Too Much Potter?


In the back: The Golden Snitch. On the left (me): Luna Lovegood. On the right: Member of the Gryffindor Quidditch Team

In the back: The Golden Snitch. On the left (me): Luna Lovegood. On the right: Member of the Gryffindor Quidditch Team

A fact about me that is relevant to the rest of this post: I am a huge Harry Potter fan. I LOVE Harry Potter. I obsess over Harry Potter. I spend a lot of time thinking about Harry Potter.

In the summer of 2012, a website called Pottermore was launched in beta. In July of this year, a two-part play called Harry Potter and the Cursed Child will open. And a movie called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them premieres in November of 2016. Each of these projects are extensions of the Potter universe. And yet, I can’t bring it in me to be too excited.

Pottermore is a website that J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, has used to expand the Potter-verse (Potter Universe), by becoming a new medium for news, articles, and interactive features. The site has revealed the backgrounds of certain characters such as Professor McGonagall, the origins of the Potter family, famous wizards from the different houses of Hogwarts, information about different wizarding schools located around the world, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the soon to be released movie with screenplay by J.K. Rowling. It is loosely based on a book released by Rowling with the same title, but instead follows Newt Scamander as he discovers some of the “fantastic beasts” in question. Finally, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a play, written by J.K. Rowling that details the “19 Years Later” that fans everywhere have been speculating about.

All of these new expansions are very interesting and exciting, but I’m having a hard time being interested and excited.

I read the Harry Potter books, and a whole new world opened up in my imagination. I watched the movies, and the world that I saw in my head took warped a little and became a little closer to that of the movies. Now when I think of Hermione Granger, I’m more likely to think of Emma Watson than the book loving, bushy haired, know-it-all that I saw in my head. I’ve had several different opportunities to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a theme park in Universal Studios Orlando, but have declined because I don’t want to ruin the land the land of Harry Potter in my mind any more than it’s already been. Why can’t we just let Potter stay as it is? I, for one, would much rather speculate on the backstories of the characters and write fanfiction about it than have it spoon fed to us. J.K. Rowling, I love you, but isn’t it good enough for you to know explicitly Professor McGonagall’s backstory and leave the rest of us to think about it for ourselves?

I think that this is the problem with story lines and universes and the continuous thought of, oh let’s just release one more movie and one more book that’s been happening lately. The more cynical part of me thinks that the only reason that these universes appear to be expanding needlessly (in my mind) is because of money. Harry Potter is already popular, so of course people will line up outside the movie theatres for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Star Wars already had a hugely loyal fan base, so of course releasing three new movies isn’t out of the question. And people have already embraced the idea of Iron Man and Captain America fighting together, so now let’s see what people are going to see when we put them against each other.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But all of the bows were neatly tied, so can’t we just let sleeping dragons lie? It’s for this reason that I’m not entirely sure that I’ll be seeing Captain America: Civil War. I like where Marvel’s left it off at the end of The Winter Soldier and am not the hugest fan of the all of the extras – Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D and Avengers: Age of Ultron.

 Yes, I’m still most definitely going to buy the book formatted scripts of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and go see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. It doesn’t mean that I think these expansions of the Harry Potter universe are the best thing that’s happened since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out.

Adventure in the Amazon

When I was in second grade, my class had a unit about the Amazon Rainforest. I remember watching videos of monkeys, seeing pictures of all sorts of different animals like sloths and jaguars and alligators, learning about the different levels of the forest, and thinking, wow, that’s amazing. Never once did it cross my mind that I might be able to go there one day. I can’t believe how lucky I am, because I spent the past ten days in the Amazon, and they were the best ten days of my life. I feel like I woke up from a dream.

Excerpts from my journal:

April 16, 2016

I left the house this morning at 2:30am and now I’m currently on the plane from Brasília to Manaus.

Manaus! Do you know what state Manaus is in? Amazônia!

I’m on my way to the Amazon!

April 18, 2016

We have divided into three different boats of twenty three exchange students apiece.

Yesterday we went on a city tour of Manaus, which is basically us driving through the cities with a guide pointing out landmarks. The thing I was most excited to see was the teatro of Manaus. When I was younger, I read a book called Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson, and now over the past few months I’ve been chipping away at the same book in Portuguese. This book is set in Manaus, Brazil about a girl named Maia and her friend Clovis who performs at the theater and her other friend who leaves to find his mother’s tribe.

The theater/opera house of Manaus

The theater/opera house of Manaus

I felt like I was coming to live this book in real life. And we saw the theater/opera house and now I’m on a boat in the Amazon and I feel like I’m living my dreams.

After that we went trekking in the forest. We drove two hours north of Manaus and stayed at a hotel called Santuario on a reserve and went trekking in the dark for a time. It was really cool. It involved wading through water that was almost to my knees and there was a this pool with a waterfall at the end. There was a time where we all turned our flashlights off and it was so dark that when I held my hand in front of my face I couldn’t see it.IMG_8563 (2)IMG_8569 (2)

IMG_8576 (2)

Today we went to a part of a stream and there was this platform where you could jump into this really deep part. I jumped twice while some people didn’t jump at all. And then we packed up and took the bus back to Manaus to get on the boats. Each boat has twenty three people, and I landed with a good group of people. There is a third boat where we eat. I am on Barco Bicho Preguiça (Sloth Boat).

