Greetings from Santos. Time to write my feelings out and give an update on my life. The last time I wrote here was exactly four months ago in September (sorry Rotary). Today is my 173rd day and my 25th week here in Brazil in two days.
Numbers, numbers, numbers. I haven’t gone a day since arriving without taking the time out to think about how long I’ve been here, how much time I have left before leaving and making sure that I’m doing everything I can do to make this year count. The biggest stress here is not the adaption to the country or making new friends or getting along with my family…those things have been the easiest.
My biggest stress is always thinking about when I go back home and how hard it will be to leave this amazing place. How can I start my life here and then leave it? How will I be able to concentrate and start a new one when I return? It’s usual for exchange students to miss home and sometimes question why they decided to do their year abroad in the first place. Not for me. My family back in the States is there and doing fine, my bed is still where I left it, my things packed in boxes. Those things won’t go anywhere. But the questions that keep trembling with fear is: ‘How will I be able to go home and try to resume my life again without the friends I’ve made here, my Brazilian family, the beautifully lively people of this country, and the different energy this culture has?’ if I’ll be able to. My family will be there waiting for me in Florida, I’ll see them again. But to think about going months or years without seeing my family here or my friends who will be back in their countries after I leave is what keeps me up at night.
A lot has happened since late September when I wrote last: like Rotary events, visiting different cities, new friendships, switching families, and so on. I have a different feeling, perspective of how I see the world and a new theme of life with every month that passes.
September along with August was still the stage in my exchange where I was still getting to know the streets of the city that was still new to me and also about everything that was around me. September, or the second month for most exchange students, was nice because you were still new and clueless to everything so everybody was still overly helpful with anything you needed and your still in the honeymoon stage where everything that’s happening feels 10x better than what it really is. But at the same time you’re pretty settled into your new family and school and your new life doesn’t feel as scary and/or crazy as it did in August, or the first month.
I spent basically the whole month of August at home with my new family getting really close to them and letting them take me places and just really getting to know them. I only went out to meet the other exchange students a couple of times because I still wanted to stay home with my new family and deepen the bond that we had when I first talked to them. I really clicked with them and was eager to get to know them more.
When September came in, I felt comfortable enough to start going out more with the kids from school and I was also starting to get a lot closer to the other exchange students in my city, especially after orientation. By the end of September, I finally found this great balance of being close with my host family, spending time with them but also being out of the house a lot, going to the beach and hanging out with my friends as well. It’s so important to create that bond with your host parents because it made asking to go out or spend the day with friends instead of staying at home a lot easier. Instead of giving me trouble or saying that I should stay home with them, they always encouraged me to go because they were happy that I had found people to be with who made me happy.
I still always put time for them as well like getting cappuccinos with my host dad after school and staying a couple of hours talking with him or going with my mom to do errands. After orientation in the beginning of September, and really getting close with the kids in my district and especially in my city, the rest of the month was spent hanging out with them every day after school, talking and getting to know each other more. Once we realized how close we lived to each other, it made seeing one another that much easier.
I had found an amazing group of best friends and had plans with them every day. We also shared and introduced the friends we made from our different schools making our group even bigger. The Rotex that are here in my city are very involved and have also become close with us, one of them being one of my closest friends here. By the end of the month, I had developed a daily routine of things to do and also wanted to start doing things myself like getting from place to place. It was great having a host father who never minded taking me anywhere by car at any time (he worked from home), but me being the independent person, I am didn’t want to depend on him for transportation.
I spent the last couple of weeks of September using paper maps (the Google Maps app would have been more helpful but I don’t like taking my smart phone out on the street for safety reasons) and the Portuguese instructions from my host parents that I still didn’t completely understand was helped me to learn how to get everywhere. By the end of the month, I feel like I finally settled in and adapted to almost everything. I knew how to get from place to place, I had found a great group of friends, I had and still have a great relationship with my Rotary club, school was fine, and my relationship with my family was perfect.
