264 days in Brazil: a retrospective

I returned home early Sunday morning, stepping foot in the United States for the first time in 264 days. I’ve had a few people now ask me how my experience has been, which presents the daunting task of condensing the past nine months into a quick, socially-acceptable soundbite. I’m still working out how to best respond.

But overall, I feel incredibly proud and grateful of my time in Brazil. I’m proud of having completed the grant and worked to the best of my ability. And I’m thankful for all the people who shared their homes and lives and communities with me, which has enabled me to truly feel like I carved out a space for myself in Caxias do Sul.

By and large, I’m going to miss living in Brazil. I’m going to miss the daily challenges of navigating a new language and culture, as well as the reflexive insights they bring. I’m admittedly also going to miss the sense of being foreign and interesting, of being an expert on a lived experience that everyone wants to hear about. And of course I’m going to miss my family and friends in Caxias, with whom I’ve been lucky enough to build real, lasting relationships.

That being said, I’m also glad to be back in the United States. Having grown accustomed to the daily struggles of living in a foreign country, I’m amazed at how frictionless my life in the US can be. I’m realizing I now feel this sense of competence and agency that I rarely felt abroad: I know exactly how everything works and what’s expected of me in any given situation. I’m suddenly no longer constantly trying to bridge some sort of cultural gap. Everyone, effortlessly, is on the same page as I am.

The tension here, of course, is that I learn so much outside my comfort zone—but it’s also far, far easier to remain within it.

I’m really glad that I finally got the chance to do Fulbright. It wasn’t always easy, and I recognize that it’s not for everyone. But for me, the benefits of my experience have far outweighed the costs. I’m honored to have been chosen to participate in it, and thankful and proud.

If you’re considering applying to this program, or would like to hear more about my experience, I’d love to talk to you. Please email me at avincen1@villanova.edu.

It’s been a pleasure sharing this blog with you. The grant may be over, but let the story continue!

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The weirdest places I’ve slept in Brazil

This post is intended as a sequel to “Oh, the places I’ve been (in Brazil).”

What do a sorority house, the Amazon jungle, and a swanky gated community all have in common? They’re all places I’ve laid my head over the past three months.

CA sorority house (Ouro Preto, MG)

Ouro Preto (“Black Gold”) is a small university town nestled into the rolling hills of the state of Minas Gerais (“General Mines”). Once the center of Brazil’s colonial gold rush, its 18th-century population exceeded those of New York City and Rio de Jainero. Its onetime wealth is still evident in its art and architecture, Baroque revivalism featuring plenty of gilded churches that have earned the city the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ouro Preto was also the site of an early (failed) plot for Brazilian independence. Given the city’s historical importance, one guidebook likened Brazilian tourism in Ouro Preto to Americans visiting Philadelphia.

Anyway, I experienced this delightful town from the vantage point of a sorority house. This fact was not disclosed on my Airbnb listing, and it was something I only discovered when another woman walked in while my host was showing me to my room. We made some small talk, and I asked her if the house was a hostel or something. “No, it’s a republica,” she told me in Portuguese, before switching to English when she saw my puzzled expression: “Like a fraternity.”

The sorority’s inhabitants were pretty nice, but I still felt distinctly out of place—especially because the bathroom in my private room had no sink, and so I had to use the one right next to the women’s communal bathroom. The real problem was their neighbors, who played music (at one point so loud it literally shook the walls) until the early hours of the morning. This prompted my ever-gracious host to insist that I swap rooms for the second night, moving to the side of the house farthest from the obnoxious neighbors. I landed in a clearly lived-in double and displaced its proper inhabitants to who-know-where.

After leaving Ouro Preto, I also visited the nearby capital of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte. My living situation there was much more reasonable, a spare room in an apartment building that was exactly as advertised. Highlights included the Municipal Market, which featured amongst other animals, half-grown ostrich “chicks” for sale; Mirante do Mangabeiras, a beautiful lookout over the city from a neighboring hill; and A Pão de Queijaria, a restaurant serving the cheese bread that both the region and Brazil is known for. (I got a pão de queijo sandwich with pulled pork inside, along with pão de queijo ice cream.) I also rented a bike to ride around one part of  Lake Pampulha, another UNESCO World Heritage (albeit a sort of disappointing one) that’s home to a collection of modernist buildings designed by the famous Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.

