Changes

Brasil: Day 111

I've passed the three month mark and am steadily making my way to month #4. Three down so far, and seven months to go. It's an important milestone. I've completed a third of my exchange.

It's getting increasingly difficult to type up a blog post every week. I've procrastinated this one for a month now. The problem is not a lack of things to write about, but rather too many things to write about. This one took so long to write because December was a busy month for me.

From now on, I'll just set a day in the week to type up a blog post. Officially. Every Tuesday. I will type up a blog post every Tuesday.

It's been a strange and marvelous month. In this last month I've changed host families, walked the streets of João Pinheiro with half-baked chocolate chip cookies still on the cookie sheets, was given free fruit from a fruit vender just because I told him I am from Alaska, went to a costume party in December, attended parties that didn't end until 6 am the next morning, spent Christmas and New Years in Brazil, and graduated with my classmates. I'll get into that, but first I want to address something.

Homesickness

A word that typically goes hand in hand with exchange is homesickness.

I don't like this word.

When I think of the word "homesick", I think of a depressed, melancholy, unhappy, and PERSISTENT feeling of longing for home. I don't have that. 

However, I did have that when I was sick for 5 days. I figured out what made me sick too. It was pequi.

  Pequi. *not my photo*  The brown part inside is spiky, so you can't bite it. To eat it, you scrape the orange part with your teeth, carefully avoiding the spiky insides.

Pequi. *not my photo*  The brown part inside is spiky, so you can't bite it. To eat it, you scrape the orange part with your teeth, carefully avoiding the spiky insides.

I try every new food I come across at least once, so of course I tried pequi when it was offered to me at a rotary meeting. I will not be eating it again. I didn't hate the flavor or anything, and I actually couldn't make up my mind whether or not I liked the flavor. But the next morning, my body decided it definitely did not like what I had fed it and waged war on itself, leaving me sick for 5 days. 

The physical sickness made me wish I was in Alaska with my family, comfortable, and spending those days resting in bed. That's what brought on the homesickness.

Even though I don't consider myself to be "homesick" in general, I definitely find myself thinking more about Alaska and I do miss my family, friends, and the familiarity of home. I've also found that when I have time to think (long car rides, staying in my room by myself, etc.), memories of Alaska flood in. 

Sooooo, my solution: I don't give myself time to think.  It's a good idea in general for me to keep myself busy and make the most of my short ten months here. 111 days have already flown by.

 Food

 I've been spoiled with all of the fresh fruit I've found here. One day I was walking in João Pinheiro's main square with a good friend and saw this street vendor selling fresh mangos, guava fruits, and plums out of the back of his pick up truck. I only had 4 Reais in my pocket and the price of one mango (which I desperately wanted) was 5 Reais. The street vendor accepted the 4 Reais and I asked him to select a mango for me, because I didn't know how to differentiate a good mango from a bad one. This led to a conversation, because it's not normal for the vendor to select the buyer's fruit, and my friend explained where I am from. Hearing this, the vendor generously gave me a bag of 4 plums and a guava fruit for free. 

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That's what I love about Brazil. The people here are so generous, friendly, and welcoming to me. I didn't do anything special to deserve this kindness. I'm just a pale Alaskan that speaks Portuguese like a caveman. They're so patient with me as I attempt to conquer their language and are always willing to show me their culture and their way of life. That's what exchange is about. To be an exchange student is to connect with people from different backgrounds, beliefs, and languages, to find the similarities, and to celebrate the differences. I'm loving it. 

   Pomegranate picked fresh from the tree and starfruit. It's normal for people in my city to have fruit trees in their backyard.

 Pomegranate picked fresh from the tree and starfruit. It's normal for people in my city to have fruit trees in their backyard.

  Baby starfruit, not ripe yet

Baby starfruit, not ripe yet

Normal snacks that I've come to love are salgadinhos. You can find them at formal events like graduations, sold at stands around the city, and you can order them to be delivered like a pizza straight to your house. Pastels (the square ones) and my favorite.

