Not Quite as Expected... 100 Times Better

Author: Alexandra Ricks

Tags: South America

I thought I knew what I was signing up for: an AFS Intercultural Programs exchange to Brazil for a year. I would pick up Portuguese within a few months, bask on the beach everyday while sipping tropical fruit juices, and attend the occasional samba style party. Perhaps I would battle a few days of homesickness, but I would overcome it quickly and continue to enjoy being the foreign and exotic exchange student.

â–º  Quarter Finalist 2011 Teen Travel Writing Scholarship

The moment I stepped off the airplane, this ridiculous fantasy came crashing down. Apparently, I had not known at all what to expect. I had been placed in Nova Andradina, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brasil. I landed in the state capital, Campo Grande and was driven another four hours to my host city. We were 11 hours from Sao Paulo, 12 hours from the coastline, three hours from a city with an airport, and zero minutes from hundreds of ranches filled with cows. My mental images of sea breezes and white sand were erased and replaced with the flat, dusty town that was now to be my home.

But I was far from disappointed. I had embarked on this journey of an exchange to have a change from my old life. To have an experience that could not be had in the U.S. I wanted to see a land that was completely different from my own. And this small city in the middle of cattle country could not have been further from my hometown of Seattle. Excellent!

The first few days were nothing but a blur. Parties, pizza, new faces, and new places were thrust upon me. I staggered through this whirl of excitement and new acquaintances on little sleep and no Portuguese skills. After the first weekend was over, I nervously awoke Monday morning. Just like any new student, I was petrified by the thought of the first day of school. I nervously swallowed my delicious fresh “Pao Caseiro com queijo e presunto” (bread with cheese and ham) grilled in the sandwich press, barely tasting anything. I meekly followed my 14 year old host brother down the streets of this city I would come to know so well in the future. Bundled in every sweatshirt I owned (it had not occurred to me that even Brazil could get a little chilly in the winter) and nearly waddling, I entered the courtyard where the entire school (nearly 200 students) was assembled, preparing to sing the national anthem. The principal who stood near the front, thrust me into a line and told my name to two girls in front. Then I was alone. As soon as the final notes of the Hino Nacional Brasileiro were heard, the entire class mobbed me. The entire day passed with many stares and many friendly smiles. My accomplishments for the day were understanding when I was asked my name (the fifth time) and communicating the pressing need for the bathroom!

The days passed slowly in the first months.  I went through phases of  extreme homesickness, utter confusion, loneliness, and sadness. I cried with my fellow exchange student, a German named Laura. I tagged on with my host sister’s friends for months, wishing I had my own. I watched soap operas and the news without understanding a word. But after only a few months, exchange became the wonderful, lifechanging experience I had envisioned. By the end, I had friends I would never forget, a second family I considered my own, total command of the Portuguese language, a clear mental map of the entire city, and I knew how to react when a cow entered the highway.