August 31, 2013
When it’s the dead of night and you’re the only passenger awake on a plane that is surrounded by ocean as far as the eye can see, that’s when you know that it’s real. When you see the first few tall buildings you snap a few pictures thinking it’s the downtown area only to realize that there are hundreds more on the horizon, that’s when you can see that it’s real. When you land and try to get through customs and immigration and baggage claim, well that’s when you hear it’s real, because it seems the whole word is talking at you and you don’t understand. Nothing could have prepared you for the amount of times that you had to say “Desculpe, eu não falo Português” and other phrases you wrote on a little notecard back in March, asking people to please speak slower and if they would not mind repeating themselves. Brasil, I am here. Let’s get started.
Food is a big part of the culture here in Brazil, and man is it good. It seems like every meal here I am being force fed more beef or chicken with potatoes and rice and oh my god there is just so much good food it’s hard to describe. On Wednesday my Rotary counselor took me out to dinner at a real Brazilian steakhouse, a churascaria called Ponteio. It’s a buffet style place that is really upscale, and waiters bring different cuts of meat to your seat and let you choose which ones you want. In all I tried six or seven different types of meat, from filets and roasted chicken to thick steaks and ribs. It was absolutely delicious, I had never felt so full in my life. In my home here, portion sizes are much smaller, cups and plates are probably half the size of the ones in the US, and another thing completely different is that my family has two maids, who do all the work around the house. Cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, chores that kids in America have don ’t exist here. It’s very weird for me to not at least help clean up after I eat, but here we just leave our plates on the kitchen counter and go about our business. However, that’s how it is done here, and you know what they, just do as the locals do, just because you do it a different way does not mean that your way is better than theirs. Plus, the added perk of never doing dishes or having yardwork is really nice, I can’t lie and say I don’t enjoy it! My family here is very nice, both of my parents are cardiologists who work in different hospitals in the city, and my three host siblings are near my age and very cool. Two of them, my sisters Juliana and Carol, are former exchange students, and my host brother Pedro leaves for Germany in January. My host dad does surgery, and he said I might have a chance to be able to observe one someday, which would be very cool! My siblings go to the American School here in Recife, so they speak English very well, and my host parents speak enough to get by alright. However, we try to speak in Portuguese as much as possible so I can learn as quickly as possible. Portuguese is a very difficult language to learn. Not so much the grammar and written parts, but speaking the language and understanding what is said is the hard part. People speak so fast and with an accent that makes it very hard to comprehend what they are talking about, but when spoken slowly I can understand and hold a decent conversation. Hopefully in the upcoming weeks and months I will slowly gain proficiency in the language. Until then, I could always use more practice on my charades.
Brasil is a completely different world. I have been here now one week, and the differences range from the major car companies (VW & Fiat if you were wondering) to the taste of the milk. I’m not kidding about the milk either, it legitimately is different and cereal in the morning just isn’t the same. My first week was started off by what might possibly be the best first day in exchange student history. After I met my host family at the airport and was shown what is now my home, a second floor unit in beautiful Bahía Blanca on Avenida Boa Viagem, I showered quickly, ate a tapioca com queijo (which might have been from heaven) and then caught a ride with the governors of Rotary in my area to Maragogi, a city two hours south of Recife. There was the inbound conference for the Rotary exchange students in my district, which includes several surrounding states. In total, there were close to 55 or 60 exchange students there from all over the world, and even though I arrived a day late everybody welcomed me and we had an amazing time that day. From playing volleyball to swimming in the ocean where it’s warm water even in the depths of winter to attending a meeting about Brazil and eating a Brazilian dinner with my new friends, it was extraordinary. We went to bed about two or three in the morning, capping off an all-time best first day, ever.
In the days after Maragogi, my Portuguese progressed rapidly as I spent time acclimating myself to the way of life here in Brazil. I visited the beach, ate a lot of Brazilian food, and worked on my Portuguese the first three days of the week, and on Thursday I started school. School here is completely different than back home. First off, most of the teachers have almost no control of the classroom, students talk all through the class and have their phones out and are generally not paying attention. However, the teachers don’t seem to mind. They only care that the kids pay attention when they need to, and the rest of the time they don’t care what the students do. Walking into school the first day I was a little nervous and a little excited to get my exchange underway at full speed. I didn’t understand much of anything said to me and of the hundred people I met I remember maybe ten names. I know that sounds bad, but I’ve never been the best with nam es and many are satanically hard to pronounce. I was very much the center of attention those first two days, but hopefully everybody will get used to me and I can just be a part of the school, not some stranger who walks in their midst. A few students speak a little English so if necessary I can get help, but for the most part I speak and am spoken to only in Portuguese. No amount of bookwork can prepare you for the accent and the speed of the language, but over the past few days I’ve been able to have decent conversations with some of the guys in my class about soccer, the city, and just everything in general. I’m sure that I speak with the grammatical correctness of a snot-dribbling toddler, but for the first week it’s better than I had hoped.
As I’m finishing up this journal, my mind wanders to what I will do next. Maybe I’ll go to the beach later, or on a run. I might continue doing more work on my Portuguese, or ask my host brother if there is a pickup soccer game sometime today we could go play in. A week into Brazil, I realize that the directions my exchange can go in are infinite, and the saying that your exchange is what you make it is most definitely true. Hopefully by the next journal I will have experienced more culture shock, more ups and more downs, and most definitely more Brazilian food. Tchau!