We saw the huge lily pads today. The water lilles. In order to go see them we had to get on smaller boats, and when they asked if anyone wanted to sit on the very front part of the boat nobody was saying yes so I went for it. Never be shy when something good is going to come from putting yourself out there. I definitely had the best view.IMG_8634

IMG_8635 (2)

IMG_8641 (2)

I just feel so happy here and one with nature. This whole thing is just so cool and amazing. I’m in a place I never thought I would ever go to in my life before. So many people in the world never get this opportunity.

Life is good.

IMG_8629 (2)

IMG_9094 (2)

IMG_9102 (2)

April 19, 2016

This is the best trip ever!!!

I just held a baby alligator that our guide caught just moments before.

We slept in hammocks last night. I was so exhausted and tired that I basically fell asleep right away, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking about how cool it was.

The boats were anchored and we set up the hammocks in the upstairs living portion of the boat and we climbed in and then they turned the generators off (no power means no light) and it was completely dark. I was asleep before they turned the lights off.

We were all woken up very early in the morning when a few of the workers on the boat were running to get the tarps down. It felt like the second they managed to get them all down this HUGE ginormous downpour started. And lighting! It was really epic. There was this lightning strike that appeared to be right outside of the boat. There was a lot of screaming and running from the girls at the end of the boat but I was too tired to care, because I fell asleep again right after. Rain and the sounds of the rainforest is a good thing to fall asleep to.

April 20, 2016

Yesterday morning we went to a tribe of Natives. They were a tribe of about seventy “indios” living in a little village. They have built a sort of industry around tourism, but even with that they retain most of their traditions and beliefs. Veera said that she was talking to one of the teenage boys and they had basically no concept of the world outside of their tribe and why would they want to leave? It’s scary to leave.

And we happened to arrive on a very special day. Special because of a few different things – it was Dia dos Indos in Brazil. I don’t think the tribe did anything differently because of Dia dos Indios but there were people from the Policia Federal and also it looked like some doctors that were vaccinating people in the tribe.

The other way it was special is because it was a day of ceremony for the tribe. We just happened to come on exactly the right day.

In order for this tribes’ men to be considered as such and to get married they have to put their hands in a sort of glove that is full of the most dangerous type of ant that is found in the rainforest and get bitten. They do this ritual dance thing while keeping the glove on and then they take the glove off. They aren’t allowed to cry. If they cry, it’s a shame/dishonor and they have to do the ritual again. If they cry a second time they have leave the tribe for a year. They can tear up and sweat but no full blown sobbing.

We happened to be there on the day they were doing this ritual. We watched some kid that was maybe twelve years old stick his hands into gloves full of ants that bite you with venom that burns for twenty four hours. In order to become a man they do this forty times, starting from around the age of eight or so – it depends on the kid in question apparently. Once they have done it forty times they are eligible to marry.IMG_9254


We saw a marriage ceremony, too. We got so lucky. So a boy/man who has been bitten by the ants forty times (at least) chooses a girl that he would like to marry, and he gets permission from her family to marry and then they have another ant ceremony because that’s really what the wedding is. So while the guy is putting his hands into the ant-gloves the girl is outside thinking thinking thinking deciding if she wants to get married to the guy in question. If she does she breaks into the singing stomping circle next to the guy and then when they gloves are put back they are considered to be married.

So the guy put his hands in the ant-gloves and he looked like he was in serious pain. And then eventually the girl joined the guy in the ritual circle so they were now married. It was really interesting for a lot of reasons, but the ones that stuck with me was that the girl was fifteen years old and they guy was seventeen years old. And after the ceremony was over and everyone was done clapping the girl just went off with her friends and the guy just was off to the side – no them being happily married together. They didn’t even talk. It was almost like an everyday event, except the tribe’s medicine man person told us what a happy day it was for the tribe. There were like sixty strangers watching a tribe of seventy’s ceremony. We almost outnumbered the tribe. That’s gotta be awkward, so maybe they were waiting to celebrate after.IMG_9259

Also there was this girl that was pregnant and she was thirteen years old. Apparently her husband was twelve.

I can totally understand why the Europeans of old would want to “civilize” the native tribes they encountered in the New World because I like to think of myself as pretty open minded and accepting of cultures different than my own, but this totally weirded me out. And the in the 1500s and 1600s it was way more unaccepting than it is now.

It doesn’t mean that I like or agree with the complete domination of the natives of the Americas, but I understand why it happened.

That night we went alligator hunting. When they said that, I didn’t really know what to expect, and it turned out to be the absolute BEST thing ever.

We have this “indio” on our tour who has been our nature guide over the trip. His name is Ananias. To go jacaré hunting (jacaré = alligator) we had to split up into smaller boats that are motorized. They are the adventure (passeo) boats. Ananias was on my adventure boat. So we were out in the dark and he had a flashlight and was shining it along the coast. At first everyone was really confused – what was he doing – and then we pulled into part of the coast and Ananias jumped out into the water and he kind of tiptoed forward and then he lunged down like a ninja and came up holding a JACARÉ.

It was maybe a foot or so long, and after he came up with it he hoofed it back towards the boat and the driver of the boat tied a string around its mouth so it couldn’t bite and then they passed an ALLIGATOR around the boat so everyone could hold it and take a picture.