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My city, Joao Pinheiro, has a population of 50,000 people. And it doesn't have a movie theater or a mall. The main forms of entertainment are parties, visiting family, or meeting with friends.

Another way I've been entertaining myself is teaching people how to bake cookies. People that are interested in learning how to make "American" cookies invite me over to their house, and I show them how to make it in their own kitchen. It's become a large part of my exchange and it's one of my favorite things to do here. It's an easy way for me to share part of my home, and in return they make me pão de queijo :) 

A fair trade, I think. 

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There was one mishap with the cookie baking though. I decided to make chocolate chip cookies with my friend Pedro.

We ended up going to his friend's house to make the cookies because my host family didn't have an oven and Pedro's oven wasn't working. I made the cookie dough there at the friend's house with Pedro, no problem, and put the dough in the fridge to cool like the recipe said, when Pedro's friend got a phone call. 

It was the friend's mom calling to tell her that they were going to another city in a couple minutes. After the call, our friend told us there was enough time to bake the cookies but then after that she'd have to leave.  

It didn't work out that way. 

I asked her to turn on the oven to preheat it while the cookie dough was still chilling in the fridge so everything would be all ready to go when the 30 minute cooling time was up.  

Fast forward 30 minutes. The cookie dough is chilled, placed on the prepared baking sheets, and ready to go. I go to put them into the preheated oven... and the oven is cold.

She hadn't actually turned the oven on. She thought she did.  

But she didn't. 

To compensate for the lost time she cranked the oven up to 220 degrees Celsius (428 faranheit) and we put the cookies in and prayed it'd work out. 

5 minutes later I checked the cookies and it didn't look like they were baking properly. I decided to just give up on baking the cookies there cause the friend had to leave in a few minutes anyway.

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My solution was to go to my host family's relative's house and use their oven. To get there, Pedro and I walked 20 minutes through the streets of João Pinheiro with two pans of half-baked chocolate chip cookies, a grocery bag full of cookie ingredients, and a bowl of raw cookie dough. I've never so embarrassed at myself in my life and I've also never laughed so hard at myself.

I'm already an out-of-the-ordinary sight in my city because my whiteness, blonde hair, and green eyes and I'm used to getting some stares when I walk in the town square or anywhere, but we managed to draw some more stares with our cookie pans. It would've been less embarrassing if cookies were normal in Brazil. But they aren't. Cookies are an American thing and most people here have never seen them before.  

The things I will do to have a chocolate chip cookie. 

  a street in Joao Pinheiro, like the ones I walked down with my cookie dough. Except those streets had people 

a street in Joao Pinheiro, like the ones I walked down with my cookie dough. Except those streets had people 

  The cookies turned out alright 

The cookies turned out alright 

Graduation

Graduation. A meaningful event for every senior, in any country. Graduation is the finale of years of schooling. It represents a transition into adulthood and recognizes all of the long hours of studying, testing, and general hard work that seniors suffered through to get there. It’s also a day for your friends and family to share in your achievements and celebrate with you. It’s a momentous and important occasion. I was lucky enough to experience graduation in Brazil with my classmates.

Graduation in Brazil is very different than in the United States. School here starts in February and ends in December. My graduation was December 13th. Also, in Brazil, graduation and prom are on the same night.

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My experience was this:

-A week before the day of graduation, I went with a friend to pick out a dress to rent for the big night. Since grad and prom are on the same night, the seniors don’t wear graduation caps and gowns. They wear formal clothing you would see at prom.

-The dress I wanted to rent was too long, even when I wore my heels, so the shop fitted it for me. I paid $130 USD to rent the dress for that one night. I justified the cost by telling myself I’ll only have this experience once in my life so I have to live it up, which is true.

-The day of graduation I went to a cabeleireira (hair salon) to get my hair put into rollers at 9 am.

-My host mom Ana had made the hair appointment for me.

