At the beginning of our exchange year, there were eight Rotary exchange students in Natal. Then the number dropped to seven, when Haven got sent home. Now the number is down to five, because when June came, so did the despidadas (farewells). Pierre left on the thirteenth, and Veera on the fifteenth.
I knew before coming here that I would meet people from all over the world. I didn’t fully comprehend just how close we would become. We practically lived out of each other’s pockets these past ten months, and now we have no way of knowing if the eight of us will ever be in the same place at the same time ever again. I don’t know if I will necessarily miss Brazil as a country, but I will for sure miss this moment in time.
Excerpt and translation of a speech I did for the 4500 Rotary district conference:
Ten months ago I said goodbye to my family and arrived here in Brazil. I didn’t really understand what I was doing. I had come to a country completely different than mine, without speaking the language and without knowing anything about the culture. Now I am completely sure that I will never forget these ten months. It hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t been just a vacation, but it was a life. Here in Brazil, I have friends and family.
I am going to talk about the other exchange students that I met and built friendships with. I knew before I arrived I knew I would have friends from other countries, but I didn’t know that we would be so close. Now, when I imagine visiting another country, I don’t think of the place, but I think of the people I would like to visit. I have parts of my heart around the entire world, and I will never forget you guys. I love you all.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
The most frequently asked question I’ve gotten since December started is if I miss my family. I think everyone is expecting the exchange students to have mini meltdowns and fall apart because it’s Christmas season and we aren’t home with our families to celebrate. My parents asked me this too when we spoke on my birthday, and I was also expecting myself to be homesick as holiday season started. I can’t speak for everyone else, but my answer is that yes, I miss my family, but no, I’m not homesick.
The city has put up lights on the trees and a huge tree made completely out of lights which is kind of cool. I laugh every time I see the lights that are supposed to look like icicles since the average temperature here this December has been eighty degrees Fahrenheit. It’s like a personal joke since nobody seems to get it.
Christmas is so funny here. It’s the middle of summer here, so it’s not as big as a deal as it is in the States, so everyone tells me. They also tell me that in Natal, the name of which literally translates to “Christmas” in English, Christmas is a bigger deal than in the rest of Brazil because the city was founded on December 25, 1599. I’m still not sure what this means as the city is lit up and people are out of school and everyone has plans to go to Christmas Mass and spend time with their families with good food. That seems pretty similar to the spirit at home.
To me, Christmas just means family and friends and good food. And I miss my family at home, but I have a family here.
Rotary Natal threw the eight exchange students a Christmas party at the end of November. It was a fun and long day. They told us that we would be taking a ride in dune buggies and would be going to the nearby sand dunes (Dunas de Genipabu). They told us to bring hats and sunscreen and our bathing suits and a dry pair of clothes. That did not prepare me for four hours of being in the back of what can only be explained as a Barbie jeep in full glare of the sunlight going up bumpy and fast off road sand expeditions without seat belts.
Okay, let me explain. Three dune buggies / jeeps / Barbie cars. Four exchange students per jeep, and then Daladiana (important Rotary person) and other Rotary people in the other jeep. We loaded up at a hotel. I brought my sunscreen and a hat and my American flag, and climbed into the back of the jeep, accompanied by Haven (California), Veera (Finland), and Chiara (Germany). Haven was the lucky duck (and also the biggest of all of us) so he got/had to ride in the front so we could all fit in the back. That meant that he was covered and had shade. Oh how I wish that I could have gotten the shady seat.
Let me tell you, folks, that a hat and applying sunscreen every thirty minutes and keeping all of your clothes on does nothing against the sun in the location of the highest incidences of skin cancer in the world.
These rides are absolutely crazy and something I have no desire to repeat ever again. The rides were ridiculously bumpy and we had no seatbelts and I would have driven my fellow passengers crazy had they not been screaming along with me. I was a bit worried for my life in parts. I don’t even know how to describe it other than that when the ride ended I literally had bruises on my butt and I closed my eyes during parts so I wouldn’t see the death defying acts of dune buggy riding that our driver took us on.
At the end I was dehydrated and red and sunburnt and red and tired and sunburnt and red.
Something I’m glad they didn’t mention to us at the beginning: that people have died on these dune buggy excursions in past years. I can totally see why. This makes me laugh a little bit because had there been any hint of danger for something like this in the USA we would have had to sign papers and papers making sure that we couldn’t sue if somebody died, but here in Brazil it was just hop in and you might die but at least you’ll have fun doing it.
After the buggy rides of doom that we didn’t die in, we went back to the hotel where we first started, and had lunch and some free time that consisted of swimming in the pool or ocean or hiding in the shade and talking (me).
Have I mentioned that I am very pale and do not tan ever? This can make life miserable at some points. Had I known what I was in for during the dune buggy ride I would have brought a long sleeve shirt and long pants and wouldn’t have minded my clothes getting wet and me being too hot, since being hot is better than being sunburnt.