October 8, 2013
Sitting here an hour after lunch, during the sixth week of my exchange listening to the music float in from the kitchen where Maria is simoultaneously cooking, cleaning, and gossiping with Patricia, I can't stop thinking about how everything is going back home. Everybody gets homesick, it's not a disease that's cured with a shot or medicine, but with embracing the fact that when leaving behind one life to embrace another there will be tough times involved. When the going gets tough, the tough get going.. to the pantry to search for more chocolate. Not kidding, I am very fortunate to be in a family that keeps chocolate around the house. Call me a bloodhound, but when that stuff appears, I find it quickly and it doesn't last long. Mercifully, I am not the typical exchange student who stuffs their face and gains a lot of weight; having to walk nearly everywhere counteracts that. What I would give to be able to drive again.. . Since I last wrote, much has happened, my language skills have increased greatly, not close to where I want to be, but part of staying positive about the situation is recognizing improvement when it happens.
It's funny how as my Portuguese moves forward, my English begins to fall apart. During the times we spent at Lake Yale, the Rotex all said that over time you'd lose some of your English skills. I didn't believe them until it started happening, and my grammar freak friends back home started becoming upset because I don't use their, they're, and there correctly. Me no English good. It's great news for being able to talk in Portuguese, awful news for the college essays I'm writing. By far the most difficult part of the language so far has been understanding the accent and different sounds used, which quite honestly is a complete surprise to me. I thought coming in it would be hard to grasp the grammar and subtleties of the language, but I realized quickly that without understanding what's said to you it's very hard to respond in kind. Go ahead and say out loud the word
abacaxí. I'll let you know later how wrong you are with the pronunciation. Overall I am satisfied with how I am coming along, with my studies and with more time I have no doubt that fluency will come, and quickly. Until then, I will keep on making mistakes and laughing about them, because what else can you really do when you think you said "lived" but you really said "died" and the shocked look on the faces of the people tell you nothing except that you really screwed up this one. One positive side effect of learning Portuguese is that my comprehension of Spanish is growing as well. After taking four years of Spanish in high school, I knew a little bit, but the similarities between the two languages helps a lot. It has gotten to the point where sometimes in my Spanish class I'm not sure if the teacher is speaking in Spanish or Portuguese, I'm too busy translating it and trying to understand. Whatever works, right? Rotary talks about a daptability to situations, while I'm sure that's not quite what they meant, however it fits my definition for the term and so that's what I'm rolling with. Learning a new language is like a stone rolling down a hill, it starts slowly but over time gains momentum until suddenly the understanding comes in great leaps and bounds compared to before. Time is still my friend, and with many more months left in my exchange, I'm looking forward to learning as much as possible.
While I realize that talking about the difficulties with the language is not the most glamorous stuff, I'll go ahead and get to the juicy part, the info that everyone wants to know. What have I done with all my time in Brazil these past six weeks? Did I go to the beach every day filled with beautiful women in bikinis and to the club every night with my friends until four in the morning? Sadly, the answer is no. I know, you're aghast. How could I not be partaking in such wonderful activities? Brazil is all about partying, playing soccer, and that big river in that jungle somewhere. Truth is, my life here is normal. Nothing for the front page of the tabloids, unless the exchange student trying to stay awake in his Portuguese class is front page news these days. I walk around the areas that I know and I don't marvel at the buildings or spare attention for the stray dogs in the streets, nor does the waves crashing less than 100 yards away capture my attention li ke they did when I arrived. Normality is setting in. My weekdays are filled with school, and peppered with sports after. I play soccer with my friends after school some days, and just recently I began playing basketball on Wednesdays and Fridays. I don't go out to parties every Friday and Saturday; I'm more apt to spend that time with my friends or family. Many days after school I come home and have nothing to do, these days are the hardest for me. I'm a very active person by nature, so to be cooped up at home refreshing my Twitter and Facebook feeds is not my number one choice. Thankfully it doesn't happen often, normally I'll go for a run down by the beach or be out with my friends rather than be at home, but when I am home that's when the feelings are the most felt. Missing family, friends, the comforts of home, it's all to be expected and I knew it would happen during exchange. It's one of those things I'm determined to grind and get through, because I know it's a temporary phase. Knowledge is power, and knowing that it will pass makes it easier to get through the lows. Knowledge, and chocolate. Seriously can't emphasize enough the importance of chocolate. Nutella is the symbol of most exchange students, but for me, it's chocolate. Chocolate cakes, chocolate bars, chocolate milk.. you get the point. Truth be told I just took a break from writing this to go get some. Is there a 12 step program for addiction to chocolate? I might need it. All nonsense aside, my life here is just that, a life. It's so ordinary that to me, it is extraordinary. I too thought that my time here would be like a vacation, and the first week, it basically was. After that however, I have started to settle down and enjoy getting into the groove and a routine. I found a gym, am eating regular meals, going to school and generally just living the life of a normal Brazilian, except that here I'm taller t han most and have blond hair and blue eyes. So yeah, except for that and the language skills of a six year old, I'm basically Brazilian. One occasion that really surprised me was the week long Olympics that were held at my school last week. It's actually a common thing in Brazil. There was a whole Opening Ceremony with all of the teams from each class and performances with speeches and everything. Then, we competed in volleyball, basketball, soccer, and handball over the week. I am sad to say that no, my team in basketball did not win 1st place in basketball. I let down the Dream Team. We came in second though, in both basketball and soccer. The soccer was on a field the size of a basketball court, so it wasn't quite the real deal, but it's all we play as there is not enough room in the city for full sized fields. Quick story here, I saved a penalty in the semi-finals of soccer to advance to the finals. Kind of a big deal, what can I say. In all, it was a ctually a great week with a lot of fun and the biggest event that has happened since I last wrote.
