I left for Brazil 8 months ago without any clear idea of what to expect. Of course I had hidden expectations going in, but now that I have lived there for an extended time, it has become weirdly difficult to put myself back into my head space of the end of August to remember what I thought I’d find in Brazil. So, I decided to ask around to find out what my peers from my hometown think of when they think of Brazil.
Here is the list (many were repeated):
Rio de Janeiro
Looking at this list now, I find it easier to remember my own preconceptions about these things. Rio de Janeiro and the rainforest were definitely the first associations I had with Brazil. I thought of the Amazon, tropical plants, and amazing biodiversity; part of the reason I was so excited to go to Brazil to work with wildlife. This definitely did not reflect my experience though. I was, in fact, roughly 4,000 km from the rainforest. I still got to experience and learn about an amazing variety of animals, including toucans, parrots, macaws, and monkeys, but many of these came into our care because they aren’t native to the region of Brazil I was in at all. So I definitely retained my associations of bright, strange beautiful plants and incredible biodiversity, but the rainforest itself was never part of my year — though it is still definitely on my bucket list!
Rio itself was my second association before leaving. I had heard songs and had romanticized images of the city in my head, mostly formed by songs and the pixar movie “Rio”. I had also studied the city through the lens of the 2016 olympics, and the restructuring of the city. However, visiting it in person and the news and views about Rio we were surrounded by in Florianopolis created different associations for me. Now, I think of the military intervention in the favelas this spring, drug cartels, amazing geography, beautiful scenery, and crazy stories. I think of a city whose glory days seem to be fading into the past, but a city with the capacity to capture the hearts of most who visit there — with the exception of many manezinhos (people from Florianopolis) who find it dirty, smelly, dangerous, and definitely not worth the hype it gets from tourists. I never went to visit Christ the Redeemer or “Big Jesus”, though he did look over you from almost all points in the city. Most of my friends who went to see him said it was something you had to do just to say you had done it.
Bright colors definitely stands true to my experience. Just the week of Carnival was a crazy blur or colors from floats and costumes and lights. Colors popped from the walls from the amazing street art you are bound to find around every corner. The water is a different shade of brilliant blue every day, bordered by beautiful shades of green from the surrounding forest, and shifting tones of beige from the sand. I saw more different kinds of flowers than I ever had in my life and tried bright fruits whose names I don’t remember and discovered that there were constantly colors surrounding us the human eye can’t even see. Even taking colors literally and ignoring metaphoric associations with emotion, Brazil was the brightest, most colorful place I can think of.
Beyond Lochte and water quality, the olympics presented a new set of problems to Brazilian society, particularly in Rio itself. The 2016 summer olympics did not provide the boost to the city and country that it was meant to.
Music is definitely a huge one. Bossa Nova, Samba, and Brazilian funk and the big ones people generally think of. In country I also experienced reggae, reggaeton, forró, axé, and the Brazilian version of country music. I personally love a nice samba most, but that is probably because my host family loves to samba and I have warm memories of dancing in the kitchen or churrasqueira on Sundays.
My friend who said Portuguese was her association with Brazil is very smart and worldly. Since coming back, the most common question I have gotten from people about language is “So are you fluent in Spanish now?”. Since Portuguese was such an integral part of my experience, this question still manages to surprise me every time. I can already feel my Portuguese slipping away as I barely speak, and I am anxious to study it in college and return to (and move beyond) my former level of proficiency.
Warmth — Brazil was hot. Even on days when it rained I’d be sweating. My hair was a big frizz ball at all times and I can’t think of a single time I wore long sleeves while I was there. It also rained a lot, but not in a way that cooled the air down. I don’t miss the humidity, but I do really really miss the sun. And I was really unprepared for the first week back in the States with temperatures in the 50s, and then snow when I returned home to New York. All in all, though, I don’t miss Brazilian weather. It always did its best to be the most inconvenient it possibly could.
Soccer is actually huge. We saw soccer everywhere, heard about soccer from everyone, and discovered that it was an easy way to make friends. The World Cup itself is an association that I, as a German, tried not to bring up too much in Brazil. Let’s just say that saying “7-1” is an easy way to get Brazilians riled up. Though actually, a lot of the Brazilians I met claimed they weren’t die hard fans of the national team — they prefer to put their energy into rooting for their regional teams. Gremio, from Porto Alegre, was very popular in Florianopolis. Our neighbors shot of firecrackers almost every game they won.
The person who said beaches hit the nail right on the head. My year in Brazil was filled with beaches. I would be surprised if there were a single week that I didn’t see the ocean. Before coming to Florianopolis, though, my mental images of Brazilian beaches were of Ipanema and the other beaches of Rio — crowded, kind of dirty, and filled with thieves and girls in teensy tiny bikinis. The small bikinis held true, but my favorite beaches in Floripa were much emptier than the image I had of Brazilian beaches and more likely to be filled with surfer dudes and sunburnt Argentinian tourists than thieves and drug dealers. The beach was one of my happy places in Brazil. The sight of the ocean was always enough to turn my mood around 180 degrees when I was having a bad day, and feeling the rhythm of the waves was the best way I found to ground myself when I was feeling a little lost.
Gang violence, though I never personally experienced it in country, was a favorite topic of my host parents. According to them, drug wars and gang violence have gotten much worse in the last couple years as gangs from Rio and Sao Paulo look to extend their territory into the South. I heard about drugs on the beach and was warned to be careful every time I left the house, let alone when I was traveling. There were a few incidents that made it onto the news while I was there, but I never personally felt unsafe. Maybe I was just incredibly lucky, but my experience was formed by a lot of grim warnings and thankfully no horrible personal stories to tell. Gang violence is, of course, a bigger issue in the big cities, especially in light of the current situation in Rio.
For working in the broad field of environmental preservation, the topic of deforestation was surprisingly absent in my day to day. Of course it is a big issue — just look at google maps satellite pictures of the border between Brazil and Argentina. However, the main environmental concern in the community I was working with was ocean pollution. (Which, considering the geography and the organization I was working with, makes a lot of sense).
All of these associations are based in real aspects of Brazil. Some were more integral to my experience than others, and they all reflect some sort of truth about the country, but after seven months there I formed a new set of associations and memories that mean so much more to me than the things I thought of before. Now, I think of twirling in the backyard with my sister and eating acaí with friends by the lagoon and little monkeys stealing food and long conversations over dinner. I still don’t have a complete view of the country, but my associations with Brazil now are much more personal.