The Amazon jungle (Manaus, AM)

Manaus is the capital of the state of Amazonas and a popular portal to the Brazilian Amazon. I splurged on a three-day stay at a jungle lodge (which included an overnight stay in the forest), but that was during the latter half of my stay.

For the first two nights of my stay, I had the single weirdest Airbnb experience of my life. It featured a nonresponsive host and eventually being shunted off to his mom, who did not seem to understand that the address they gave me, when fed into Uber, spit me out in a pharmacy about a half-kilometer away. After being retrieved in a Christian book store by a Venezuelan housemate, I was given a tour of this crumbling Portuguese-style mansion that featured a political campaign office, round motel-like beds in every room, and a giant framed picture of my host’s mom (probably taken at least thirty years ago) captioned by the Proverbs verse about a virtuous woman being more valuable than jewels.

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Where I slept the first two nights in Manaus

It was just weird, weird, weird. Half the upstairs was trashed from a previous occupant who’d been on the autism spectrum. My host’s mom asked (pointedly) if I had already paid, indicating she didn’t know how Airbnb worked. And my Venezuelan friend insisted on coming into my room to speak Spanish with me (and try to give me a foot rub), which I think he thought was a way of being friendly with me, but really just made me anxious about spending too much time in the house.

It’s always an adventure in a cheap Airbnb.

Anyway, the second half of my stay was a lot more fun. I stayed at Amazon Antonio’s Jungle Lodge, which has the sort of name that should turn you right off but the universally perfect reviews on TripAdvisor to draw you right back in. The lodge I stayed in was on Rio Urubu, a black-water Amazon tributary we spent forty minutes traversing via speedboat after driving two hours outside Manaus. I was joined by a dude from Wales and a couple from the Netherlands (netting me a R$300 refund in transportation costs that I deeply respected the company for repaying me), which actually made for a fun little foursome.

I could go on about this experience for hours, but highlights were:

  • Catching piranhas that we then ate for dinner
  • Paddling through an impenetrable fog at sunrise, watching submerged trees loom into view
  • Tricking a giant tarantula out of its borrow, which helped me get over my fear of them by showing they would rather just hang out in their little hole than go on the hunt for wayward Americans
  • Spending a night in the Amazon jungle

After the jungle tour, I had a bit more time in Manaus—visiting the famous Teatro Amazonas and taking full advantage of all the fresh juices on offer.

Swanky gated community (São José do Rio Preto, SP)

My last Brazilian excursion was with Elaine and Barbara to Elaine’s sister’s house in São José do Rio Preto, São Paulo (a city you may recognize from the sidebar!). Elaine’s sister and brother-in-law live in a gated community that looks like what I imagine a fancy California tech suburb would be: sleek modernist architecture, manicured lawns, various tropical flowers and trees. We took a few trips into the city center, but we spent most of our time in the house.

We ate really well—one day Elaine’s brother-in-law made churrasco for us, the next evening I made Kroll’s chili, and the following morning Barbara and I fixed an American brunch for everyone:

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Also, we got to visit the farm that Elaine’s brother-in-law kept, eating mangos and blackberries straight from the trees. Elaine’s sister even knocked down and hacked open some coconuts so we could drink the water inside. I know life there was sort of charmed (two women came in every morning to help cook and clean), but it also felt a lot more like what I think most people would consider Brazil to be.

Clearly, there’s a whole lot of Brazil outside Caxias. And even if that means sleeping in the odd bed, I’m happy I get to experience it.

6 tips for talking with non-native English speakers

Prior to coming to Brazil, I liked to think of myself as someone who communicated effectively with non-native English speakers. I knew enough to speak slowly and clearly, using simple terms and avoiding the unhelpful repeat-what-you-just-said-but-louder technique when faced with people who didn’t understand me. But having spent several months as a non-native Portuguese speaker (in a city where few people speak English), I now have a new appreciation for what works and what doesn’t when you’re trying to engage effectively with a non-native speaker.