One of the stereotypes about Brazil that is actually true is that they play soccer all day. The national religion is soccer. Every day, they talk about soccer. If the conversation is at a lull, just bring up the last game and you've got fodder for another hour of talk. I've had the privilege to go to a couple games of one of the teams here in Recife, Santa Cruz. Don't let the fact that of the three teams in Recife, they're in the lowest division. They're still the best. My host family is Santa Cruz supporters, so naturally so am I. We got great seats both games I went to, and in those two games Santa Cruz hasn't lost, so I'm basically their lucky charm. Not that I'm saying they should invite me to every game, but it could be a wise idea if they want to continue their run of success. Playing soccer with the Brazilians here is quite the humiliating experience, I've stuck to playing goalie because I'm marginally better at that then being out on the field and I can get lucky sometimes and fool people into thinking I'm decent in goal. Soccer here is just as important as I thought it would be, and a definite part of fitting in and embracing the culture for me, is playing soccer. It's the main social activity with my friends, the time to relax and have fun. I suck now, but when I return to the States, watch out.
Quite honestly, there are a thousand other topics I could go into about Brazil and my life here. I could give the play-by-play of every day, the good the bad and the ugly. However, it'd be about as fun to read as a Jaguars game is to watch these days. Trying to sum up the moments that stick out is all I can try and do to give a sense of what it's like here, though no amount of words crafted in the most clever of ways can describe what a person sees and feels on a day to day basis. I try to make up for it with a bunch of pictures, but the only way to truly understand it is to experience it. When I think of it like that, I truly realize how lucky I am to be here, at this point in time. A year ago I had never thought about spending time abroad, but this experience is everything I had hoped it would be through my first six weeks or so here. The good, the bad, the ugly, I wouldn't trade any of it for the world.
January 6, 2014
I’ll start off with an apology, for it has been quite some time since I have last written a journal. However, I decided to wait until after the holidays so I could share the events and happenings of that important time period, as well as the events that happened before. This leaves me with a long time period to cover, a space of three or so months in which I spent my days doing a wide variety of activities, such as playing soccer, speaking portuguese, dancing samba, and singing Brazilian music, with varying degrees of failure.
When I last wrote, I was in the middle of the school year and just finally getting acclimated to a normal life here in Brazil. Not much changed until the summer holidays arrived, in the first week of the December. I spent my last week of school guessing in a semi-educated manner the correct answers on my finals, and then after that I was free to do as I pleased. As I’m sure you imagine, much madness ensued, including another Rotary-sponsored event, this time an early Christmas party at Maragogi, the same place where I spent my first day here in Brazil. I met all of my friends from all over the multidistrict again, and spent most of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday doing anything but sleeping. We went to the beach, on a long hike through the surrounding countryside and forests, played soccer and volleyball, ping-pong and pool. We stayed up late, woke up early, and to top it all off the last night we spent there we had an early Christmas dinner followed by a legit party, complete with DJ and flashing lights. It was a weekend where memories were made, from trekking through the forests and encountering trees hundreds of years old, to staying up all throughout the night partying with other exchange students until the sun rose over the beach, one of the best sights I have seen here in Brazil. Once the busses rolled around and we were all on the way back to reality, the mood was somber but promises were made to see each other again, promises that will hopefully be able to be fulfilled by all. After that exhausting weekend, there was not much time to rest and relax, as nearly two weeks after I set off for another beach, where I spent my birthday, Christmas, and New Years with my family. In all we spent a little over two weeks in paradise there, with the only worries being which type of cake would be for desert tonight. If you asked anybody how much I ate during that time, they would say as much as fits an American. As much as it pains me to say, m y will to eat is many times greater than my will to disprove that particular stereotype. America, you have my apologies. While I might be eating enough for three, I’ve also been keeping active, and there is the real accomplishment. I’ve gained about 8-10 pounds since I got here, and I like to joke that it’s all muscle, from being at the gym and playing soccer and basketball with my friends. Nobody I know anymore thinks that all Americans are couch-potatoes, that much I have been able to disprove. You’re wondering why I’m talking about food and what I did during Christmas, and why I’m focusing on all things external and not about how I feel inside and how emotionally wrecked and homesick I was. In truth, during a time traditionally hard for exchange students I did not have a terribly rough time. I was able to skype my parents on Christmas, but besides that I really didn’t have much contact because of the terrible wifi at the beach. I spent my time in the moment, laying in a hammock with a book while listening to the waves crash on the white sand or spending time playing strange card games or dominos with my family, largely unplugged from the outside world. Nearly all of the extended family was there, occupying the house and one next door that was rented for the holidays. It was a relaxing, peaceful time, punctuated with laughs and jokes and bookended day after day by the sun rising over the Atlantic in the morning and huge family dinners after it set. I cannot emphasize enough just how much food an extended family numbering nearly two dozen people can eat. Name an animal, and it was probably roasted, grilled, fried, or otherwise cooked and displayed on the grand table as the main course. Of course I don’t mean anything out of a menagerie, however we most likely ate out the local farm. Chicken, pork, lamb, steak, bread with every meal, fresh fruits and desserts on desserts on desserts – it&rsq uo;s a wonder I didn’t gain more weight than I did.
