October 25, 2013
It has been 78 days since I have left all that is familiar to me. I now stand 4,368 miles away from the concrete walls marked with the numbers 1317 at the corner of Robin road and Cardinal drive. The place that I called home for the majority of my life- in the city that has been marked by the tracks of my training wheels as well as the four wheels of my car. But here in the beautiful country of Brazil, I am now sheltered by new walls labeled 50- in a new city where I have already begun to leave new tracks.
So far adapting hasn’t been too much of a struggle. I have found it easy to spot the differences and just roll with them. However, after my first two weeks here I realized that when I would pick up on things that weren’t quite what I was use to, I would think “Oh, that’s strange” or “That’s kinda weird.” I then remembered that just because its different or something I am unfamiliar with doesn’t make it strange or weird. I have made it a goal of mine now to try to look at everything with an open mind. To push what I know to the side and just allow myself to absorb everything with no predetermined expectations or judgment, and allow everything that I encounter- new or familiar- be an opportunity for me to learn. And honestly, it’s a lot more challenging then you’d think. But it’s the differences and challenges that make this exchange worth while- I mean if I expected everything to be the same, why wouldn’t I have just stayed in the States? What would be the purpose of this year? Its been nearly 3 months since I began my exchange here in Santa Catarina, Brazil. My new routine has been put into place (and by routine I mean the consistency of never having a sanely scheduled week and understanding that I probably never will have one while I am here.)
Encountering the new culture and language all kinda started in the airport when I landed in Brasilia. I am pretty familiar with flying and airports so I wasn’t really overwhelmed with getting lost, not knowing what to do, or where to go. But in Brasilia is where I first heard people conversing in Portuguese and it was bizarre and exciting. I was able to get through customs and check-in fairly smoothly with pure luck and the simple airport terms I knew in Portuguese. But then I arrived in Curitiba where my family was waiting to pick me up. To be honest, I don’t remember that much about the very beginning of my exchange, but I do know that I exchanged a very awkward greeting with my family. (No surprise their Elissa…you’ve always had a knack for those awkward human interactions.) Then once we got past the “welcome to Brazil”’s, “how was you flight?”- “good”, “how is your Portuguese?”- “I only speak a little,” part of our greeting- the rest of the evening was filled with a whole lot of smiling, nodding, and mental coaching that went a little something like: “Well it’s too late to turn back now.” “Remember, when they look at you while they are talking it probably means they are talking about you. So smile.” “You know what, this is fun. It’ s like an extreme game of Charades.” “Maybe if you nod your head you wont look as confused as you really are. Play it cool.” Now, while it was strange getting in a car and going home with complete strangers (you know, something we were told our whole lives growing up not to do) my family made me feel very welcome and relaxed. In fact, my host mother literally tucked me into bed the first night. What a perfect way to end the most confusing and overwhelming day of my life. Coming into this whole experience, the thing that I was most afraid of was walking into the already settled and routine lives of my soon to be family- I didn't want to be seen as a hassle. But to my relief I am living in a house full of the most caring and kindhearted people. I honestly think I might have used up all my luck in getting this family because I couldn't imagine feeling any more at home in this (now somewhat foreign) country then with these folks.
And Rotary. I walked into a club full of open arms- literally. In my first meeting I was greeted with a long line of warm hugs and those side cheeky kiss greeting things. My club is an all women’s club and are hosting 3 of the 9 exchange students in my city. Rotary here in Jaraguá is very well known and well supported. My club in particular is very active in my city and with us exchange students. I have done numerous activities with my club thus far like with fundraisers at my cities shopping fair, attended Rotary dinners, and walked around the city in a breast cancer awareness walk. I also attend my clubs Rotary meetings every Monday night where I speak for 2 minutes at the start of each meeting. The people of Rotary are so supportive and so willing to help- they have definitely helped to make my adjustment very smooth and I am grateful for that.
Now a couple months in, I understand a great deal of what is being said to me and around me. But speaking (and speaking grammatically correct) is much more challenging then I expected. Everyday I am picking up new things and experimenting with new phrases. The language is something I struggle with everyday, but it’s the most difficult things that always turn out to be the most rewarding. About two weeks ago I was even able to help translate while I spent one week with a group of thirty students from Frankfurt, Germany, who came to my city to play in an orchestra. (They all spoke English.) Before that I wasn’t confident in my Portuguese progress but being able to translate for other people helped me to realize just how much I have learned.
I have already done so much during my time here. I am always going out somewhere with my family, exchange friends, school friends, or Rotary. Every weekday and weekend has been packed with some sort of activity, always something new. But my favorite day so far was when my family took me to a mountain in Corupá. We hiked for two hours up this mountain that had 14 different waterfalls. At the top, we had a picnic lunch right near the bottom of the highest waterfall. It was the most perfect day- one I am sure I will never forget.