A Right on Time

The birds awoke, chattering to each other from the mango tree below my window. The city slept. The first rays of light brightened the grey clouds hanging just above the towering apartments. From my window I noticed a man pass below, pedaling leisurely on a bicycle. Despite the events of November 8th, 2016, the world had remained intact.

Despite the continuing rotation of earth, I felt as if the universe had crushed a piece of my naïveté, proceeded to light it on fire, bake the ashes into a cake, and then devour the cake with gusto.

In 1932 Rotary founded a public school in a Recife favela. This neighborhood, Alto do Pascoal, was dangerous up until around 20 years ago. This Rotary school is credited with helping the neighborhood develop from extreme poverty into more livable conditions. In 2012, Rotary started a marching band program in this higher quality public school. I am now an honorary member of this band. Despite their poverty, the people I’ve met in this neighborhood are some of the most caring and generous I have ever had the privilege to spend time with. Speaking of privilege; I, the gap-year exchange student from America, am its personification.

While I’ve faked my way through a couple of parades, my most valuable experiences come from my time in Alto do Pascoal, a seemingly different world. People here live deeply connected to one another. Food is prepared for everyone and anyone. Houses are a shared space for anyone and everyone. There is no such thing as personal space and privacy is limited (something both frustrating and extremely rewarding).

The band mostly plays popular music during the parades, songs that (young) North Americans would likely recognize. They also play frevo, a raucous style of Carnaval street music. This traditional style of music and dance is indigenous to Recife, the city I now call home.

The exchange students of northeast Brazil recently met up in the easternmost Brazilian city of João Pessoa. We toured the old Portuguese city, took buggy rides on the beach (a couple people almost fell out), and preformed a song with the Rotary band just mentioned. I was able to play with the band during the joint performance and also stay on for the band’s portion of the program. I survived mostly intact despite the frevo solo the conductor threw at me.

My school last semester, Colégio Damas, is an upper class school. At Damas, my white skin is not uncommon, in fact quite the opposite. At Escola Rotary in Alto do Pascoal, most everyone has darker skin and I am most often the only white person around.

If you inherit a large amount of a special kind of paper, it becomes possible to travel in airplanes, to marvel at magnificent cities, and to take pictures of natural wonders. This is me I’m talking about. If you are as lucky as I am, you may find a high quality education placed your lap. However, if you are not lucky enough to receive these opportunities, then you must work your ass off to feed yourself and those you care about. If you aren’t lucky, nothing will be handed to you and options will be limited. All the same, remember that socialism is extremist, so we might as well forget all about it.

The Pantanal swamplands of central South America brought me peace of mind. No internet,  interesting people, and a beautiful new environment. Within just ten days our group of rambunctious exchange students had formed intense bonds. We hiked through the Pantanal national park, kept our eyes peeled for jaguars, and snorkeled with tropical fish under the pouring rain.

As we were goat herded around seeing the natural wonders of Brazil, a local Brazilian boy faced a very different reality. Wesley is 18 years old and works on the ranch where we stayed in the Pantanal. I found myself constantly surrounded by numerous other people my age, people from all corners of the globe. Wesley is the only kid in the area. He works on the ranch year-round; there is no school anywhere nearby. All of his time he spends with adults 20 years his senior. He has lived in one place all off his life. His travels consist of where his horse or the ranch ATV can take him. Such is the life he was born into. I was born into a life of education and travel. It is impossible to justify the differences in our realities as somehow merited.

Semester number one ended out of nowhere. My summer break lasted from the start of December through the end of January. Technically, I could still call myself an exchange student during my two months off. As expected, school sank into a routine and time passed quickly. The group of Recife exchange students has become very close as we’ve attended various street festivals, dance parties (aka every Brazilian party), and spent days sitting on the city beach. Despite how much time we spend on Boa Viagem, the local beach, it’s not a great idea to get in the water. Although, if you’re okay with being eaten by a shark, I don’t see a problem. The way I see it, these sharks have every reason to keep Boa Viagem consistently ranked as one of the worlds most dangerous beaches. We humans decided to prioritize our economic needs over the ocean habitat and built a handy shipping port for ourselves. Seeing as this port entirely disrupted the estuaries the sharks depend on, an arm and a leg here and there is probably deserved. I would be angry too.

Despite all of this activity, I still have plenty of downtime. I usually watch netflix in Portuguese to pretend I’m being productive. I’ve also come to appreciate the northeastern Brazilian tradition of hammock naps. I still enjoy the food here, but I’d be lying if I didn’t miss garlic, or any other flavorful thing or spice on the planet.

I travelled to Rio de Janeiro with my host parents Mauro and Suzana. The stunning views are reason enough to visit. From high above, I witnessed the undeniable grit of Rio side by side with beautiful oceans and awesome mountains. Below Christo Redentor (aka big Jesus statue thing) I witnessed many people from around the world, in attempts to be like Jesus, pose with their arms outstretched. I joined the club. Despite my efforts and the effort of world tourists, I would argue we came up short in the Be Like Jesus category. Christ the Redeemer inspires pilgrimage from around the world; hundreds of people gathered with me in awe. However, very little of the behavior I noticed had much anything to do with the (alleged) son of god.  The golden calf…I mean stone carving, failed to inspire emulative behavior influenced by the (reported) actions of Jesus Christ. Everyone, myself included, pays money to see the statue, takes the picture, and marvels at the favelas below (from a safe distance away). For the full spiritual experience, it seems important to ignore and push through the strange neighboring people. To remember your time with him, feel free to indulge in a handy Jesus keychain on your way down. In conclusion, the whole experience reminded me of the Vatican.

2 thoughts on “A Right on Time”

  1. I really enjoy reading all of your passages — but this is my favorite, by far. Your words painted such a vivid image of your experience and your lessons learned. I am amazed and in awe of your experiences and the life lessons you are learning. Soak in every moment! Thank you so much for sharing!

    Love and miss you!

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