I lived in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil as an exchange student.
I learned how to speak Portuguese fluently.
I lived with two different host moms.
I met other exchange students from all over the world.
I took a surfing lesson.
My family came to visit me.
I studied in a Brazilian high school.
I suffered from homesickness.
I drank coconut water out of actual coconuts.
I made cookies.
I made Brazilian friends.
I ate so much acai it’s embarrassing.
I went to Rotary club meetings.
I learned how to make torta de limao.
I drank enough passion fruit juice to fill up a small lake.
I made tapioca.
I went to the mall enough that I practically lived there part time.
I bought (and wore) mountains of bracelets.
I stood out like a sore thumb pretty much everywhere I went.
I binge watched Netflix.
I filled my blazer with a mountain of pins.
I went to the Amazon Rainforest, the Pantanal, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Foz do Iguaçu, Porto Alegre, Curitiba, Gramado, Florianópolis, Bonito, Recife, Joao Pessoa, Olinda, and Pipa.
I had a year I will never forget.
I leave to go home tomorrow. I will have been here for exactly ten months at the time I leave. I have a lot of mixed feelings about my departure, but I am mostly excited. I am happy and proud of what I accomplished this year. I will miss the friends and family I made, but I am ready to go home. Bye bye, Brazil. I’m gonna miss you.
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?
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.
The 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.
We 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.
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.
Finally, 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.
In 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Carnaval 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 have been in Brazil for seventeen days today! It feels like a century. When I come home I fall into bed and sleep and then I can’t remember what happened the previous day even though everything and then some happened. I could say that four million more times but it wouldn’t make it any less true.
Virna’s daughter came in town from São Paulo with a friend of hers to take a test to be a judge. I met her on Friday, and then again on Saturday when I went to lunch with Virna’s family. Virna has an incredibly smart family. Virna herself is a lawyer and works for some sector of the government.
Her youngest daughter, Livia, is a lawyer, studying to be a judge.
Her oldest daughter has a pretty interesting story. She was a Rotary exchange student like myself when she was sixteen and went to Germany. When her year was over, she decided that she wanted to stay in Germany since the education system is better (or something, I didn’t completely understand) and took a language proficiency test, passed, and now has dual citizenship in Germany and Brazil. She’s lived in Berlin ever since, and is now a doctor.
Virna’s niece, Natalia, is a lawyer and currently studying for her masters in law. She has a boyfriend who she will probably marry in the next year (I’m not certain about this, but that’s what Virna told me. She also told me that nobody really knows but it’s basically expected that they will marry soon since they have been talking about it forever.) The boyfriend is a doctor who is specializing in gynecology.
Virna’s boyfriend has been interviewed for a published article in the New York Times and is a sociologist.
And those are the only people I have asked about.
Anyways, before we went to lunch on Saturday, Virna, Viveca, and I went to a park where there was some kind of fitness festival and dance party. Viveca is Virna’s older sister. It was in a park that was kind of outside of the city and has a huge observatory that you can go into to see a view of the city. Unfortunately, the observatory was closed, but you can still get pretty high up and have an incredible view.
The dance party was kind of cool to watch, but really hard to dance in if you haven’t grown up with these dances since you can walk. I mostly watched. They all know the moves to the dances like we know the steps to the Electric Slide or the Cupid Shuffle, except these dances were WAY harder and a lot less intuitive. Also, they had a kind of different dance for every different song, but there were two people in the front demonstrating, and then people caught on. My favorite part was when Uptown Funk by Bruno Mars came on and everyone went crazy and danced their hearts out. It was really fun to watch.
After the fitness festival turned dance party, we went to lunch on Saturday with the family. Lunch is the meal that everyone meets together, comparable to dinner in the United States. This time lunch was at my host-grandmother’s apartment. Before it has been at my aunt’s apartment, and in various restaurants during the week. Natalia speaks pretty excellent English, but for the most part I just hang around and listen. These lunches are fun even though I don’t understand a lot of what they are saying. It reminded me of the Montgomery family, because they got into some heated debate regarding law and the government. That’s about all I could understand from what they were saying. Sometimes they stop to tell me the bare bones of what is happening, but that it isn’t often. I still wasn’t bored, though.
