On The Outside Looking In


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



I miss these goofballs.

I miss these goofballs.

Frequently Asked Questions from the people of Brazil

  1. Do you miss your family?

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Why are all Americans fat?


Do I look fat to you?

  1. Do you think Donald Trump will be president?

I hope not.

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

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

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

None of the above.

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

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

  1. Is that your natural hair and eye color?


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

Winter coats are wonderful things.

The Carnaval Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then off we went!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carnaval: A Prequel

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can’t wait!

Lunch, Politics, and Carnaval


It’s funny how things can turn around so quickly. When things seem to be at their lowest point, the only other direction to go is up.

I’ve spent the last week at my first host mom’s house, and I think that has been very therapeutic. After a lot of conversations, I’ve stopped feeling like such a bad exchange student for running away constantly from Mom 2 back to Mom 1 when the going gets tough. Mom 2 has reassured me that she doesn’t mind at all, and I’ve finally started to believe her and have started feeling less guilty. Mom 1 is more than happy to have me around and is also constantly reassuring that Mom 2 won’t have any problem with me hanging out with Mom 1. School starts tomorrow as well, and I’m already excited by the prospects of being busier than I am now.

Furthermore, yesterday Virna (Mom 1), Veera, and I went to lunch at the usually family lunch weekend place which is always good fun if only because of its familiarity, good food, and good conversation. Yesterday, the conversation revolved around Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The Brazilians think Trump is a joke and are asking me if it’s a possibility that he’s elected to President. Apparently since I’m from the United States, I’ve been deemed as an expert on American Politics.

Speaking of which, I’ve always knows that the USA is a huge player on the world stage from shows like The West Wing and also from history classes in high school, but it’s taken me moving to another country to actually see to what extent the USA plays on that stage. Sometimes I feel like Brazilians know more about American politics than Americans know about American politics. And because the United States plays such a huge role around the world, it isn’t only American citizens who are a bit concerned about the implications of Trump being elected for president come November, it’s people from all over the world.

After lunch, we joined Virna’s daughter and her boyfriend in Ponta Negra, which is a beach in the southern area of the city. Virna’s daughter Luisa and her boyfriend Joe are in Natal visiting from Germany. Joe is from England but he lives and works in Berlin, and Luisa did her exchange ten or so years ago in Germany and has lived there ever since. She’s now a doctor. Anyways, Ponta Negra had a block of Carnaval set up for the evening, and we were going to participate.

IMG_7016What is Carnaval, you may ask? Broadly, it is merely a celebration of Brazilian culture. Traditionally, in places such as Rio de Janeiro, it is a parade type thing where Samba Schools participate in a contest and dance down the street with masks and costumes. But in other parts of Brazil, it is a giant street party where most people where cool headdresses and are clumped together following a sort of beat/rhythm produced by various instruments and drums. Plus a lot of dancing and drinking. I’ve decided that Carnaval is mainly an excuse for everyone to drink a lot.

Next Saturday I will be going to Recife, which is a few hours south of Natal, with my first host family and some other exchange students and their host families from Natal, and we will be going to a few blocks of Caranaval there. I’m pretty excited. Also, my new goal is to get a cool headdress for the celebration, since I was lacking one for yesterday.


Things that make me happy:

  • Harry Potter
  • The West Wing
  • Watching figure skating videos. My parents are looking at each other right now and wondering if I’ve been abducted by aliens or something. I’ve never told anyone this before, but two years ago I saw a clip of that 2014 Nationals on YouTube and I’ve been hooked ever since, becoming somewhat of a closet fan. I’ve watched the same four or five clips of my favorite skaters over and over again, and the artistry and athleticism is very impressive to me. Over the past few days I’ve been watching Gracie Gold, the 2016 national champion, over and over on YouTube. It’s been cheering me up.
  • Spotify
  • Taylor Swift. I’m listening to her album 1989 right now, and it is still very much my jam. It also makes me very happy that she has so many Grammy nominations.
  • Coffee
  • Videos from shows like Britain’s Got Talent and The Voice where someone unexpected surprises everyone with how good they are.
  • J.K. Rowling’s Twitter presence
  • Washing dishes. It’s weirdly therapeutic.
  • Feel the Bern
  • RadioLab
  • Basketball. I’m so thrilled to have something to do three times a week. I am absolutely terrible, but having something new to learn is awesome.
  • Adele
  • Fresh fruit
  • Lemon thing that I don’t know the translation to but it’s really good
  • The Broncos making it to the Super Bowl. I have invited all of the exchange students in my city to come to a sports bar with me to cheer them on. If we lose, hopefully it won’t be as terrible as it was a few years ago.
  • Pioneer Camp
  • F.R.I.E.N.D.S. Enough said.
  • Humans of New York
Some mango for you since I didn't really have a picture that matched this post perfectly

