Winson Law - Brazil

September 13, 2011

This view from our hostel is at once a luxury and a display of Salvador's inequalities.

I wear a frayed pink yarn bracelet around my wrist every day. It’s a reminder of the last night before all 56 fellows left for Ecuador, Senegal, and Brazil. That night,as often the case during Fall Training, we formed a circle for our final activity. In this closing ceremony, each person voiced a commitment that they would keep during the year and tossed a ball of yarn to another fellow in the circle. By the end of this process, we had spun a pink and white web of commitments that represented our community, hardships, and hopes.

Some people committed to perseverance while others vowed to just be there for others. When I received the ball of yarn, I chose to commit to not wanting to be doing something or being somewhere else. In other words, I wished to stop wanting to be go Senegal instead of Brazil.

When I gained an interest in Global Citizen Year, my first choice was Brazil. I loved the idea of learning a language that no one really speaks back home and having an opportunity to do something completely different. On June 28th, when we all found out our country placements, I jumped around and danced when I found out that I would be a Brazil Fellow.

But over the course of the summer, something changed. I read Jeffrey Sachs’ book The End of Poverty, which categorized Brazil as a nearly developed country and Senegal as a country in extreme poverty. That idea planted a destructive seed in my head. As summer progressed, so too did the idea that I wouldn’t get a true “Global Citizen Year” experience by going to Brazil. It’s too developed, too Western, and too rich, I thought to myself, Senegal is where I’ll be able to experience true poverty so that I can go to college so appreciative and ready to make a positive change in the world.

At fall training, the idea that Brazil was somehow the less experience continued to grow. The more our speakers spoke about Ecuador and Senegal as less developed than Brazil, the more I felt the desire to change my flight from Salvador to Dakar. I couldn’t help thinking about the ways in which power outages, going to the bathroom in a hole, and learning two languages would empower me for the rest of my life. Why go to Brazil if it’s economy is booming and hosting two major international sporting events? Where is the need? Where is the struggle? Where is the challenge that I crave?

When I left for Brazil, those ideas didn’t stop. Although I was excited to finally begin my bridge year, I boarded a plane that I felt wasn’t going to the right country. I arrived at our tastefully decorated beach-front hostel in complete disappointment. Where was my hole for the bathroom? Why was there WiFi? What happened to this ideal “Global Citizen Year” that I had hoped for since February? How will I learn about myself when I’m living in luxury? I paralyzed myself with the idea that this wasn’t it for me, and that Brazil would provide nothing for me.

Those ideas started to sprout from within my own thoughts to my voice. I would talk to my friends on the way to the upscale shopping mall about my disappointment. I would talk to my friends in Senegal to try to just feel the blazing heat that they have to go through. I would look out the the Atlantic Ocean and just visualize the West African coast calling for me. It wasn’t until only recently that my friend Karina expressed not only her concern, but her outrage at my beliefs. I can still hear her words: “It’s messed up that you think that just because you don’t have to poop in the toilet that you are getting a bad experience out of this. You will get what you need from Bahia.”

Though I’ve only been in Salvador for two weeks, I’ve begun to internalize development and poverty within this unique, historic city. For one, right outside our hostel windows, we can see favelas with middle-class condominiums in the foreground. The immense divide between rich and poor within just one neighborhood is a testament to the ongoing contradiction that is Brazil. These neighborhoods are a representation of a city grounded in a past of slavery, unequal economic policies, and complex racism. The Afro-Brazilian community, which makes up the majority of the population here, is the most marginalized, while those of European and Native descent are better off financially. In the historic Pelourinho neighborhood of Salvador, the homeless children we see sleeping on forgotten pavement are not white – they are black.

I was naive and ignorant to believe that even though Brazil can be classified as a developed country, that poverty doesn’t exist. Karina is right. This may not be Ecuador or Senegal, but Brazil is offering something of equal and immense value to me.

After much writing, discussing, and thinking about my conflicting ideas, I’m beginning a shift in perspective. It’s atrociously privileged of me to believe that living in a poorer country would provide me with a better experience in personal growth. Or that life with a toilet is somehow not conducive to an ideally life-changing gap year. I should be spending no time dreading Brazil and more time producing positivity, integrating myself into the culture, and learning valuable lessons during this year.

I’m beginning to realize and acknowledge that even though life in a luxury hostel with a woman who does our laundry may be different than what my friends in Senegal may have, my journey in Brazil is worth just as much as elsewhere. It’s not what I have or don’t have here in Bahia. What I do with the materials, people, and resources that I have been so graciously given is more important than my country placement. The next step in this process? To re-commit myself to what my pink bracelet represents: not wishing or wanting to be somewhere else during these upcoming beautiful months in Brazil.

Winson Law