At the moment, it’s nearly one in the morning on a Tuesday. With no school tomorrow or the next day or even this month, I have more freedom to create my daily schedule. Today there was a party for my cousin here in Brazil, he turned 21. My host brother just turned 16 Sunday, and he’s in the middle of preparing for his own exchange, a year in Germany. He’ll leave the first day of February, a couple days after my family returns from their nearly three week vacation back home in Florida. Yeah, you read that right. My host family is going to spend nearly three weeks IN MY STATE. I of course am extremely jealous, however I will be able to capitalize on the situation; my mom will be sending another care package back with them. WOOHOO. Helllllo chocolate and peanut butter. How I’ve missed you. As for me during these three weeks, well I’ve become the main subject in the ongoing novella ‘Who wants to keep a foreigner in their house’ in whi ch this really good-looking American guy gets shuttled around between the houses of the extended family of his host family. I may or may not be exaggerating about the really good-looking part, and the drama surrounding my living arrangements as well. Actually, my host parents have already organized for me to spend most of the time in the house of my uncle here, who has three sons 18, 19, and 21. They’re all really cool and I spent the holidays with them, so we’re fairly close. It’ll be a great time I’m sure, and I’ll be able to use this time to experience a little more Brazilian culture. May the video game beatdowns re-commence, and forever end with me victorious. Looking back at my old journals, I realized that I spoke as if I had already learned all there is to know regarding the language, and that is absolutely false. I only recently dreamt in Portuguese, and while that is considered a milestone moment in exchange, in reality for me it has on ly forced me to re-dedicate myself to my Portuguese. It’s nowhere close to where I want it to be, though over the last two weeks I have switched my methodology and benefitted from it greatly. I now focus only on Brazilian media, Brazilian music and tv shows and movies. I’ve taken to re-watching shows I like in Portuguese on Netflix, such as Breaking Bad, and I spent a lot of time finding Brazilian music that I actually enjoy, so that I can move away from the music I like back home. I have built up a sizable library of Brazilian music that I listen to in place of my English-speaking music, and I credit this new strategy for the majority of my recent improvement in the language. I cannot emphasize enough for any future exchange student who might stumble across this account of my exchange that the earlier you start the better. I catch myself thinking in Portuguese now, and that is scarier than you might think it would be. A part of me asks, in English, just what in the world I’m doing, and the other half replies indignantly in Portuguese to shut up and go away, this is what I need. Nowadays when I get home from the gym, my headphones are blaring a Brazilian rap song, which probably draws more looks than it really should. I’m finally used to the looks that follow when I walk down the street, and if I was in their shoes I would gawk as well. Imagine a tall, blonde haired and blue eyed American, walking down the street with the sound of Brazilian rap spilling out over the street. A comical moment for onlookers, I have no doubt.
I’ve spent four and a half months in another country, living another life. I’ve spent four and a half months speaking another tongue. I’ve spent four and a half months of my life away from my family. I have yet to spend one second regretting my decision to take on this challenge. I have yet to spend one second lamenting the fate I chose, because I have spent every moment here in Brazil with the mindset that this is one of the best experiences I will ever have in my lifetime, and that I have no time to waste it being sad. Even in the moments where the skies are grey and my feelings blue, logic kicks in reminds me that I live on a beach in Brazil, while my friends are currently stressing over exams and oh, did I mention it’s summertime? That I’ll be spending two weeks in the Amazon? That the US will play a World Cup game in my city? With all of these wonderful experiences on the horizon, the future can only be better for the things that make me the man I am. Whenever you’re upset about work, or school, try to visualize me, walking down the street getting evil eyes from the natives. If that doesn’t cheer you up, hopefully you’ll be in a better place by the time my next journal rolls around! Also, if anyone coming to Brazil on exchange would like to talk, please find me on Facebook. I remember wishing at this time last year that more people had updated their journals more often, so by all means if you wish to learn more, contact me! Tchau minha gente, até mais!
It’s been some time since the last journal, and I can’t lie, writing these journals have become more laborious as my exchange progresses. It’s as if a mixture of my declining English skills and trying to put off any thoughts of returning have combined to take the flair out of sharing my experiences, even though it brings me great joy to do so. Regardless, the show must go on, and on it shall go, albeit with slightly less grammatical correctness than in the past. Some major events have happened here in the past few months. Carnaval, changing families, adapting to new and changing circumstances, all the while continuing the routines I’ve built here that make me think my life is almost normal. Summer has come and gone, and while it’s true that’s more a change of mindset than of changing temperatures, there has been a subtle change in my mannerisms and habits here. My steps are quicker, my speech faster, as if I ’m rushing to complete everything I can with the time I have left. It’s an odd and troubling feeling when you lay down at night waiting for the day to see your family while a different notion roars through the swirling thoughts of your mind, urging you to never leave. Just like anything else though, the key is to block out what you can’t control and focus on what you can, which is enjoying the moment with the fierceness and drive that you would hardly expect to find in some average teenager who bags your groceries at Publix. However, we all know that exchange students aren’t your average teenagers.