-I spent the day looking like a chicken with hair rollers. I wanted to go hide in a corner but I still had to pick up my dress from the shop and do other errands around the city with my host mom. And when we were done with the errands I had to walk through the gym (My first host family lives in the gym that they own), which was full of people working out, to get to my room so I could hide. My host sister took one look at me, pointed at my hair, and giggled. She’s 3.

-I went back to the hair salon at 4 pm for them to finish my hair and do my makeup.

-I was happy with the end result with the hair, makeup, and dress.

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-Graduation was at 9 pm. My host parents took me to the venue, which I later found out is the most popular party venue in my city. Inside was set-up like a fancy dinner banquet, with tables for each senior and their family. 3 photographers were wandering around snapping photos of everyone.

-The first part of the night was spent socializing and waiting for everyone to arrive.

 Jorge, the only other exchange student in my city, and I. He's from Mexico. I'm holding my fake diploma

Jorge, the only other exchange student in my city, and I. He's from Mexico. I'm holding my fake diploma

-When everyone had arrived, my senior class of 32 students went up some stairs to a small room to wait to be introduced.

-An announcer introduced us one by one. My introduction was “Natasha Talvi, an exchange student from Alaska.” I was impressed they pronounced my last name correctly. I descended the stairs, focusing on not tripping on my heels, was greeted by applause and cheering like my classmates had been before me, and was escorted by my host parents to the rest of my classmates on a red carpet.

-After that fancy affair and everyone had been introduced, my class of 32 students took their seats by the stage and one of my classmates gave a speech. It was in Portuguese, so I only understood about 70% of it. Then the principal made a speech. Finally, my classmates were called up one by one to collect their diplomas. (They made a fake diploma for me.)

 Cenecista Graduating class of 2017

Cenecista Graduating class of 2017

-It’s important to note that in Brazil, the teachers move from class to class, not the students. So, the students remain in the same classroom with the same classmates the whole school day for every year. Imagine that you stay with the same class of thirty students for sophomore, junior, and senior year for high school (Brazilian "high school" is 3 years: primeiro, segundo, e terceiro ano). All of the people in my class grew up with each other and have known each other for years. They're all very close. This made graduation more emotional for them.

-They also had made a video with pictures from their years together in school to be played that night, and tears were shed during it. One of the lines in the video was “Saudade, o amor que fica.” The translation is “saudade, the love that stays.” Saudade doesn’t have a direct translation in English. It was a sentimental moment.

-After that, the “prom” portion started. The parents stuck around for the part with sertaneja music, or Brazilian country music, but after the parents left at around 1 am, the DJ switched the music over to Brazilian funk. Funk to Brazilians is equivalent to USA’s Pop.

-More people from my school showed up for the prom portion and the party didn’t end until early the next morning. A teacher gave me a ride home at 4 am. 4 am is leaving early.. There were many people that stayed later. It’s normal for Brazilian parties to start late at night and end at 6 or 7 am the next day.

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-That would never happen for school dances in Alaska. School dances in Alaska shut down at midnight. My school principal in Alaska even has a saying about it.

“Remember kids, nothing good ever happens after midnight”

It was an amazing experience. I was very thankful for my host parents to have come with me to graduation. They dressed for the occasion and everything. It meant a lot to have them there.

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There was a moment though, where I was looking around at my classmates and their families, that I almost started crying.

I was thinking about how I wasn’t going to give my family in Alaska the chance to see my graduation.

This would have been my senior year if I had stayed back in Alaska. I would have been a part of Colony High School’s graduating class of 2018. I would have sent out graduation invitations, walked with my classmates (the friends I’ve gone to school with for the last few years), worn the cap and gown, accepted my diploma in front of a sea of people, thanked my teachers, taken pictures with my family and friends, laughed with them, smiled with them, and shared my graduation experience with them.

I was on track to graduate my junior year, because I thought that was a requirement of Rotary Youth Exchange if you wanted to go on exchange for your senior year, but my Rotary District made me drop a class. I’m short a half credit to graduate. I’ll need to complete that next year upon my return to Alaska.