The best part of the party was when Rotary gathered us together in front of a TV and told us that the president of Rotary International had a message for us. When they pressed play what actually appeared was a video of each of our families saying hi and wishing us Merry Christmas. It was very sweet. Jeanne from France cried she was so happy.
Yesterday, we had an exchange student party in Portuguese class. So this included all of the exchange students from Rotary and from AFS, as well as our teacher. This was also a pretty fun party since we all put on Christmas music from our various countries and danced and sang and ate too much food.
As for my upcoming Christmas plans, tomorrow we will be going to Christmas Mass and then we will have the Christmas meal at my aunt’s apartment. Family and friends. That seems pretty good to me. I’m going to bring chocolate chip cookies and peanut butter blossoms.
When I make chocolate chip cookies, they never come out right, but the Brazilians all love them since homemade cookies are a novelty. I mean, they taste fine, but they don’t taste the way my mom and sister make them at home. As for the peanut butter blossoms, they do come out right, but the chocolate is different, so that part is a bit disappointing. I bought bars of Hershey’s Chocolate to put in place of Hershey’s Kisses and yet Hershey’s brand chocolate here tastes different than it does in the USA. So in short it is terrible. All of the chocolate here sucks. But at least the cookie part tastes great. And those are also a huge hit here. My family is very excited about my cookie making promises for Christmas. I’ve never been a big baker before, so it’s kind of fun to bring things that I don’t think are a big deal but then to have everyone fighting over the last cookie.
The fact that I am eighteen years old is extremely lucky in some ways because Rotary would never let an underage person under their supervision travel alone, like they let me. About a month ago I went to São Paulo to stay with my host sister, Livia, who is in her early thirties and lives, works, and studies in the city.
There were times when I was very lonely in São Paulo, because I had to find ways to entertain myself while Livia had classes and couldn’t entertain me. While I have certainly grown up over the course of my almost three months here in Brazil, I think I grew up the most here. I’ve never traveled before without my family. I’ve never explored a brand new city without my family before.
And when I say that I explored, I do not mean that I went down dark alleys and went to different parts of the city on the subway, although I very well could have done. One of the things you get used to hearing as an exchange student in Brazil is how dangerous the country is. It is hard to get permission to go to many places alone. And São Paulo is rumored to be one of the most dangerous cities of them all. My exploits mainly featured walking up and down Avenida Paulista, one of the famous streets of São Paulo, for hours on end. I knew how to use the subway and bus systems to get to different parts of the city, but I was nervous about doing so.
That being said, I learned a lot about traveling in São Paulo. I was bored in São Paulo. I was lonely in São Paulo. I saw some really cool things in São Paulo. And I absolutely loved São Paulo.
October 26, 2015:
Day of Arrival
Domestic travel is different in Brazil than it is in the USA. I was freaking out before leaving because I didn’t have a clear plastic bag to put all of my liquids in. I tried asking about it several times and the answers I received about this part of travel were just as confusing as I’m sure my question was. I’m fairly sure Virna and Leonardo were wondering what happened to the cool and level headed Claire who didn’t really seem to be phased by anything? That Claire was replaced by a Claire who was freaking out over a clear plastic bag. Finally, we resolved our communication issues and I discovered that not only were liquids waved through security without a second glance for domestic flights, but that checking baggage was completely free of charge, so why don’t I do that anyways?
Then I started freaking out about timing. I thought that we arrived to the airport extremely late, but it turns out that Natal has a very small airport (I wasn’t paying very much attention to the airport’s size when I first arrived in Brazil) and it also operates in a Brazilian manner in that everything is slow and late and will happen when it happens, not before, not later. Security takes all of five minutes to get through even when it’s busy, so my mom and I had a cappuccino and a cookie before I went through. I was still early, but Virna definitely knew I was on edge about missing my plane.
After landing in São Paulo, I discovered that my checked bag had been wrapped in plastic. Not sure why.
Then I navigated through the airport and found the service bus station, and handed over my proof of payment to get on a bus to Avenida Paulista, where I would meet Livia, my host sister. This is the part that I was the most nervous about. What if I took the wrong bus? What if what if what if… It turned out that taking the wrong bus was a next to impossible task, and that the bus was a service, not public transportation, as it included some very comfortable seats and wifi.
Livia met me on the steps of a hotel, and then took me to a restaurant called America, where I had my first hamburger and fries since arriving in Brazil. They were lovely.
October 27, 2015:
After waking up, Livia and I walked to a small grocery store to buy bread for breakfast and then had a conversation about the corruption in Brazilian politics over our meal. Then we walked around a little more, sat in a coffee shop and had coffee, and then, Livia took me to Avenida Paulista, which is within walking distance from her apartment, with instructions on how to get home saying that she would see me back at the apartment around eight that night.
I walked up the street for a little while, and ended up in a Starbucks. Yes, a Starbucks. I was tired and I know how to order at Starbucks. While I was there I sat and journaled a little and read in a guide book about the attractions of Avenida Paulista. I spent most of the day walking up and down the avenue taking pictures and looking for a free art exposition that I had read about, but I never ended up finding it. That day was also spent with a low level of anxiety because I was a tourist, and as a tourist I thought I should be doing something fun and exciting, not just walking up and down the same (extremely long) street over and over again.
