Life is a journey that takes us through many experiences and on roads we may not ever have considered travelling. Certainly I would not have considered my first trip abroad to a tropical destination to be Brazil. Why not go to Cancun, Cuba or Dominican Republic to sit on a beach for a week or two, and call it a holiday?
Instead, my husband and I, on the invitation of Al Gerwing, were part of a group of 10 people who travelled to Maceio and Alagoas in January. With some trepidation and guilt, I left my two children, ages nine and five, in the capable hands of both sets of grandparents and set out on a trip that would prove to be interesting and that changed the way I look at our world.
I found Alagoas to be a uniquely beautiful place. The most beautiful thing about Alagoas is the people who live there, and whom we encountered during our stay. Warm and genuine, they are not terribly interested in the who, what, where, when and why of our visit. They were happy to see us and honoured to be in our company, just as we were in theirs.
How could we, Canadian middle class people, ever understand the daily struggles so many face in this lush, warm country? They struggle to get clean water, gather enough food for the day and give shelter to their families. Yet upon meeting many of them and watching their expressions and actions (because my command of Portuguese is slim to none!), I noticed an optimism and faith that I do not see among many of my peers here.
The privilege of accompanying Al Gerwing afforded many insights to an area of Brazil tourists never see. If I could metaphorically describe my experience of travelling with Al, it would be like a disciple following Jesus. Everywhere we went in Alagoas, people were excited, joyful at seeing Al -- to see them hugging and touching him was amazing.
In return, Al truly listened to their stories with an intensity and understanding that clearly demonstrates his passionate love for these ordinary people and their plight.
As a "tag along" person, I felt like a student in the school of human interaction. I came back home with a different perspective on what it takes to give meaning to another person's life. It is not what you buy for others, but what you see in others when you come into contact with them, and what you give of them yourself -- your emotions and feelings that make for memorable impressions and lasting relationships. Al has done this over his time spent in Brazil, and he continues to do this with his various projects in and around our local area as well.
I learned a great deal on this trip, not only about Brazil and its trials and tribulations, but more so how one person is making a difference in so many lives there. Al works tirelessly on social justice for this little corner of Brazil. He was constantly thinking, figuring and planning how to fund the various project requests, what strategies and focuses were important.
I enjoyed the daily breakfasts in our pousada where Al was usually sitting with his notebook open, calculating and plotting what was next on the agenda, not only for the day, but for the months ahead. Most of his life's work since retirement has been devoted to helping the Brazilian people. He's a great human being -- a person I feel privileged to know.