Rotary said the reasoning behind having me drop a class is because they want me to have to return to a structured environment, like school, when I return to Alaska so I can settle in and deal with the reverse-culture shock. I understand that reasoning now. I'll need to have some refresher math, science, and English courses when I get back.

But next year I won’t be returning to my high school. I’m looking into going to a middle college instead. Returning to high school would be like a step-backwards for me.

This means I’ll never walk at a high school graduation.

In that moment at my graduation in Brazil, as I was watching my classmates here hugging their families, smiling, and talking to their parents, I felt like I was robbing my parents of watching me graduate. It’s just as much my parents’ accomplishment at getting me to graduate as it is mine. My mom took me to school every morning until I was old enough to drive myself, my dad had a stable job that brought in enough money to cover school expenses and much more, and they both did mountains of other things for me that I didn’t fully appreciate until now.

In that brief moment as I sat there experiencing Brazilian graduation, all those thoughts ran through my head and brought me close to tears. 

But those thoughts left as quickly as they had come. I am here in Brazil for a very short amount of time. I only have ten months to take in as much as possible and I have no regrets with choosing to go on exchange. I chose this and there is not a single doubt in my mind that this experience is unparalleled and will help me in the future.

Just because I did not take the normal path of doing things does not mean I am on the wrong path. Sometimes people tend to get hung up on what you are supposed to do at times (senior year of high school, prom, and all those milestones that come with it) that they forget what the actual purpose of those things are. I'm still learning and gaining valuable life skills like my friends in Alaska are, I'm just learning them in a different way on exchange.

HOST FAMILIES

I changed host families early.

For those of you that don’t know, Rotary Youth Exchange requires its’ exchange students to have more than one host family. Typically the number of host families is 2 or 3, but this number changes due to a variety of circumstances and varies depending on what country hosts you. My Rotary District in Brazil allows up to 4 host families.

I have three host families. Originally I was supposed to change families at the beginning of January, after Christmas. I was supposed to go Atibaia, Sao Paulo again with my first host family to spend Christmas and New Years with them. But instead, my third host family invited me to go to Cabo Frio, Rio de Janeiro with them in January! 

I was absolutely psyched that I would have the chance to see a city in the state of Rio de Janeiro. I thought I wouldn't have had the chance to go at all during my exchange.

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Since my first host family was leaving to go to Atibaia, Sao Paulo on December 18th and my second host family was also traveling, it was decided that I'd pack up all of my stuff and move in to my third host family's house from December 17th until when we got back from Cabo Frio, RIO DE JANEIRO. After we got back, I would pack up all my stuff again and move in with my second host family for a few months, and then go back to my third host family for the remainder of my exchange.

Now that it's January 9th, I've already gotten back from my trip to Cabo Frio with my third host family and IT WAS AMAZING, but I won't go into details about that in this blog post. That trip will have it's own post. 

Also, my second host family and my third host family are related. My second host mom is my third host dad's niece. This means I'll be staying in the same huge family for the remainder of my exchange, which is really exciting for me. I love this family.  

MOVING DAY

For me to properly explain my moving day, I have to start with the night before. 

I moved families on December 17th, Sunday night, but the night before was a huge costume party called Circus, Festa de Fantasia. The theme was "Conto de Fadas" or "Fairytales." Don't ask me why my city has a costume party in the middle of December. I don't know why. But it is the biggest event of the year. 

Ana, my host mom, fixed me up a Minnie Mouse costume for the party. She had been telling me about the party since the end of October. The founder/owner of the party is a regular at my host parents’ gym, the gym is one of the party’s sponsors, and every year my host parents’ pay for the gym worker’s tickets to attend the party.  

Never in my whole entire life did I think I would go to a costume party dressed up as Minnie Mouse. Especially not in December. Especially not in Brazil.

But I did.