Some mango for you since I didn’t really have a picture that matched this post perfectly

I’ve been kind of depressed lately, and it’s been the appreciation of small things that have been getting me through the past month. I’m in a slump. Not everything’s perfect with my second host family, it’s really hot, I haven’t had anything to occupy my time with no school, my host city is the second most dangerous city in Brazil, it’s January and people are generally depressed in January, it’s raining a lot, etc. etc. etc. There are many different explanations for why I haven’t been feeling so happy lately, but I guess the simplest is that I’m a little homesick. I miss American food, I miss my family, I miss schoolwork, I miss being busy, I miss cold weather, I miss my friends, I miss libraries with books in English, I miss a lot of things.

At this point I just feel like I’m in limbo, waiting for things to happen. Waiting for my next exchange student trip. Waiting for my family to come visit. Waiting to go home.Things aren’t so exciting and exotic once you get used to them.

After about two months of summer vacation, school is finally starting up again on Monday, and I’m hopeful that the sense of routine and having something solid to do every day will be good. Also, my first host mom knows that I haven’t been so happy lately, as well as Veera from Finland. Even if they can’t make me magically happier, it’s nice having people to talk to. At first I wasn’t really interested in writing or posting this blog post, since I didn’t really want sympathy or Rotary to know. But then I decided what the heck. I’m allowed to be sad and homesick, despite the stigma on the internet and social media that every post out there must show happy you are and how perfect your life is. My life isn’t perfect.

I know things will get better, but I just need a little time. I’m also craving a little human interaction from the States from people that aren’t my parents and my friends, so if you want to FaceTime or Skype or something, send me an email and we’ll set up a date. I might wait a little while to actually agree to talk, though, since at this point I feel like talking to people at home is just making me more depressed. But drop me a line anyways, and we’ll set up a date.

Sunshine and Mangos


IMG_6902(Mangos being substituted for rainbows.)


The thing about exchange is that not everything is perfect. Not everything is sunshine and mangos the entire time. If you just read the blog posts and look at the pictures, everything seems amazing. The dream life is that perfect picture of you and a gorgeous view with your flag or your best friend. But in reality, exchange is made up of every day moments, too. Moments where all you do all day is go to school and come home and then go to bed. Days where you have a cold and feel miserable.

My first night in Brazil, a little more than four months ago, I thought that I had made a terrible mistake. The lights were off, it was dark outside, I was tired and jetlagged, and I was definitely not very happy at that point. I was wondering just what I had gotten myself into. Everything was different. My room was small, it was hot and humid, I didn’t really understand my new host mom, wifi didn’t reach my new room, the mattress was lumpy, etc.IMG_5196

Of course, since that first night, life has been pretty good. I have lived the dream. I have plenty of those perfect pictures. I was lucky to get a great first host family.

My first host mom, Virna, and myself

My first host mom, Virna, and myself

One of the policies of Rotary is that each exchange student will switch host families at least once, and the Rotary exchange students of Natal, Brasil, are no exception. The switch happened just before New Year, and I was again lucky enough to go to my first choice house. The exchange students here switch families amongst ourselves, and I went to Eric from Finland’s first host family. The setup of this family is exactly the same as my previous host family: a mom and me. My new mom’s name is Nelly, and her son is doing his exchange in Newton, Iowa. (What’s in Iowa? Apparently he’s pretty bored. Poor kid.)

Veera, Virna, and Claire

Veera, Virna, and Claire

The reason Nelly was my first choice is primarily because of the location of her apartment. My first host mom lived in one of the best spots in the city, in my opinion. Near public transportation, school close enough to walk to, easy access to beach, mall, athletic club, etc. Nelly lives about fifteen blocks down the road, in the same part of the city, with all of the above applicable. Plus, she is a really nice person. All of the exchange families are really nice here, so I really couldn’t lose on that front.

The switching of families went off without a hitch. The letting go of Mom One (as I’ve taken to calling Virna, to make it easier for all those involved) was not so easily accomplished. I still think of Virna as my mom. I think of Nelly as my mom. This makes conversations complicated.

