Christi Leonard
2011-12 Outbound to Brazil

Hometown: St. Johns, Florida
School: Bartram Trail High School
Sponsor: Bartram Trail Rotary Club, District 6970, Florida
Host: Rotary Club of Pato Branco Amizade, District 4640, Brazil

Christi's Bio

Oi! My name is Christi and I have been fortunate enough to receive an amazing opportunity to live in Brazil! Last year at this same exact time, I never imagined spending a year in another country. It’s quite amusing to see the reaction on peoples’ faces when they find out I will be in Brazil for a year instead of going straight to college.

I am a senior at Bartram Trail High School in a small town called St. Johns. My parents, Donna and Bob and my two sisters, Amy and Nicole make my life very interesting (in a good way). I enjoy participating in a competitive piano studio in which I compete at district and state level competitions. Eleven years of piano has brought much joy into my life and I absolutely love using this special gift God has given me. Last year I was crowned “Miss Bartram Trail” at my high school pageant, something I never thought would happen. I then continued on to compete for “Miss Senior High”. I was awarded “Most Talented” in both pageants and gained tremendous experience in interviews as well as public speaking.

As an active student in school, I take AP and honor classes and I am involved in many clubs. This year I created the World Foreign Language Club at my school and enjoy being the President. Also, I am the Historian for National Honor Society, Secretary for the National Beta Club, and a member of the Teenage Republican Club, Science National Honor Society, Math Honor Society, National Art Honor Society, and Senior Women Club.

The remainder of my time is spent drawing, attending mass at San Juan Del Rio Catholic Church, teaching piano, cashiering at Publix supermarkets, running, traveling, and of course learning Portuguese and Spanish. When I attend college, I would love to major in International Relations, specifically Latin American Studies, and pursue minors in Portuguese and Spanish. I am certain that my experience as an exchange student with Rotary will assist me tremendously in any aspect of my future and I look forward to representing Florida.

Obrigada Rotary!

Christi's Journals

October 20, 2011

07:10 AM

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” -Helen Keller

As I sit at my desk and type this journal, accomplished is the word I would use to describe my exchange up to this point. Navigating through almost every difficulty I could have imagined, I now find myself content with the unique experience I have created for myself here in Brazil. I never believed that this exchange would change me in just my first two months, but I was definitely proven wrong. With every adversity I face, I become a much stronger person accompanied by a whole new attitude about life. Most importantly, I now understand the concept of “speaking up” for myself. That within itself is the greatest lesson I have learned here so far.

The first image that comes to mind when people think of Brazil is exotic fruit, rainforest, and beautiful beaches. When traveling the 7-hour car drive from Curitiba, my state’s capital, to the small interior town of Pato Branco (White Duck), I could not help but think, “This is not the Brazil I had in mind”. But then I realized, I came to Brazil to experience a new culture, master Portuguese, and create new relationships with the local Brazilians; and that is exactly what I am doing.

As the saying goes, “you can never learn too much of your language before you arrive”. To my surprise, I think I learned just the right amount. Upon my arrival, I immediately had ease communicating my feelings and my first week I received multiple compliments on my language skills. It has been only two months and I already declare myself fluent. Whether it was studying my 501 Portuguese Verb book months before my arrival or having a basic knowledge of Spanish, the Portuguese language comes very natural and easy to me. It’s a great feeling when I think in Portuguese and make mistakes in English.

Having already completed high school in the United States, I found myself feeling very “mature” in the private high school I was studying at. In need of a more challenging environment, I was able to negotiate a move up to the local college in my town. There I study architecture at night and really enjoy learning about complicated subject matter. Students in my town have full time jobs and spend all night studying at college. It is quite impressive compared to college life in the United States. Here, one selects a field to study and then must pass an exam before entering college. Depending on the major, many years of studying for this exam are necessary to pass.

Aside from studying, I have participated in various volunteer projects. My weekly volunteer activity is a job as a teacher’s assistant at a local public school. They are always so eager to talk to me and I am equally as excited to share about my culture. Some common questions that I am asked regularly include: Do you like the band Red Hot Chili Peppers?, How do you like Brazilian food?, Have you been to Disney?, and other various questions regarding the United States. I am usually so overwhelmed by all their questions that sometimes I feel I am not teaching enough English, but I am beginning to see that my ambassadorial involvement with these Brazilian students may be the greater lesson I am teaching. Other volunteer projects that I have been involved with is assisting my host Rotary Club prepare a Japanese-style dinner for 500 plus Interact students, painting faces at a center for handicapped children, and the most rewarding project was helping underprivileged women gain their dignity back by doing their make-up, nails, and hair. My most recent volunteer activity was involvement in a lunch for women who have or had breast cancer followed by a parade. Whenever I feel that things are getting tough or lonely for me in Brazil, I reach out and help others and it forces me to redefine my life's purpose once again.