October: I always say when people ask how my exchange is going so far that I’m still in the honeymoon stage because even 5 ¾ months in, I’m still head over heels in love with this country and I absolutely love my life here. I don’t miss my life back in the States or my family because my family is there and will be there when I get back and the friends who are important to me the most since arriving here are the friends I’ve made from RYE Florida and my friends here.
Even though that’s how it felt the first two months and also the months following, the actual month of October wasn’t as easy. For the first time, my emotions were all over the place. Nothing from the exchange specifically is what triggered how I was feeling so I still don’t think what was going on with me had to do with my exchange but I definitely was going through a depression in that month but still being extremely happy and grateful for my life here.
I was more adjusted into my life in Brazil, closer to my friends and family and was understanding the way of life in Brazil. The kids in my school loved me and treated me nicely, sending messages saying they missed me that day if I had stayed home sick. I was content with everything that was going on and even at the time refused to say that I missed home or wanted to go home. There was nothing that I wanted to change. But at the same time, in a matter of minutes, I would feel so depressed and lonely for no reason in particular. I was having anxiety attacks at least once a day, I would be with my friends and leave because a wave of sadness would come over me all of sudden and there had been a couple of nights I stayed up crying.
My body was starting to ache and I then started to get tired all the time, always finding an excuse to take naps. My host parents were ready to take me to the doctors because I had even managed to take a nap that lasted for 20 hours a couple of times. It got to a point where my host mother became worried and messaged my mother on Facebook asking what she could do to help.
My mother back home was helpless but said she too noticed that I didn’t look okay during a Skype call. During that call she asked if I was okay and I then started crying not even understanding myself what was going on. A huge part of me feeling depressed was also me feeling guilty for feeling the way I did. My life was perfect and there was nothing that I wanted to change. I had no idea why I was depressed or what to do to fix it.
Even with these emotions going on, I didn’t stop living my exchange life, I didn’t want to go home remembering spending October depressed and in my room and so I continued saying yes to any opportunity that was given to me to make my exchange as great as it can be. Even with all that motivation I tried giving myself, it was getting harder and harder.
I was Skyping my older sister more frequently just to try to figure out what was going on, because she too had been on exchange in Italy and was the only family member I felt comfortable with talking about how I was really feeling. She helped me to not feel guilty and reminded me that it was normal and okay to feel the way that I was feeling. It helped a lot to hear the reassurance and helped me get through what I was going through. What also helped was opening up to my closest friends here (who were also on their exchange) about how I was feeling because they are able to understand what I’m going through on a level that no one else really can. Even though I did Skype my sister from back home more than usual during that time (something Rotary doesn’t encourage) it did help a lot.
I think what ultimately made me get through the month was opening up to my closest friends here and knowing what to do if things got bad again. It was a strange and conflicting month of feelings because I had never been that low before but I also had never been happier with my life. It was hard to understand my contradicting feelings but I managed to deal with them and by the beginning of November, things finally felt better and I resumed the honeymoon stage.
November/December – Summer: With my emotions and sleeping schedule back to normal, I started the first day of the month of November with a positive attitude spending the day with my friends. November was a smooth one. My anxiety was starting to go away, I wasn’t needing to Skype my sister anymore, and overall I was feeling happier. With each day that passed, I was becoming closer to the people around me and continuing to do everything I could to have the best exchange.
My favorite holiday, Thanksgiving was coming up and I was becoming a little nervous. The Rotex who helped prepare us for our year and the Rotex in my city now who are here to guide us usually say that Christmas time is extremely hard because it brings back family memories and you start to feel homesick. I’ve never been a Christmas type of person but have instead always looked forward to Thanksgiving Day and dinner because it’s the time of year that I love the most and it has always been a big deal to my family.
My family back home always cooked all day together and watched family movies after, an emotional day full of love and it would be my first year away from them. Thankfully I was distracted up until the big Turkey Day, preparing for my wonderful country coordinator (and one of the people to thank for all the awesomeness he’s done for me, he’s the best) Rob Overly to arrive here with his wife and spend a few days going around the city with me and my Brazilian counselor.
