Over spring break, I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, through the Hillel Alternative Student Breaks (ASB) program. For the majority of trip participants, it was their first time traveling to the so-called land of soccer and samba. For me, this was my time to go home. Once more.
Although I am Brazilian-American, I was born and spent my early childhood in Rochester, New York. It was not until I was 13 that my family and I took what was supposed to be a one-month trip to Brazil in order to get a taste of my dad’s life, who was born there and grew up between Brazil and the U.S. However, when it was time to go back home, we decided to stay for another month. And after that second month, we extended our stay for three more. We love Brazil – to say the least – and ever since that time, I've been living half of my time in Natal in the Northeast of Brazil and half up here. I would homeschool when I lived in Brazil, and I would attend my local high school in Rochester whenever I was in the U.S. This duality was not easy to maintain; I would not see friends and family in both places for months at a time. I had to change the idea of what a normal life means, as I had been living two different lives at once. While this lifestyle brings many challenges, it is an adventure that I welcome and cannot imagine living without.
Before coming to Northwestern, I realized I was not ready to leave Brazil to spend four years in Evanston. And, because of that, I decided to take a gap year to teach math and English in the community where I made my first friends in Brazil and had previously helped my mom, a language teacher, work with members of that community on their English skills. It was the ideal opportunity to spend time in the community which I had been a part of for the last five years. It also was a way for me to help people who are fully comfortable with my presence in the community in meaningful ways. In addition to teaching, I also developed a company that promotes cross-cultural immersion and education through mutual passions, such as bringing Americans and Brazilians together to form lasting relationships through the shared love of soccer. On top of all of this, this was my first time living on my own (which has its own host of challenges and misadventures that I could fill a book detailing).
Despite a trip to Brazil being rather routine for me, the premise of the ASB trip was novel: I had never traveled there with a college group composed mainly of Americans. Because of that, this spring break experience brought the concepts of whether I was truly at home to light. I was one of two members of the Northwestern group who had been to Brazil before, and this meant that oftentimes I would be relied on for Portuguese-to-English interpretation as well as answering questions about etiquette and culture. When I am at home in Brazil, these situations never happen as I am able to just go about my daily routine.
In a similar vein, for obvious reasons related to the fact that the ASB group was a large group of people who did not speak Portuguese, the areas we immersed ourselves in were not necessarily representative of my life in Brazil. Barra de Tijuca, one of the nicest areas in all of Brazil and the location of our hotel, is nothing like the area where I live in Natal; Copacabana draws few if any parallels to my life there. The exception to these locations was the community where we helped to rebuild a sports court as part of our volunteering. In Natal, I spend most of my time in a community very similar to the one in Rio; both are small, poorer areas that are tight-knit amongst their members. Whereas capoeira brings my community together, soccer is what brings the community in Rio together along with different educational initiatives run by Hillel Rio, the partner organization for the ASB trip. While spending time in the Rio community, I felt right at home, but unfortunately, we would only spend a few hours a day in the area so the feelings were fleeting.
Another aspect of the trip that made my experiences in Brazil not quite feel like home is the fact that we were on a schedule for the majority of time. Brazilian writer Paulo Mendes Campos notes that “há duas constantes na maneira de ser do brasileiro: a capacidade de adiar e a capacidade de dar um jeito” (There are two constants in the Brazilian way of being: the ability to delay and the ability to ‘find a way’). One of the best and worst parts of Brazil is that timing is relative – if I agree to meet a friend at three at a cafe, it would not be out of the ordinary for the meeting to occur at half past three or even later. This can be frustrating when it comes to pressing matters, but it also can provide a nice cushion of flexibility as well as a more relaxed environment compared to the often stress-inducing strictness of American scheduling.
The other constant that Mendes Campos refers to, the ability to “find a way” (this is a loose English translation as the original, “dar um jeito,” encompasses other concepts), was noticeable throughout my time there. On any trip, things are bound to not quite pan out the way they were supposed to, and the ASB was no exception. However, the beauty of Brazil is in the resiliency of the people to find solutions to problems big and small, even those that seem insurmountable. This notion is something I especially admire about Brazil, and something that took me years to realize and accept about Brazilian culture. There is a sense of optimism towards confronting dilemmas that is not often seen in American culture, but permeates that of Brazil. When I would see these ‘jeitos’ unfolding, whether on Copacabana beach or on the street corner of the community we volunteered in, I felt the warmth of being truly at home.
While the moments where I felt at home may have been infrequent, after spending over eight months away from Brazil, a place that I consider my home more than my original hometown in New York and have grown to love more and more with every moment I spend there, I was delighted to have had the opportunity to spend even a week in Rio. It wasn’t quite home, but it was the strongest feeling I have had to home in a long time.