Eric, Nelly's first host son, Nelly, and me

Eric, Nelly’s first host son, Nelly, and me

Nelly is great. She is very spontaneous. She doesn’t speak a word of English which is really forcing my Portuguese to get better, because with Mom One I could ask her for words in English during conversations. I now know the words for all sorts of random things because Nelly will see something and stop and make me repeat it until I have it memorized (speed bump is lombada). She is loud. She talks a lot. She blasts music in her tiny apartment at ten at night. She has a tiny apartment with a hammock in the main room that I have quickly fallen in love with.

I was very melancholy my first few weeks with Nelly. My first night at Nelly’s house mirrored my first night at Virna’s. I was sad, thinking I was crazy, and wondering just what I had gotten myself into. I missed Virna. And it was all the harder since I knew Virna and her new exchange daughter Veera had a standing invitation to come over and spend the night whenever I wanted to. They have a guest room which they have basically dubbed as “Claire’s room.”

I have taken Virna and Veera up on this standing invitation. Nelly didn’t have any plans for New Year’s Eve, and Virna’s family did, so we went to the Yacht Club and watched the fireworks as they were set off over the main bridge that leads into the city. I stayed the night, and then Virna told me to stay another night, so I did. Before leaving Nelly’s apartment, she had told me that if it was summer vacation and that if I wanted to stay at Virna’s for a week, she didn’t care. All I had to do was let her know what I was up to.

IMG_6792At this point I was feeling very comforatable at Virna’s, and not at all comfortable at Nelly’s. Of course I wanted to stay for a week at Virna’s house, but there was a little voice in the back of my head telling me that I just needed to get used to Nelly and everything would be fine, and that even though Nelly had told me that everything was fine with her if I hung out with Virna and Veera for a few days, I was a bad exchange student for not even trying to have a relationship with my new mom. So even though Virna told me to stay another night, I told her that I needed to go back to Nelly’s house. It just about killed me to go back, but I did. I told Virna this and she hugged me for about five minutes. I think she misses me just as much as I miss her.

That being said, Nelly has become such a great mom to me. She had to get used to me just as much as I had to get used to her. She’s never had a daughter before, and she is used to loud and expressive children, just as she is herself. She told me that she worried about me the first few days because she thought I was really unhappy and upset with her because I was so quiet, but now she knows that I am generally pretty quiet.

Also, I can now see why it’s a good thing to switch families. Virna is Brazilian. Nelly is Brazilian. With Nelly, I’ve been exposed to a completely different part of Brazil than I was with Virna. With Nelly, I’ve been receiving an education on Brazilian Rock, gone to Mass once, gone to small markets and restaurants, seen what public healthcare looks like, met a huge huge huge extended family, and have gotten insight to another Brazilian’s view of politics. Life is good and I am very happy.



Yesterday I went to Mass with Nelly. Nelly is very Catholic. In her apartment she has a shrine to the Virgin Mary and her dead mother. She goes to Mass at least once a week, and many times more. I went with her yesterday to see what a Brazilian Mass looks like. I don’t know what an American Mass looks like. I went to a Mass once in the Vatican, and that is about the extent of my Catholic education. When everyone stood, I stood, and when everyone kneeled, I sat. I didn’t feel completely comfortable kneeling and Nelly didn’t say anything so I figured I wasn’t too disrespectful. It was kind of funny, because she was really insistent that I do some things, like crossing myself, while in the next minute she told me to take my phone out so I could take a picture. I had kept my phone away, not wanting to be disrespectful. In the long run, in it didn’t matter, since my phone ran out of space so I couldn’t take any pictures anyways.



I like the food so much better here at Nelly’s than at Virna’s. Neither one of them cook, but Nelly’s maid makes more variety and also makes enough food to last for the days when she doesn’t come so Nelly doesn’t go to restaurants all the time like Virna. Not to mention the fruit. The fruit here is the same that I had at Virna’s: mango, papaya, pineapple, guava, so on. The fact that it’s the same doesn’t make it any less of a treat. Furthermore, unlike at Virna’s, Nelly makes concentrate for juice herself, while Virna would just buy it at the store. This makes the juice all the much better. I have also learned the joy of having orange juice minutes after it was squeezed.IMG_6909



After mentioning to my parents and friends back at home for several months that I was considering playing basketball, I have finally signed up. I have never played basketball in my life, except for messing around with friends in driveways.

