8 Fun Things to Do With Your Neighbors…if you live in an Amazon village. [ Becoming – Part 8 – PARTICIPATE ]

Becoming…The Journey to Lose Myself in an Amazon Village

IMGP9629 - Copy
Sugar cane, ready to be hacked in shorter pieces for planting.  See # 7 in list below.

Participate!  In my book, the second P of the ACL learning cycle is the most fun and exciting of the four.  My sister must have agreed, because she was always up for participating in a culture event, especially if it involved walking deep into the jungle.

Do you want to know the best advice I was ever given when learning Portuguese?

Don’t learn the language.  Live the language.   – Antonio and Gustavo –

Credit goes to my Brasilian brothers for sharing that unforgettable pearl of wisdom, which captures the essence of Participate with inspiring words that continue to stir enthusiasm in this language learner’s heart.

What could be more motivating than doing life with neighbors and friends, after all?  At least for someone who genuinely loves people and enjoys social interaction (despite being an introvert) this job/ministry sometimes seems light on the work and heavy on the delight.  Just consider my daily work routine as intentional, purposeful “hanging out”.  Some might prefer to call this “chilling” but in the scorching temperatures we face here, that word would be incongruous, if not absurd.

Participation, or “living the language” is the best way to begin relationships, deepen friendships, attain fluency in the language, understand who the people in this community are, and how they view the world.  Participation provides diverse opportunities to enter the daily routines of my friends in a way that textbook learning could never imitate.

During Participation in a Culture Event, an ACL learner is expected to:

  • Observe.  (Watch, listen, and learn.  My friends are the experts).
  • Record.  (Take notes, record audio or video, take photos).
  • Elicit language and culture. (Figure out what can be learned from the event).
  • Join in. (As invited or allowed, without taking away from the natural flow of the event).

Essential tools for Participation:

  • teachable spirit
  • paying-attention skills
  • sense of adventure
  • flexibility
  • patience
  • camera
  • notebook and pen
  • voice recorder
  • (additional tools vary according to the event)

So, are you ready for my surefire, foolproof, satisfaction-guaranteed-or-your-money-back list of fun things to do with your neighbors if you ever happen to live in an Amazon village?  Here we go!

  1. Eat wild pig’s head. Nothing like a community gathering around the supper table for great food and time together.  Only this meal often takes place between 8 and 10 AM.  And instead of sitting around a table, try squatting around huge metal basins which contain the pig’s head and manioc or another root vegetable.  Make sure you grab fast, ripping off chunks with your fingers, no matter how hot the meat and manioc is.  At village “potlucks”, if you snooze, you lose…literally.  So if you like meat (and wild pig is way yummier than boring old grocery store pork), head to the pig feed as soon as you hear the shrill call, “Come and eat pig, ya’all!”  It doesn’t last long.
  2. Dance all night. You don’t know how to dance?  No worries.  Neither do I, in the technical sense of the term.  Here, dancing is just walking/marching/step-stepping around in a circle.  Very little skill and coordination required.  All you need is a friend, energy, extra coffee, and willingness to deal with a headache the following day.
  3. Swim in the river. This is a great way to pass time, learn vocabulary, test your memory (since you can’t write new words down while you’re in the water), and cool off on days where the tropical sun threatens to burn you up.  If your swimming buddies are children, you may end up spending hours laughing and swimming and playing their version of tag, called “Jaguar!”  There aren’t any real jaguars in the river, thankfully; just watch out for anacondas, which have been seen there on rare occasions.
  4. Burying a dead pet monkey. This doesn’t happen often, but just goes to show that anything that happens in my neighbors’ lives counts as a culture event, and is a learning opportunity.  How do they bury the monkey?  What do they say?  How does the monkey’s owner (a little girl) act?  Perhaps the conversation will turn to deeper topics such as their feelings about death in general, or belief in the afterlife.
  5. Weave baskets. A great opportunity to observe carefully and then try your hand at a new skill, probably amidst much laughter.  I did successfully make a basket last year, with help, although it turned out a bit lopsided.  Hopefully there will soon be an opportunity to try again.  Basket-weaving is a “girls-only” Culture Event however, so the men in my reading audience will have to find their own activity.  Making arrows or feather headresses are a couple of “boys-only” alternatives.
  6. Make manioc root drink.  This sugar-sweetened beverage is called “ee”, in a high tone, not to be confused with “ee” in a low tone, which means river.  The women spend a lot of time making this.  After all, if you don’t have “ee” available for your family at all times, you’re probably not a very good wife and mom.   I’ve watched the ee-making process countless times, but it is still a learning opportunity.  We often have wonderful conversations in my friends’ kitchens as they peel, cut, cook, strain, and mix.
  7. Plant sugar cane. Shortly after my arrival in the village I had the chance to participate in this event, and my teacher, Werrig, made a big deal of how well the sugar cane grew, and invited me to help again last year.  Although I sweat more that morning than any other morning in my life, planting sugar cane isn’t difficult.   Werrig’s encouragement and plan to take me again next planting season had me thinking I must be a natural sugar cane planter, or at least a pretty good helper or a hard worker.  Well, come to find out, just last week, that Werrig is convinced that the reason her sugar cane grew nice and thick is because I have fat arms.    Just what every girl wants to hear.
  8. Eat honey. Okay, this one does sound a bit boring.  But how will you and your neighbors eat honey unless you have honey?  And how will you have honey unless you harvest honey?  And how will you harvest honey unless you avoid the beestings?  And how will you avoid the beestings unless you light a fire next to the tree you chopped down?  And how will you chop down that tree without going deep into the rainforest where you will get lots of ticks?  See?  That wasn’t so boring after all.  And wild Amazon honey is finger-licking delicious.