Can we establish that Ananias ninja style picked up an ALLIGATOR and that I held an ALLIGATOR?!

This is the coolest trip of my life.

Ananias said that he has been bitten by a lot of jacarés. Once he got drunk and went alligator hunting and it tried its best to eat his leg. He showed us the scar on his leg. He said, “I had a kind of crazy childhood.” No shit.

April 21, 2016

Yesterday we woke up really early to go fishing for piranhas before breakfast. Milena, who is one of the coordinators told us that last week with group 1 of Amazon her boat didn’t catch any, but I felt plenty of tugs on my line and our boat caught maybe ten piranhas in total. The bait was small bits of uncooked steak. One of the guides caught two huge ones and he kept them for dinner. All of the others we released.IMG_9238

IMG_8781 (3)

Making tapioca

Then we went back to have breakfast, and after breakfast we went to this Casa de Farinha were they grow the actual fruit of acaí (every exchange student in Brazil’s addiction) and the vegetable plant thing that becomes tapioca (a Brazilian food). It’s called mandioca.

IMG_8839 (2)

Exchange student futebol team for the girls’ game. The other team completely destroyed us.

After that, we went to a small community of Brazilians that live in the Amazon and got schooled in futebol (soccer).

Today was really amazing. I felt like we did all the things that everyone thinks of when you go to the Amazon Rainforest. I really think that this trip has encompassed some of the best things of my life.

After breakfast we split up into the adventure boats. We found two sloths hat we “split” among three boats. It was so cool. We spotted sloths – real live sloths that live in the rainforest – and then the guides became monkeys and scaled the trees to collect them. Then we passed the sloths around the boats to take pictures with it. That must have been the weirdest day ever in that sloth’s life – just chilling on a tree doing sloth things and then some human comes and takes it down from its perch and it gets passed around to a ton of exchange students.

IMG_8882 (3)

Nice sloth

Also, sloths are an evolutionary mystery. They really move as slow as everyone says they do. Apparently one of the ways they die is they grab their own arm thinking it’s a tree branch and then they fall to their death. Also at the top of trees they are predators to eagles and at the bottom they are prey to alligators. They basically have survived evolution by some miracle.

Then we went to the same place of the Casa de Farinha and we were all lounging around looking for a cage with an anaconda until we saw said anaconda just hanging around in the trees. It was FIVE METERS long. FIVE. It was really heavy and in order to pick it up and take pictures with it there had to be at least four people (plus the guy holding the head so it wouldn’t eat some innocent exchange student) holding it.IMG_9243

Honestly I enjoyed the anaconda more than the sloth. It was really quite gorgeous. It had all of these cool colors and it was pretty soft. And the people from the Casa de Farinha say they basically let it roam free around the property during the day and then at night they lock it up in the room of artesenatos.

After lunch we went to see the pink dolphins – that’s right, the famous pink dolphins of the Amazon. I was in the water with them and touched them and it was really cool. We also saw the biggest fish of the Amazon by way of luring it to the surface by way of smaller dead fish.

Fishing for a large fish

Fishing for a large fish

Pink dolphin, anyone?

Pink dolphin, anyone?

This trip is so amazing. Words can’t describe how happy I am.

April 23, 2016

Yesterday we went to a sandy beach along the river and hung out there until lunch. It was a don’t worry be happy day.

After lunch our boat had more time to just chillax and then we split up into the adventure boats to go bird watching. We were traveling up the river looking for birds and just enjoying the nature and the view in general when we spotted some monkeys in the trees, so we stopped to look at them for a while. While we were looking at them we spotted a sloth on a tree that was basically right in front of us.

Somebody said, “Can we go get him?” and the next thing I knew one of the drivers of the two boats was scaling the tree and brought down the sloth. The sloth had cool brown markings on its back which signified that it was a boy and also it wasn’t the nice, calm, and docile sloths that we held a few days back. He was clawing and hissing. Apparently there are two types of sloths. One is calmer and they have three claws, and the other is very aggressive and bites and scratches and you can’t just grab them off trees. They have two claws. The sloth we grabbed had three claws but Ananias’s best guess that he was a cross between the two types.

When we passed it to the other boat to hold it the sloth grabbed onto one of the support beams and refused to let go and it even tore a hole in the tarp. Everyone was cracking up, even Ananias and the other guides as they were wrestling with it to get it off.

Meany sloth.

Meany sloth.

After everyone was done holding the sloth, Ananias said, “I told you that all animals of the Amazon can swim so its time to test out that theory.” Then he put the sloth into the water. The sloth swam to a tree in the middle of the river and hung out at the bottom before it finally pulled itself up when we left ten or so minutes later. The sloth was a faster swimmer than he was a climber.

Ananias told us, “Well, our bird expedition turned into a sloth expedition.” Right when he said that there was this really loud CAW and he looked up and said, “That’s the sound a toucan makes!” We never actually saw the toucan though.

We went trekking this morning with a different guide who has lived in the area for more than forty years. It was really really cool. He was showing us plants and trees and pointing out what was poison and what was medicinal, and we saw this HUGE tree that reminded me of the tree in the book The Great Kapok Tree. Somewhere along the trek it began to rain and all I though was this is the rainforest and I just felt so insignificant and in awe.

I can't remember which one is poison and which one is medicine for malaria.