In the spirit of intercultural exchange–you know, bringing my experiences back to the States and all—I wanted to share six of the methods I’ve realized here.

(I also want to give a shout-out to my host mom Elaine for embodying so many of these. She’s not only taught me Portuguese; she’s shown me how to better communicate with people across the world. Anyway, onto the tips:)

 

1. Talk directly to the non-native speaker 

If you’re curious about whether a non-native speaker speaks your language, ask them directly. Often I’ll be introduced to someone as an American, and that person will then turn to my host to ask if I speak Portuguese. Now, I’ve noticed these people don’t speak English, so I’m guessing they might be nervous about communicating with me. But regardless, I still feel a little demeaned because I wasn’t given the opportunity to express myself like an equal participant in the conversation.

Ultimately, it’s not a huge deal. But I do think talking directly to a non-native speaker (even if you don’t speak their language) is an easy way to help them feel welcome in a conversation. (As a side note, I can tell you this is standard training for working with interpreters as well: talk to the person, not the interpreter.) (And as another side note: a lot of people with disabilities report feeling similarly demeaned when people talk to their caretakers instead of them; I know that’s something I’ve needed to remind myself not to do.)

 

2. Specify when you’re using names

If you’ve ever tried to have a conversation in a foreign language, you’ll know how strenuous it is to constantly figure out the meanings of unknown words. In my experience, those conversations become a lot easier when your foreign-language conversation partner explicitly tells you when one of those unknown words is a name. Specifying if you’re talking about a person or a place or something frees up all sorts of mental bandwidth that your non-native speaking partner can then apply to following the rest of the conversation.

 

3. Be expressive with your body language

On a related note: I’ve noticed that my competence in a conversation is directly proportional to how much context I have about its topic. If some says something random to me in Portuguese, even if I “know” all the words, I invariably have to ask them to repeat it. The sounds just don’t make as much sense in my brain if I don’t have a context I can slot them into.

As a result, I’ve come to realize that hand gestures and facial expressions and other sorts of body language are vital to improving my listening comprehension. These don’t have to be elaborate mimes; even simple gestures go a long way. For example, when Elaine moves her hands apart from each other, I have a clue that she’s talking about something growing or increasing–which means I can get the gist of the sentence even if I don’t know the verb she’s using. Or like, if she casts her eyes towards the kitchen when she’s making a request, it helps me realize that I should be listening for kitchen-related vocabulary.

I can’t stress this enough: nonverbal cues have often been the single factor that makes me understand something in Portuguese. Being expressive makes communicating with a non-native speaker so much easier.

 

4. Provide examples as you speak

In line with the last two tips, I’ve also found it super helpful when people provide examples of what they’re talking about. For example, if someone asks me what my favorite season is, they could follow that up with “spring, summer, fall, winter?” Offering me more information increases the chance I’ll understand what my conversation partner is talking about, gives me time to process their question, and helps provide me with the information I need in order to respond. (I may not know the word for “season” and forget the word for “fall” [my favorite season], but I can deduce the question by knowing “spring,” and “summer” and answer it by identifying the word that most sounds like “autumn” (otono).

 

5. Repeat yourself using different (easier) words

When Elaine says a word she doesn’t think I’ll understand, she’ll usually follow it up with several simpler synonyms. This is great—I get a quick Portuguese lesson, and the conversation flows on uninterrupted. Plus, I feel super lucky to have this opportunity because it’s basically the same process that kids go through as they’re learning their native language.

 

6. Avoid phrasal verbs

Phrasal verbs are these verb+preposition combinations that change the verb’s meaning. I never really thought about them before, but they’re a nightmare for English-learners because they’re both numerous and fairly arbitrary. Like, think about how the meanings of “let,” “set,” or “knock” can be modified by combining them with “up” or “down” or “off.” There are tens of hundreds of these combinations, and although there are some general patterns that can learners intuit their meanings, they really just have to be memorized.

Anyway, you can make it easier on non-native speakers by doing your best to avoid phrasal verbs altogether.  You can say “prepare” instead of “set up,” for example. Doing so also has the added benefit of increasing the chance that a non-native speaker might recognize a cognate (a word with the same meaning and similar sound in a different language).