Well, this list could easily contain 58 Culture Events instead of 8, but it’s a start.  Guaranteed to provide fun and laughter with friends, and enough new words to keep your brain working hard as you become part of a new community.

Let’s face it though; you might never actually live in an Amazon village.  Yet God designed us human beings to engage with each other in meaningful relationships, no matter where we live, what the culture is or what activity options are available.

So how can you participate in the lives of your neighbors?  Maybe God wants to use you to make a difference in the community where you live, or reach out to a specific person or family in need of a new friend. Have you ever made a list of ways to spend time with your neighbors?  How might you intentionally begin relationships, deepen current friendships, understand who your neighbors are and how they view the world?

Becoming – Part 7…Gourd Blackening Story

Becoming…The Journey to Lose Myself in an Amazon Village

This is the story referenced in last week’s post about PRACTICE, the 4th P of the ACL Learning Cycle.  It just might be the first story ever written in this language and then translated into English, folks.  And you get to read it.  History in the making. 

Rubbing ashes into the gourd

Gourd Blackening Story

The day before yesterday, in the morning, Kanxig blackened drinking gourds in her kitchen.  I watched her.

While she was sealing the gourds, Kanxig said, “Do you and your people do this in your village?” That is what she asked me.  “No,” I said  to her in response.  “Are there drinking gourds in your village?” she asked me also.  “No.  We don’t have them in our village,” I said to her.  “We don’t know how to make drinking gourds,” I said to her.

She told me about the gulãja tree.  I recorded her voice because I am learning their language.  Kanxig taught me about blackening drinking gourds.  I only watched her.

The day before yesterday in the afternoon, Xibu taught me more about blackening drinking gourds.  First Xibu smoothed the insides of the gourds with sandpaper.  The gourds became pretty that way.  Standing Water (her husband) took a hard knob out of one of the gourd’s necks with a knife.

And then Xibu scraped the inside from the gourd-blackening-tree-bark with a spoon.

“Can I do that?” I said to her.  “I will help you scrape the gourd blackener from the bark.”

Then Xibu poured water into a dish.  And then I put the scraped-out gourd blackener into the dish of water, helping her.  Then we rubbed and kneaded and squeezed the wet bark in our hands to make glue.  Then we rubbed the glue onto the gourds, to make the gulãja stick in the glue.

Xibu charred gulãja wood in the fire.  We crumbled the charred wood into the drinking gourds.  And then we rubbed the ashes to blacken the gourds.  And then we rubbed the gulãja ashes into them.

And then Xibu charred more gulãja wood because it had run out.  “Are you charring even more gulãja wood?” I said to her.  “Yes,” she said to me in response.

Denise and Edika arrived afterwards and helped us.  And then they helped us blacken the gourds.

And then we put the gourds by the side of the fire.  “This is what we do because there is no sunshine, putting them by the fire this way,” Xibu told us.  “If there is sunshine we only put them outside to dry,” she told us.

We glued the gourds and blackened the gourds again after they had dried.  We blackened them three times.  We were almost finished when it was getting dark.

“Another day, we will seal them again with glue, for the last time,” Xibu told us.  “The glue is already gone.  It is getting dark also,” she said to us.  And then we finished, at dusk.  Together, we blackened nine drinking gourds.