I was able to go visit beaches and attend a couple Rotary meetings with him and his wife. It was great showing him my life here and how happy I am in Santos, how Rotary has changed my life for the better and it was really awesome introducing him to the other students here who are my best friends. Seeing a familiar face from home was actually what I needed to help me not miss home as much during Thanksgiving week. I loved being able to tell him and his wife about how incredible my experience is so far in my favorite city that I now call home.
Thanksgiving Day came and I definitely was craving some time with my family back home with some of my homemade stuffing and my mom’s cranberry sauce as well. But wishing my mother and sister Happy Thanksgiving before they left for their cruise to the Barbados and hearing how my father was having a good time in New York visiting family actually made me feel better. It’s reassuring to hear that my family is continuing their lives without me and encouraged me to go back to mine.
I went along with my day having a cappuccino with a good friend in the morning and going to the beach with a group of people in the afternoon. It’s only in the U.S. that Thanksgiving is a big thing but of course here in Brazil the day isn’t even recognized as being significant so the only reminder I had of Thanksgiving were the Facebook messages friends and family were sending. Overall, November was a good month. School here in Brazil finished for me on the 25th and summer was in!
Another end to a good month and December was here. The beginnings of months have always been my favorite. It’s a fresh chapter to add to the grand book of life with as many new experiences, thoughts, and events as the month before. December I knew was going to be another busy month. Summer had just started days before and the other students and I were excited to go to the pool or beach and spend the whole day in the sun or just going to the mall chilling. Most of the time we would all just meet up on the tables at the beach and talk, those were the best to me. The first three weeks of December were spent doing just that, being out with friends all day and spending time with the family when I returned in the early evening. It was extremely relaxing and care free.
Christmas/New Years: During the month of December, I kept remembering what the Rotex had told us about Christmas time being the hardest time of the exchange and I was waiting for the hard part to hit. But I’m very thankful that nothing happened and I remained happy and not homesick. I didn’t really miss my family that much, I was too busy with my new family to spend time thinking about home.
Honestly when it’s an average of 105 degrees every day and the first thing you grab in the morning is your bikini, the fact that it’s supposed to be cold in December doesn’t even cross your mind. It wasn’t until the 23rd that I was reminded Christmas was around the corner and that in Brazil it would be celebrated the next day on the 24th.
That night, I went with my first family to my second family’s family gathering/dinner at my host grandfather’s home to celebrate. It was an emotional night full of love and tears and talking about how much we love each other. I was hugged and told by my two families how much love they loved me and how I was a part of their family. Hugging and hearing both my host parents say that was the best moment of my exchange.
Fast forward to New Year’s Eve, I spent the day sleeping waking up at around 4ish in the afternoon. My host mother had already been awake, cooking for the dinner we would have all together before going out to be with my second family. After getting ready, putting on all white because that’s what you wear on New Year’s in Brazil, we met with my second family and went to the beach to watch the fireworks go off. Santos goes all out with the fireworks, spending weeks before preparing for the big celebration. At 12 on the dot, the fireworks began. It was magical. My host brother and I walked to the shore to watch from there and it was beautiful to watch the light from the fireworks reflect off the water. There were over 500,000 people on beach that night and together we all watched the fireworks in complete awe.
2014 has been a year of great accomplishments and experiences. Since I found out I was accepted into the program in November 2013, finding out my host country a month later in December and attending the first orientation weeks later in January, my life has been dominated by Rotary and it is the best thing that has ever happened to me. It was a lot of work and commitment, a lot of anxiety and nerves in the months leading up to the day that I would leave. Even so, I would do it all over again because the past 5 months have been the best in my life. I’ve met people here that I call my family because ‘best friends’ doesn’t even accurately describe how close I am to them. I feel grateful every day for the amazing two families that I have been given. This exchange has changed me for the better and is making me stronger person each day. The amount that I have learned in the past 5 months makes me excited for the next 7. How much more can I gain? What else will I learn?
I can’t wait to find out.