 

Of course, your mileage may vary with these tips—they’re borne of my experiences as an English speaker (with a background in a couple romance languages) interacting with people whose first language is Portuguese. But at the very least, I think they’re a good place to start.

A small compendium of coincidences

At some 400,000 people, Caxias do Sul isn’t a huge city. But I’ve stumbled across enough coincidences here to make me feel like it’s a lot smaller.

For example, there’s an billboard by my house that depicts a model in a crisp navy sweater. The ad is across the street from the bus stop I use to get to school, so I spend a lot of time staring at this dude while I wait. One night, I was getting a ride home down this street after a meeting of The Club, and I warned my friend my turn was coming up. “Oh, after my ad?” He asked. I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t: it turned out that he modeled for a brief stint while studying photography at university, but because he had since grown a beard and was wearing glasses, I hadn’t recognized him as the model I had spent hours staring at.

That same night, Barbara came back from hanging out with some friends of a guy she met on Tinder. One of his friends turned out to be someone I had befriended through the board game group. Ironically, she went to this friend’s birthday party and not me, because I had class that evening.

A couple months later, I went out to lunch with this friend and his wife at a restaurant just outside of Caxias. We were speaking in both English and Portuguese, which prompted a woman at the table behind me to tap me on the shoulder. She explained (in Portuguese) that she overheard us speaking English and that her daughter had studied in Portland. While there, her daughter had befriended an American who now teaches English in Brazil through a program called Fulbright—which apparently also has participants placed in Caxias, and was I part of that program? I told her I was, and I made some small talk with her daughter in English, generally marveling at what a coincidence the entire encounter was. I didn’t know the ETA in question, but I messaged her on Facebook just to share the news.

Oh, and then as we were leaving the restaurant, a passing car honked at us—which I thought nothing of in the moment but later learned was Luciana, one of my host mom’s friends who happened to be on her way to another city.

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Me and said friend, Marvin, at Ninho das Aguias—a hilltop park we visited after the restaurant

Some of these coincidences just stem from the fact that people from the US aren’t super common in Caxias. (“We all want to go there; why’d you want to come here?!” is a question we ETAs often get.) I once had an Uber driver recognize my apartment because he had recently driven another American woman (Barbara) there. And when I brought my family to a museum when they were visiting me, the tour guide suspected I might be staying with Elaine, because he was friends with her daughters and knew she was hosting Americans.

I’ve also had a couple encounters that just stem from being out and about. After church one day, my program manager managed to run into the city mayor and introduce us. Another time, Elaine and I were sitting in the cafe of one of Elaine’s friends. An older gentleman (another friend of the owner) joined us, so when the friend returned to work, the gentleman and Elaine got to chatting. He was a sculptor, which was cool enough, but he also turned out to be the creator of the giant sculpture sitting at the entrance to UCS.

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“Feet in the region, eyes on the world.” Photo c/o UCS

The Fulbright program: making the world a tiny bit smaller since 1946.

The difficulty of leaving your culture behind is that you can’t

You may be familiar with the didactic little parable-ish story with which David Foster Wallace opened his 2005 Kenyon commencement address:

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

For much of my adult life, this has been my goal: to transition from the young fish to the old fish and recognize the water in which I live. It’s one of the reasons I chose the majors I did, and it’s also why I think travel is so important. By experiencing a new culture, you gain a new perspective on your own. But having spent five and a half months in Brazil, it’s becoming increasingly clear I’m running into a problem:

It’s really darn hard to notice water.

The clues have been there all along. I’ve mentioned how people in Caxias don’t strike me as particularly cold, because it’s what I’m used to coming from the East Coast. I’ve shared how I’ve been oblivious to entire rules in English (despite the fact I literally read about grammar for fun) simply because they aren’t taught to native speakers. And I just recounted how I assumed for some reason that all the buildings in Caxias would have indoor heating.

But this realization fully came to a head a couple days ago, when I was at a pizzeria to celebrate the birthday of one of Elaine’s daughters. Some of her friends were asking us about the things that we found strange about Brazil, so Barbara and I explained how it’s  annoying to have to go around and kiss everyone whenever you join or leave a party. (I find this is a safe difference to bring up, as opposed to like garish beauty standards or a general tendency to complain bitterly about other people’s behavior but then do the same thing yourself.)