To start off, I must say that yes, I’m aware that the sordid details of Carnaval interest all of you greatly, however that’ll come later. I assure you I will quench your thirst for insider knowledge on the biggest party in the world, but changing host families is an event with a much bigger impact on every single aspect of exchange, and in truth is much bigger story than Carnaval. I changed host families after spending around five months with my first host family, and like nearly all exchange students, I was loathe to leave. I had become accustomed to my not-so-new-anymore life in Brazil, with the daily routine I had established, and to the people in my life, such as my host family and all my friends. My school, my neighborhood, my family, all of those things had become so natural that when the call came that I would be moving it knocked me out of my sense of security and told me that everything was going to change, again. Not only was I leaving my host family , I would be leaving my school as well to move across town. Changing schools is not normal during exchange, and my mood was less than great as I went to my school one last time to say goodbye to all of my friends and explain that I was being moved away to another part of the city. Many promises were made to connect during the holidays and on weekends, and I still hope to fulfill every single one of those promises. Leaving my friends when I originally left for exchange was difficult, but the knowledge that I would without a doubt see them again in less than a year comforted me. This time, I was changing neighborhoods, not continents and yet I felt as if the distance was even more insurmountable than the miles and seas that separate Recife and my home in Florida. Thankfully I can say that I have met up with several of my friends from my first school in the past two months since I changed families. Saying goodbye to my family was equally difficult, however I have been able to s ee my host siblings and other members of the extended family here and there, and I have kept in touch with them. As much as it sucks to experience the end of an era, it is equally exiting to begin a new one. While I thought I was extremely lucky by having an amazing first host family, lighting must have struck twice because my second host family is just as, if not more, amazing than my first. I have a host brother who is 18 and two host sisters who are 15 and 13, while my host dad is a lawyer and my host mom works at a local school. I can’t say enough good things about them all, and in my new apartment I’m able to have my own room, which is wonderful after spending the previous five months sharing a room with my host brother in my first family. My host dad is extremely nice and loves to joke around, sometimes to the point where you can’t tell if he’s being serious or not. My host mom is always very nice and all of my siblings here are great, my host b rother and I hang out often and get along well because we are of a similar age. Meanwhile, I have started at a new school, and with that came the whole process of being the new kid on the block. At least this time I was more prepared for the hilarity that ensues, and my Portuguese was good enough to be able to respond to the thousands of questions I received in my first week. Among some of the more notable ones were questions like, “Do you hate Obama?” and “How much McDonald’s do you eat a week” as well as some other interesting inquiries. I have made new friends in my new school and now that I’m a couple months into my new surroundings, I’m feeling very comfortable and continuing on with a normal life, at least as normal a life that you can have when you’re an exchange student in Brazil. I can happily say that I am enjoying every moment here in this crazy country.
When the subject is enjoying life, then the next logical step is euphoric, unbridled, and utterly chaotic revelry, right? Okay maybe that's closer to like the fourth or fifth step, however it's true to say that nothing is more synonymous with those than Carnaval. Four day long block party? Check. Shops and streets closed while street vendors sell beer and water at the same price? Check. Carnaval is everything I thought it would be, and so much more I had never thought it could be. Fights in the streets, couples crowding every corner or even just stopping in the middle of the street to say their intimate hellos, not to mention crowds so large the front page of the paper doesn’t appear to be showcasing a party it looks like it’s displaying a tsunami of people. Without a doubt I was able to live in the moment, however knowing the significance of my first and possibly last Carnaval gave a differentiated perspective that I came to appreciate. I enjoyed mys elf during the greatest four days of the year, but I also strove to remember every single minute of it, because these are the parts that I’ll be talking about for years afterwards. What exactly did I do during Carnaval? Well, I was a part of the world’s largest block party, on the street with some other exchange students, 15 semi-trucks outfitted to hold bands and famous singers on top, and two million of our new best friends. Two million is not even an exaggeration; it was definitely not a festival for the faint of heart, or the claustrophobic. I spent time in Olinda, which is recognized as being one of the best cities in which you can experience Carnaval. Olinda is set on a hill, so once you climb to the top you can look down on the entire city and not find a street brimming with people and small bands walking around playing frevo, the type of music Carnaval is known for here, and is a huge part of the culture in the Northeast. Finally, I closed out the festivi ties in Recife Antigo, the most ancient part of the city. Where on a normal day street vendors would reside hustling tourists were large stages for the various concerts happening, from techo music to traditional samba to rock, and everything in between. I spent most of Carnaval hanging out with some other exchange students from my city, one advantage of my change in host families is that I’m much more centrally located, and it’s much easier for us to hang out together than it was when I lived with my first host family. In all, Carnaval was absolutely amazing, and I hope that this was not my last one. It’s something so big that it needs to be experienced more than once just to pick up all of the little pieces that you missed the first time through. I guess you could say the same about exchange itself, that it’s such a big part of your life that your desire to return is always there, just so you can remember the good times and pick up new things that yo u might’ve missed on the first time through.