I can’t remember which one is poison and which one is medicine for malaria.

IMG_9139 (2)

IMG_5116 (2)

Feminism, Sexism, and I’m Going to Hell


About a week or so ago, Veera (my Finnish exchange student friend and quasi host sister by virtue of us sharing a host mom), Virna (my first host mom), and I (me) went to the bakery for dinner where we encountered one of Virna’s many acquaintances. That in itself was not an unusual experience, because nine out of ten places that I go to with Virna we meet at least one person that she knows. This time it was an elderly woman and her husband. We exchanged greetings and then, like every meeting with every Brazilian that I am meeting for the first time, Virna’s friend asked us if we spoke Portuguese yet. We nodded and said yes.

“And it’s all due to the grace of God that you’ve learned Portuguese, right?”

I couldn’t stop myself from rolling my eyes and telling them that God had nothing to do with it; I’d learned Portuguese from my own hard work.

The woman and her husband looked genuinely confused, and then the husband said, “Well, there has to be something else that you believe in, something you can put faith in.”

I told them that I believe in my own self. (Actually, if I had to define my beliefs, I would call myself an agnostic with a community in the United Church of Christ, and that I mostly believe in communities and people.)

That’s when the woman very gravely told Veera, Virna, and myself that the world was ending because of the homosexuals and because men are dressing in women’s clothing and women dressing in men’s clothing. Cue nervous laughs from Veera and I.

Never mind the political crisis and corruption scandals centered around the Brazilian federal government, conflict in the Middle East, ISIS, and the very fact that many countries have the technological capability of completely destroying the continent next door, the world is going to end because of the homosexuals.

I wouldn’t be surprised if that woman had prayed for my soul that night.

Virna tried to placate me after the conversation on the ride by saying that the couple came from the interior of the Northeast, where culture and family life is centered around tradition. And even though Natal isn’t part of the “interior,” tradition is still a big part of the culture here. Specifically, northeastern Brazilian culture. Life in the northeast is very different than life in other areas of the country, primarily due to the fact that this region is among the poorest of the country.

Small examples of Northeastern Brazilian culture include the daily nap after lunch, everyone’s excuse for being lazy is that it’s hot, and the practice for children to refer to their parents with the formal version of “you” instead of the informal version. And then there’s the culture of machismo and sexism. There are examples of this all over the place.

One of them that hits me in the face on a day to day basis is the simple fact that my school, Henrique Castriciano, has a sister school (they actually share the same campus and use the same administration and the same teachers as my school, but the check is written to a different name) called Escola Domestica. This is an all girls “traditional” school. I haven’t really seen much difference in their classes and HC’s classes, and to me the differences are rooted in that Escola Domestica literally translates to “Domestic School.” It’s only for girls, and their uniforms consist of what looks like an antique maid or nurse uniform with a completely white, very short dress.

It seems that everyone is trying their hardest to fit these girls in a “domestic box.”

We could also talk about the fact that there are no opportunities for a girl to play futebol (soccer). There are no girls’ teams, much less girls’ leagues, and downright rejections and funny looks are given if you bring up playing on a boys’ team.

Girls do the cooking and the cleaning, even if they have a full time job (and their husband doesn’t).

Women must always be perfectly made up (hair, clothes, makeup) and are met with giggles or weird looks if their hair is wet or they are wearing their gym clothes while men can leave the house looking like they haven’t shaved in days in their gym clothes and won’t get a second glance.

Tanvi and I rock bright red

Tanvi and I rock bright red

Small girls (by small, I mean age 4 and up) are wearing full makeup. Face powder, mascara, lipstick, the whole shebang. And their brothers are encouraged to go get dirty, play around in the mud, etc. There’s nothing wrong with experimentation, but I can’t get over the moms who are putting their daughters in the whole get up so young. (Maybe I shouldn’t judge; I’m missing some culture gap here. But it’s been commented more than once by Brazilian girls that they’ve noticed that the girl exchange students have the tendency to go “all natural” and wear minimal to no makeup. Many of the girls who have said this to me say they wouldn’t mind going “all natural” themselves, but it just isn’t done and not how they were raised.)

During the Women’s World Cup, my brother Ben said something very smart, in that the South American men’s teams are so much better than the USA’s team, but the South American women’s teams are really bad while the USA women’s team is amazing, and that’s because the culture in terms of sports and how women and men are treated is different in South America and the United States.

And then when you even start talking about feminism and equal rights here, there are differences on that end, too. In my sociology class here my teacher informed us that feminism is women fighting for more rights. She made no mention of the fact that there is no official discrimination against women that gives us less rights than men. If you believed what she said, then why is feminism an issue in the first place? Feminism is about putting men and women on the same playing field. It is equality.

Maybe I’m being a little unrealistic by expecting Brazil, a country that is still developing, to have the same political and social equality that I’m used to. I mean, that’s the entire goal of exchange, right? To understand and accept the fact that the world isn’t exactly the same everywhere. But I’ll still be very happy to get back and go to class in sweatpants and a hoodie without weird looks about why I’m not perfectly made up.

See You Again

To the exchange students who went on the South of Brazil trip, March 2016:

This morning I cried and cried and cried. Last night it was tears of happiness when we were dancing and singing together and this morning it was tears of sadness when we were hugging goodbye.

