I was greeted at the airport in Goiânia by two of my host families, a bouquet of roses, chocolate, and lots of kisses. I am so happy with my first family. It took about two weeks for me to be able to communicate with my host parents, but the more Portuguese I learn, the more comfortable I am. I have a 19 year old brother, João Paulo, who went to Australia through Rotary a year ago. He has been a lifesaver because when I don't understand something in Portuguese he explains it to me. I have a 17 year old brother, Pedro, who left for California three weeks after I arrived. Watching him leave at the airport was the only "low" I've experienced so far. It brought back the flood of emotions I felt when I was leaving Florida. It also hit me that I'm not going to see him again, at least for a very long time. After knowing someone for only three weeks, most of which we could hardly communicate, and tearing up watching him leave, I cannot imagine how difficult it will be leaving the people I have been surrounded by for an entire year. Pedro was the first of many goodbyes I would have to say to people I have grown close to. I absolutely adore my younger sister, Caroline. She is only 16 years old but we still have plenty in common. She is really helpful when it comes to Portuguese because even though she does not speak English, she breaks down what people say into simple words that I understand. Whenever someone speaks to me, I immediately turn to her as if she were going to translate it into English but she translates it into Portuguese for dummies.
School is really different here because it is basically all about academics and there are no electives. The students stay in one classroom all day and the teachers move from room to room. Everyone is very nice and helpful. The girls were really good about approaching me and trying to befriend me whereas the boys told me I was beautiful and asked if I have a boyfriend. My name or origin was of no interest to them. I switched seats at least three times the first day because new people kept coming up to me and grabbing my hand to move me closer to them. It is different trying to get used to the "hands-on" Brazilian greeting. My history teacher kissed me on the forehead when I met him. People I hardly know are always playing with my hair and playing with my hands. School gets out at lunch time and my sister and I take the bus or are picked up by my host dad and taken to the family restaurant to eat lunch. All of the food that I have eaten is really good. I try new things every day, some without knowing what the English translation is before I eat it (aka: liver). I have eaten more rice, beans, and meat in the past month than I have eaten in my entire life. After lunch we go home and my siblings sleep, study, or go back to school because sometimes they have school until 8 pm. I often find myself very bored in the afternoons because I am stranded at the house for hours. There is only so much Portuguese TV one can watch, although the soap operas are addicting even without knowing what is being said. I have now taken up napping outside in the hammock. I study Portuguese sometimes but I already usually spend my time during school writing down words from my dictionary that I think would be useful to learn.
I think the hardest part of my exchange has been losing the independence I had back in Florida. I cannot drive and therefore am completely dependent upon my dad to get anywhere (at least for now). I can hardly communicate so I cannot do anything on my own. Even just trying to buy shampoo requires accompaniment because although I can understand the amount of money I owe them, I have no idea what they say when they ask “Did you find everything you needed today” and/or ask me about a promotion they are offering. At the beginning of my 4th week I went to the park to run by myself and it felt so exhilarating to do something without the help of anyone else. Being so dependent luckily motivates me to learn Portuguese as quickly as possible.
I normally spend time with my family on the weekends. I have been to multiple fazendas, which are weekend houses in the countryside. Most double as farms and are full of chickens, horses, cows, and other various animals. One day I heard the clucking of a chicken under a basket and soon enough I was eating it for lunch. These farms have fruit trees galore and so there are always plenty of fresh mangos, coconuts, lemons, and other fruits I am unable to spell, but that are unique to Brazil. There are these little bees that don't sting so you can take their honey and eat it straight from the hive. It is so delicious!
With my school I went to a fazenda for the opening ceremony of the games. I must say this was the most unique fieldtrip I have ever been on. There was horse riding, cow lassoing, chicken catching, kayaking, relay racing, and a friendly game of soccer in which a cow's legs were the goal. I have officially played soccer in Brazil and it turns out they are better at cheering for soccer than actually playing it, at least in my school. I also played handball for the first time and loved it! The girls get really intense while playing and start screaming at each other and of course because it is in Portuguese I have no idea what they are saying so I just stand there and laugh because, like soccer, everyone in my class is bad at handball too, and here they are trying to start fights over it.
