It’s been two weeks since I moved in with my new host family in the inner-city neighborhood of Baixo Petroleo in Salvador, and I’m starting to wrap my head around what life here will look like for the next three and a half months. I live on the top floor of a three-story concrete building with my host mom, 13-year-old sister (with whom I share a bedroom and bunk bed) and 11-year-old brother. My uncle lives in the apartment below us, and my grandmother in the ground-level apartment. This arrangement is convenient for the inter-level conversations that take place out of the windows in the building.
The neighborhood is commonly referred to as a “favela”, despite the fact that this term has become politically incorrect in Brazil, much like the English word “ghetto”. My first home-stay mother turned pale when I told her where I would be living, and a Brazilian friend told me that I would need “nerves of steel” to survive here. The word “perigoso” was used to over and over. But since I moved in, my new family hasn’t repeated the sentiments of other Brazilians that everything here is dangerous. They simply point out the facts: “you can’t turn right when you leave the house because those boys on the corner are in a gang”, “don’t walk down that alley because that’s where they sell crack”, etc. These are not exclusively the realities of Baixo Petroleo, but of Brazil (anyone reading this probably remembers the invasion of military police in a Rio de Janeiro favela in November) and I’m already finding that the opportunity to live here is incredibly unique and is providing me with a perspective of Brazil that often (but not always) contrasts with the current image of Brazil as a booming economic power.
Although the new rules can be inconvenient and restricting to my independence (which is basically nonexistent at this point, for I’m rarely allowed to leave the house alone), I know that things will get easier the longer I stay here. The greatest challenge so far has not been exposure to drugs or gang-related violence like the news would suggest, but the general confusion at my presence here. In a place where the concept of cultural exchange is as foreign as I am, it’s hard for some people to understand why I would choose to stay here when I would be more comfortable in California. An adequate answer to this question will have to wait for my Portuguese skills to catch up, but I’m sure this subject will lead to interesting conversations. For now, I’m content with getting to know my new family, working in Bagunçaço, and becoming, as my supervisor at work puts it, a “menina da favela”.