“That was a really great learning time for me,” I told Xibu.   “Thank you for teaching me.”  “You’re welcome.  Thank you for helping me,” she said.

Gourds weren’t the only item blackened that afternoon.  My hands were back to normal after a few days (thanks to lots of soap and a sponge), but a certain pair of light blue scrubs will never look the same!  


Becoming – Part 6…PRACTICE with Patience (4th P)


Becoming…The Journey to Lose Myself in an Amazon Village


Practice is supposed to take up between 50% and 65% of ACL time.  Some of this is practice on my own, and some of this is practice with friends and language helpers, both in the context of actual culture events and out of context, at my house.  This is the P in which the information I have gleaned actually sticks in my brain, hopefully, at least.

Today (May 7th) the focus area for my Practice time was Gourd Blackening.  People here drink their traditional beverage, “ee” out of gourds that have been split in half, scooped out, cleaned, dried, blackened with ashes from wood from a certain type of tree, and sealed, using glue made from the inner bark of another type of tree.  Yes, it is a lot of work, especially since these types of trees grow way out in the jungle, not in or near or village.

Gourd Blackening was an event I participated in the day before yesterday.  I spent some Practice time on it yesterday, but needed more.  Instead of recording an oral narrative of this event by asking Xibu to tell me the story of how we blackened drinking gourds, I decided to write this story myself.

First I looked back at my Field Notebook, pages 177-182, where I had taken notes during the actual event.  This time, I had had the unique opportunity to Participate in the same event twice on the same day, with two different ladies.

Gourd Blackening is an event which seems to only take place in April, based on this year and last year, at least.  That would be an excellent question to ask someone tomorrow.  Ooh!  What P is that an example of?  That’s right – Plan!  .

At any rate, Gourd Blackening is not something an ACL student gets to participate in often.  I participated once last April, in a group culture event, where one of my friend’s mother-in-law taught her, her sister and I how to do it.  But that would be another story about Participating.

From my Field Notebook, I reviewed all the new vocabulary and specific phrases related to Gourd Blackening.  At this phase of ACL, I am also focusing on writing the correct form of complex sentences, especially when I try to form a sentence and it comes out in the wrong order…which is probably the case for most of the complex sentences I say, but thankfully, no one is tracking those statistics.  I also looked at the computer file from last year to check if there were any different words or phrases recorded there.

The goal was to practice these sentences, phrases and words by including them in the story, which was a step-by-step narrative with dialogue, written in third person, about Xibu and I blackening her gourds.

Less than an hour after I had rough drafted the story and edited it as much as possible, Xibu arrived for a previously-planned study session.  The reason I add that detail, is that Xibu is such a proactive friend and language helper that sometimes she comes over without being asked, with the plan of teaching me.

Her initiative seems to be based on two things – friendship and hunger.

Our friendship has grown so much over the past two years.  We genuinely have fun together, whether doing traditional art, tramping through the jungle, smiling at the antics of her grandson, baking bread, or sitting on a bench outdoors while moaning about the vast numbers of biting bugs.  I think it is evident that I value her culture and language, and she truly enjoys passing it on, as well as learning a skill or two from me.  Of course, much can also be said for the opportunities to laugh that I provide – amused laughter at her student’s clumsy attempts to use tools or vocabulary, as well as delighted laughter when I wield a tool well or say something complicated correctly .

Knowing that my purpose for being there is to teach God’s Word in their language, Xibu wants to help me reach the goal of fluency as quickly as possible.  While she is the teacher on both sides of the language/culture coin, she views me as the future Bible teacher and she is looking forward to the time when she can be the student, often expressing her desire to learn God’s Word and her frustration at not understanding it in Portuguese.  Xibu’s hunger for God’s Word motivates her to continue investing time in teaching me.

This afternoon she stayed for about two hours.  Most of that time was spent correcting Gourd Blackening Story (that is admittedly not the catchiest title, but since the story is not destined for publication, it’s fine).  Xibu corrected all of my mistakes, of which there were a significant number, but not nearly as many as I expected.

On some of the complex sentences, after reading aloud she would say, “Good,” to which I would ask in surprise, “Really?”.  And a couple times, as she read my tiny but neat pencil scratchings, she would exclaim, “Nice!” with such a proud expression on her face, pleased that we really are succeeding in this task together, teacher and student.  Xibu made suggestions for phrases to add to the story, and explained a few grammatical topics along the way.