These past twelve days have been the best days of my life. We did so many things that people all over the world never have a chance to do. We went to one of the seven natural wonders of the world, we rode a boat into said wonder of the world and got drenched by the catarata, we drove in a bus for days and days to different cities, we freaked out together over the European-ness of Gramado, we all became Mexican when we joined the huddle during the mariachi serenade at a restaurant, we had nightly shows on Bus 1, we sang happy birthday over and over again when it wasn’t anyone’s birthday and then again when it was. We listened to more than enough Mexican music on the bus and had rap battles and had wars over who’s speakers were the loudest often enduring listening to two different songs at the same time in two different languages. We learned songs in Taiwanese and Spanish and Portuguese and English and French and German. We went to amusement parks and churches and botanic gardens and the beach and ran through the rain to buy acaí. We went to Argentina and Paraguay and are now very familiar with shopping malls all over the south of Brazil. We pushed each other into swimming pools and played Uno and 99 and Mafia and went to a chocolate factory. We ate cake for breakfast and learned cusswords in a dozen different languages and bought keychains and postcards. We made everyone in every hotel and restaurant that we visited hate us from being too loud. We laughed so hard that we were doubled over with tears streaming down our faces. We took thousands of photos and gossiped together. We danced to Italian opera music and ragged on our host families and went to a bird park. We went to a wine and cheese tasting store and didn’t taste any wine. We listened to Brazilian pop and funk music together and all screamed the lyrics and danced. We signed flags and signed journals and exchanged business cards and exchanged pins. We went to Foz do Iguaçu, Paraguay, Argentina, Lajeado, Porto Alegre, Gramado, Canela, Florianópolis, and Curitiba.

And even though we did so many amazing things and went to so many amazing places, it is the people I traveled with that I will remember for the rest of my life. I have never felt so happy than I felt on this trip, and it is all because of the friends I made. Last night my face hurt from smiling, but I couldn’t stop. Words cannot express how much I love you guys and how much I will miss you. I already miss you.

Before coming on exchange, they tell us we will make great friends, but I didn’t comprehend just how solid those bonds would be until now. And the hard part about these trips is that you never know if you will ever see any of these people that you just gave a part of your heart to ever again. Now I have seventy-four pieces of my heart spread around Canada, Switzerland, Russia, Australia, the United States, France, Mexico, Taiwan, England, Germany, Japan, Belgium, Poland, Hungary, and Denmark, India, and, of course, Brazil, because that is where I met you.

My heart might be spread out all over the world, but I have no choice but to think that I will see you again or my heart will completely shatter. (So expect hosting requests in the future so I can avoid hotel costs, haha. I’m already planning my trip to Europe.)

Até mais, gente. Te amo.


“It’s been a long day

Without you my friend

And I’ll tell you all about it

When I see you again.” – Wiz Khalifa


On The Outside Looking In


My second host mom’s son Luis is in Newton, Iowa for his exchange. He’s in the middle of his senior year, and as such, is eligible to go to Prom. He recently asked a girl to go with him, and she said yes. How did he ask? A sign and flowers.

Nelly showed me a picture of this and said, “So much to ask a girl to a dance? It’s crazy!”

My first instinct was, “Oh, you just don’t understand the concept of a prom-posal. I’ve seen bigger and I’ve seen smaller. That was pretty average.” And then I took a step back and thought about it.

It is pretty crazy to have an elaborate plan to ask a person to a school dance. It’s also crazy to spend so much to go to said school dance: buy an expensive dress, rent a tux, go out to dinner, and more. Limos, flowers, after prom, not to mention the drama associated.

My senior prom fell on the weekend of Rotary Youth Exchange’s outbound training for my district, and I decided that going to Brazil for a year was more important to me than going to prom.

Prom is crazy. Nelly was completely right about that. And yet why is it my first instinct to dismiss a judgement against American culture out of hand?

On the various exchange student groups of Facebook that I’m a part of there’s a joke that goes along the lines of the exchange student being allowed to talk as much crap about their home countries as they want, but the second they hear others talking crap about their home countries, they defend their country until their dying breath.

It’s somewhat of an unspoken rule among my exchange student friends that we won’t rag on each other’s countries unless a citizen of the country in question actually brings it up. And even then it’s all pretty tame. (And if most of our time is spent ragging on Brazil, well, I’m not going to make a big deal out of it.)

I’m an outsider to Brazilian culture, and an insider to American culture. Of course I’m going to think Brazilian culture is weird. Judgement is a complicated thing, because as an American I can’t have an impartial view of American culture either. The same thing goes for Brazil, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned while being here is that there are many different faces and layers of Brazil, and one person’s Brazil is another person’s foreign country. There are so many different layers that I can’t even say that I’ve successfully discovered one.

People from Brazil and Natal, specifically my host families, tell me things about the city and the country, but sometimes I wonder how biased their views are, and, as such, if what they are saying is really true. But, then again, one person’s truth is another person’s lie.

I’m constantly being told how dangerous Natal is. On some ranking system, Natal is said to be the second most dangerous city in Brazil, and Nelly says it is amongst the ten most dangerous cities in the world. (I looked it up and Natal is actually the thirteenth most dangerous city in the world on some random list, but that’s still pretty high. It should also be noted that not included in said list in question are active war zones.)

