Although I loved my high school, I always felt trapped in the confines of the classroom. I was living in a rut of text books and class discussions and research papers, and all I could think about was my desperate need to break out of that comfort, to immerse myself in a completely unfamiliar environment, and to see what I could learn about life.
And as much as I tried to avoid it, I did come into this year with expectations—for my environment and my new family, but also for myself. I wanted to live among poverty and do meaningful work; I wanted to be thrown into a beautiful chaos and, undoubtedly, thrive. I imagined incredible vibrancy, life, and color—the salty ocean breeze, colliding beats, a rhythm that captivated, overwhelmed, and energized me.
This dream became a reality two weeks ago, when I moved into my “permanent placement” in a low-income neighborhood here in Salvador’s Lower City. But now that I’m living this, I cannot imagine a more romanticized vision of poverty. I was under the impression that trash was really as colorful and beautiful as in Slumdog Millionaire—that the streets smelled of life, not a vile combination of sewage and rotting garbage. And although vivacity undoubtedly coexists with inequality and hardship here, I’ve too often seen places like this misrepresented by saturated filters and mocked with backwards admiration.
But although it’s easy to recognize the misconceptions—to see what this place is not–I can’t even begin to characterize the reality of life here. The communal atmosphere, the constant bustle and noise, the inefficiency and disorganization that seems to infiltrate every task. And as much as I want to truly understand and participate, I have been spending most of my time observing–the shirtless men who drink beers next to children playing in alleyways filled with garbage and rubble, the people who spend all day hanging out of the open windows of their apartments, ready to talk to anyone passing by, or to scream to their neighbors above or below, the clothes lines that are strung around dilapidated buildings like sparsely lit Christmas trees, adding life and color to old, ramshackle homes with bright tee-shirts and jumpsuits. I stare into the seemingly infinite stretch of buildings piled upon decrepit buildings, humbled that this is my reality for as far into the future as I can see.
But after getting over the initial shock of where I’m living, I realized, again, how incredibly lucky I am to be here. Living in this area as a foreigner (and, oh, a foreigner I am) is a rare opportunity, and such a privilege comes with huge responsibility. I have so much to extract from these next six months, so much to immerse myself in, to learn from, hopefully, even, to effect.
And although it’s hard to find anything to say about life without immersing yourself in the world, it’s also just about impossible to figure out what to say, or how best to say it, without getting the hell out of it again. But for now, I might as well begin to accept the overwhelming.