As far as my Portuguese goes, there is one thing that doesn’t get enough credit; the advancement of your language skills and the resulting gains in overall happiness that you experience on exchange. As a fully fluent conversationalist in Portuguese with only an obviously American accent holding me back from progressing further, I can tell you that the last two months have been much more enjoyable than the first two, despite the fact that this part should be more “boring” because it isn’t all new and exciting anymore. I challenge the statement that is commonly made, that after three months you will be fully settled in and happy, because that doesn’t happen until you truly have control over the language. Confidence in your ability is a factor, as well as how much of the language you actually know, and being able to replicate the native sounds well enough to be understood and understand others without mishap. Once all of this is under your grasp, then I believe that you are fully acclimated. I felt pressured at the beginning of my exchange to hit that three month fluency mark, and then when I didn’t it was the whole “you’ll be dreaming in your host language by Christmas” mark that I aimed for. Except, here’s the thing. I was dreaming in Portuguese by Christmas, yet I still didn’t feel comfortable in the language. Everybody said my Portuguese was really great and that I was progressing well, everyone believed I spoke well, except me. Only when I finally believed that I spoke well was I comfortable enough to start truly settling into my exchange. It is truly a process, and it can be a long process for some. My process was not as long as my friends, and not as short as others. It depends on the person; the cookie-cutter idea of a timeline for fluency is not the end-all be-all of language acquisition. You only become fluent in a language when you yourself believe that you are fluent, not before and not after.
While I realize my time here is coming to close with less than three months left here in Brazil, I still have ample time to continue to live my life here as I want it to be lived, with every opportunity that is offered to me taken with gratitude and every moment made into a memory that can be cherished long after I have returned to the real world of work and stress and college. This will not be my last journal, for much has yet to happen. The World Cup and my quest for tickets are still ahead, along with my trip to the Amazons with 50-something other exchange students. Many days of struggling to wake up for school lie in my future, as well as many lunches with my families and parties with my friends. Even though the end nears, nobody said that I can’t make the end of my exchange better than the beginning and the middle, and with that thought fixated in my head, I march onward to the local McDonald’s for a snack because all of this writing has made me really hun gry. Yes, I realize that ending with that comment leaves you with the mental image of me sitting in McDonald’s gorging on Big Macs, but it’s exactly what I was shooting for because sometimes in a foreign setting all you need is a little taste of home.
May 23, 2014
37 days. 888 hours. I could keep going but mental math hurts my brain, and it’s a sad subject matter. While it isn’t my most original opening, I guarantee I won’t be the last to open with the number of days left in my host country. It’s something so shocking, so mind-numbing, that when any exchange student goes to write the last journal from their host country, it feels like it’s the only thought running through your brain as you sit and type. 37 days. 37 days. Tomorrow it’ll be 36. After this weekend it’ll be 35. By the end of next week I’ll have less than a month. Where did the time go? What am I doing with this time, the one thing in life that you can spend all you want, but the only change you get back is the change that you make. There goes another minute there, and another one here, though I consider the time used on a pantry-raid for sweets time used wisely. Your number ticks in your head day in and day out, when you wake up groggy and sullen in the morning to get ready for school and when you lay in your bed at night wishing that sleep would wash over you and smooth out your troubled mind like waves crashing on the sand, it follows you around like the monkey on your back or the Grim Reaper. It’s the motivation, if you even needed more, to make every moment count, to forge friendships while you can, to enjoy your life as if it’s going to end soon, and in a way that last part is true. My life here in Brazil is ending, but don’t look for any hysterics coming from me about the subject. Making a fit over reality is time wasted, and wasting time is the one activity that I definitely don’t have time for.