Nelly is a journalist and constantly telling me things like, “Claire, there were twenty-five murders in Natal last weekend. This city is very dangerous.” Because she’s a journalist, she usually hears about the bad news before the rest of the world hears it. And sometimes the rest of the world simply isn’t paying attention.

Virna, my first host mom readily acknowledges that Natal is considered to be dangerous, but she wasn’t constantly talking about it and warning me. She trusted me to take care of myself and stay safe. I mean, it wasn’t like I was being stupid and exploring dark alleys in the poor areas of the city, but I could take the bus to the beach and the mall and really any place I wanted to (not that I went anywhere else). Virna would simply tell me to have fun when I left and to call her if I needed anything.

Living with Nelly is a whole different ballgame. She tells me I can go wherever, and that I can take the bus. I still go to the mall and the beach on the bus. But every time I leave the house she tells me to be careful and says a little prayer for my safety. Then she tells me to have fun. I’m glad that she cares about me but my anxiety level goes up when sometimes I’m not sure if she actually thinks I’m going to die or not.

Nelly constantly tells me stories of the tourists in Brazil that were robbed or assaulted right before I leave the house, and when I tell her that I understand and that I’ll be careful, I must first listen to another hypothetical situation about an American girl that’s killed before I leave. I’ve decided not to go a few times because I thought these stories were Nelly’s way of telling me that she didn’t want me to go, but then she asked me why I canceled my plans. I live in a state of constant confusion.

Nelly tells me every time I leave to take the bus to put my backpack on my lap and never to take my cellphone out on the bus, because I could get robbed or assaulted, and I shouldn’t call attention to myself. Never mind that I have blonde hair, blue eyes, pale skin, and a pink backpack. If anyone’s the elephant in the room, it’s me.

All of the situations described are not to raise your blood pressures or make you nervous on account of me. I’m fine, I promise. I am careful. But I don’t think that Nelly’s fears are entirely based in truth, but in rumors and stories she’s heard. Nelly has never taken the bus in all the time I’ve known her. Busses are for the lower class (and the exchange students). I asked Nelly and she told me that she hasn’t taken the bus since she got out of college and made enough money to buy a car. She says that it was more than twenty years ago.

On my various bus rides, I’ve noticed that those who ride the bus are predominantly those with darker skin and cheaper clothes. The women who ride the bus don’t wear as much makeup as the women who drive in cars. Those who ride the bus are of the working class. They constantly look tired.

Nelly telling me to keep my iPhone hidden during bus rides makes sense to me. She tells me that once I take it out, twenty pairs of eyes are immediately looking at it thinking, “I want that phone.” But it’s hard for me to believe that when I get on the bus and see more than half of its riders on their own smart phones. At the same time, I’m not exactly riding into the poorer areas of the city.

Sometimes I just want to scream at Nelly, “Don’t tell me how many people in Natal were killed last weekend! It doesn’t help!” I’m grateful that she cares about me and my safety. But I don’t need five stories and three hypothetical situations about the danger of the city every time I leave the apartment. (Okay, I’m exaggerating.)

I live amongst the privileged, and while I think that view of Brazil is an accurate view of one layer of this country, it also misses an entire dimension of reality.

Last week the geography teacher asked the class how many favelas they thought were in Natal. Favelas are slums – the mega poor areas of a rapidly growing city. Just in Natal, he said. Not the surroundings, or the suburbs, or the outskirts. Just the city.

The class decided that there were about five favelas, and the geography teacher laughed. He said there are about seventy favelas in Natal, and the whole class was shocked. I was shocked. I don’t know how you divide one favela from the other, and how big or small these favelas are, or even if what he said was true, but still seventy favelas seems like a lot to me for a city of one million people. Or maybe it’s a little. I don’t know.

But really what struck me was that in a super socially divided society, people don’t see the classes outside of where they themselves live.

I think that this is true in the United States, too. I want to say that we are an open minded society, but there is in no way that that is true. I could take the light rail to go downtown, but instead I drive. Colfax is seen as the neighborhood to avoid, but how dangerous is it really? As a society, the United States largely views itself as better than the rest of the world, but are we really when our middle class is declining and the class differences are widening?


A picture of Pipa for your pleasure since I don’t have pictures of the bus.



I miss these goofballs.

I miss these goofballs.

Frequently Asked Questions from the people of Brazil

  1. Do you miss your family?

Duh. And now that I’m thinking about it I miss them more.

  1. Do you like the United States or Brazil more?

How do you want me to answer that without being insulting?

  1. What do you like more: American food or Brazilian food?

Again, not sure how to answer that without being insulting. I am tired of beans and rice every day, though.

  1. Why are all Americans fat?


Do I look fat to you?

  1. Do you think Donald Trump will be president?

I hope not.

  1. Why did you choose to come to Brazil if you could have gone anywhere else in the world?

Apparently most Brazilians don’t see the appeal to their own country.

  1. You’re from the United States? Which part – California, New York, or Orlando?

None of the above.

  1. Is high school really like High School Musical or Teen Wolf?

It’s not generally the habit of American high schoolers to break out in song during their lunch break or turn into werewolves.

  1. Is that your natural hair and eye color?


  1. How do you survive when it’s cold and when it snows?

Winter coats are wonderful things.

The Carnaval Post

Carnaval is absolutely insane. Words cannot do it justice, but I am going to do my best to try.