For instance, she taught me that after you have stated the names of people, you don’t refer to them as “alej” (the word normally used for “they”) but as “é ej.”  This may apply only when one is referring to the named people in the very next sentence; clarifying the scope and specifics of grammar rules is very difficult with my current language level, but I was excited to learn this much today.

Tonight I typed and printed the story out, coming up with a few more sentences in order to include a couple vocabulary words accidentally omitted, and a couple grammatical structures that might fit into the story, if Xibu (or her husband, whose Portuguese is better), can help me figure out how.

I’ll continue practicing this culture event by reading the story aloud to anyone who is interested.  I am so grateful for the patience of Xibu and other friends in helping me practice their language.  I also am learning to be patient with myself, even when I wish I were progressing more quickly.

Some other Practice Techniques I often use at this stage of ACL are:

  • Focused conversation – simply talking with people about the event.
  • Looking at photos of the event with friends, and discussing photos.
  • Asking questions about the event.
  • Getting an audio recording of someone talking about the event.
  • Listening to and typing out such texts, and thus learning new words and grammar.
  • Various practice techniques specific to the ACL method.
  • Review and drilling.
  • Correcting independent “grammar work” with a language helper.
  • Listening to audio recordings – new words, sentences, texts.
  • Mimicing the audios, practicing pronunciation and especially tone.
  • Participate in the same culture event again, practicing what was learned previously.

Becoming – Part 5…PLAN if you Can (1st P)

Becoming…The Journey to Lose Myself in an Amazon Village

Desk in the village…not the tidiest, but there is lots of practicing and planning going on!

In the ACL Learning Cycle this is actually the “P” that is the hardest to implement, due to several factors.

  1. My lack of organizational skills.
  2. The spontaneity of the people.
  3. Unpredictable cultural routines and rhythms.

It did make me feel better than on her fifth day in the village, my new coworker asked, “So when the ACL Manual talks about “planning a daily routine”, what are we supposed to do?  That doesn’t really work here, does it?”  Denise’s first impression is correct; there is very little of what North American or Brasilian culture would view as routine or planning.

A premeditated daily schedule of which hours will be spent in planning, participating, processing and practicing might look feasible on paper.  However, attempting to apply such a schedule in the midst of village life here would be a nervous breakdown in the making.  Just the thought of trying to plan ACL so rigidly makes my neck tighten and my stomach twinge with unneeded stress.

Becoming part of Brasilian culture has helped me grow in such areas as being more flexible, going with the flow, valuing relationships over accomplishments, and making the most of every moment, planned or unplanned.  All these lessons were great preparation for someone God knew would be heading into tribal church planting ministry less than a decade later.

In essence, I told Denise that planning for participation in culture activities is a challenge, and that my routine is that I don’t exactly have one.  I also told her that this as one of the incredible advantages of singleness on the mission field.  We are each in charge of our own house, meals, routine, ACL, and everything.

If I’m cooking lunch and someone walks past the house on their way to an interesting activity, I have perfect freedom to leave lunch on the stove (turned off, of course), go to the garden or down to the river, and eat whenever, without a hungry husband or children depending on having meals at a a certain time.

When there just don’t seem to be enough hours in the day to accomplish everything, and I choose to put ACL ahead of housework, the resulting messiness doesn’t bother anyone, as long as it doesn’t bother me, the one who will end up cleaning it eventually.

Or, as happened yesterday, if a language helper comes over right before I was going to wash dishes, and stays until dusk, no way am I going to tell her that I don’t have time to study.  All I need to do is discourage the arrival of rats and cockroaches during the night by covering the basin of dirty dishes, and wash them in the morning instead.  (There are no lightbulbs near my outdoor “sink”, so I don’t wash dishes at night).   That way I can prioritize practicing the language, grateful for the unplanned study session.

4 Ps
From the CLA Manual © New Tribes Mission (now Ethnos360)

Despite the challenges of Planning, here are a few strategies I do use:

STRATEGY OF THE MINUTEMAN (can I go with you?)

If I see someone going somewhere, or hear that someone is planning something, I drop everything and ask if I can go.

Yesterday [written in mid-May], for instance, I was sitting in a friend’s kitchen, about to ask if she had time for a study session, when she mentioned that her children went with their grandma to gather fruit in the jungle.  I asked if they had already left.  Mariana said yes and asked if I would have wanted to go along, saying maybe it wasn’t too late to catch them.  Saying good-bye quickly, I called to the children, “Wait!  I’m going with you!”, and hurried down the trail, for a culture event that turned out to be a 3-hour adventure in the most pristine, eerily untouched part of the jungle I have yet seen.