Anyway, fast-forward a couple hours, and people start to leave. One of the friends we had been talking with stood up and gave a general wave around the table. Barbara and I said goodbye and returned to our conversation, thinking nothing of it. But then the friend said, “Just kidding! That was my American goodbye,” and proceeded to give everyone cheek-kisses instead.

Six months of living here, and I couldn’t pick up on the absence of a basic social cue because its absence aligned with my idea of normal. That’s the difficulty of noticing water.

DFW describes maintaining an awareness of water as “unimaginably hard,” which I think is fitting—it’s impossible to know what you don’t know. Even so, I went into my grant period thinking that if I was attentive enough, if I was aware enough, I would be able to make myself notice water through sheer force of will. Of course, I’m realizing nows that’s not how that works. I may be able to perceive cultural differences and check some of my perspectives at the door, but at the end of the day, I still have a history and heuristics—and I recognize I’m never going to be able to fully overcome those.

That’s not to say I don’t think I should stop trying. I think decentralizing the self is an inherent good, and the metaphor of water is a useful framework for thinking about life outside yourself. I used to have a professor who would call history the most dangerous subject because it teaches us that what is hasn’t always been. I think experiencing other cultures is similar, only lateral: it shows us what is doesn’t have to be.

Do I want to have to go around kissing everyone whenever I enter or leave a party? No. But do I wish the value at its root, a communitarian spirit of warmth and consideration for each another, had a little more traction in the US? Yes.

Don’t get me wrong; I think the US is great. I’m thankful for the opportunities it’s given me and I’m proud to represent it abroad. But at the same time, the culture of the US—like any culture anywhere—is a product of values with inherent trade-offs. From studying and living abroad, I’ve realized that some of those values I barely even register; they just seem self-evident to me. That’s my water, which I need to learn to notice.

I’ll give some more concrete examples of these cultural values in an upcoming blog post. I don’t want to come off as too self-important here, but if I’m charged as a Fulbright Scholar with increasing mutual understanding, I think calling attention to these values (and the ways in which they differ around the world) is an important step.

Like I said, I one day hope to be the old fish in the story that DFW shared. But if I have to be the young fish, I can see one silver lining: I get to learn what the hell is water.

Oh, the places I’ve been (in Brazil)

Traveling while living/studying abroad is something I have a lot of thoughts about. Normally I’m usually a big proponent of getting to know the city that you’re living in—not jetting off every weekend to get a superficial glimpse of somewhere else. But Brazil is a big diverse country, and spending nine months here, I want to see what it looks like beyond Caxias.

I’ve been lucky enough to have several opportunities to travel during the first half of my grant, but I sometimes feel guilty when people hear about where I’ve been—like, Brazilians who hear about my trips will sometimes joke about how I’ve seen more of Brazil than they have. My go-to response is that we ETAs have to fit everything into just nine months, but of course that’s not the only reason. Our grant gives us more than enough money to live on, and the US dollar is now worth close to 20% more than when we first arrived. When combined with our part-time hours, I have more means to travel than a lot of other Brazilians do—even here in wealthier Caxias.

Anyway, here are some of the places I’ve been fortunate enough to see:

Torres, Rio Grande do Sul

Situated about a three-hour bus ride northwest of Caxias, Torres is a small city that’s known for having some of the best beaches in Rio Grande do Sul. I went with my co-ETAs Barbara and Justine for its annual Hot Air Balloon Festival, which basically amounted to us standing in the hot sun for three hours while we waited for the winds to die down enough for the balloons to get off the ground. But I’d never seen hot air balloons up close before, and it was some good people watching, so I think it was worth it.

Other highlights included being able to walk around at night, the super friendly staff at the tiny buffet around the corner from our Airbnb, and the rock formations (“towers”) that give the city its name. I honestly could take or leave the beaches, but I loved being able to hike up the rock formations and watch the paragliders soar around at sunset.