I have been to a man's 90th birthday party and a wedding, both of which I was forced to dance at. I often find myself with little to no warning that I am attending these events. Therefore, I have mastered getting dressed up in less than 5 minutes. As for the dancing, I can't say the same. I went to a gym with a friend one evening and somehow I ended up in a dance class. Anyone that knows me knows that I cannot dance. It’s not that I refuse to, but that I literally have no rhythm at all. Like at all. So here I am in this dance class with an extremely good looking and charming (even in Portuguese) dance instructor who knows I am American so he keeps looking back at me to see how I am doing. The man turns out to be a better dancer than Shakira and Beyoncé combined. Not only are all the directions in Portuguese, but the dances are all from Carnival and so everyone else in the class knows them and I am trying to follow along and I failed miserably. And of course the room had glass walls so the entire gym could enjoy my embarrassment. The friend I went with wasn't able to do the dance either but that was only because she was in stitches laughing at me attempting to follow this madness that they call dancing.
Nevertheless, I am so thankful for all the experiences I’ve had already during my time in Brazil and I thank everyone involved in Rotary who helped make them happen!
I have one week left with my first family and that is a very difficult concept to grasp. I have done so much in the last four months but there is also so much more to experience. My family and are very comfortable with each other. So comfortable in fact that they tease me about my weight gain. My dad thinks it is hilarious to tell everyone about it, “When Shannon first arrived (he makes a fishy-face with his cheeks sucked in) and Shannon now (he makes a puffer-fish face by blowing out his cheeks…) It is all in good fun though. I thought it was difficult enough to only have as much clothing as I could fit into two suitcases but I have recently discovered that it is far more difficult now that I can’t fit into half of my clothes. I also learned that when Brazilian women leave the house they are completely dressed up head to toe. The hair is down and flowing, the nails are done, the heels are on. This attire is worn to the grocery store, the mall, and any other location that a typical Floridian would wear shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops. At weddings they wear long prom-like dresses. The 15th birthday parties for girls are basically weddings. The one I went to was actually nicer than any wedding I have ever been to. There were legitimate party crashers (technically I was one of them) and they waited outside to get in until at least 2 in the morning. The party did not start until after midnight.
I have made my own friends now but I still spend the majority of my time with my brother and sister and their friends. My language is at the point where I can communicate whatever I want to say, it is just in limited vocabulary. It is difficult in school though because students who do not speak any English still don't talk to me because they aren't aware that I've learned Portuguese. There was a new student in my class one day and he was sitting alone and I felt bad for him because that was me only a couple of months ago. Although the students were all really welcoming to me, there is less excitement of a new student when they actually speak Portuguese. I decided to treat him as though he were an exchange student too, so I went up to him and attempted to tell him my name, what I'm doing here in Brazil, and if he needed any help that he can ask me. It turns out he is from Spain and knows Portuguese enough to get by but doesn't speak English. Almost everyday he asks me to translate a Bob Marley phrase, which I can do, but the meaning isn't conveyed in the translation. I can't even explain his lyrics in English when I'm given one line out of context let alone in Portuguese.
I went to Araguaia with my dad and uncle. Araguaia is the name of a river and the area surrounding that is protected as a national park. My uncle is the Secretary of State for the Environment and he was able to get us an in-depth tour. The beaches on the river are very popular during the month of July for Brazilians living inland. A major project my uncle is working on in Araguaia is the protection of sea turtles and their eggs. There is some sort of panther-like cat that is killing hundreds of turtles. We got off the boat on one of the beaches and there was a trail of turtle shells. Overall though it was a really interesting experience especially because there is a new popular novela (soap opera) that was just filmed there.