Nelly is a member at a nearby athletic club called AABB. I have become her dependent, and have joined the basketball practice they have three times a week there. Veera from Finland, Virna’s new host daughter joined basketball at the same time that I did.

I know absolutely nothing about basketball, but so far it’s been super fun since I’m running around and doing drills that the teacher has to literally help me do step by step and playing pickup games, etc. This is the first time during my entire exchange that I’ve joined something that I’m actually really into, and it gets me out of the house more. AABB is maybe ten or fifteen blocks down the road, so I’ve also been walking to and from the club. As far as I know, we won’t be playing games against other teams, but they have pickup games every Saturday and Sunday that I’m planning on going to, and I’m perfectly to mess around with other people knowing that I’m terrible. The practice is coed, but so far there has only been one other girl other than Veera and myself.


Tchau for now!

A Little Bit of Nostalgia


IMG_3804I wouldn’t say I’m homesick, but my thoughts have definitely turned homeward as Thanksgiving is right around the corner. I think the weirdest part for me about not being home with my family is that I’m out of the loop. I had no idea that my family was traveling to Washington D.C. to visit my relatives over the holiday week until my brother and sister snapchatted me on the airplane.


Some things that I miss:


  1. My family (that’s obvious). I also miss knowing all the family gossip, so thanks to Grandbob for catching me up.
  2. Rudy, my dog (or rather, my mom’s dog). I didn’t realize how much I would miss the adorable fluff ball until I started looking for something to cuddle and he wasn’t there. Yes, I have dogs to pet here, but I’m scared that Zeca will turn on me and bite me again, and Caffoo is always shut in the back room smelling faintly of mildew as he never moves. He’s afraid to walk anywhere since he’s blind, and Virna has to drag him outside.
  3. The food. I miss American food. I’ve gotten used to the food here, yes, but I really miss American food. When I tell people this, they assume that I eat hamburgers and McDonalds every day, but that isn’t true at all. I’ve found it quite hard to explain what American food actually is, because they do have things like spaghetti and pizza and sandwiches here, but it just isn’t the same. Speaking of food, I miss variety. I miss spices. All the meals resemble the same thing, and nobody adds spice, except for an excess of salt, to anything. I’m finally starting to cook but when I went to the store, I quickly realized that they do not have the variety and quality of spices that we do. There were only two or three brands of spices, and about the quarter of the selection.
  4. Doing school work. I know, you are thinking I’m crazy. But I like learning and it’s quite boring doing nothing all day, and then coming home and doing nothing on the internet. I would like a happy medium. I’m happier now since I got a book in Portuguese and I’m really working on reading it, so I feel like I’m studying again. It also makes me happy since I’m actively trying to learn Portuguese.
  5. Playing in a band and orchestra. I finally dug my clarinet out of the closet after almost three months of being here (ouch, I know!) and it just made me long for a band to play in all the more. I haven’t been able to find any venue to play the clarinet in. Now that I’ve actually put my lips on the mouthpiece again, it will be easier to keep up as a solo gig, but I love playing in groups.


Some things that I love about Brazil:


  1. The selection of fruit. I haven’t had an apple since leaving Colorado, and I’m completely fine with this. Instead, I’m eating fresh mango, papaya, pineapple, guava, watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew every day.IMG_3457
  2. The coffee. I finally figured out how to make coffee that isn’t as strong as the stuff they brew here on a regular basis, but even with that, I’m starting to like strong, black coffee. It also makes me very happy to drink it in the morning with the cute little cups and saucers that my host mom uses.
  3. Learning a new language. I feel like I’m on top of the world. It’s like my brain is on fire and I’m processing new things every day. I already have plans to study either French or Italian yet, and get the Romance languages under my thumb.
  4. Public transportation. Last week I took the bus for the first time, and I’ve quickly grown super comfortable with the bus system. I feel like I’ve gained a huge amount of freedom, and that I’m looking more like a local (albeit a local with blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin) since I’m comfortable navigating the bus system.
  5. Becoming more independent. Since coming here, I’ve learned a lot about myself, and learned how to rely on myself a lot more. Yes, I still have a host family to go to for help, and an organization with a huge support system, but I’m starting to see what living independently can look like. If I can move to a new country and learn a new language without my immediate family right behind me, I can do anything.