Curitiba, Paraná

When my family came to visit in June, the first city I met them in was Curitiba. Curitiba is regarded as one of the nicest cities in Brazil, super well-organized and trying hard to be eco-friendly. It’s a ten-hour (overnight) bus ride north of Caxias, but it’s still considered “in the south” and benefits from a lot of the same geographic/cultural/meteorological factors as Caxias does.

I didn’t take a lot of pictures, but I have a ton from my highlight of the trip: an encounter with some surprisingly tranquil capybaras in Parque Barigui (my brother, Zach, provided for scale). We also visited the Oscar Niemeyer Museum and the Panoramic Tower, and took a day trip via a mountainous stretch of Atlantic forest (a UNESCO World Heritage site) to visit the nearby town of Morretes.

Curitiba presented a nice change of pace for me—I got to eat Lebanese food, for example, and meet up with a few of the eight ETAs who are placed there. My family also had the unique experience of visiting a Brazilian Chinese buffet, which included wontons and fried rice alongside such south-Brazilian stapes as black beans, lasagna, and stroganoff.

After Curitiba, I rode with my family down to Caxias, and the next weekend, we drove six hours northwest to…

São Miguel das Missões, Rio Grande do Sul

Starting in the late sixteenth century, Spanish Jesuits began constructing missions across South America. Their goal was to convert and educate various indigenous peoples, which by São Miguel, meant the Guaraní. How much the Guaraní gained from this arrangement is unclear. From what I can tell, “education” basically amounted to “Christianization,” and life in the missions was characterized by organized labor that was more European than Guaraní. How much the Guaraní were permitted to practice their culture in the missions seems to be a matter of debate—although the Jesuits did help protect them from the Portuguese slave traders (bandeirantes) who roamed the Brazilian countryside.

São Miguel was also the site of the Guarani War. After the Treaty of Madrid settled the borders between the Spanish and Portuguese empires in South America, much of modern-day Brazil (including the area by São Miguel) was transferred from Spain to Portugal. The Jesuits were ordered to move to the Spanish territory, but the Guarani refused to leave the homes they’d made in the missions. At first they managed to hold their own against a combined Portuguese/Spanish army, but soon they were defeated and forced to abandon the missions.

Anyway, São Miguel is now the best-preserved ruins of the missions as well as another UNESCO World Heritage site. It was interesting to see, but maybe not necessarily worth a six-hour trip. Although the original history of the area was super interesting, what stuck with me most was the graffiti engraved on the ruins. They bore dates from the early 1900s and made me realize just how much people stay the same.

 Foz de Iguaçu, Paraná

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The next stop on the Brazilian family road trip was Foz de Iguaçu, a city right by the border with Paraguay and Argentina. The city’s big draw is its waterfalls, located in Iguaçu National Park (yet another UNESCO World Heritage site). The falls were stunning, but I also really enjoyed seeing a wild toucan in the sky and these adorable raccoon-like quatis that are clearly well-accustomed to human interaction.

These quatis are devious. They made a beeline for any bags within their reach (including mine), and were not above taking advantage of distracted tourists. In fact, I saw one baby quati distracting a woman (who was admittedly dumb enough to lean down to pet it) while three adult quatis took the opportunity to paw through her bag. The quatis also prowled the food court, where workers banged empty buckets taped to the end of broomsticks to scare them off.

On our last day in Foz de Iguaçu, we also took a tour of the hulking Itaipu dam (technically located on land shared by Brazil and Paraguay) and an aviary—the highlight of which was a giant parrot enclosure you could enter to have macaws swoop right by your head. Later that day, I then started a 20-hour bus ride to Caxias, while my family would go on to complete their 5,000km loop by visiting the Pantanal and then driving back to São Paulo.

Salvador, Bahia

I already covered this in my post about the Mid-Year Enhancement Seminar, but I included it on my list because I wanted to share this picture, the view from the gate at Caxias’s tiny airport:

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This is apparently not unusual at this airport. You may recall that the day we first arrived in Caxias, we were rerouted to Porto Alegre and had to take a two-hour bus the rest of the way. This is normally what we ETAs just do when we travel, but the Fulbright Commission bought out flights and would only do so between our host city and Salvador.

