Anna Marsh smiling

In all the heat, Brazilian culture often comes across as hyper hygienic. And while I have adapted to the 2-3 daily shower standard, I just can’t seem to get the dirt from underneath my fingernails. Perhaps because Canteiros Coletivos, the urban gardening organization where I have spent the past several months working, has left an indelible mark on not only Salvador but also on myself.

About five years ago, Debora Didonê saw potential in a trash-filled but unoccupied space just down the road from her apartment. Recognizing that the destitute and unaesthetic block could be greatly enhanced by some green, she brought together a group of volunteers willing to clean up the space and begin planting; Canteiros Coletivos was born. Since this initial spatial transformation in 2012, Debora has united members of a few other communities throughout the city and inspired the collaborative creation of various artistic gardens that not only beautify the city but also rekindle the relationship between Salvadorians and the residual rainforest of their roots. And as a Canteiros Coletivos volunteer, I have had the opportunity to engage with this meaningful work in a number of different ways:

Mondays and Tuesdays are spent at the nursery – the space in central Salvador that is not only Debora and Thiago (her partner)’s home, but also where seeds sprout before their grown up selves are planted in other gardens throughout the city. My time here is spent taking care of the seedlings by watering them, weeding them, and planting then in new vases when they have outgrown their old ones. I also am beginning to catalogue the plants in the nursery and have written a few blog posts about the space (in both English and Portuguese) for the Canteiros website.

And on Wednesdays and Fridays, I help with the distribution of the nursery’s plants in two of Canteiros’ urban gardens. The group of volunteers begins by cleaning up some of the (seemingly magnetic) trash in and around the green space. We then take care of the old timers (some beautiful banana, mango and other fruit-bearing trees have taken root over the course of the past few years) before planting the new seedlings. Finally, we attempt to aesthetically enhance the space by creating a border with old tiles and rocks or even at times painting a small mural. Above all, we always try to engage the local inhabitants who are the inspiration for this project and are a lot of the times excited to lend a hand.

Thursday, often times my favorite day of the week, is when English classes with Yuri (17) and Hugo (14) take place in Gantois. These motivated and enthusiastic two boys were some of the first to get their hands dirty when Canteiros began gardening within their community a few years ago, and some of the first to jump on the opportunity to learn English with Canteiros’ newest American volunteer. In addition to taking care of their local garden, we spend a couple of hours every Thursday morning chatting in English, exchanging the idiosyncrasies of our respective cultures, and just having a good time getting to know each other. And our lessons are always made complete by one of Yuri’s mom’s delicious lunches.

Needless to say, the work that I have done with Canteiros Coletivos has greatly enhanced my time here in Brazil. First of all, my volunteering experience has been spatially orienting: I am not only constantly navigating from one place to another (nailing down public transportation), but am also really learning about the city’s biodiversity. It feels pretty good walking down the street and being able to identify the passion fruit or papaya tree.

Furthermore, I have through Canteiros made some of my most meaningful Brazilian relationships. Debora and Thiago have taken me under the wing, teaching me not only how to mobilize urban gardening movements but also to be a Baiana (between cooking regional dishes after work to learning some local slang). My English students and their family have also provided a second home – just last week I arrived soaking wet after walking through a rain storm and was greeted with a warm towel and a fresh change of clothes.

Finally, working with Canteiros has really been a service-learning opportunity and has, I believe, prepared me to make the most of the next four years at Princeton. As a prospective environmental engineering major, I can imagine that spending a lot of time nailing down mathematical equations and scientific structures has the potential to become abstract or dull.  But every step I take towards developing technology that not only improves the health of our planet but also the quality of the lives of those who live on it will now be fueled by the thought of Yuri, Hugo, and all of the other incredible people with whom my service work has connected me. I’ve already seen, worked with, and grown to love what all of those numbers have the potential to transform.

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