I wouldn't say I've adapted to constantly having bugs surround me, it is more of "I don't have any other choice" kind of thing. I have officially seen the biggest bug I have ever seen in my life. I'm pretty positive it is prehistoric. I also had the pleasure of viewing a tarantula about thirty feet from where I slept on the floor the night before. Everyone keeps telling me just wait until I go to the Amazon...that put a slight damper on my excitement.
Soccer. Is. Madness. You would think the World Cup was still on based on the chaos at every single game. Within the first month I already had team that I root for and proudly wear my jersey. Shout out to Atletico (GO)! The intensity during games is unbelievable. I am well versed in cursing (in Portuguese and English) after attending several games. Even at games that are considered low key, there is a squad of 10 guards armed with bats and shields to escort the referees.
I personally think most of the new things I experience are due to the people I live with. Living with new people opens you up to so many experiences whether in a different country or not. When people ask me what is different about life in Brazil, I can think of differences but a lot of them aren't because I'm living in Brazil. For example, my dad is a Mason. It is such a foreign concept to me but then again there are just as many Masons in the USA as there are in Brazil. I've noticed recently that people have been asking me a lot which I country I prefer. I always say I like both equally. I am still learning to love Brazil as my country but it is hard when I have grown up accustomed to an American lifestyle and my family is back in the USA. There are so many differences between the two countries but I can't explain what they are because at the same time the countries are so similar too. It's these little differences that you learn when you actually live in a country and fully immerse yourself in the culture.
P.s. Apparently it is normal to:
1) Pick up your teacher and use him as an eraser for the chalk board.
2) Hold onto the back of an 18 wheeler while riding a bicycle on the highway.
3) Hold onto the back of a motorcycle while sitting in a wheelchair on the highway.
4) Have dogpiles in class...multiple times.
The past few months I have been on "summer" break and really have not been doing a whole lot of anything. Turns out kids all over the world like to bum around and do nothing when they do not have school. I moved host families and I am just as comfortable and happy with my second family as I was with my first. I am really glad that I came to this family next instead of the original plan to come here at the end of my exchange because two of my three brothers came home for the holidays. I spend the majority of my days with my seventeen-year-old brother who just recently returned after having his exchange year in Alaska. I have traveled to the neighboring state (about a 12 hour drive) and other various small towns that I have family in.
The most exciting thing that I have done recently is being swept down a waterfall`s rapids and let me tell you, it is no joke. I have always been the person to yell at the television screen for the person to grab onto the tree branch or step OFF of the train track, but I now have a newfound understanding of their struggle. I went tumbling down the rapids for a good twenty five seconds before I could wrap my leg around a rock and hold on until my uncle who had been chasing after me was able to pull me out of the water. One thing Rotary does not prepare you for is the situations that some of us in more exotic countries will face. Note to future exchangers: Read The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook. Really.
Other than my near death experience, everything has been relatively good. The holidays are rough. Plain and simple. It is tough being away from your friends and family during a time when everyone is gathered to spend time together. Both of my host parents have ten siblings each. Then factor in spouses and children. I had a Brazilian Christmas in the sense that I spent it with about forty of my closest family members. I do not know whether it is because I am growing older or because I am in Brasil, but Christmas just was not so festive this year. Christmas basically consisted of a big family dinner at midnight on Christmas Eve. I spent Christmas dinner eating scrambled eggs alone with my brother. For New Year`s Eve I went to a lake house with my brothers and another family. We set up a little night club next door on the neighbor`s porch and danced the night away.
I am at the point in my exchange where I can speak my mind more or less whenever I please. The frustrating aspect is that I am constantly being laughed at. When I first arrived I was fine with people laughing at my accent and making fun of me, partly because I did not understand, and partly because I thought it would eventually subside. It turns out it does not stop or even slow down. It is so discouraging to have people laugh at what I say when I have already been here five months. They ask me to say things all the time but I never want to play along because they just want to hear me say it so they can announce it to everyone and make fun of me. I realize that this is all part of exchange but I must admit it is getting a little old and I do not make fun of them and their broken English.