One thing I will always have time for however is sharing my experiences and stories about my exchange, and man is there a lot to catch up on! My trip to the Amazon jungle is by far the single most important event of the last couple months, followed by the Rotary conference that happened just last week. Those two, along with my plans to use my last month here as well as possible, are more than enough for me to discuss without driving everybody crazy with a super long journal. To start off, here is a big shout out to JACARÉ!! Without a doubt the best boat on our Amazon trip, with the best people and friends that I may have only known for ten days but friends that I’ll remember for a lot more than ten years. During the trip, which lasted roughly 10 days, we spent about 7 days on the river, 70 exchange students spilt into three different boats. In case you couldn’t tell, I chose the best boat, along with all my friends, new and old. Our boat transformed from a bunch of strangers to a true family in such a short period of time that it is truly incredible. From the crazy Aussie who arrived in January to my friends that I knew from my district, Norbrex, to the Frenchies and the Asians and the Mexicans, we all formed one crazy, international family. Of course when everybody thinks of the Amazon, they want to know about all of the cool things to see and do there, but as my exchange has proven to me once again, events are made memorable by the people you share them with, not by the event itself. It makes sense, I am sure everybody would agree they’d rather see a concert and have the best night of their life with 50 of their friends instead of experiencing it all alone. Bonding is made easy when you’re young with a wild heart and a strong ambition to be free of all constraints, even more so once the realization that you will most likely never see these people again sets in. Some would think that this fact would make coming to gether harder, not easier. After all, if you’re never going to see them again, then why put in the effort to make significant connections with these total strangers? Of course that’s flawed logic, because if you want to have the best time of your life you better get off your butt and get to know the people around you, you’ll be paid back ten-fold in companionship and laughter, and who knows you might even learn a thing or two about others and about yourself too. Friendships made on that boat will not be forgotten, that is one thing I can assure you of. As for the actual Amazon jungle itself, well it was something to behold, majestic trees soaring over the river with wildlife howling from seemingly every bush and branch, rivers so wide you couldn’t see the other side, river water meandering slowly downstream trying to carry it with you, it is truly a place that deserves to be preserved for years and years to come. From fishing for piranhas to crocodile hunting, sleuthing for sloths and swimming with pink dolphins, the activities we did in the Amazon were varied and spectacular. There was a little down time every day, where we would sit on the exposed part of the boat and relax, catch a tan and talk about anything, watch movies, play cards or chess, always with the music blaring of course, thanks to a handy AUX cable and some speakers set up in the boat. We swam in the river and slept in the jungle, rode in canoes to see indigenous tribes and walked through paths experiencing the jungle in all its glory. We visited schools in rural communities, and played an extremely muddy and wet game of soccer, errr football, against the locals, which I’m proud to say the Gringo Dream Team won, 4-2 in penalties. Yours truly played goalie for part of the first and all of the second half, allowing no goals and saved two penalty shots in the shootout. Sliding through the muddy feeling with my teammates after securing the game winning save was without a doubt a moment I will never forget, and was definitely worth throwing myself around like a poorly controlled hand puppet for most of the afternoon. Sadly we didn’t see any jaguars or other big animals while in the jungle, it appears that a three groups of roughly 25 exchange students each make too much noise in a jungle normally occupied by the whispers of the wind and the songs of birds and insects. As powerful as words may be, there is a reason they say a picture is worth a thousand words, and that saying is perfect to describe my time in the Amazon. Needless to say, the Amazon will stay close to my heart for a long, long time and when I look back on my exchange, this trip will have a prominent place in that picture.
About three weeks or so after I had to experience the pain of saying goodbye to friends I’ll probably never see again but definitely never forget, there was a huge Rotary conference for District 4500 over the weekend, which includes the majority of three states in the Northeast of Brazil, in the city of Gravatá, about 40 minutes away from Recife. Most of the exchange students went on the same bus, one that started from the northernmost state in the district and meandered it’s way south in a rather leisurely fashion until it reached Recife, roughly two and a half hours late. Brazilian time, it’s a scary phenomenon, and it’s real. Once we all finally managed to get to the hotel Friday night, we had just enough time to eat pizza and practice the various routines and dances that we would be performing in front of hundreds of Rotarians the next morning. Rather, everybody else got to practice their various routines and dances for the presentation the next morning, while I spent that time sitting in a corner practicing the pronunciation of every word in the speech that I was to give after the presentations. A couple of weeks before, I had been approached and asked to give a speech at the end, and I naturally jumped at the chance to get out of the ridiculous dance routine the North American contingent had concocted for the conference. I’m only partially kidding about that, I was happy to do it and to speak in front of the Rotarians, but I can’t lie either, I was really happy to get out of that dance. After the presentations from all of the exchange students had finished, I was introduced and slowly walked up onto the stage. I was honestly worried that my speech would not be enough to put the cherry on top of the performances, they all were very well done, even the North American one. As the room grew quiet and the crowd settled in to hear me speak, I looked out over the room and realized that this point is the climax of my time as an ambassador for my country and for Rotary Youth Exchange. This was the time to not just break, but demolish any stereotypes that existed about foreigners, or Americans in general. To be known as the timid American, or the one that sped through his speech faster than a racecar coming around Turn 3, or the one who’s Portuguese was laughably bad, was not something I wanted to be known as. I took a deep breath, steadied my hands, and began. By the fifth line, I knew I would knock it out of the park, because my pace was good, my pronunciation on point, and most importantly, I didn’t mess up the first four lines which definitely aided in the confidence department. After I had finished, I exhaled deeply and looked at one last time as the people in the crowd, from the little boy sitting in one of the first couple rows to my fellow exchange students all the way to the district governor applauded, I knew that the last seven minutes of speaking had impacted the lives of many, many people in that room. Afterwards, I took countless pictures with my friends, my host family, and the people from Rotary that I knew, but also took many more with people I had never met before, and spoke to many kids who all of a sudden were talking about how they wanted to become exchange students when they were older too, and the looks on their parents faces was all I needed to see to know that taking the time and effort to write and give that speech was more than worth it. After the elation of absolutely nailing the speech all of the presentations, all of the exchange students had the rest of the day free, and we spent the time joking, laughing, swimming, and generally enjoying each other’s company, because the next morning we would all be going our separate ways again, and that this goodbye might be the last for some of us. Sunday morning was filled with tears and promises of reconnecting, whether via travel here in Brazil or once every body was back home, and I hope that all of us can keep our promises to see each other again, because we share a bond as exchange students that few, if any, people outside of exchange students will understand.
