A Tale of Two Cities (Part 2): Service

by kangcuzzi

“Your own self-realization is the greatest service you can render the world.” — Indian sage Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950)

Excuse the Goodreads quote, but I feel it perfectly captures what the service element of the program is all about. Before coming to Brazil, I saw ‘service’ as something done with the obvious and superficial intention of ‘doing good’; it was a conscious addition to day-to-day life rather than a part of it.

Another conception I had of service was that it wasn’t entirely selfless. In an educational environment where service was a quantifiable tool that was correlated with the metric for ‘success’, I grew skeptical about the meaning of service and why people chose to do it.

Doing service work in Brazil has taught me that I was both right and wrong in my conceptions. I was wrong to think service was something distinguishable from the quotidian; even day-to-day activities can offer the kind of moral benefits (like solace and inspiration) and the practical improvements we attribute to effective service.

Yet I was right in that service isn’t entirely selfless. Sure, it requires acting for others, but service is also very much about acting for yourself. Service, as Ramana Maharshi purportedly claimed, is really all about self-realization. Of building yourself into a stronger person so that you may leave the world a stronger place.


In Salvador, I spent six months working with a movement called Canteiros Coletivos. Put street art, recycled products, urban planting and social activism together and you’d more or less get an idea of what Canteiros is all about.

Yup, this environmental-cum-social-cum-political movement was as badass as it sounds. Every morning I’d head over to Débora’s house, where I was greeted with an explosion of colour and life. As I watered the myriad plants growing out of tires, milk cartons, and old paint cans, I’d often be stained yellow by the stem of the tomato plant, or have my fingers turn fragrant from the hortelã, the basil or the rosemary. No two waterings would look the same: sometimes I’d spend more time watering the plants that looked a little exhausted, and when it rained I’d only do a quick check-up of the jasmine and the pineapple plants that sit beneath an overhead covering.


The headquarters of Canteiros Coletivos.

Sometimes I spent the day painting recycled detergent bottles to use as vases on the streets. A few times, Débora, Thiago and I, along with whichever volunteers were around for the day, spray painted lampposts and decorated them with plants and reminders to love the spaces in which we live. Walking to work and watching the plants grow — a sign that they were being cared for by the surrounding community — was always a treat.

I could go on about the other stuff we did, like planting fruit trees by a busy roundabout in Gantois, holding gardening workshops with little kids at alternative fairs, and planting beans and pumpkin and sunflower saplings on the roadside in Vale do Canela.

A part of the reason why I wanted to work with Canteiros was because my real mom has a mini-garden jutting out from our living room window at home. I was entirely indifferent to it, thinking that gardening was beyond me. Yet Canteiros has taught me that planting isn’t so hard, and in fact rewarding in ways other than harvesting the end product (like delicious cherry tomatoes): it teaches lessons in patience, selflessness and the beauty of watching great spaces — when treated right — create important interactions between people. Upon returning home, I’ll undoubtedly help my mom with her mini-garden, and I’m also thinking of doing a few street installations myself. There isn’t a sight more heartwarming than seeing a busy passerby stop to admire a lamppost decorated with painted vases and a whole load of flowers. Besides, public streets are called public for a reason: they’re ours to care for, and ours to respect.

It’s important for me to mention that the other volunteers made my experience doubly rewarding. Every day I’d have at least one other volunteer with me at Débora’s house, and we’d tend the plants together as music echoed through the space. I always enjoyed talking with Lucas, whose famous homemade cakes made several appearances throughout the year, and whose compassion and warmth I’ll never forget; Victor, whose love for insects, although beyond me, always impressed me; Lhaís, with her fun Couchsurfing stories and enviably chic wardrobe; Mariana, with her conversations on all topics from Carnaval to bottled milk. It’s incredible to realize that there are so many like-minded people to meet in the world, and that Canteiros is just the tip of the iceberg.


Ending my time at Canteiros with a little gathering.


Here in Palmeiras, my days doing service take on a slower pace. Three mornings a week I visit Dona Toinha, who is incidentally my and Jordan’s homestay grandmother. At eighty-eight years of age, Dona Toinha is an incredibly dignified woman who has lived a long life of dancing, singing samba de roda songs, selling spices, and generally being active and present for everyone she knows. Her Alzheimer’s makes it hard for her to converse with me — sometimes she says she wants to say something but the words don’t come out right, and other times she forgets who I am — but she always smiles whenever she hears a joke, or quietly sings a traditional samba song every once in a while.

When I sit with Dona Toinha, showing her my paintings, my crochet or asking about her life, I feel focused and present in a way I rarely do. Three hours fly by, and the hospitality of her family (i.e. Jordan’s homestay family) makes me feel like a part of the family itself.

Recently, Dona Toinha became especially weak and spent several days lying in bed. I wasn’t sure what to do during that time, not only as a foreigner but also as someone with little practical knowledge of how to work with the elderly. When I raised this concern with Hanna, our director, she talked to Dona Toinha’s daughter and main caregiver, Maria, to ask what I could do. Maria said that having me sit beside her mother was enough, regardless or not we conversed. Ever since I’ve thought a lot about the meaning of service, and it strikes me to think that even bringing a different energy into a space can be considered meaningful ‘work’ — although I hesitate to call what I do with Dona Toinha ‘work’, as it feels like a regular part of my day to visit and be with the family.

Two other days a week, I work with my homestay mom, Neide, at the environmental organization GAP. On Wednesday mornings I go around Palmeiras pushing a rubbish cart, picking up recyclable trash that residents leave outside their homes. Tiring it may be, the work is relatively relaxing when done beside Neide and her friends, Terezinha and Yvonette, whose laughter is always contagious. In the afternoons I sort through the trash and sometimes get to work the Wall-E machine (i.e. the garbage press machine) to create very visually satisfying blocks of material. Although the work is exhausting, it does feel pretty cool to be able to sort things really quickly and through them into buckets basketball-style — especially when my homestay dad is involved.


With the aluminium cans!

Perhaps my job at GAP isn’t as glamorous as my work at Canteiros, and perhaps I have nothing more to offer than an extra pair of hands. Yet the lessons I learn about recycling and consumerism are, though intangible, things I can carry back home and apply to my life there. I’ve never really thought about how recycling works in Hong Kong, or at Princeton, but I’m willing to find out — and I’m more than willing to be conscious of how much waste I produce, and whether or not the consumption of their constituent materials is entirely necessary.


So, perhaps the work I’m doing won’t solve Brazil’s corrupt political system or end poverty. But service doesn’t always have to be done with the intention of a lofty goal bigger than oneself. In fact, service may start with enriching oneself, which may incidentally happen through the process of enriching the life of another. And if we all engage in this thing called service by making it a part of our day-to-day, we may even start a chain reaction that ultimately makes humanity happier to be where we are, when we are, and with the people we are with.

And I guess that’s the biggest gift you can give.