An ordinary afternoon for me involves Portuguese lessons with the other exchange students, Spanish classes at another local college, studying, visiting my host mom at her work, or spending time with friends. Because air conditioning is extremely rare here, I have managed to find one place that has it…the bookstore. I have refused to buy any clothing or electronics in Brazil due to the price. A pack of gum with 3 pieces is the equivalent to $3.50 U.S. dollars. On the contrary, food is cheaper because the South is based on agriculture. If these facts were reversed I would be able to afford more clothing and lose weight (ha).

Many of my weekends have been spent attending religious events or passing time on the farm with my host family. Being Catholic, I find religion to be the most intriguing aspect of Southern Brazil. I have never been so touched by God’s power until this exchange; it is absolutely incredible how far my faith has taken me. If I do not attend mass Sunday night with my family, we participate in a mass Sunday morning. Morning mass on the farm is preceded by a parade with “Nossa Senhora Aparecida” (a religious Catholic figure) and followed by a huge religious party afterwards.

So far I have taken one trip to the Iguassu falls with all the exchange students in my district. The first day there, we went “shopping” in Paraguay. There is no way to describe how crazy the market was. As I was making my way through all the commotion, so many street vendors were pulling me and shouting! The second day we visited the largest waterfall in the world; Iguassu falls. To our disappointment, it poured the whole entire time. From what I could see, it was truly magical…good thing I have more time to return. In a couple weeks, I will travel to Pantanal and Bonito, two amazing places located in the state of Matto Grosso. Pantanal is actually one of the world’s largest wildlife refuges. There I will ride horses through the river, go piranha fishing, see animals that people only see in zoos (toucans and capybaras), go rafting and snorkeling in crystal clear waters and much more…I can’t wait!

One of my favorite moments so far was celebrating my 19th birthday in Brazil. That morning when I helped teach at the school, the kids sang Parabéns (Happy birthday) to me at least six times. After, my Rotary club threw a surprise birthday lunch for me at a Japanese restaurant…it was so thoughtful and they even got me a hair straightener! (mine from the U.S. doesn’t work here). When I returned from lunch, a huge bouquet of flowers were laid across my bed. I was so sure they were from my host family but then discovered the flowers were from my family in Florida. In that moment I couldn’t help but cry because I felt so grateful to have such an incredible family. Later that night, the exchange students in my town and a couple close friends came over for a small party. We ordered six huge pizzas and managed to not let any of it go to waste. My host mom ordered me a white chocolate and strawberry cake, gave me a very special gift and hosted a fantastic party for me! Words could not express how incredibly thankful I was. My second host family took me to the Paula Fernandes concert for my birthday…she sings traditional music of Southern Brazil called Sertenejo and is well known throughout the country.

Of course every journal must include a list of differences, so here it goes:

-If I walk around the house with bare feet, I am bound to receive stares…not because my family thinks it is gross, but because I might catch a cold.

-You must throw toilet paper in the trash bin next to the toilet and there is a button to flush the toilet.

-Ketchup or mayonnaise with pizza is a must…yes I tried it and no I did not like it.

-Every house is surrounded by a metal railing or fence to keep the robbers out…I am convinced they are used to contain the crazy, barking dogs.

-Cleaning products or wipes do not exist…. merely use pure alcohol on a cloth to clean surfaces.

-There is no carpet to cover the floor, just wood or tile.

-Almost every house has a chocolate stash…Brazilians are really addicted to it.

-Workers pump your gas for you at the gas station.

-Police never enforce any rules so seatbelts are optional…with the crazy driving I still use mine.

-Converse and Beetles are very popular…unfortunately my Sperry’s look like alien shoes to them.

-A heater is attached to the shower-head with electrical wires hanging about.

-Even if a house has a dishwasher, it is not used…. simply pass some soap and water with an old sponge and pronto.

-Never expect a Brazilian to be on time…punctuality is not in their vocabulary.

-A fork and knife are mandatory to eat any kind of food, especially pizza and burgers.

-Blonde highlights, even with the darkest hair, are very common and nail polish is a must.

-The whole world stops for lunch but dinner is small meal late at night.

-There are so many hills in my town…actually it feels like hiking a mountain to get anywhere.

-In the stores, attendants will follow you around the whole time even if you are just looking.

