Dude. You Need to Chill.

Caroline Blackburn - Brazil


November 1, 2013

“For gosh sakes, Kat!
Quit it with the nervous tick already!
You’re making the entire table shake.”

Unfortunately, this phrase was one I’d heard more times than
I’m proud to present.  Whether it was
during school lunches, in the library (be it school or public), during a class presentation,
or waiting behind the curtains for my turn onstage, I was plagued with the
single most irritating problem a person can face on their own.

Ladies and gents, I just might be the most nervous person
you’ll ever meet.

Despite my attempts to convince people otherwise, it was the
irrevocable truth: I was the stand-alone epitome of the term ‘Nervous Nancy.’  From my hopeless obsession with washing my
hands to my irrational fear of looking a waiter or waitress in the eye when
giving them my order, I’d just about flooded the checklist of symptoms.  No matter what the circumstance, I’d somehow
creatively construct a way to be nervous about it – even if fearing it was about
as useful as running from one’s own shadow.
There was no limit to the utter ridiculousness of my habitual anxiety.

And that’s why moving to Brazil has to have been the single
most difficult decision I’ve ever made.
It’s not because I question the things I know about the country, but
rather that I was afraid of what I didn’t know.
If I’ve learned nothing else after two months, it’s that the world is
far different than the way it’s portrayed in books, and – much to my dismay-
that means that practically every waking hour I spent with my nose buried
between the pages of my “Traveler’s Brazil” manual was for naught.

In truth, I knew absolutely nothing about Brazil when I
stepped off the plane in Sao Paulo – and that made me nervous.

The first week I spent here was, by definition, a
disaster.  In short, I spent the first
week or so stupidly drenching myself from head to toe with OFF brand “Deep
Woods” bug spray with 55% DEET in fear that I somehow might contract a deadly
flesh-eating disease via mosquito or indigenous parasite. (You know, the
imaginary ones with claws, a million little legs, little tiny eyes darting around
in all different directions, and a vivid representation of the nightmares that only
exist in darkest recesses of my head?  Yeah,
that kind.)

Then, after I became cognizant of the wrinkly-nosed
expressions I kept getting from strangers within ten feet of me, I realized the
depth of my irrationality and eventually stopped using bug spray as a safe substitute
for perfume.  From then on, I developed a
new set of fears every week, starting with when I realized with horror that
there are no leash laws in this part of Brazil… and that my childhood fear of dogs
would soon become my everyday life.

Any other Brazil fellow can testify when I say this: I made
a fuss every single time I was within mere eyesight of a stray dog.  A handful of times, I’ve even started crying
when one would follow me.  I began
wearing bulky rain boots around town, should a carnivorous canine decide to use
one of my ankles as a rawhide chewing toy.
I even resorted to crossing a busy street to get away from the scruffy
little scavengers.  How pathetic is
that?  I would lose sleep over a little
mutt that was no taller than my knees.

After that irrational fear, I became afraid of eating.  Just eating in general.  It wasn’t because I had a poor view of
Brazil, but rather because I was starting to grow increasingly skeptical of the
way my sensitive digestive system was going to react to Brazilian cuisine.  Sure, I’d been warned about this for months –
I’d even educated myself before even arriving in California that my body would
really be undergoing an enormous shift.
The funniest part is, I WELCOMED it.

But when I sat before a plate piled high with Brazilian
cooked food the night of my arrival, all I could think of was of how much I was
afraid of that inevitable shift.  In
truth, Brazilian food is the best I’ve tasted in longer time than I can
consciously remember – the meat is savory and packed with intense flavor that’s
more succulent than any amount of meat I’ve had from any steakhouse in the
North Eastern United States.  And I knew
I’d never tire of the rice and beans combo I would grow to love more and
more.  The only problem I had for a while
was learning how to allow myself to get used to food without being afraid of
it.

Slowly but surely, the plates I’d have for lunch and dinner
became fuller and fuller as days went on.
Pretty soon, I was experimenting with the dishes my first host family
cooked up.  Sizzling tomato and mozzarella
bruschetta; crispy and fresh Brazilian Pizza with sausage topped with four cheeses,
olives, and dried tomatoes; Fondue, made with only the finest of aged cheese
and garlic bread; the traditional Brazilian dish, Feijuada, which is a heavenly
combination of black beans, sausages slices, and home-cooked broth spread over
rice… and let’s not forget the endless possibilities of baked goods and
desserts they have here! (Which I blame entirely for the extra fifteen pounds I
put on in the first month!) Over time, I was beginning to love whatever was
being concocted in the kitchen.  I even
spent time in the pantry, gendering at any snack foods I could swipe around
midnight…

It wasn’t long before I abandoned the idea of constantly
wearing the giant rubber boots that took up 23% of my suitcase and finally
decided that a pair of Havianas (sandals) would do just fine.  I then retired the bottle of bug spray and
actually began enjoying hikes instead of further scaring myself into believing
they would lead to my premature death.

Not long after I began putting my fears to rest, I actually
began to trust other people as well.
Instead of curling up on the living room couch with a book and earbuds
to block out the rest of the world, I was letting the world in.  My first roommate, Maria, someone who I’m
sure I could live with for a much longer time than we were allowed, became the
voice of reason during my moments of utter panic.  Whether it was a comforting hand on my
shoulder or simply a kick in the pants (“Dude.
You need to chill.”), I began to rationalize my fears one by one until
nearly all of them faded.  And soon
enough, I began to develop a sincere love for the rest of my cohort when I
began taking into account that they were all going through a very similar
experience.  They liked me for who I was –
fearful or not.

On the last day of In Country Orientation, the entire group
took a trip to a beach on a far side of Florianopolis to say our goodbyes.  Not only did I start thinking about how much
I’d miss my fellow Global Citizen Year members, but I also realized while me
and several others caught waves that I was no longer afraid of what I couldn’t
control.  In all honesty, I probably swallowed
for than my share of salt water that day.
But the best part was: I didn’t care.
For all I knew, a family of fingernail-sized crustaceans could be living
in my pancreas from the amount of seawater I ingested through my nose.  Who knows?
All I knew for sure was that I was no longer afraid to live in Brazil.

Of course, every now and then I become occasionally phobic
of minor things.  Sometimes I become too
adventurous with exotic foods and overindulge myself, creating havoc for my
digestive tract.  But I realize that
unless I let go of that fear I’ve kept bundled up inside, I’ll never know if I’ll
really love something without trying it at least once.  No one can truly say they’ve tasted adventure
if they’ve been living on the safe side their whole lives.  Life is never the way it’s written in books –
no amount of pictures, maps, or diagrams could possibly compare to the real
world.  And even though I would’ve been
afraid to hear this during my first week in Brazil, gaining knowledge means
that you’re bound to run into trouble now and then, whether it be fearing what’s
on your dinner plate or playing a frustrating game of conversation charades
with the natives of Brazil when you don’t know the word in Portuguese, knowledge
is gained through every success, failure, and experience you encounter.

Thank you, Brazil, for showing me that.

Caroline Blackburn