After the meal, I met the husband of Virna’s mother (I’m going to call her my grandmother since it’s easier). He is 95 years old, while my grandmother is in her late seventies. They have been married for fifty some years though. He is not the father of Virna and Viveca (Virna’s sister) because their biological father died when they were very young. But, for all intents and purposes, he is the grandfather. He mainly sleeps all day in the bedroom, and everyone goes to say hi/goodbye to him when they are getting ready to leave.
He is funny since I can’t understand what he is saying due to some slurred and mangled Portuguese, but he mentions Obama every time I see him and can’t remember that we have met before.
Speaking of President Obama, he is loved loved loved by the people here. They all mention him when I say I am from the United States. It makes my Democratic party soul sing because they love Obama more than the average person I meet on the streets in the United States. I had to move to a different country to find people who like my president. (I also went to a high school that had a mainly conservative student population, so I’m a bit biased.) They tell me that Obama is better than their president. My classmates were telling me a bit about the corruption in Brazilian politics, and the first thing they said was, “Our president is corrupt. Not like Obama. Obama is good.” Also, everyone seems so relieved that I am also a supporter of Obama since they know how divided American politics can be.
We talk to the grandfather, and then we said goodbye to each other. Brazilian goodbyes remind me of Montgomery goodbyes since everyone announces that they are leaving, and then we all hug and kiss each other, and then we drink another coffee and have another conversation, and then we hug and kiss each other again, and then we finally leave.
Instead of leaving completely, though, Virna and I just went down a few floors to Viveca’s apartment and watched Netflix and drank more coffee and coke and wine. It was fun. The shows are in English with Brazilian subtitles.
Chen’s birthday was on Sunday, and he threw a party. However, nobody knew what time the party was. Chen is the exchange student from Taiwan. Regarding the fact that nobody knew what time his party was, I must tell you that that is so typically Brazilian that you don’t even realize how normal it is. The eight exchange students have a Whatsapp message group, and yet two of us missed the memo that the party started at eleven am, not three pm.
Because I thought the party started at three instead of eleven, Virna, my grandmother, Viveca, and I all went to Ponta Negra beach, which is just on the other side of the city from where we live. That’s where I went Paddleboarding last weekend. We sat in some chairs along the ocean and drank coconut water and they ordered some food for lunch. However, the fish was bad. I’m not exactly sure how Virna could tell since it was fried, but regardless, the fish was bad. Apparently it is illegal to cook directly on the beach, and when Virna asked where the food was coming from, they told her a different restaurant every time she asked. So she refused to eat the fish and Viveca and Virna and some guy had a very loud and angry conversation about it. Virna was really mad since she still had to pay for the food even though it wasn’t good food in her opinion. I have no idea if this is true or not, but I’m guessing it is, since everyone has told me to be wary about the food you eat on the beach and to always ask about it before you order.
Then we went to a different restaurant on the complete opposite side of the town, and after we had finished eating, Natalia showed up and started eating too. We talked and hung out with her. During lunch, Viveca and Virna were talking about the education system in Brazil, again reminding me of the Montgomery family. The students here in Brazil do not write at all. All of their tests involve multiple choice and the classes are simply lecture with no work attached with the exception of math. They don’t learn critical reasoning. They don’t have to defend their thinking by writing essays. Virna and Viveca told me during lunch that they also don’t learn about personal health and government, even though there are history and geography classes. This is not the case in Brazil. All of the classes they take lead up to a test that they take when they graduate. The test determines whether they are accepted into university or not. While I’m not sure which system is better, I do think that critical thinking is a skill that is needed if you ever want anyone to make informed choices on voting, the government, etc. In the state of Colorado, it is mandatory for every high school student to take a health class and Colorado government in order to graduate.
During the lunch, someone called Virna and told her that Chen’s party had actually started at eleven, but they hadn’t done the cake yet if I still wanted to come. We hustled to the hotel that Chen’s host mom manages and made it in time to eat cake and tell Chen happy birthday. I still had fun because I got to hang out with my school friends and my exchange friends, even if it was only for a little bit.
Manu, the host mom of Chen, invited me to come paddleboarding with her and Chen and Eric after the party at Ponta Negra like we did the previous weekend, and I accepted. However, this is Brazil, so while Manu and Eric’s host mom probably knew of the plans, Eric had no idea what was going on. All of the exchange students, led by Veera and Eric, wanted to go do something together after the party, like going to the mall just to hang out. We don’t see each other all together that often, especially Veera, since she lives on the outskirts of the city and doesn’t go to the same school as the rest of us. We tried asking Manu what was going on, but she just blew us off, and then we asked her if there was any way we could hang out together at the mall, and then she proceeded to give us a talking to about how the Brazilian way of life works, because apparently we have no idea.