Rotex informed me that exchange would have its difficulties, but I am adjusting to my new life. I no longer question washing all dishes by hand or think twice about kissing someone on the cheek. Here, life is more simple and laid back but at the same time everyone is always working hard to maintain a decent life. I am extremely excited for my upcoming adventures and always look forward to another day in Brazil. Looking back, my past two months have really gone by fast but I have made the most of my time here. I still remember the day when Jack Murray gave the Rotary presentation at my school that would forever change my life. Everyday I wake up and thank God for making this opportunity available to me and to Rotary for making it happen. There is no way I would be in Brazil without the support of my parents; they are the brave ones for letting me go. As for now, até a próxima vez! (Until next time!)

Abraços,

Christi

It’s been quite a while since my last journal and I am having difficulty remembering everything that has happened in these last two months. Could it be the fact that I just can’t find the time to write anymore or that my mind is already on Brazilian summer vacation? Honestly I think as my Portuguese improves, I find myself struggling to create even the most basic thoughts in English. At five months into my exchange I continue to be complimented on my Portuguese. According to the book Outliers, “Success is not merely based on intelligence or the decisions and efforts we make; it is a result of having the strength and presence of mind to seize given opportunities”. The Rotary International Exchange program is an opportunity given to all high school students, but few grasp and take this life-changing chance. Had I not chosen to be an exchange student, I definitely would not be as successful with my language skills. At times I question whether applying for this program was the right decision, but then I realize that taking advantage of every opportunity that lies in front of me is what separates me from my peers. I am an out of the box thinker- a leader, a kind and compassionate ambassador striving to make a cultural difference in Brazil. For those considering applying or who have already been accepted to be a Rotary exchange student, absorb the fact that it is an opportunity that will change your life.

In Brazil, the four main trips available are: Pantanal & Bonito- a unique experience to discover hidden wildlife; Northeast Tour- a trip along Brazil’s northeast coast with the world renown beaches and rich African culture; Amazons- an adventure through one of the world’s largest rainforest reserves; and Southeast Tour- an enriching visit to the largest waterfalls per volume in the world. In Pantanal & Bonito, I became one with the wilderness as I camped next to alligators and jumped off a waterfall! This coming January through February I will spend thirty days touring the Northeast coast of Brazil including Brasília, Brazil’s capital, and Rio de Janeiro. Trust me when I tell you this Florida girl could not be more excited to be reunited with a beach again!

What have I been doing up to this point? My days have been spent teaching English in exchange for Portuguese lessons, going to college, and spending time with friends. I just finished my spring term where I studied architecture, advertising and marketing. I explained to my school that I would like to learn as much about the different programs offered so it will aid me in future career decisions. When I return from my Northeast trip, I plan on studying law in the mornings and teaching English to my students in the afternoon. I am excited to learn about Brazilian law and more excited to have available time in the afternoons to participate in activities such as guitar lessons.

In all honesty, I departed the U.S. with images of Brazil from books, personal accounts, etc. and came to discover that the Brazil I live in is completely opposite of everything I had read and heard about. The closest airport to my city is seven hours away and the nearest town is one hour. In fact, the majority of the residents in my town have never even traveled farther than their city limits. Their pale skin and Italian and German influenced culture diversify them from their bronzed counterparts with African and Indian traditions. Most don’t know how to dance samba and most definitely don’t play soccer everyday. The accent is completely different than any found in São Paulo or the Northeast. Whichever area it may be, it is impossible to pinpoint the culture just by one person or city; one must examine all the differences.

My mom always tells me, life is truly a gift. In the week right before Christmas, I saw my baby host cousin being born and one of my best Brazilian friends pass away in a car accident. God took one special person’s life and brought a new one into existence. We cannot change the past or predict the future, but we can treat each day as a rare and precious gift that we may never receive again. That is how I feel about Brazil. It is still amazing to me that I am here, living in a place that was so foreign but now my home. I am so grateful that I can wake up everyday and have the ability to decide what I want to make of my day. I believe that I am making the most of my life by trying new things and making every day I spend in Brazil count.

December was what I’d like to call my month of change. I started summer vacation, switched families, and most importantly, really began to adapt. As much as I would like to believe that the adaption process was effortless and comfortable, it most undeniably was not. Not until my fourth month into exchange did I really feel a sense of reassurance with my current environment. All of a sudden, eating dinner at nine or not saying “God bless you” when someone sneezed didn’t feel so strange. In fact, it is complicated to point out cultural differences now because everything feels normal. Contrary to “The Middle Wave of Culture Shock” by Dr. Dennis White, the months of November and December were not filled with melancholy and homesickness. These months were the turning point of my exchange and my confidence really reached a peak. I have read multiple books in Portuguese with ease, tried chicken hearts (not a fan), went to various prom/gradua tion parties, fought with the mail service about $200 taxes on Christmas boxes, went to a country concert, and much more!

