I have a lot to say here, but I’m going to start with this: At times, I can`t believe that just a year ago, I met the lovely Mrs. Cameron at my high school for an afternoon presentation about Rotary Youth Exchange. At times I can’t believe that it’s been only 9 months since I found out I was going to Brazil for a year. Most of all, I have trouble at times believing that I’ve been here a month already. It feels both like I’ve been here for so much longer, and that time is shooting by.
August 16th was the official end of the first year of my exchange. Around noon, I left my little town of Palatka for Jacksonville and the airport that would launch me away from everything I’d ever known up till then. I arrived a good deal earlier than I needed to with my mother, father, and younger sister, but it gave me time to relax before going through security. I had never flown before (or even been in an airport, if I recall correctly), and was just the littlest bit nervous. The airport, thankfully, allowed my dad through with me, so I didn’t have any problems. It wasn’t very long before that the gate to my plane opened, and I was hugging my dad goodbye. I didn't cry, but I think it was more shock than anything else. I had never been truly on my own, and here I was boarding a plane to another country (another world, it felt like!), alone. I took a deep breath, picked up my bags, and stepped.
That was 4 weeks ago today. When I arrived in Brasil, I made it through Customs and Immigration with little more than a smile (Thank you Randy), and eventually made it to Brasilia. There I was greeted by the Chairman of RYE District 4530, Mário Sérgio da Silva Cardoso, and spent the night in his home because my next flight was the next morning. After a quick flight to Barreiras, my beloved little (little?) town, I landed at the airport and was greeted by my rotary club in its quasi-entirety. I was so shocked by everything; I could barely remember the little Portuguese I knew. I met my first Host Mom, Inácia, whose daughter Ana is in Florida on exchange at this moment, and was given a grand view of my city from what I believe is the steepest hill I’ve ever been driven down. Barreiras is a very important agricultural town in extreme western Bahia, and while as big as Salvador, it’s still a lot bigger than my town in Florida.
I always thought of myself as a person tolerant of differences and able to adapt to just about anything. Living in Brasil (especially far inland in the Northeast, away from the touristy attractions) has taught me this: If you really want to find out some (potentially unsettling) thing(s) about yourself, remove yourself from everything familiar and comfortable. I never danced before coming here; I never walked through neighborhoods where it probably wasn’t a good idea to be alone at night; I never knew how it felt to be a stranger in another culture, curious to learn, and have someone go far out of their way to show you something they thought was important. I never went to parties, or even really wanted to (WHY?!?!). I was content to sit at home, or school, or work, and wish I was different, or things were different, and never actually do something for myself. I was the biggest thing standing in my own way, and standing in the way of all those social connections I resigned myself to never having. No More.
And now, for the thing that all exchange students are legally bound to do during their first journals (Look on the guarantee form, there’s another clause in microdot form): Lists!
• I’m not going to say anything about the roads and people driving in Brasil, except that you really should put your seatbelt on, no matter the weird looks you may get from the driver’s seat.
• Motorcycles are very common here, and a lot of the people on them ignore the few rules that other drivers follow.
• Conçerta sounds kind of like concert, but if you stick your head out the window listening for music as you drive through town with your host dad, he’s going to laugh at you the entire way to the repair shop.
• Also, Brasil uses the metric system. If you’re not really paying attention in class, and all of a sudden your math teacher asks for your weight, divide the number (in pounds) by 2.2 and say that. Don’t tell him you weigh 160 Kgs, or everyone is going to laugh at you. A lot.
• Apparently, Osama Bin Laden is alive here in Barreiras, selling ice cream. I’ll try to get a photo and post it in an upcoming journal.
• You will learn to love arroz e feijão, and having big lunches is something to look forward after school in the morning.
• Also, apparently, everyone knows Michael Jackson, Michael Phelps, and Michael Jordan. Oh, and Harry Potter too.
• Rachel (Outbound to Japan) is right: You can make someone laugh in any language. And people truly appreciate the effort you put into trying to communicate with them, so don’t let frustration stop you. Keep trying.
• It’s harder if you’re the only exchange student in your town, but you’ll learn Portuguese much faster. It’s that, or you can sit at home because you can’t talk to anybody.
And finally (also required), the advice portion for future outbounds. You are going to feel bad, very bad at times. Maybe it’s when you look up at the electrical wires running into your showerhead (I kind of wish someone had told me this before the last week before I left, and don’t worry, it’s not dangerous) (although Anna Shipley has a funny story about that from the inbound weekend…), or when you’re sitting in class by yourself because everyone else is working on an assignment that you don’t have to do. Maybe it’s the second week, when you are in the bathroom because your stomach still hasn’t adjusted to the food (it gets better, trust me), or when you’re lying in bed missing your friends, your family, the places you went where you could do what you wanted, say what you wanted, because you knew the language. All I can say is this: You’re tougher than you know, and you can make it through this. Just endure for one more day. Then another. And another. Soon enough, you’ll be spitting out Portuguese like you’d never have believed, and loving your new life. Also, it helps a lot to write down what you feel, whether in a journal, a blog (both for me), or something else. It makes looking back easier, and you might write a memoir one day. You’re going to need the notes.
