As a wrap-up to my “Brazil diaries,” I’d like to share one last experience that I had while in Brazil in 2005 that left the most enduring mark upon me. I didn’t record it in my journal, but a year later I wrote a piece about it, to preserve forever the life-changing impact this experience had upon me. On my very last day in Brazil, I had the privilege of hanging out with a bunch of meninos de rua, or street children, in Recife. Street children are a huge problem in Brazil’s biggest cities. They’re usually orphans and/or come from broken homes in Brazil’s favelas (slums), and they end up living on the streets because they have nowhere else to go. Many look down on them as merely a nuisance, but thankfully there are a few government-funded projects in cities like Recife that at least make an effort to reach out to them and help them. My experience involved one such project in Recife, of which I was graciously allowed to participate in for one day. That day is forever etched in my memory.
I can still see her bewitching brown eyes, like orbs of chocolate, staring up at me out of a pixie-like face. They captured me, embraced me, the first time my own eyes fell on her hungry, slight figure. There she stood, a dark-skinned waif, with a mess of springy, brown curls sprouting from her head, clad in red shorts and a dirty white tee-shirt much too big for her, and possessing a smile whose width and radiance outshone every other grin in the room. Which was a remarkable feat, for she had some stiff competition.
As soon as I entered that dusty, colorful room above Rua Bom Jesus, one sultry afternoon last year, I was thrust into a throng of beautiful, brown-skinned ragamuffins, all wearing the same white tee-shirts and red shorts, and all vying for my attention at once–touching me, wrapping their arms around me, and peppering me with questions in Portuguese. It was an overwhelming, dizzying experience. I had only read about the heart-wrenching stories of Brazil’s homeless street kids–kids whose lives were devoid of love, poverty-stricken, and exponentially removed from my own life of wealth and ease. This was my first real face-to-face encounter with the meninos de rua and abandonados. Within only a few minutes of stepping into that room, my heart had been attacked, laid seige to, and had most willingly surrendered to the enchanting spell these lovely creatures had wound about me. There was no point in resisting…not when sparkling, dark eyes looked up into yours, or smooth, brown little arms slid around your neck, or eager, love-starved countenances begged you to notice them. But it was that one tiny waif, with the larger-than-life smile, who wove and spun the deepest and most endearing magic within my soul.
Her name was Nataliane. The very uniqueness and exotic beauty of her name arrested my attention immediately. Its pronunciation–“Nah-TAHL-ee-ah-nee”–rolled off the tongue in a delightfully addictive fashion. She was one of the first to enclose me in her slim arms, and apparently that initial hug was enough for her to decide I was a kindred spirit. For the rest of that afternoon, she rarely left my side. I had the privilege of joining her, and her fellow street friends, on an outing to a nearby amusement park. This exciting treat was made possible by workers and volunteers for the government-funded project that also fed the children, clothed them, bathed them, and gave them that dusty, colorful flat to go to during the day. On this particular day, I was a “guest volunteer.” And this “guest volunteer” had little Nataliane’s hand in hers, or little Nataliane’s arm around her waist as we boarded the bus…as we got off the bus…as we stood in line in the sweltering sun outside the park…and as we rushed in great excitement from one ride to another within the park. She became my shadow, my sidekick, my new amiga. She was also a vivacious package of insatiable curiosity, her mind a-whirl with questions of every sort–all of which tumbled from her pretty, wide mouth in such rapid Portuguese that I often struggled to comprehend her. And every question that she uttered was preceded by “Tia,” her affectionate appellation for me–a word that literally means “aunt.”
“Tia…how old are you? Tia, tia…where do you live? Tia…do you have children? Tia…do you like Brazil? Tia, tia…what is America like? Tia, tia..” On and on her childish voice would trip. But I never tired of it. I never tired of her. Her sweet presence was soothing, her joyful, effervescent personality was like a burst of literal sunshine. And every time she clasped me in her arms and gazed up at me with those love-hungry eyes, something inside me churned, slid, and completely caved in. I could not help but fall under her spell.
As the sun sank in the western sky, hastening in shadows and cool breezes, it signaled the close of our day at the park. I boarded the bus once again, surrounded by thirty-some sopping, shivering, and bedraggled children, whose last joy-filled event of the day had been the water ride. My heart was laden with ambivalent feelings: immense happiness from an unforgettable day, but also sorrow from the knowledge that the next morning I would be on a plane headed for the US, and that I would never see any of these amazing meninos again. Throughout the day Nataliane had gazed up at me with her mesmerizing eyes and asked me if she would see me amanha–or, “tomorrow.” And every time I had tried to explain to her, no, I would not, for I was going home, far away from Brazil. She didn’t understand. Foot-sore and sun-burnt, I sank down gratefully into my seat on the bus, and Nataliane climbed into my lap. She was soaking wet. But I didn’t care. I wrapped my arms around her thin, shivering body, clutching her close, as she laid her tired head on my shoulder. At last too weary to speak, she was content to rest silently in my arms. I stroked her soft, brown little curls, my heart breaking to pieces inside. I wanted to hang on to this precious moment–this beautiful, magical child–and never let them go. But it was all slipping…slipping away so fast. She…this dirty, wet, disheveled, and radiant little creature…was slipping away from me. And she didn’t even realize it. But I knew, for her sake, it was better that way.
By the time our bus reached the flat on Rua Bom Jesus, only a handful of children–Nataliane included–remained. The rest had been dropped off at their usual “spots” around the city. The kids were given an evening snack, and then it was time for goodbyes. I squeezed Nataliane as hard as I dared, my eyes glistening with tears.
“Tchau, minha amiga…tchau,” I said to her. She gave me several beijos (kisses), and I returned them. Her eyes latched onto mine, as that luminous smile adorned her face, spreading from cheek to cheek. There were no tears in her eyes–just innocence, unconcern, and a deep well of warmth. After all, she was sure, so sure, she would see me amanha.
“Tchau, Tia,” she said cheerfully. “Ate logo.”
“Ate logo,” I replied quietly.
I walked with her and her remaining companions out onto the cobblestone road, whose surface gleamed beneath the golden haze of the streetlights. I watched as she and her friends skipped on ahead, into the shadows, their musical speech, punctuated by laughter, echoing off the stone and concrete. As the dimness beyond the lights began to shroud their slender silhouettes, I realized they were slipping into shadows and darkness far more frightening than the literal ones that encompassed them. The ache in my chest suddenly felt like a tight knot. How could I leave her? My little Nataliane would have no pillow beneath her curly head that night, no loving parents to kiss and hold her, no one to tell her she deserved a better life. I wanted to sweep her light frame into my arms, to whisk her away from all the danger and heartache. But I knew I couldn’t. My only comfort lay in the fact that, for one memorable afternoon, I had done a small part to improve her impoverished life, to bestow love into her love-less universe. And she, with her buoyant spirit and freely-given affection, had touched my life immeasurably.
As the gloom gathered about her little figure diminishing in the distance, Nataliane turned around, and her sparkling, chocolate eyes caught mine one last time. She waved at me enthusiastically, her smile shining like a beacon in the blackness around her. I waved back, trying to ignore the tight squeezing in my chest.
“Tchau, sweetheart,” I whispered. “And may God be with you…”
The darkness then swallowed up her waifish form. But the image that will remain with me forever simply contains that gorgeous smile, and those eyes…those big, brown eyes that grabbed my heart, and still won’t let it go…