I am going on a month long trip with other exchange students to the Northeast to visit all of the beaches. Although I am excited to go, I cannot help but think what I will be missing here in my city. It is funny because only five months before I was thinking the same thing but about Florida. I think it is really difficult to live in the moment on exchange because you are constantly thinking about how much time there is until your exchange is over. Sometimes I think about in the sense of how much time I still have here and sometimes I think about it as how much time I have left until I have to leave. I think it is a good sign that I am afraid to miss out on something here in Brasil instead of in the USA because it shows how accustomed I am to daily life here, but it makes it that much harder to leave in six months.
I spent the past month traveling around the Northeast of Brazil with forty other exchange students. Although I saw some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, the best part of the trip was being constantly surrounded by exchange students who represented twenty different cultures. My year abroad has not only allowed me to learn about Brazilian culture but also cultures from around the world. It was slightly depressing going back home after spending a month together on the beach, but then I realized I am going to my Brazilian home. I am going back to live the new exciting life that I left my home in Florida for. In reality I wasn’t downgrading from vacation to normal life because although I have a “stable, normal” life in Brazil, I still have so much to discover and learn.
Now that I am back in my city, I have switched to my third family and started school again. The odd thing about having summer vacation during exchange year is that when you return to school at the beginning of the year, it is like you aren’t an exchange student. All of the kids already know me and the teachers don’t make any special notice of me because there is no reason to. Now that I can speak Portuguese, the teachers treat me like any other student. Slowly one by one my teachers have been finding out I am American, but I have noticed that for anyone I meet, I’m not so exciting when I can speak their language.
For those considering going on exchange, a bit of advice: the second half of the year is 1000x better, so stick it out! At first I thought I would be one of those kids who would have a good, educational year but not fall in love with their country. Now, I cannot say the same. I also have realized how lucky I am. I have been truly blessed with wonderful families. My best friends in Brazil are my siblings. My parents treat me as if I am their own. We are so comfortable with each other that I make the whiney puppy face with my sister when asking our dad to drive us somewhere. I’m having trouble grasping the concept of leaving Brazil in just three months. I surprise myself every time I say I have been here for eight months already. I still have so many places I want to visit, so much Portuguese to learn, and so many people to meet. I think that any change in pace of your normal life broadens your horizons. I don’t think it is necessary to live in a foreign country for a year to experience half of the things I have experienced. Most of it is surrounding yourself with completely new people. Of course, the rest involves submerging yourself in a new culture and language, but if you don’t feel you’re one of those people who could live abroad for a year, don’t think that you are stuck in a bubble without the possibility of change. I have had three completely different experiences with my families. They are all Brazilian, yet their daily routines and lives are all unique. American families are the same way, you just need to venture out and experience new things. Brazil and exchange has made such a positive impact on me and I think it is safe to say the same for the people I have met in Brazil.
One of the hardest things, if not the hardest, to deal with on exchange is the passing of a family member back home. In the past three months I have gotten news that two of my close family members have died. For me, it is such a strange concept to grasp when I am so far removed from the situation and actually, the reality of it all. I still don’t think it has hit me yet nor will it until the first holiday that we are supposed to spend together arrives. Although I now have experience in receiving the news that a loved one has passed while on exchange, I am of little guidance. All I can say is you have to keep on living. It makes you realize how short life is, let alone exchange.