As for my new family, they are the reason I will have a hard time leaving Brazil. I cannot stress how much a host family can make all the difference in one’s exchange. Immediately upon entering their house, I was greeted with love and support. I have two wonderful host parents, four little sisters, a pet dog and parrot. We have shared some great memories together, such as my sisters’ dance recital, graduations, beach trip, Christmas, and New Years. In just the short three weeks I have lived here, I could not feel more at home. Especially during Christmas, a period of homesickness for many exchange students, my absolute favorite memories were made. Holding hands and praying around the Christmas Eve dinner was so special as my host dad thanked God for bringing me into their lives. The next morning I attended Mass and, to my surprise, Santa brought presents for me! I received many thoughtful gifts. I was so happy and overwhelmed by their generosity I didn&rsquo ;t even think about how far away I was from my real family. Later that night I did have the opportunity to Skype with my family in Florida. Last week I traveled to a beach in the city Pontal do Sul. My host dad went fishing while I enjoyed relaxing at the beach house with my three younger sisters. Despite the rain, I had a great time bonding with them. It was the first time I had been to a beach since I left Florida! The same day we returned from the beach it was time to go to the lake house for New Years. The house was still under construction, so there were no doors, sinks or windows. Imagine fifteen people in one small house without any privacy! I spent my weekend riding jet skis, awing over the beautiful landscape at the lake, and just sharing some great stories about 2011.

Life goes by quickly. At times, especially when one encounters difficult situations, a day may seem like eternity. In the scheme of things, I remind myself life is a gift and must be treated with open arms. If 2011was this great I can’t wait to embrace the new experiences 2012 has to offer. I depart tomorrow for my thirty-day journey to Brazil’s Northeast. When I return, my Floridian mom will come to learn about my new life and spend Carnival season with me. Brazil…bring it on! Até mais : )

March 12, 2012

“I think I need this shirt and I would love to have this sundress”, were some of my thoughts as I eyed my already over packed suitcase. If I thought packing for a whole year was complicated, arranging my belongings for a five week trip to Brazil’s northeast coast proved to be just as challenging. After coming to terms with my final baggage selections, I rushed out the door to what would be the greatest vacation of my life. Of course I knew I would be back the following month, but the goodbyes to my host family left me in tears. Could it be that in such a short time I became so attached to my new family? If saying a temporary goodbye now was tough, I am thinking how difficult my final departure will be when I return home to the United States.

Never place fifty-five exchange students, from all over the world, on one bus for an extended time together without expecting the most chaotic and amusing time of your life. It is truly amazing how in just a short period of time, I made the most incredible, extraordinary friends… friends who will leave lasting impressions on my heart and mind for the rest of my life. Our adventure began in Brasília, Brazil’s capital, with a surprise tour of the President’s home. President Dilma must have loved our excited, energetic screams so much she allowed us to enter the inside of her private home, a rare opportunity for even Brazilians themselves. In Lençois, I enjoyed hiking, swimming in the natural springs, and exploring an underground cave. The city of Salvador brought warmer weather, a private beach and a historical tour of its beautiful churches. Recife’s beaches were not quite like those of Salvador’s, but it was there that our dancing spirits came alive with a mini carnival party. Next stop – Fortaleza and a great day of horseback riding, followed by the sand dune town of Jericuacuara, which could only be reached by dune buggy cars. By far this was one of my favorite cities on the tour. I took advantage of the opportunity to surf and kayak on the water all day. The next day was spent on a dune buggy tour in which each buggy held four exchange students. Without a doubt it was the most exciting activity of the trip and I can still remember the blasting music from the buggies as we raced through the sand. The short day we stayed in the city of Natal was spent relaxing on the beach and visiting a fort, which entailed the most breathtaking view at sunset! After Natal, we toured Porto Seguro, Brazil’s first capital when the country was founded. The rich Indian culture along with an interesting history made it an unforgettable city. Last but not least, our final destination was the stunning city of Rio de Janeiro! From the samba lessons to a tour through favelas (Brazil’s slums), Rio offered the most magnificent sights. Christ the Redeemer was absolutely my most favorite scene of the whole trip. It was such an emotional experience as I approached the giant statue of Christ. Seeing one of the most amazing sites in the world proved to be a dream come true.