Anyhow, I know this is a very long post, but it’s been a month, and I like to write. A tremendous “Thank you” to everyone involved in RYE Florida, especially Daphne Cameron, Jody Davis, Al Kalter, Bill Learn, Paula Roderick, all the Rotex, my RYE classmates, Rotary Club Rio de Ondas Barreiras, District 4550, and my wonderful family and friends for supporting me while I’m here. It won’t be long before I’m back and saying “I want to go home!!!” Até Mais -Michael
“Not all who wander are lost.” I discovered this quote not long ago, and I like thinking about it. For me, it speaks of a journey, one without a final destination. If such a journey has no pre-determined end, then our focus should be on the things found along the path; experiences that make us feel like the whole world is dancing; things that make us instinctively recoil in terror or disgust; ancient relics that force us to ponder the past. Moreover, in wandering, perhaps we will find some new path, leading us to places long lost, or never before seen.
So, it has been almost 5 months since I left Florida, and I have had too many experiences to ever relate in one sitting. In five short months, I think that to say I have changed completely is not wrong. I remember who I was in my old life, and I can see all the opportunities I passed on for some reason. I cannot wait to apply all the lessons I have learned here in Brasil, my adoptive home. It has not been easy being 4000+ miles from my family and friends, but I have to give my eternal thanks to the wonderful families and people of Brasil who have welcomed me so kindly into their homes, their lives, and their hearts.
The first half of December was a wonderful chapter in my exchange. I traveled from my city of Barreiras to Itapetinga for a meeting of the intercambistas in Bahia state (the ones who weren’t traveling on the Northeast trip, anyway). After a record (for me) 14-hour bus ride, I spent a amazing weekend with my fellow students, where I: played soccer for the first time in about 10 years (Although my friend Britta was a lot more valuable as a goalie); introduced myself (in Portuguese) from a stage, in front of at least 150 people, at a dance; met and stayed with a wonderful family whose son is hoping to be an exchange student next year; and finally had an opportunity to compare my Portuguese skills with the other exchange students (I’m doing very well for 5 months here). After that, I went to Ilhéus (a beautiful oceanside town that made me miss Florida so much!) to pass a few days before I went to Salvador the next weekend. I didn’t get to see the beaches I’ve heard so much about (I will visit them next time, even if I have to walk across town), but it was great seeing my friends Britta and Kate in their city, and spending time with the local Interact.
Then it was time to go to Salvador, to help with the Candidate interviews for District 4550 for next year. Britta and I made the trip by bus, and arrived in nighttime. The first time I came to Salvador I arrived in the morning, and was struck by how large and spread out the city was. This time, between normal city lights and Christmas decorations, it looked even bigger! After pizza and bed, the next day was Interview Time! A marathon twelve hours of asking the same questions over and over, studying the little details of the candidates, trying to determine who had the best reasons for going, who would do well completely off balance and who would just burn out – all from a 15 minute interview! Admittedly, it didn’t feel like the acid-test approach of my interviews, but I still have a better appreciation of what it’s like to choose people to put your hopes behind before handing them an airplane ticket to another country. (One small after-note: Interviews ende d at 5:15 PM, and afterwards I went to the bus station, bought my ticket to Barreiras (I cannot describe how proud and terrified I was that I did this by myself for the first time in Salvador), and waited for my 7:45 bus, before traveling for 12 hours. I took that Monday off.)
I had already spent 4 months with my first host family, so I changed to a temporary home with another Rotarian in my city. Marisete has made me feel so welcome, and I love having host siblings in house for once. I passed Christmas with her and her family, and that went better than I had ever hoped. My family in Florida never was very big, so we never had a big family get-together and party for Christmas. However, Marisete has a lot of family here in town, so it was a big event, and I really enjoyed it. I had thought that I would spend Christmas sad and thinking about being separate from my family…and, while I certainly felt those feelings, I only have one Exchange, and it was so easy to enjoy myself with everyone that I had a great time. Now, in the days before the New Year, I’m getting ready to change to my “Second Host Family,“ but I feel that Marisete was as much a family for me as the next two will be.
As always, a word for the future outbounds (besides heartfelt “Congratulations”!). I have the unique experience of being the only RYE student in my city. This has made my exchange both easier in some ways, and harder in others. Easier in that, lacking other intercambistas to talk to, I have had to make friends from the people I met in school, or from people my family knew. This in turn helped motivate me to learn my language.
At the same time, being (physically, since the internet is a wonderful thing) far from people who understand what I feel (and my efforts to express those feelings) has been tough at times. There were (and are) many times that I feel frustrated, because it feels like everyone just sees me as this giant baby, unable to talk properly, who has to be carried around and taken care of. Moreover, all I want to do is rant about it, but there is no one to talk to who understands and will listen. Be careful. These are the types of feelings that can turn sour and rotten if left bottled inside you. Write, run, box, play Capoeira, do anything to help draw these feelings out. It is far too easy to let resentment color your vision, and the wonderful people who have agreed to take you in do not deserve unwarranted prejudice.
So, in summary: At 5 months in, I’m doing very well with Portuguese; I already feel very comfortable with life here; I have many friends, both from my families and of my own work; I’m about to enter the New Year with another new family. I’m not happy all the time, but in general, I’m loving life. I don’t feel that the end of my Exchange is a deadline hanging over my head, waiting to drop like an iron cage. It’s more like a string tied ‘round my finger, a gentle reminder que eu preciso aproveitar minhas opportunidades, that I need to take advantage of the opportunities I have before I (and they) leave.
A million Obrigados to RYE District 6970, RYE District 4550, all the countless people who’ve helped me along this path (although, as always, I’ll single you out, Mrs. Daphne Cameron), my family (who I miss terribly), and all of my fellow outbounds and inbounds (Including Joe in Kyrgyzstan). I wish all of you an amazing Ano Novo. Até Proxima! -Michael