonding that we’re hoping to contribute to their future by raising a fund for their university education.

Finally, to show their appreciation for our contribution, the local school held a small dance performance for us (an event of enough local interest to be covered by local TV) and a dinner, with more “Macarena like” pagode dancing, and an exchange of gifts with the teachers.

Time then to go back to HBS via an excellent 6 hour stopover in Manaus – where Wendy managed to charm her way into letting us use the pool of the largest 5 star hotel in town!