October 28, 2015:
This day I actually had something planned for the morning and early afternoon. There is a free tour service offered in different parts of São Paulo in English, so Livia took me to the center of the older part of the city, where it was originally colonized, and I joined a crew of people from different parts of the world. I mainly talked to an older couple from Canada, who informed me that Spanish was actually not that helpful when it came to speaking and understanding Portuguese (they’d been there for two weeks and were leaving the next day, I’d been there for two months and was leaving many months later) and a guy from Japan who was working in San Francisco and now being a tourist in São Paulo who was in his twenties. This was the most English I’d heard people speak for almost the entire time of my being here in Brazil. I told the Canadian couple this and they said the same, except I was kind of miffed that they didn’t understand that I’d already been there for two months, jeez, two weeks is nothing. Looking back on that couple, I probably would be feeling the same way as they were had I not been an exchange student and done so many crazy things already. I apologize to all tourists. It’s exhausting, whether you are in a new place for one year.
After the tour ended, I took the subway back to Avenida Paulista, because nobody seemed interested in going out for coffee or finding a cool restaurant in that area of the city with me (at least, not the people I asked). I didn’t want to hang around, since Livia told me that I shouldn’t be alone in that part of São Paulo and to come back to Avenida Paulista if nobody wanted to hang out. I was nervous about taking the subway, since I hadn’t even taken the bus in my host city of Natal, and São Paulo much much larger and easier to get lost in. It was pretty straightforward and I didn’t get lost.
When I arrived back at Avenida Paulista, I walked up and down the streets. I kept stopping in front of restaurants thinking, I should go in there. But I never could make up my mind. I finally realized the reason I couldn’t make a decision was because I was hungry, and I went to a McDonalds because, again, it was some place familiar and I knew how to order there. I ended up sitting in there for about an hour, and then I walked up and down Avenida Paulista some more before going back to Livia’s apartment.
That night Livia took me to a bar where I met some of her friends and had a great time. One of her friends is an English teacher to really small children and he was just dying to speak English with me. Finally we compromised that he would speak in English to me and I in Portuguese to him.
October 29, 2015
This is the day I realized I could have fun just by walking up and down the same street over and over again. That being a tourist and having fun doesn’t require a person to go to all the museums and do all of the touristy things.
I slept in late, and then I, again, walked up and down Avenida Paulista, except this time I took small videos while walking to compile into a longer video for later. I ate in the food court of a mall where they had a self-service station of traditional Brazilian food because it would be cheaper than McDonalds and is really easy to navigate. I bought a pair of jeans and wandered around the mall looking at shops and generally having a goodtime. After lunch I bought a milkshake and went back to the apartment feeling pretty happy and that I had had a good time.
That same day, Livia’s father, Virna’s ex-husband, and his new wife, arrived in town. Paulino and Renata. That night they treated us to a concert from São Paulo’s symphony. I’m not exactly sure what they played, but it wasn’t the kind of music that I like the first time I hear it since it was modern and atonal. It was fun anyways, just for the sake that I was doing something cool, it reminded me of home, and the concert hall was sure gorgeous. After the concert was over, at maybe eleven pm since they started at nine, we went to a bar and didn’t leave until after two in the morning. I was so tired but enjoyed the new experience nonetheless.
October 30, 2015
Last full day in São Paulo
While Livia did her day activities, Renata and Paulino took me around the city to two different museums.
Paulino is the silent type. He almost never speaks. That’s not to say that he wasn’t really nice and caring. When he speaks to me, it would be to ask if I had enough money for the bus or the subway or if I had my ID since they would be checking. He insisted on paying for everything for me.
The first museum we went was featuring Frida Kahlo and other feminist Mexican artists that she knew and influenced. It was really cool to see Kahlo’s self-portraits in person, after learning about them so much in Spanish class in high school. It’s cool to see something you study in real life.
Then we went to a different museum which was featuring an Australian artist. This was a really super weird exhibition. I can’t remember what her name was, but she mainly had sculptures of what life would be like in the future with the genetic modification of humans, animals, and plants. I think her goal was achieved, since it was a though provoking exhibit, but also an exhibit that weirded me out and I wouldn’t be interested in seeing again.
She used human hair on her sculptures, and the all looked so life like but disgusting and odd and weird. That’s my personal opinion.
I’m not sure what Paulino thought, but Renata agreed with me.
Then I said goodbye to Paulino and Renata, and went back to Livia’s apartment. That night Livia took me to a TexMex restaurant, since I had told her how much I missed spicy food, not to mention Mexican food.
The food was terrible (even for TexMex) but I really appreciated the thought and am so grateful to Livia for everything.
The next day I had to get to a hotel in São Paulo very early in the morning to go on an exchange student trip, so that concluded my stay in the city.