Through my capstone project, I was able to relive the beautiful memories I have made of a place that has grown so close to my heart in only 8 months.
We often don’t realize how much the experiences we are going through are making us develop as a person at those moments. After reflecting on them however, we see how far we have gone.
To be completely blunt, I started my experience barely knowing what I was getting myself into. I did not know which city I was going to be staying in, let alone which work I was going to be volunteering for, for the 8 months of my gap year journey.
My journey started with rejected visas and not knowing whether I will make it to the country because I still did not have a plane ticket until the last day. Everything was in the air, nothing for certain, millions of questions. But, eventually, all my doubts were cleared.
When I got off that 16 hour plane ride crossing the Atlantic Ocean, I finally knew I made it; all that nerve wrecking anticipation was worth it. I had reached São Paulo and I realized I was completely alone million miles away from familiarity, hearing murmurs of a foreign language.
I was told I need to catch the black bus to switch airport terminals to catch my next plane to Florianópolis. I went outside of the terminal to search for the bus and I saw several different buses with different colors. Black bus, black bus… where is that black bus?
“Excuse me madam, do you know when the black bus comes?”
“No English, no English, sorry..”
So I just sat on the bench waiting for a black bus to show up, hoping I won’t be late for my next plane. Then one of the workers noticed I was a lost foreigner and Brazilians can’t help not helping people, so he approached me and asked if I needed assistance. I asked him for the black bus. With his little English and expressive body language, he was able to help me and I was finally on that bus going to the next terminal. It had been a long journey, I was very tired, hungry and couldn’t wait to sleep.
I finally made it to the next plane. It was a domestic flight of about 2 hours at around 10:00 pm, and I was the only one falling asleep on that plane.
“Boa noite moça, água? Suco?”
I opened my eyes, “What?”
“Would you like some water, juice…?” she repeated with that fake smile.
I thought, great, if I didn’t even understand something as simple as water or juice, how was I going to survive in this country? I think I was just very cranky and jetlagged at this point.
I got to the airport in Florianópolis, which is the tiniest airport I have ever seen. I get my luggage and walk out. I look at my phone, it still shows a different time zone, no service, unable to connect to the internet. So what now? I had the slightest clue of the time or place I was in. At this point, I was just hoping there would be people who came to the airport to pick me up, I honestly had no idea what was the plan, I was just glad I made it. But don’t worry, they didn’t leave me alone, I was picked up by two amazing GCY staff members Chris and Belkis.
They took me to the nearest, most random café that was still open that late at night.
So I’m there at this café in the middle of nowhere, outside is pitch dark, I still have no idea how the island looks like. Dying of hunger, we order some ham and cheese in hamburger bread (the first time I was eating something like that). All of a sudden, I hear this loud noise, people yelling at each other. Considering the lateness of night, I assumed those customers had already drunk a bit too many of those beers and the owner was trying to get rid of them. When you don’t speak a language, sometimes the most innocent conversations in a slightly loud tone seems like a heated argument, so I couldn’t tell what was going on. It was when the lady owner threw the napkin box at them when I realized I wasn’t misinterpreting the situation. This was my first impression of Brazilian people on the island of Florianópolis. I thought “what the hell am I doing here?”…
They say first impressions are important. But after you get a better glimpse of something, you soon realize that they simply become funny stories, sweet memories of your naïve judgments and proof of how far you’ve gone.
The first time I met my Brazilian host mom, she ran to the entrance repeating “ah minha querida, minha querida” (my sweetheart), embracing me, kissing me, as if it was a reunion. My program team leader – Chris, who is Brazilian but spoke English to us, came in with me, and the entire house was filled with laughter and mysterious conversations I could tell were revolving around me.
“Chris… do they speak any English?”
“Seriously? But they know that I don’t speak Portuguese… they do know this, right?”
“Sure, sure. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” And she was heading out the gate.
Okay, now I was alone with my host mom and sister who were extremely excited to get to know every single detail about who I am, where I come from, what I like to do… except, I had no idea what so ever what they were asking me let alone how I was supposed to answer…
For the first two weeks, Google tradutor was our most used application. I was afraid to walk downstairs without my phone fully charged otherwise I had no idea how to communicate. I wanted to ask them so many questions; I wanted them to know me too. I think this was the biggest reason of how much I was able to learn in such a short time, I was highly motivated.
A week later, I was dropped off at my new apprenticeship, where I was told I’d be volunteering at for at least the next 7 months. I was extremely excited because it seemed like such an artistic space. In short notice, I realized quite a lot of flaws in the work ethics. Nothing was clear, even after a month, I had no idea what my purpose there was. Long story short, they didn’t seem ready to be accepting a volunteer of my context, and after a long complicated self evaluation, I realized it was time to stop trying and move on. This whole process broke me down for a while, it was a tough period of time, I would say, the lowest point of my experience. The support of my host family was grand.
As we were in search of a new apprenticeship, I was in a desperate need to fill that gap of free time in between leaving my old work and finding a new one. Eventually, my fellow friend Zoe and I started volunteering at a community center near our houses where we built and painted benches to be put around the beaches and took some cultural classes like Capoeira and Taekwondo. It was such a contrasting atmosphere comparing it to my old workspace, it was exactly what I needed, for a while… Eventually, I needed a more purposeful place to spend half my day at and this anticipation was eating me away.
It was about time when we found a wonderful organization that works with raising awareness of environmental sustainability at a beautiful park in Florianópolis near the Federal University. After getting having swept the floor with my self-confidence because of all the experiences I had gone through regarding apprenticeships, I was afraid and holding back. I wanted to find my purpose and place in this organization so much, I just didn’t know how and where to start. With the guidance and support of my amazing team leader – Chris (if you are reading this, I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything you’ve done for me), and with the continuous motivation of my colleague Carin from Floram (the organization), I was finally able to conduct a thorough environmental research for them, which I eventually presented to a group of students. The part that shocked me the most was that I did this entire research and presentation in Portuguese… when I couldn’t even understand “water or juice” a few months back.
My last day at work, saying goodbye to my colleague was one of the hardest moments I had to face, I realized how much I had grown to love that workspace and the people I was working with, how far I had gone.
Saying goodbye to the members of my host family was heartbreaking, each one of them gave me a part of themselves that made me grow, and hopefully took a part of me that made the exchange of human interaction worth it. One of the last days, my host brother and his wife suggested me and my host mom tell each other the things we had learned from this experience, from each other. It was a genuine, heartwarming conversation. How far not only I but also they had gone. It was one of my greatest achievements knowing not only did I grow from this experience, but was also able to deeply affect the people around me that our goodbyes hurt.
My last day in Florianópolis, I was waiting at the airport for more than 8 hours, since I was the only fellow who wasn’t flying to the US with the rest of the group. I was sitting with the host mom of my friend, with whom I had grown really close to. I was sad to leave, I honestly wasn’t ready to leave yet. She told me that these moments in life are the ones that prove the experience was worth it. That in life, we will have more of these experiences, it will hurt to let go, but we will have new ones and all of them in the end will make us become the person we would be. I told her I wanted to come back and she told me that would be really nice, but that I might change my mind once I involve myself in new experiences. And she’s right, as much as it hurt to leave, I know that life will give me new experiences to look forward to.
My story hasn’t ended, it has just begun.