Long story short, our flight was delayed, then canceled, and then we took a bus to Porto Alegre, and then we missed our connection in São Paulo, so our tidy six-hour trip there ballooned into a fourteen-hour ordeal.

São Paulo, São Paulo

The nice part about the Commission-bought plane tickets, though, is that they included a layover in São Paulo—where, on my way back, I simply ditched the second leg and went to meet up with my girlfriend, Casey, instead. (Which was easier said than done—radar problems in both of the city’s airports delayed my flight and temporarily grounded hers in nearby Belo Horizonte. But after a seventy-minute Uber ride from São Paulo’s domestic airport to its international one, we were finally reunited.)

The highlight of Casey’s visit was definitely our week in Rio, but we spent a few days in São Paulo before and after. Our time there was pretty relaxed—mostly just enjoying being together in a sprawling city that admittedly doesn’t really have any must-see tourist attractions. After being clueless during Orientation, I was happy to be back and explore a bit more—and coincidentally, our first Airbnb ended up being literally across the street from the hotel I stayed in my first time there.

We didn’t take a ton of pictures, but here’s one from a fancy lunch of feijoada: beans and meat stewed together, rice, pork rinds, farofa (toasted cassava flour), and couve (lightly fried cabbage). It’s your traditional Saturday lunch, and we inadvertently ordered enough to leave us very full after two separate meals.

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Thanks to Gol Airline’s rather lax carry-on policies, this meant we could cart our leftovers via plastic bag to…

Rio de Jainero, Rio de Jainero

I sometimes joke with people here that I used to think all of Brazil was like Rio. They usually laugh, because they know that stereotypes of Rio are stereotypes of Brazil. But even though I know they’re stereotypes, and even though I know we were being total tourists, I was having so much fun living these stereotypes out.

Like, we stayed in a hotel in Copacabana (a graduation gift for Casey from her parents) and sipped coconut water and caipirinhas on the beach. We stood before Christ the Redeemer and rode the cable car up to Sugarloaf and posed on the Selaron Steps. We even took mototaxis through a favela to get to a hiking trail, on which we saw lizards and giant butterflies and a family of monkeys grooming each other. The city is stupidly beautiful, and it’s easy to see how it earned its status as UNESCO World Heritage site.

We also did a lot of fun smaller things, like see a experimental theater performance (the title of which translated to Checkov is a Shroom) and visit the Rio Art Museum, which had a super interesting exhibit exploring the intertwined histories of Rio and its famous samba music. We also took a walking tour of the city center and wandered around the city’s botanical gardens and and chatted with a Danish artist trying to start a gallery in the bohemian neighborhood of Santa Teresa.

Granted, this charmed tourism all took place against a backdrop of great inequality and alarming rates of violence. Public security has been in the hands of the federal police since February, but shootings in Rio have only increased. Most notably, activist and councilwoman Marielle Franco—who had criticized police killings in the favelas—was murdered in March. The death remains unsolved, but it increasingly appears like an assassination at the hands of former members of the military.

Maybe as a result of seeing Rio de Jainero in the news every other night, a lot of people in Caxias warned me against going at all. When I asked one guy if he had any recommendations, he glibly responded “the sign of the cross.” Luckily, Casey and I didn’t have any problems; we intentionally stuck to tourist areas and avoided wandering around after dark. But even so, on that mototaxi ride up to the trailhead through the favela, I caught a glimpse of how these different Rios intersect: as we rode uphill, the blue sea glinting between blurred buildings, we passed a man holding an uncomfortably large gun. The favela we were in is generally regarded as safe, but that passing glimpse reinforced just how tenuous that safety might be.

But let the record show we still had an awesome trip and it was one of my favorite weeks of my entire time in Brazil.

For now, I’m back in Caxias do Sul. But with both some time and money remaining in grant, I’ll see if I won’t have the luck to see even more of Brazil.

It’s all fun and games: finding my place in Caxias

Back in June, we had a bit of a change in Caxias: one of my co-ETAs decided to quit her grant and return early to the States. I don’t know the exact circumstances of her departure, but I’m sure they weren’t helped by the stresses that come with living abroad.