She told us that in Brazil, Sunday is family day, so no we could not go to the mall, and that we had to hang out with our families since we hadn’t seen them all week. She said that if we had wanted to hang out, we should have done it on Saturday, but today was Sunday, and that she had plans with her family, and that Eric and Claire were coming along too. While I got her point, I thought that she was very judgmental of us, since all of us see our families all the time. I spent all day Saturday hanging out with Virna, as well as Sunday morning, and how was I spending time with my family if I was going to Ponta Negra with Manu? Veera’s host parents apparently do not work, so she spends all of her free time with her family. The other exchange students had similar reactions, but we decided not to push it.
It ended with Eric, Chen, and I going paddleboarding in Ponta Negra. After we went paddleboarding, we stopped by Haven’s house. I have no idea why. Again, this is Brazil. What I do is get in the car and just accept everything that comes. If you think one thing is going to happen, it probably will, along with a few other things. Manu had a talk with Haven and his host parents about I’m not sure what, while Chen and Eric and I went and messed around with a basketball and kicked a soccer ball around. We had fun, but it was eight pm and we were all starving and the only real thing the three of us wanted to do was eat and sleep, after a full day of swimming in the ocean and parties, etc.
I am glad I’m not the only person who wants to pass out from exhaustion after these packed days, since Chen and Eric were just as dead as I was. I don’t know how Brazilians do it. Virna is very suited for my personality since she goes to bed at 9:30 or 10 every night and doesn’t drag me around to people’s houses at 8 without making sure I have eaten.
Finally, Chen, Eric and I made the executive decision that we were just going back to the house even though they had kicked us out, and we are happy we did because that’s when the pizza arrived. After we ate, we played video games and hung out some more (this time with Haven) while Manu talked with Haven’s host parents. We were so tired that we barely talked and hanging out meant us mostly sitting together staring into space.
I got home at around ten and just went to bed immediately. It was a fun day, but an exhausting day.
On Monday, I went to my first Rotary meeting. There has been some confusion as to which club I’m in. On my guarantee form, it says I am in Rotary Club of Natal. I told that to my fellow exchangers, and they all said that there is no such thing, and that there are only four Rotary clubs in Natal. Virna told me I was in Rotary Club de Natal do Sul, but when I went to my first meeting last week, it was Rotary Club of Natal Tirol. I gave the flag of Rotary Club of Aurora to the club’s president, Daladiana. And then Virna told me that she figured out that my real club is Rotary Club of Natal, the one that the other exchange students thought didn’t exist. Shows you how much they know, since there are actually seven clubs in the city, not four. I think I will be going to one or two meetings a month. My club is very traditional and they meet at 12:30 every Monday and eat lunch and have their meeting. I don’t know what they talked about, since it was too fast. The only interesting thing is that you are presented to the club president and exchange club flags. Luckily, I had more than one flag to give from Rotary Club of Aurora. They also gave me my allowance, which is R$200 a month. Thank you, Rotary!
Virna went to Recife on Tuesday morning for work, so I spent Tuesday night with Dona Fatima at the apartment.
Wednesday at school was a fun day since the students in my class threw a surprise going away party for our history teacher, who is changing schools. Everyone (except the exchange students who missed the memo) brought food and drinks cheered when he walked into the class. The entire class was spent taking selfies and eating and talking. The history teacher talked to the class too and there were girls crying (no boys cried, because they are too manly and cannot be degraded to such a position) and then everyone gave the teacher a huge group hug. I kind of felt like I was intruding since everyone was very sad to see him go, when I’ve only known this guy for a week and a half and have only spoken a few words with him, and yet the girls around me were sobbing. At least the food was good.
I spent Wednesday night at Jeanne’s house. Jeanne is the girl from France. Jeanne lives on the other side of the city but she still comes to Henrique Castriciano for school. Jeanne’s family is really nice. Their daughter is in Golden, Colorado, USA for her Rotary youth exchange.
