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I've been back in the States, after leaving Brazil, for almost two weeks now, and either I am exceptionally well-adjusted or I will experience a rough bout of reverse culture shock and withdrawing in the rapidly-approaching future. Despite the whirlwind that is being home for the holidays, I have had a few opportunities to sit back and reflect on what my time in Brazil was to me.

I re-read some of the things I wrote during the extensive process of applying to my program and to scholarships, to see what I had intended to do in Brazil and to think about how my actual experience differed or didn't and why. Before arriving, with my trip still an abstract possibility, I had wanted to use my time in Brazil to examine bottom-up community development in the favelas, with a focus on the role of community centers. I had wanted to work on building homes in the favelas, to understand permanency and how communities are built physically and conceptually. I had wanted to combine my academic study at my Brazilian university with field experience and interviews culled from my contacts in the fields of community-centers-working-on-bottom-up-community-development-in-the-favelas and organizations-building-homes-as-international-volunteers-in-a-favela.

What did I find out? Easier said than done. For better or worse, for a variety of reasons, many of which--but not all, I will admit--beyond my control, I didn't really do much of what I had intended to in Brazil. I volunteered amongst the urban homeless population a few times, and had the opportunity to lay eyes on one of the small favelas in the historic center of the city as well as an urban settlement called Crackland and to meet residents of these communities. I worked within a local NGO, gaining a much deeper understanding of the organizational elements that go into the actual practice of community service. I did go to classes, and I did think a lot on my own about how my course material manifested itself in contemporary situations and problems in Brazil, but I'm not sure I applied them in practice in the streets of Brazil.

The things I did instead of my grand plans were incredible. I met amazing people, both other students and Brazilians from all walks of life--through my host family, through my volunteer experiences, through random conversations in corner bars, everywhere. I traveled, and experienced some of the most stunning places I've ever seen. I relaxed, I took it slow, and I lived a Brazilian life. The fact that my reality in Brazil was not the academic experience that I had envisioned does not devalue either of the two. I was actually living in Brazil, and through that experience, I gained a deeper sense of the Brazilian and global communities than I could have ever imagined.

There are many elements of my time there that I want to bring back with me. The pace of life, the sense of family, the honest and real love for your neighbor and for your fellow Brazilian/human. I think these lessons will improve my life and will serve to deepen my own engagement within all of my own communities and families, everywhere that I call home now and in the future.

I recently had the opportunity to travel from São Paulo up north to the state of Bahia, to the city of Salvador. The state of Bahia is in one of the poorer regions of Brazil, the Northeast, whereas São Paulo is firmly situated in the wealthier and more developed Southeast, and in fact is the economic center of the country as a whole. This made for a very interesting comparison between the two areas.

My time here in Brazil has been amazing, but São Paulo has not been at all what I expected out of Brazil, for a number of reasons. Salvador, on the other hand, fulfills what I had held as my mental image of Brazil. Without a doubt, I have experienced the openness of the Brazilian people and of Brazilian society here in São Paulo, but the people of Salvador and of Praia do Forte, the beach town I visited, took it to a whole other level. Strangers on the street, complete and total strangers, are called "friend." Anyone else, people you've spoken to even once before, are called "brother," "sister," "tia," "tio," even me.

It was interesting, first of all, to compare the populations of Salvador and of São Paulo. São Paulo is an unusual case in terms of Brazilian cities in that that the favelas ring the periphery of the city, making the downtown areas--the only places that I go with any regularity--solidly middle- and upper-class. I've volunteered in the center of the city, which is significantly poorer than the neighborhoods in which I live, go to school, and hang out, but the poor or homeless live either on the street or as squatters in abandoned buildings, or in one of the two very small favelas that are located in the city center. What this means, more or less, is that it is easy, in São Paulo, to forget the levels of poverty and need that exist in the rest of the country. In Salvador, for me, that was not the case. The "normal," so to speak, people are poor, in particular compared to those in São Paulo. However, from what I saw, they are also happy and beautiful. Early one morning, I saw a line of perfectly coiffed women, in brightly colored dresses, stranding in line to pick up their free bread with their state vouchers. I can say with absolute certainty that I have never and probably will never see something like that in São Paulo.

The cultural differences between the two cities were also striking. My general sense is that São Paulo is an international, cosmopolitan city located in Brazil, whereas Salvador, had I gone there for my time abroad--which I seriously considered--would have been a truly Brazilian city. The culture, which is a specific mix of Afro-European-indigenous influences creating a wholly Brazilian culture. The religion, a syncretic mix of Catholicism and African religions, the love of music, the food, the beaches, the colors all contribute to a culture that fills the city to the brim. São Paulo is, of course, full of so many elements of Brazilian culture, but they don't necessarily manifest themselves on the surface in the same way, and certain elements, like the religion and the music, are in fact confined to the Northeast.