This isn’t the first time I’ve spent a significant amount of time outside the US. I know that it can be difficult to construct support systems and social networks, especially when you don’t really speak the local language. As a result, I’ve been intentional about seeking out groups of people I could make friends with—but I’ve also lucked into several groups that have helped me make friends and feel like I’m a part of a community here.

I’ve already talked about Caxias’s quidditch team, so next up: the board game group.

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Paolo at work in Dungeons and Cards

I tried to google board game groups before I came to Caxias, and I didn’t have much luck. But back when I was briefly taking that Intercultural Communication class, I was talking with a friend of a classmate who mentioned he liked to play Magic: The Gathering. So I asked him where he played in Caxias, and he directed me to Dungeons and Cards. By messaging their Facebook page, I got in touch with Paolo (pictured in his outfitted-basement store, above), who added me to a Whatsapp group with about two dozen people who meet up every once in a while just to play board games.

This group is great. My first conversation during my first game night included terms like “Eurogames” and “Ameritrash,” which I’ve only ever read and was delighted to hear people use in real life. Everyone in the group seems to have an extensive collection of board games, and I’ve had the opportunity to try out so many new one. And everyone takes the games just the right amount of serious: being focused and attentive, but never sulking or complaining.

I generally try to speak Portuguese when I hang out with them, but because so many board games (and geek paraphernalia as a whole) are in English, nearly everyone can speak it—which helps when I’m trying to learn the rules to a new game.

For speaking English at an even higher level, though, I have The Club.

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The photo the group uses on all its Facebook events

The Club is admittedly not a great name, but I love the little community it’s created. I discovered it by extreme coincidence: Elaine was taking us to meet up with some friends at a cultural center in Caxias, and while I was climbing the steps to enter, I overheard a native English speaker. Having never run into a non-Fulbright native speaker in Caxias, I whipped around to see who was talking. It turned out to be a group of Brazilians (and a Brit) who just finished the first meeting of a high-level English discussion club centered around sharing and discussing art.

Since then, The Club has become my monthly opportunity to freely express myself in English with a non-Fulbrighter. When I talk with the core members—who speak flawless, native-accented English—I don’t have to worry about slowing my speech or using simpler words and structures. It’s actually incredibly liberating, and because all of these members have also spent significant time abroad, I feel like I can speak frankly about the pros and cons of life in various countries. It’s a space I can feel a little more off-duty as a Fulbrighter.

More informally than the board game group or The Club, I’m also grateful to my students who have made an effort to befriend me outside the classroom. These invitations have ranged from attending dinner parties to watching children’s athletics, but I’m always happy to have a reason to experience a new corner of life in Caxias.

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Homemade Mexican food with Lu and her friends

I’ve realized there’s a common thread running through all these friendships: firsthand experience being an outsider in another country. Nearly everyone who has gone out of their way to include me has also spent at least a couple months living outside of Brazil. And it’s not lost on me that they probably had people who made them feel included in the countries they visited, which in turn might encourage them to make me feel included in theirs.

Of course, I’m super grateful to benefit from this experience, and I’m excited to pay it forward once I return to the United States. But on a more global level, I think this pattern demonstrates the power of empathy, as well as the value of intercultural programs like Fulbright. When it seems like the entire world is turning inward, I’m heartened by the experience of other people embracing outward. If you ask me, I think we could use more of it.

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Beating the Nova Petropolis hedge maze on a day trip Marvin and Bruno

As a final note: the ETA who left was replaced by an ETA from another city—Kiaya, whom you may recognize from the right-hand sidebar. She’s not allowed to discuss the specifics of why she left her host city, but apparently this isn’t the first time Fulbrighters have had issues with it. I don’t want to speak ill of the program or gossip about what I know nothing about, but as an aside to potential future Fulbrighters in Brazil: maybe stay away from Lavras.

Meanwhile, with so many variables determining a Fulbright experience, I’m lucky to be placed in a city with as many opportunities as Caxias. It’s definitely not the Brazil I thought I would encounter when I first submitted my application to Fulbright, but I’m really glad it’s the Brazil I’ve found. Thanks to these shared interests and people and groups, I feel like I actually have a little life here.