I asked my host mom if Carnaval was to celebrate anything specific. She thought about it for a few seconds, and then told me that Carnaval was just Carnaval and they celebrate to celebrate. I did some research and found that Carnaval is a festival that celebrates the days before Lent in the Christian calendar. Brazil is not the only country to celebrate Carnaval, but it has by far the biggest celebration. The country stops for the days of the holiday. Ash Wednesday is hangover day, and then normal life resumes.

Saturday was the day that I went to the biggest Carnaval in the world. By all accounts the best Carnavals in Brazil are in three locations: Rio de Janeiro, Recife, and Salvador. While the rest of the world (and the internet) knows Carnaval through Rio, in truth the biggest Carnaval is in Recife, where there are two hot spots: Galo da Madrugada and Olinda. (Olinda is actually an historic town that’s a bit away from Recife, but that doesn’t really matter.)

I was picked up from my apartment by Virna at 4:15am, along with Viveca (Virna’s sister), Chiara (Germany), and Veera (Finland). We drove to the bus stop and met Jeanne (France), her first host parents, and Haven (California), his host mom, and Luisa and Joe (Virna’s daughter and her boyfriend). The bus left at five in the morning, taking all of the exchange students, our various host families, and many other people, to Recife for a day of Carnaval.

IMG_7082The party started on the bus. The bus was pretty quiet for the first few hours, but once we got closer to Recife the entire mood changed. Everyone put their costumes on and applying makeup and then someone cracked open a cooler and the singing and drinking and dancing started. Frevo is the type of music that is typical of Recife’s Carnaval, and everyone knew the songs and were singing them at the top of their lungs. The guide got up and danced the traditional dance to frevo while everyone laughed and sang and shouted encouragement at him. It was impossible not to be excited and happy because everyone on the bus was excited and happy. The bus was its own mini Carnaval. There were at least one or two people that were drunk before we got to Recife. There was one guy in our bus that dressed as a baby. He was known as O Bebê (The Baby), since he was very memorable, only wearing what appeared to be a giant diaper and some flip flops. I think everyone was hoping that he had underpants under the diaper.

IMG_7196We finally arrived in the Galo da Madrugada, and received instructions for everyone to meet at a specific point when we would then go to Olinda. If we wanted to stay longer at the Galo, or leave early from the Galo, we needed to take a taxi to Olinda, from which there was another meeting point so we could take the bus to go home at the end of the night.

Then off we went!

The Galo da Madrugada is the biggest Carnaval in the world. I was told that there were supposed to be something like two million people there in one day. Seeing as how we arrived somewhere around ten in the morning, it was relatively “early”. Mainly, we ran into a bunch of street vendors, already camped out along the sides of the road screaming, “Water! Beer! Soda!” There were police and firemen lining the road or sometimes in these kind of stand things so they could see above the crowd. And already people were filling the streets.

The translation of galo da madrugada is morning rooster. It turns out the main attraction of this particular location of Carnaval was exactly that: a giant rooster. And when I mean giant. It was this huge, rotating, colorful statue of a rooster that was the center of all of the activity. Leading to the Galo were all sorts of pathways that had been created by barriers and police for the different blocos of frevo to go down.IMG_7241

It turns out that a bloco is just a group of people, some with instruments, others with just drums, walking down the same route together playing the traditional music of whichever part of Brazil they happen to be in. People just attach themselves to a bloco and follow them for a while, so there can be hundreds and up to thousands (and maybe more, I don’t know!) following one bloco. It gets really crazy when the blocos run into each other, and then absolutely insane when three or four or five all meet up.

We stood along one of the pathways created waiting for a bloco to pass in the sun and heat and with a group of fifteen or so people – all of the exchange students and their associated families. I was already hot and tired and overwhelmed and the party hadn’t even started yet. The bloco hadn’t passed. And there were thousands of people all centered around the Galo already.

IMG_7087Finally, it was decided that our group would split up, something I thought was a sensible decision since it is very hard to keep a large group together with an even larger amount of people surrounding. Luisa, Joe, Virna, Viveca, Veera, Chiara, and I split off and we took two taxis to Olinda, the other big Carnaval celebration in Recife.

If I had thought that the Galo was full of people, boy was I wrong. Olinda was stuffed with people. After talking to some street vendors during a lag when a bloco passed by and a new one hadn’t taken its place, we found that even though the streets were stuffed to the brim, it really was what they thought was a slow day. The next day would be bigger, because the Galo only lasted for one day.

IMG_7250In order to stay together in one group, we all latched on to each other’s arms and backpacks, etc. When blocos were passing, and we just wanted to stay in watch, it took a lot of work to stay in one position, while mainly people were just swept up by the crowd. Wedging one’s feet into their own square four inches of space and staying there became a real act of accomplishment.IMG_7251

We went up and down the streets of Olinda, being swept along with the crowd, celebrating the craziness that is Carnaval. We made our way to the very top of Olinda, where there weren’t really any blocos, but many people besides. We took the chance to have some lunch and throw confetti and have a chance to recover before diving back into the fray.IMG_7104IMG_7190IMG_7128

At the end of the night, we ended up at the meeting place to go back onto the bus. There we found out that O Bebê had been lost somewhere amidst the partying! Everyone was pretty worried about him, since he had no ID, no money, no phone.