For me, the next month lays ahead of me as something to be conquered, to wake up every day and seize the day through force, to bleed out every single second of that day so that I might enjoy it more. I will travel throughout the Northeast, to cities like Natal, Caruaru, and Campina Grande. I will experience the summer festival that is São João. I will witness the nation stop as Brazil kicks of the World Cup on the 12th of June, and I will witness in person the US play against Germany in Recife in their final group match game, a game that will feature myself wrapped in an American flag screaming obscenities in Portuguese like a native, cheering on my team while at the same time talking trash to my German friend, who will be sitting right next to me wrapped in her German flag screaming obscenities in Portuguese, cheering on her team. It will be the crowning moment of my final month here in Brazil, and three short days after that, I will be right back to where I started, over the Caribbean, wondering just what in the world happened to all that time I had when I landed here. Before I wrote this journal, I read every single one of my previous journals and laughed at my silly jokes, remembered with fondness the memories that my stories evoked in my mind, and I realized that while I have shared so much here, I have so much more to share. This is not my last journal; I will write one more after my exchange is over, as a way to review my year abroad and a way to bring to a complete close my time abroad. As I finish this journal, a new day is born, and a new number starts to tick in my head like an old grandfather clock. 36 days. 864 hours. My promise? To make every single one count.
July 13, 2014
I cannot lie, I have been putting off this promised final journal entry for some time. It is not something that I want to do, but it is something I feel I have to do, not only to keep my word and bring about an end to my journals, but to bring about a sort of closure for myself. These last two weeks back home have had their ups and their downs, although I am luckier than most in that my transition back to what I now refer to as “real life” has been free of strife. I do not call this life of mine in Florida my “real life” in a way to devalue my time in Brazil, instead I use that phrase to clarify even more how much my life in Brazil meant to me. It was truly a different life, a life that now seems surreal to me. Did I really spend 10 months in Brazil, with people I’d never met before, speaking a language I hadn’t known beforehand, experiencing a whole range of emotions from jubilance to melancholy, or was i t all a dream? Did I really turn strangers into my closest friends, take mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, and turn them into my family? It can’t be. However these memories are much too clear to come from a dream, and besides if it was a dream then I wouldn’t have been able to feel the pain I felt as I said goodbye to these people who had become so dear to me, for what quite possibly could be the last time in my life.
My exchange was punctuated by story-worthy events, from the World Cup game I attended between the United States and Germany, the time I spent in the Amazon rainforest, making it through Carnaval with my head attached and liver intact, those memories will last me for a lifetime. It is the little things that stick with me though; the smaller, seemly insignificant moments that remind me of what I learned and loved on my exchange. Day trips to the beach in Boa Viagem with my friends from Denmark, Poland, and Germany. Going to school and joking around with my friends during class, or early in my exchange ducking my teacher’s eye when it scanned over the classroom looking for someone to answer the question because I was unconfident in my Portuguese. My walks home from school, passing the same stores and people day in and day out and thinking about how this image must be seared into my brain, so that I may never forget. It truly is the little things in life that bring happiness into your life, and it is the small moments of my exchange that I will treasure the most.
As I settle back into life in Florida, working full time at a factory in downtown Jacksonville and preparing to start at the University of Florida in the fall, I think back often on my year abroad. Pushing buttons on a machine at work isn’t the most mentally taxing task that I perform on a daily basis, it’s actually on the same level as brushing my teeth or drinking my coffee, but it does give me ample time to reflect as I wash the machine cut and polish lengths of pipe for eight hours a day. It allows me to think about all the moments of my exchange, and what I really took away from it. Sure there is the obvious, the ones we all talk about when first starting to describe our exchange, we talk about the new language we speak and the new culture we lived in and how it affected our lives, but only afterwards can you think upon how much you really changed, and that how things back home that you might’ve found worrisome or difficult before become simple matte rs, and you wonder why you ever feared that silly scholarship interview or that application you had to do. After all, how does any of that compare to the apprehension and bewilderment you feel on your first day of school in a new country as you get attacked by swarms of people you’ve never met chattering at you in a language you don’t know wanting to know all about your life. Going through that experience, and many others like it, prepare you in subtle ways for many things that you wouldn’t think would be affected by your time abroad. You learn how to budget not only your (very limited) supply of money but also you’re even more limited supply of time. Throughout my year abroad, as I watched my bank accounts slowly dwindle from four digits to two, I learned how to make my money stretch to fit my needs. As my countdown started with 10 months on it, then half a year, then three, then two, and finally less than one, I learned how to use my time to maximiz e every opportunity I had to experience more of the world around me. These skills aren’t the ones you think of when you speak on your exchange, but they are only a few of the many attributes you bring back from a year abroad, besides your newfound worldliness and a more skilled tongue.
My time in Brazil is not something that can be classified in absolutes. I cannot declare in black and white statements the ways my year abroad has changed me. In many different aspects of my being, I changed in varying degrees. There are fifty shades of gray that cover the changes I’ve undergone, from the nearly unnoticeable to the blatantly obvious. Brazil will forever be in my heart and in my thoughts, and for that I am thankful to have had this opportunity. Through it all however, the thick and the thin, the good and the bad, the happiness and the sadness, there is one thing I can say with certainty… I regret nothing.