STRATEGY OF THE OPTIMIST (They might have a plan ahead of time.)

Asking people in the afternoon or evening, “What are you doing tomorrow?” Sometimes this results in a plan for the following day, although the most common responses, however, are “just living” or “I don’t know yet.”

STRATEGY OF THE OPPORTUNIST (I really want an invitation!)

Saying to a friend, “When you _______ (insert culture event such as plant sugar cane), please come tell me.”


Going from house to house at 7 or 7:30, to say “Did you wake up?” to everyone (because saying “good morning” would just be silly) and asking what people’s plans are for the day.  Then, after deciding who seems to have the most interesting plan, I ask if I can go along, or participate with them.

Do you think my friends realize that they are constantly pitted against each other “Most Interesting Culture Event of the Day” contest? The award, of course, is the company of their resident missionary/ACL student.

Depending on the activity, that participation may be seen as a benefit or a hindrance.  Sometimes I am actually helpful and often my speaking and participation attempts provide great entertainment.  On the other hand, sometimes I surely slow them down, or make the task take longer because they take the time to teach me along the way.

Planning for study sessions is also part of planning.  That happens at my messy desk, pictured at the beginning of this post, and is much more predictable.  In an upcoming post about Practicing, you will hear more about study sessions with language helpers.

How would you deal with the challenges of planning if you were in my shoes?  Would it drive you crazy or do you love a last-minute, spur-of-the-moment, do-whatever-comes-along kind of routine?

Do you have any planning strategy suggestions for me?  Tracking bugs and hidden listening devices are not options.

Becoming – Part 4…Pass the Ps, Please

Becoming…The Journey to Lose Myself in an Amazon Village.

Walking a literal path while on the ACL journey.   This afternoon, my sister and I went with one of the little girls to get some oranges, which did not turn out to be very yummy.  

The ACL* method developed by New Tribes Mission (now known as Ethnos360),  has a tried-and-true Learning Cycle, a pattern for missionaries to follow in daily culture and language learning.  Based on “Culture Events”, which are events, activities and situations occurring in the community, cyclic learning enables one to get the most out of these daily experiences, moving toward the goal of becoming part of the people, understanding their life from an insider’s perspective and communicating fluently in their language.

Instead of constantly referencing the “ACL Learning Cycle”, I like to call it by its less formal title – “The Four Ps”.

Plan – What culture event can I participate in?  What do I hope to learn from this event?  Who will be my teacher?  Do I need to bring anything along?

Participate – The second P is my opportunity to experience an event or situation in the life of the community.  This can be a quick activity such as giving a baby a bath or feeding the chickens.  It can be an all-day expedition harvesting Brasil nuts.  Or it can be a three-day trip to another village for a celebration, consisting of dancing, Bible teaching, and people from all over our reservation.

Process – All the data (new vocabulary, photos, audio recordings, cultural observations, questions I want to ask about the event) gathered during the Participate step needs to be organized, which is the purpose of this 3rd P.

Practice – This fourth P is when I “re-experience” the culture event, sometimes literally, and sometimes through reviewing the photos and other data.  That way hopefully what my friends taught me sticks in my brain, as much as possible.

In my next four posts, I will write about each of The Four Ps individually, to give you a better idea of what each P looks like on a real day (no such thing as a typical day!) in village ministry.  While you wait for that, here is a pop quiz for you.  No pressure at all; this is simply for fun and to get you thinking about how the Ps might look in daily life.  Please participate by commenting with your answers, based on the above brief descriptions and other posts you have read here in the past.  If you don’t know, just guess!

A Pop Quiz on the Four Ps:

  1. Which P is the most fun and exciting?
  2. Which P is supposed to take up most of a person’s ACL time?
  3. Which P can involve little toy people?
  4. Which P do I sometimes do first thing in the morning, while still half-asleep?
  5. Which P did my sister do right along with me many times?
  6. Which P is the hardest to implement?
  7. Which P do I get behind on when we don’t have electricity for awhile?
  8. Which P would be easier for someone doing ACL in the United States?

(The answers are based on my experience and this context – other ACL students might answer the questions differently, except for number 2, which is from the ACL manual).  I will post a comment with the answers in 8 or 9 days.

*The actual English acronym is CLA – Culture and Language Acquisition.  However, since the Portuguese acronym is ACL, and I was taught the method at the Brasilian training center, CLA sounds incorrect to my brain.  Also, the phrase Acquisition of Culture and Language is not ungrammatical English, so I will continue referring to it as ACL.  Just figured it would be good to set the record straight.