What is considered to be “normal” is completely relative.
From small things like what people define as staples in the refrigerator to major decisions like a lifetime career, “normality” is probably one of the most diverse states of being on the planet.
What I considered to be normal before I began traveling now seems like a fake reality. Much of what occupied my time has no importance now in the life I’m leading as a wandering nomad, hopping from one place to another and exploring new ways of living. Things like getting to work on time, the price of gas, and scheduling doctor’s appointments have been replaced by bus tickets, an internal conversion calculator from the local currency back to U.S. dollars, and wondering where I’ll be staying two nights from now.
Even more than the changes I’ve noticed for myself of what I consider to be “normal,” I’ve been amazed by the variety I’ve encountered in other people’s lives. Things that I would never have to worry about or never even consider to be a daily problem are totally run-of-the-mill for others.
While I get glimpses of this in all the places I’ve traveled, it’s always amazing to have the chance to spend a little bit more time in a location, since it grants me the opportunity to adopt a new way of living for a short period, instead of just passing through.
Helping with an urban garden project in Porto Alegre, capital of the state of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, I had one of these opportunities.
The woman I was staying with, whom I’ll call Maria, was in her upper 40s, had been dealing with family issues for most of her adult life about the pressure to “settle down” and marry, but had decided to go her own path, build a house from the bottom up, and begin an urban garden in Porto Alegre. She welcomed volunteers to her house, and in exchange for helping with building projects, gardening, and general maintenance the volunteers could have a free place to stay and meals.
Maria only spoke Portuguese and a bit of Spanish; her English was very minimal, though she could understand more than she could speak. I was the same way but in reverse; I only spoke English fluently, though after having traveled around Brazil for four months, my Portuguese had improved greatly. The language barrier made communication a bit difficult at times, but we didn’t let it stop us from communicating. Sometimes it took a while and we had to go about things in a round-about way, but eventually the message would be conveyed.
One of the things I learned right away was that every other day Maria worked. She left the house at around 7 in the morning and didn’t return until around 8 at night. It was a long time to be gone, and she always came back incredibly tired and a bit stressed. What I learned from another volunteer staying at her house was that she worked at a juvenile detention center for young boys who had already committed horrible crimes, typically murder. She had been at this job for over ten years, going in every other day to try and help these boys in any way possible before they were released back into society.
For a while, things were left at that. Maria went to work and on her days off she would help the volunteers with tasks or give them instructions about what to do when she was away. She always cooked fantastic lunches when she was around and always made sure everyone had plenty to eat.
After about a week of being there, the other volunteers left, and I was alone at Maria’s, helping in the garden and painting and decorating benches and stools. One evening she asked me if I wanted to go out for the night; she said that she wanted to treat me out to a restaurant at Praia Ipanema since it was only the two of us. I agreed, and we went out together, both of us excited for an evening of something new.
Unfortunately, it was on this night that I also learned just how dangerous Maria’s work could be. We were having a wonderful time, Maria speaking to me in Portuguese and helping me construct my replies, with a bit of English and charades for assistance.
Her phone rang, and she gestured that she needed to answer it; though I could hear the voice coming out of the phone, I couldn’t understand what was being said, but it was clear from Maria’s reaction that something horrible had happened. Her eyes got big, she covered her mouth, at a loss for words for a moment before saying something briefly to the person on the other line and then hanging up. She took off her glasses and covered her face in her hands.
Using my limited Portuguese, I asked her what was wrong. It took a little while, but eventually I understood the situation. One of her colleagues at work had just been murdered, shot in her car as she was leaving the facility at the end of the day. The details of who exactly had committed the crime or for what reason escaped me, but it clearly emphasized just how dangerous Maria’s work was.
I personally cannot comprehend the type of dedication, perseverance, and moral stamina it would take to have the “normal” routine of going into work every other day without really knowing for sure if you’re going to come back. And not only tolerate this work, but still come out of it in a spirited, upbeat mood, grateful to be home and eager to learn about how other people’s day went.
On her days off, I worked with Maria in the garden or around the house, watched her expertly wield a hoe in a sundress and flipflops, and I was always amazed by her determination. It was clear how much she valued the creation of beautiful things, weather that was a new flower bed or the improvement of other people.
When she came home at the end of her work days, she was always still eager to see what I had worked on during the day, and often she practically began a new project right then even though it was clear she was exhausted, and we hadn’t even eaten dinner yet.
Routines can be helpful and deceiving; get into a pattern with something, and eventually it will become “normal,” no matter how strange, ridiculous, or surprising it may be to someone else.
Spending time with Maria and having the chance to experience, at least in part, how she lives her day-to-day life, presented me with several important reminders. It’s impossible to know exactly what is going on in people’s daily lives. I had no idea what Maria was dealing with every time she went into work; all I saw was when she returned, and based on her upbeat mood and energy, it would have been plausible that she was returning from a day at an office building not a center for juvenile criminals.
Seeing someone who was able to turn something so difficult into something that was regular without becoming an anxious, paranoid mess was inspiring. I don’t think there are many people who would be able to deal with the levels of stress and danger that Maria faced and still have the energy to host international travelers, maintain a beautiful garden, and go harvest wild bananas from the patch of forest behind her house.
I certainly don’t think the solution is for everyone to take on a task as difficult as working in a juvenile criminal center in Brazil, but I do think that a shift in perspective about what “normal” means would be a healthy change. With so many people on the planet and so many varying lifestyles, normal is bound to be different, and embracing this difference allows space for learning. What is normal for one person is foreign for another, and even in one individual’s lifetime, the definition of “normal” can vastly shift.
I do think it is “normal” for humans, once accustomed to something, to expect that thing to always be there. Having the opportunity to spend time with Maria gave me the chance to experience a completely different way of living in a very “normal” setting. We still cooked meals together, swept the floor, shared stories about our families, and went to the supermarket. Amidst these very “normal” things there was the great divide between our experiences. And yet, during the time I spent in Porto Alegre with Maria, we were able to find our own form of “normal,” figuring out the puzzle pieces of the language barrier, our age gap, and our vastly different histories and lifestyles.
Normally, I don’t care much for clichés, but my time in Porto Alegre with Maria was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and one that opened my eyes in more ways than I thought possible.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A passionate writer and traveler, Ki Lindgren decided to leave behind the regular routine of steady employment to explore the world. Fueled by a desire to learn about new perspectives, meet people from other cultures, and share life stories, Ki’s writing is both a way to share experience and preserve memories.