In any case, I am so, so glad I got to see and experience Salvador, to enhance my understanding of Brazil as a whole, and to understand São Paulo better within the Brazilian context.

As a disclaimer, this subject is worthy of books, not merely blog posts, and the comparison of numbers and statistics cross-referenced with historical studies and sociological analyses is beyond the scope of what I can or want to do here. Any numbers I'm basing my observations off of come from estimates from the Brazilian government and the CIA World Factbook.

I waited until the last moment to write this blog post because today, Sunday, October 26, was the final-round election for the Brazilian presidency and boy, has it been interesting. The results were just announced and the city is exploding with fireworks and screams. Brazil is a large-scale democracy, with a population of 200 million, and functions with a multi-party system. The presidential elections are done by run-off system (wow, throw back to AP Comp Gov here); in the first round, if no candidate receives a majority, a second round is held with the top two candidates. On October 5, in the first round, Dilma Rousseff, the sitting president who is with the ostensible-socialist Workers' Party, and Aécio Neves, a conservative candidate who received more votes than expected, advanced to a second round. Just now, official results show that Dilma won with just over 51.5% of the vote.

Some observations:

  • I had to think really hard about what Dilma's last name was, because politicians just go by their first names. Part of the whole all-of-Brazil-is-an-extended-family thing.
  • Dilma's politics over the past four years form the root of both why she was reelected and why Aécio, specifically, was the one to challenge her in such a close race. It's super complicated, but effectively, this was a presidential race between a pro-poor candidate and a pro-business/economics candidate. Aécio was going to cut the (huge) government and open the economy to stimulate growth; Dilma is probably going to keep doing what she was before the election, which was spending super heavily on the poor (I learned about her programs in my GW Economic Development class!) and driving the country into a recession. Just saw that Elliott is hosting an event to discuss what this vote means, but ultimately, it remains to be seen.
  • This is where I'm speculating, but I'd bet the vote split, roughly, between people who benefit from Dilma's pro-poor spending or who sympathize with heavy pro-poor spending; and people who either are wealthier, familiar with international economics, or frustrated with Dilma's party in general and would never have voted in any candidate from her party.
  • This is where it gets tricky. Most of the population in poverty in Brazil is non-white. This is complicated further by how race is defined here--by a scale of skin color: there are whites, "mixed," and blacks, as well as Asians (classified, socially, as whites) and indigenous. Even though Brazil is the country with the largest population of people of African descent outside of Africa, officially, only 7.6% of the population self-identifies as "black." 47.7% is white, and 43.1% is mixed. You can call yourself whatever you want if you're mixed: mulatto, light-skinned, café com leite…anything goes.
  • Voting is mandatory here, which is also complicated (sensing a theme?) and many, many people have asked what it's like to live somewhere where that's not the case.
  • Something that is not complicated: politics are not polarizing here. You don't vote by party alliance, neither candidate was very popular, and even if you vote differently than someone, even a family member (like in my host family), it's all chill in the end and everyone loves each other anyway. Which is awesome, and has been super cool to observe and to be allowed to sort-of-barely be a part of.

Overall, it has been incredibly interesting to be in Brazil as it is experiencing such an important political event. Being from the United States has enhanced this--a key part of the issue in the election was that Dilma was alienating American investors and explicitly was anti-Obama/America, and Aécio had planned to reopen the economy to America. Furthermore, the history of American political intervention and interference in the region made it tricky to share an opinion on the issues. But, at the same time, it has been an opportunity to observe how this country functions politically and how politics interacts with daily life. This is: very much, but at the end of the day, no one expected much to change, no matter who was elected. I'm not living with communities benefitting from Dilma's social programs, and international economics and business are not what most people think about on a daily basis. What do people really care about in politics? They really, I think, just wanted to get the election over with.

Thoughts on my classes here at my university in São Paulo:

  • No electives, only your designated course path! I'm taking classes from three separate departments, which is shocking to some here.
  • The student-professor relationship is much more casual than anything I've experienced before. In one of my classes, we talked about the idea of considering a professor as part of your extended family or of using familial idioms in your conception of a professor, and whether or not it was problematic to call a professor "tia," for example. All of this went under the assumption that if not "tia," your professor was called by their first name. The idea of calling your professor by their last name was, as discussed in the class, shocking and counterproductive to the pursuit of collective learning.
  • Some of the Brazilian students straight up read magazines or talk on the phone in one of my classes. In the other two, if you don't do the readings beforehand, you will be singled out and probably mocked. (Kidding. Just shunned.)
  • Brasil speaks (very) frankly about its colonial history and about the fact that it was a colonizing power/a colonized country, and that the ruling class or powerful group remains rooted in this "colonizador," as it's called here. I can honestly not imagine any university course in the States speaking so frankly about the United States as a colonized space; obviously, the colonial history is different here than in the U.S., especially in the fact that the US was colonized by families seeking a new home and Brasil by single men seeking to exploit resources, but both were--and remain--countries that were built from colonized areas.
  • Brazilian students have a nice system set up in which a few people are assigned the reading each week and they are the ones who present or participate in discussions, leaving me and the rest of the class to nod along in implicit agreement.
  • People do not, in general, like the U.S.'s economic or political strategies, except for the odd neoliberal thrown in there, but they very genuinely view the U.S. as the pinnacle of social and economic development and liberty. For example, during Ferguson--which was widely publicized here, as well as globally, for a few days--two of my three professor and my host mom said to me, "I saw a black person died in the United States. Black people die here all the time." That is, verbatim, what my anthropology professor said. I was unsure of how to respond, or of how to address that depth of a misconception. Issues like racism can be compared between here and there, because certainly racism exists in both places, but, equally certainly, it takes a different form; racism in these two locations cannot, however, be stacked against each other or measured on a scale. It just won't work.
  • A smoke break is taken quite literally. The professor and the students go into the hallway to smoke a cigarette, then go downstairs for a coffee, then back up to smoke another one. I repeat, in the hallway.