 Host mom, Host dad, me, and Host Cousin

Host mom, Host dad, me, and Host Cousin

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The costume party started at 11 pm Saturday night and my host family arrived at 1 am. Even then, not everyone had arrived yet. There were both adults and teenagers at the party. Everyone goes. Later into the night, or technically morning, there was a competition to see who had the best pair, group, and individual costumes. There were live singers, a DJ, and a prize drawing for an iPhone. The party didn't end until 9 am the next morning. My host parents left at around 4 am and I stayed with some friends at the party until 7 am. They gave me a ride home and I arrived home at around 7:20 am.

I wish I could have spent the day sleeping, but I still had to pack my bags. I had procrastinated packing until the day of moving. I woke up at 2 pm and managed to fit all of my stuff into my two suitcases, my backpack, and the care package my mom had sent me. It was two hours of packing.

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 My blazer, still looking a little empty.

My blazer, still looking a little empty.

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That night at 6 pm my little host siblings had a school Christmas play. I was really tired but it was sweet to watch my little brother and sister dress up and dance with their classmates. Elise, my 3 year old host sister, was a reindeer, and Vitor was a Christmas present.

After the play we drove back to the gym to pick up my bags. It was 10 pm when we arrived at my new host family's house.

To be completely honest, I was really angry at Rotary that night for making me change host families. Here I was, already in a foreign country, already speaking a tongue that is foreign to me, already adapted to living with people that were previously strangers before I arrived here, and on top of all this Rotary wanted me to leave the house/gym I'd grown accustomed to and the family I'd come to love? They wanted me to leave my little host siblings I consider to be my real little brother and sister? And my Brazilian parents? 

I forgave Rotary only a couple days later. These two families are so different and moving families has given me a chance to experience more of Brazil's culture. To  live with a host family is to be invited into a stranger's home, stay with them for a couple months, and leave as family. It's a unique experience.

I'll talk more about my new host family in my next blog post.

 First host family + Grandma

First host family + Grandma

Christmas

Christmas is celebrated differently in Brazil. It is celebrated on Christmas Eve.

On Christmas Eve I made snickerdoodles with my new host family during the day. They let me share my Christmas music with them and we listened to it while baking the cookies. It was very special to me to be able to sing along to Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow and other classic Christmas music hits surrounded by my new family. 

After the baking, we all napped. It was going to be a late night ahead of us. 

That night I visited three houses. First I went to my host sister's boyfriend's family's house (Brazilians are very family-oriented). After that I went to my first host family's extended family's house. Even though my first host family was traveling and wasn't there, I wanted to visit my aunts and see the family. I met more members of my first host family there (aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, etc.) that had come to visit for the holidays. I may have moved houses, but I still am part of their family. 

The only thing that's changed is that I've gained more family members with my new host family.

I ate dinner with my first host family and then said my good-byes as I was off to the next house. My final house I visited that night was of my new host family. I also met more family members there. It was late, around 2 am, and they had already exchanged Christmas presents. I guess it was technically Christmas morning when they did the exchanging of gifts, but in my mind, that's still Christmas Eve.

There's no actual celebrations on Christmas day. People usually spend Christmas Day sleeping and relaxing. The festivities are already over. 

I decided I would video-call my mom for Christmas. Alaska is 7 hours behind Brazil, so I waited to call her until it was midnight here. It was a big deal. That was my first call home in the 90-something days that I'd been in Brazil. There was crying on both ends.

New Years (Ano Novo)

New Years in Brazil is almost the same as in the United States. There's New Years parties that last until early the next morning, fireworks, and champagne. The only difference is that Brazilians wear all white for New Years. 

I didn't know that beforehand and I don't own anything white, so I wore my black dress. As if I need more help to stand out.

I celebrated and brought in the New Year with my host family. We didn't stay at the family party very late because early that morning, the first day of 2018, we were heading to Cabo Frio, Rio de Janeiro at 6 am.

And that's where I'll end this post. It's long enough already. I promise myself to not procrastinate blog posts anymore. Let that be my New Years resolution. 

I hope you all had a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Until my next post, 

Natasha Talvi

Tasha TalviComment