While I really didn’t enjoy it that Virna was gone, I think that this is one of the best things that has happened to me this far since I was forced to speak in only Portuguese, while when I’m with Virna I speak in Portuguese and then can lapse into English if I don’t know how to say something. Dona Fatima and Jeanne’s host parents don’t speak any English whatsoever, and this really threw me into the Portuguese gear. When Virna got back today, I just started speaking Portuguese with her, and I didn’t really think anything of it, but she nearly fell over and told me how happy she was that I’m actually speaking Portuguese! It’s not right, and really slow, and I have to stop for words and restart sentences since I realize I can’t finish the one I was speaking, but it’s still Portuguese and it’s a start! This is week three! Imagine week four!
In school, there are some people that don’t know how to speak English at all, and some people who speak amazing English. The people who speak English in my class have told me that they are going to stop speaking English to me since I need to learn how to speak Portuguese. My new favorite phrase is “please repeat slower.”
Outside of my class, people flock towards me so they can practice their English. They tell me about their visits to the States and are so happy to have someone to practice with. My hair is a very hot commodity, and people love to touch it. I don’t think that they think it’s really real until they stroke it and pull it and make sure that it’s actually attached to my head. A lot of people just have thirty second conversations before they leave, because they are too shy to say anything else. I have learned a thousand people’s names and forgotten all of them since I only had a thirty second meeting with most of the people that I meet. Eric was complaining to me about all of the attention today (he’s from Finland), but I’m happy to give out my name and have people touch my hair.
On that note, I swear that the entire city knows who all of the exchange students are. Either that, or my blonde hair and light skin are dead giveaways. Today Eric and Chen and I were waiting outside of the school gate for Eric’s mom to pick us up, when a guy on a motorcycle pulled up and said that we were exchange students so we needed to wait inside the school boundaries because who knows what will happen outside of the school grounds. While at least we are in the school grounds the school is still responsible for us. None of us had ever seen the guy in our lives before. Also, to be fair, I have blond hair and blue eyes, as does Eric, and Chen is Asian, so maybe that’s how he knew we don’t come from Brazil.
And speaking of people worrying about us being in danger, it’s kind of ridiculous and terrifying at the same time. Ridiculous because sometimes I think people worry too much. For example, I’ve stood in that same spot outside of the school gate every day after school waiting for Virna and have never been mugged/knifed/I don’t know what they are expecting. The school is next to a police station. Terrifying because the constant warnings about Natal being a very dangerous place and that we can’t leave the house alone, etc. have gotten into all of our psyches and freaked us out a little, since if everyone says it, then it must be true. Some days I walk to school with Lana, one of Virna’s cousins that lives in the apartment next door, and on the way there we take one road, and on the way home we take a different road because the first road is dangerous at that time of day. Lana walks everywhere, so I believe her.
I think all of us, but especially Chiara and Eric and Jeanne who have been here for two months, are going a little stir crazy since they can’t just leave their apartments when their families aren’t home. This is a very different lifestyle than we are all used to since in our home countries, most of us could either walk everywhere or had a driver’s license and could go places without our parents worrying that we would be involved in some sort of street violence. Our neighborhoods at home are safe to walk in or we live in small towns where nobody drives. In the outbound orientation, I was warned that we probably wouldn’t have as much freedom as we are used to, but I didn’t realize how true it is. There is public transportation here, but we aren’t allowed to use it until we have been here for three months and know more of the language, so we are driven everywhere.
I was also warned that I would probably pick up weight since the food would be really good. So far, my pants have only gotten bigger. I think the food is fine, but it’s really boring and bland. There is absolutely no spicy food. Every meal involves some variation of rice and beans. I crave spicy food so much. Last night I had a dream about some nice spicy curry. I woke up so disappointed. Tabasco just made it to Brazil, and it is sooo exotic, you have no idea.
The only other thing to report is that I have an ear infection. I think it is from swimming in the ocean, because the last time I had an ear infection I lived in Mexico two blocks away from the beach. I’m now on meds, and went to a doctor to get diagnosed and the prescription. The doctor is apparently a friend of Virna’s, so the visit was free. I think it would have been nearly so regardless, since most of healthcare in Brazil is free. The medication was a total of R$30, or $8 USD. Lovely country. I need to ask about insulin because I’m sure it’s cheaper here and that way my parents don’t have to ship me more.