A week after my Northeast trip, I headed seven hours east to the capital of my state, Curitiba, to pick my Florida Mom up from the airport. I had become so accustomed to not seeing any Florida family that it felt like a dream as we hugged hello. We rode Curitiba’s historical tour bus, ate lunch at the second largest restaurant in the world, and ended the day at the beautiful botanical gardens. We then proceeded to Florianopolis, the beach capital of the state of Santa Catarina to visit family and see Saint Paulina’s church and shrine. After experiencing two larger Brazilian cities, I was then able to show my mom around my host city, Pato Branco. She became familiar with the roads I walk each day and the small stores I pass on my way into town. Most importantly, she met all the people who have impacted my exchange from my Rotary host club to my Brazilian friends and families. Just to show my American mom the culture I have been experiencing was a special moment for me. The next weekend my mom and I had the opportunity to visit and hike Iguazu Falls. The falls were completely awe-inspiring and pictures cannot do them justice. We also got to visit a native Brazilian bird park followed by a fascinating South American cultural dinner show with my host family. To explain every detail of my mom’s visit would be impossible, but let’s just say we made some of the most unforgettable memories of our lives. What an amazing gift!

As for an update on my volunteering….the principal at the public school I helped out with last year has now promoted me to teach classes all on my own. Every Monday and Wednesday afternoon along with Wednesday and Friday mornings, any student has the opportunity to come to my classroom to receive help with English. Some students have no prior knowledge of English, while others come to improve. Whatever the case may be, they can ask questions, bring homework, or simply obtain conversational skills by speaking with me. This part of my exchange is and has been the most rewarding because I can see the results of my teaching efforts. The friendships I am making and the opinions I am changing about the United States most definitely reinforces why I am here. I have made memories with some of these students since the beginning of my exchange and they will always remind me why I love teaching and helping others. There’s not a better feeling than being wanted and appreciated for your skills, in my case, knowing English. Every student encounter always brings interesting discussions and laughs to my teaching day. I cannot begin to explain how humorous or difficult their questions can be, but here are a few:

*Do you know Michael Jackson personally?

*Why do Americans think favelas (Brazilian slums) are cool tourist sights?

*Why doesn’t anyone like Obama?

*Because the workdays in United States are always so busy, everyone has to eat at McDonalds, right?

*So, do you go out every night to the clubs?

*Are you married? (It is common to marry very young in Brazil)

*The U.S. economy seems to be declining. Are you going to come back and live in Brazil permanently?

*Why have Americans always considered Brazilians to be inferior? (Toughest question!)

*Are there really lockers in American high schools? (They think it is the most awesome thing)

*Can I take a picture with you?

*What is an exchange student? (Well…..)

*Why are Americans obsessed with facebook?

*Does racism still exist there?

*What are some negatives about Brazil? (I never like answering this question)

*Can I go on exchange just to get my driver’s license and come back? (That would go over well)

Depois, I mean, “after”…okay, for my English readers you should be warned in advance that my brain is now constantly thinking in only Portuguese. As I am writing this journal, my Portuguese/English dictionary is assisting me with simple translations. The first five months of my exchange I would simply consider what I wanted to say in English and then translate to Portuguese. Now I am experiencing a bizarre sensation that I cannot begin to describe. My brain is now divided linguistically and one half thinks in English and the other in Portuguese, even my speaking becomes disorientated at times. My mom noticed my new “ accent” when I was speaking/translating English to her. Strange as it seems, I am incapable of hearing this accent and it leads me to believe that I am losing my English skills. Good news- obviously the transition stage of my exchange is over and I am fluent in Portuguese. Even the Brazilians here say I have no American accen t, when I speak, which I would consider a huge compliment to any exchange student. Well this is the part of my exchange where I throw my hands up on the roller coaster and enjoy the ride. If the chart in my outbound handbook is correct, I am in my assimilation stage and preparing for my final months here. With my remaining time left, I will continue to teach my English classes, continue working on my Portuguese, possibly begin yet another language (French) and continue to participate in various service projects in my community. Looking back at the uncertainty and difficulties I faced seven months ago, I am very proud of staying strong, confident and faithful to my Rotary exchange. I was born to be an exchange student and I’ve never felt so much pride and courage in representing my country. My mom felt that pride as she watched me give a presentation to my Rotary host club all in Portuguese and heard people say that I was the best exchange student they have ever ha d in Pato Branco. Once again, thank you to both my American & Brazilian Rotary host clubs, my supportive and loving family and friends back home and to God for giving me the strength and audacity to see this journey through to the end.