My family came to visit me in Brazil. In actuality it was just my parents and little brother because my sister is graduating university in a couple of months and can`t miss school. I don’t really know how to explain the way I felt having my two worlds together. Of course I loved seeing my family, but it is just a strange feeling for them to see and do what only I have been experiencing for the past eight months. When I saw my family, it felt like we hadn’t been separated for any time at all. After the initial period of being away from my family, I kind of created two separate lives. I don’t think about my life in Florida daily because I am so busy living my life here. Anyways, there were more people at the airport to welcome my parents than there were when I arrived! I could honestly not be happier with the way my families got along. My American family fit in so perfectly with my life here (besides the language barrier). All of my host families were truly wonderful and constantly planned things for my family to do. There were several churrascos (Brazilian bbqs), a day at a waterpark and natural hot water springs, a soccer game at the stadium, a rotary party just for my family, and so much more. I must say though, it is frustrating translating everything both ways. It was an odd feeling to speak in front of my parent and they had no idea what I was saying.
I have so much going on these days that it is difficult for me to choose which experiences to write about. Before the end of my exchange I will write a journal jam packed with all of the things I have stuffed into my last two months here in Brazil. Until then!
At this point, I have trouble distinguishing the differences between Brazil and the United States. It is not that I do not remember things about Florida, it is more of the matter that the little things I found odd about Brazil when I first arrived no longer appear odd. I only realize these differences now when I talk to people in Florida and they stop me and say, “Wait, what!?” It is then that I remember it is not normal to throw your toilet paper in the trash can instead of flushing it. Don`t get me wrong, I am still occasionally shocked by things I have seen a million times but I just cannot seem to process as normal. I laugh and think, “Oh Brazil”. I am looking forward to the questions about Brazil after watching the new Fast and Furious movie. I am sure I will be asked, “Do women really walk around in their bra and underwear?” and “Does everyone carry a gun on the street?” I experienced the same type of questions upon arriving in Brazil except geared towards the American Pie movies. I am completing the circle and will shortly be experiencing similar feelings as to when I arrived, commonly known as reverse culture shock. People ask me things about my family and my home and I always ask “Which?” They are normally surprised and reply, “American” with a conspicuous look. I feel as though a lot of people do not understand that I have two homes. Florida will always be my home and now, so will Brazil. The friends I have made here are not just classmates, they are people I want to invite to my wedding and my host families are not just people I live with, they are my family as if we were related by blood. A year is such a short time and many people move to a new place for a year, but I think in my, and every other exchange students’ situation, it is different. I was so incredibly dependent on everyone here in Brazil. I did not know anyone; I did not know the language; the city; the customs; the “norm”. I could not have been welcomed with more love, care, and security than with the Brazilians I have met.
After thinking long and hard, I came up with a few things I found to be different in Brazil. I enter and leave school, nightclubs, and various other places by electronic fingerprint. I address my teachers, and every other adult for that matter, by first name. There are monthly payment options for almost everything including shoes, clothing, and make-up. Instead of squirrels running around my neighborhood, we have Emus. I have come to learn that a fair amount of Brazilians in my city never learned how to swim.
I have been doing so many things the past month or two but there is one thing in particular that I want to mention and that is the Amazon. I lived on a boat, in the middle of the Amazon. It was a really amazing trip but to be honest, it is the most awesome feeling to be in the Amazon. People ask me what I did on the trip and I am thinking to myself, WHAT I did is irrelevant because everything I did, I did IN THE AMAZON! I am still in awe that I have done all these things. I mean, how many people can say they slept for a night in a hammock in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest? Not many, that is for sure.
What scares me the most about going home to Florida is the possibility that it will be like this year never happened. Many that I have talked to whom have already returned have said it felt like they never left. While I want to feel comfortable when I return, I also want things to have changed, or at least me. I want to share my experience with the world. This, however, is difficult. The best I can do is to convince my peers to take part in exchange. I want to present the opportunity for others to have their own experience whether it is being an exchange student or hosting one. I have the utmost respect for everyone involved in Rotary Youth Exchange. I am truly thankful for all of the encouragement and hard work put forth by Daphne, Al, Jody, and all others involved, but I am especially grateful for the initial opportunity that you all have provided to me and all other exchangers. Thank you.