Overall, my university here is an incredibly liberal and progressive space, and I am learning so much about how Brazilians view themselves, the global sphere and community, and the United States. I am also learning exactly how much time it takes my sociology professor to smoke two cigarettes. I'm hoping that what I take back with me from these classes (including this aforementioned tidbit) is relevant to what I continue to study, but even if not? Everything I'm learning here is awesome.

On September 3, I will have been in São Paulo, Brazil, for two months; August 28 marked 8 weeks--measure it however you want. I've been in classes for four weeks now, and the four weeks prior were for my Portuguese classes. It feels simultaneously like I've been here for ages, and like I just arrived yesterday. Some background on my time here: I'm here with the CIEE Liberal Arts program, which included a month-long summer session with intensive Language and Culture classes; since the beginning of August, I've been an exchange student in PUC, a private/Catholic university here in São Paulo. I'm living with a host family, although in my case, it's just one woman. She lives in a nice, residential neighborhood about a 30 minute walk from my school. Since classes started, that has been my main focus--I've been fully immersed in Brazilian home and academic culture. The overwhelming sensation since I've been here, that only grows stronger with time, is one of not being a visitor, but of truly living here.

This has its pros and its cons. At the beginning, I was very good about getting out and "experiencing" the city; I went to museums, I walked around neighborhoods, I did the suggested cultural activities that CIEE planned (they are, by the way, incredible about this). Recently, however, I had a crisis--I was not being cultural enough. I was not looking at art, going out to eat, exploring new neighborhoods, what have you. I sat down and I planned itineraries for myself of places I wanted to go, see, do--and have proceeded to do exactly none of them.

I had to think a lot about this, though. I came to Brazil to learn about Brazilian culture and, specifically, to understand the concept of development and community service in Brazil. My concentration in my International Affairs major is International Development and I study Anthropology as well, so here, I'm interested in understanding the work done by NGOs and non-profits in a range of contexts and the role that these play in the lives of Brazilians. In a broader sense, I want to understand the culture of Brazil, in all of its forms and manifestations. I thought that all of that looking at art, going out to eat, exploring new neighborhoods, and, especially, volunteering would be the way to go about this. Instead, I'm finding this to be an exercise in what culture is and where it manifests itself. It is immensely challenging for me, this new approach.

For example, even though I'm here very specifically to have a wide range of community service experiences, I have not started volunteering. But, as my friend pointed out, there is a cultural explanation for this. As opposed to the United States, where the basic unit of everything functional and cultural is the individual, the basic cultural unit here is the personal. It's a difficult concept to explain, but certain things form the base of Brazilian culture here, and none of them is the autonomous individual--instead, social ties form the base of Brazilian culture. All of this is to say, I have not started volunteering because even though people really care about the work that they do with their organizations, finding me, individually, a volunteer spot is not a priority; in other words, it's not about me, because Brazilian culture revolves around something bigger than an individual.

In this absence of volunteering, I've been spending my time doing other things that are also cultural at only more than a first glance. The three classes I'm taking here at my university--which is phenomenal, a very progressive and community-based space--have been incredible: The Sociology and Society of Brazil; Interamerican Politics; and Identities, Culture, and Tourism. My host mom is incredible, and has been so welcoming of me into her home and her extended family, allowing me to tag along to birthday parties, family dinners, soccer-game-viewings, everything. The food is incredible; although I rarely go out to eat in a formal sense of the word, food is everywhere and always very, very good. The bars are incredible--possibly because Brazil is so social, nightlife is very important and very central to the social life as a whole. The beach town that I went to in early August was incredible. The graffiti is incredible. And all of it, even if I have to think about it long and hard, is, in fact, cultural. The challenge, for me, lies in not becoming passive, not letting my time here slide by; I need to start volunteering and I do need to go look at art, walk around, all of that, but I also need to make sure that I'm really thinking about everything and understanding the culture that surrounds me every day.