We got onto the bus after waiting a pretty long time to see if O Bebê would show up, and the tour guide solemnly told us that this was the first time in fifteen years of leading tours that they would be leaving someone behind. He said it wasn’t an ideal situation, but if we wanted to get back to Natal before one in the morning, we needed to go. After everyone on the bus said a few prayers together, we were off to go back to Natal.

Fifteen minutes after our departure, the bus received a phone call. O Bebê had been found! He had apparently wandered onto another bus, and we would swing by to pick him up at a gas station. Everyone on the bus cheered, and the party resumed. More beer was passed around, and people started singing different frevo verses all over again. Finally, O Bebê staggered onto the bus, without diaper, and without shoes. He was very drunk. He told us (in very slurred Portuguese) that he had gone on an adventure and his diaper and shoes were stolen. If he told us anything else that was important, I didn’t understand it. Oh, and in case you were wondering, under O Bebê’s diaper was a very brightly colored speedo.IMG_7269

Natal does not have a big, traditional Carnaval celebration like Recife does. Instead of blocos, people gather in certain parts of the city, were there is usually a stage set up and there is some sort of entertainment planned. On Sunday afternoon, Nelly took me to the Bloco das Kengas, which is where a bunch of men dress as women and then after they wander the crowd a bit, a fashion/talent/beauty show takes place.

Nelly told me that all of these men are either homosexuals or transvestites. She also told me that if I saw any women hanging around the crowd that had a more masculine aesthetic, they were homosexual (her words, not mine). I have no idea if any of this is true. But I do know that Brazil is a very intolerant country when it comes to differences in sexuality.

I took many pictures with the Kengas and watched a bit of the show. I didn’t understand what they were saying on stage, so while people around me were laughing, I didn’t find it to be quite so entertaining. Also, I was finding it hard to find Natal’s Carnaval as entertaining as Recife’s, because nothing else can match the awesomeness and craziness of that day.IMG_7268

After a while, we left, and I went to Virna’s house, where I had plans to watch the Super Bowl with the other exchange students. It turned out that only the girls of the group came, so we watched the game and turned it into a sleepover, staying up until five in the morning talking.IMG_7245

When I came back to Nelly’s house, I ate lunch and took a nap. When I woke up from the nap, Nelly told me to pack my stuff; we were going to Pipa, a beach town about two hours away, where we would spend the rest of Carnaval. If I could do things over again, I would have argued, asking to stay in Natal for the last few days of Carnaval. Pipa does not have Carnaval. The only day they do have a celebration is Ash Wednesday, and I missed out on that too. Instead, I was very groggy, so I gathered my things together and off to Pipa we went. I like Pipa. But this Carnaval was my first Carnaval, and I wanted to be able to get as much out of it as I could.

Now, I’m back in Natal, and even though I might not have been able to celebrate the last two days of Carnaval, I’m very happy with how my first celebration of the holiday went. I look back on Saturday, and it seems so long ago, even though not even a week has passed. It’s hard for me to believe that that was something that actually happened, not something that my brain made up. I’m so lucky to have experienced an authentic Brazilian Carnaval, which is not something that many people have experienced. And I can’t wait for the next one.

Carnaval: A Prequel

Pretty short post, but I figured I would give you some idea about what is to come.

Carnaval doesn’t officially start until Saturday, and yet the whole city is all already gearing up. I had no idea how big Carnaval is until now. I still can’t fully grasp the concept. But the entire country is gearing up to basically shut down completely for five days straight, and in many cases, the parties are already starting.

IMG_7033Carnaval is organized by several “blocos,” which take places in several parts of the city. Essentially, blocos are just different parts of the same big party. Different organizers, slightly different music, different part of the city. So far, because Carnaval hasn’t officially started yet, there has only been one bloco a night, at least that I’ve been aware of. Once Carnaval does start, there will be several different blocos at the same time in different parts of Natal, not to mention all over the rest of Brazil.

To emphasize just how big Carnaval is, my host mom has so far been unable to grasp the concept that Carnaval doesn’t really exist outside of Brazil. I’m sure different Brazilian communities in other parts of the world throw parties and dance and drink together, but in Brazil the country basically stops so everyone can go party. Schools and businesses are closed. Carnaval lasts from Saturday to Tuesday, but everything is still shut down on Wednesday, because that’s the day that everyone recovers from their hangovers, according to my host mom. I think a country that has an entire day devoted to the recovery of a massive party is a country that has deserved its reputation of being a party country.

Tomorrow, I’m taking a bus around four in the morning to go to Recife, for the Olinda and Galo da Madrugada. This is apparently the biggest Carnaval in the world, which is pretty exciting. I think it will be a day essentially spent in the sun with a lot of dancing. I have no idea what to expect, other than a lot of people and loud music. I’m going with my first host mom Virna, her sister Viveca, Virna’s daughter and her boyfriend Luisa and Joe, Jeanne from France, Jeanne’s first host mom, Veera from Finland, and Chiara from Germany. We are all pretty pumped. We are only spending one day in Recife, and the bus home will get back at some time around midnight or one in the morning.

As for the other days of Carnaval, I’ll be spending them with my second host mom in Natal. There is also a chance we will go to Pipa for at least one day, which is a beach town about two hours or so south of Natal.

I can’t wait!