Where I Have Been Map

Monday, January 30, 2012

Belem - Two Disparate Worlds, One City

Belem has always been the hardest place for me to explain. 

If you were to ask me about Rio, I could go on and on about the fast pace, yet carefree city life. It is a one of a kind place where in the heart of the city, sky scrapers hover over the Cariocas (people of Rio), whose feet walk to the beat of samba and every streets opens up to miles and miles of beautiful beach coast line, set behind a mountain backdrop.  

Or Gurupa, the small yet growing town in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest that takes a 30 hour boat ride down the Amazon River to even get to. When you are inside the town, you feel as if you are in an exclusive member into the Gurupa family, with people who greet you with arms wide open for making the difficult journey to see them. While walking around the dirt (and now few paved) roads it’s easy to forget that just a couple of blocks away is the heart of the Amazon Jungle, and your neighbors are the Macaws that fly in the sky above you and Howler monkeys whose calls can be heard from deep in the jungle. 

But Belem is very unique. Years and years ago, it began as a small town not so different from Gurupa – with dirt roads and small wooden shacks on stilts to avoid being washed away during rainy season. But then this town began to grow. Street became paved, bicycles became motorcycles, motorcycles became cars, cars became buses. Then even more people began to move here and stores began to be built, the stores became shopping malls, shopping malls became sky scrapers and before you knew it, this little town developed into a booming city. The only booming city in the Brazilian Amazon.

Even as I was flying into Belem, what I saw looking out of my plane window seemed so out of place. For miles and miles all I could see was a vast blackness and we were flying over the rainforest, but then a sudden burst of light filled my tiny window as a huge city appeared out of nowhere. Where I had just been looking at darkness, presuming I was looking down into miles rainforest trees and wildlife, was now thousands of sparkling lights and staggering skyscrapers along the Amazon River coast line.  

But the brilliance of the city was still overwhelmed by the thousands and thousands of miles of darkness. And you could feel this odd sense that the city is out of place when walking around in the city streets. There is a definite city feel, as you walk down the crowded streets you are conscious of where your purse or wallet is at all times. The fresh rainforest air is laced with pollution and odd whiffs of sewage and trash. But at the same time hints of the rainforests mystical beauty are everywhere. 

Today we visited the Museum where my dad does his research and my mother teaches English classes. We ate lunch in the cafeteria outside. The cafeteria is a wide open space with tables, chairs, and a buffet covered with a palm thatch roof. I sat down with a filled plate and enjoyed the cool breeze flowing through the cafeteria, which felt more like a breezy getaway under the palm thatch roof. As I started tasting my varied selection of tropical fruits, I could hear parrots chatting away in the trees nearby. With every sense, I could tell I was in the Amazon – but that feeling was skewed when just to the right of us in the distance were the outlines of skyscrapers.  

Belem is a living contradiction. I have yet to understand this city fully, but I am extremely intrigued to begin learning… and eventually, understanding.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Hello Brazil, We Meet Again!

As I walked off the plane and scurried down the terminal just landing in Brazil, I was surrounded by Portuguese. I would try to focus in on conversations to see what I could pick up, but all I could here were the beautiful but frustrating “ju”  “jee” and “sha” sounds masking the Spanish I was trying to find within the whimsical conversations. This was going to be tough. After 3 months in Mexico working hard to learn Spanish, I was back to square one with Portuguese – and it was so hard to remember the little I had picked up last summer.

It is so easy to forget how a little thing such as understanding random conversations around you, and being able to be understood – are so vital. And you can’t really understand that until that ability is taken from you. We go through a whole day back home not realizing how many things we say to friends, family, and even strangers that express our thoughts, emotions, and personality. Now back in Brazil, I felt as if I were stripped of that window to my personality and left mute. 

Even though I see the language challenges in front of me, I am not overwhelmed. I think the reason for this is because I just did this in Mexico. And as frustrated and stressed I was in the first month, I eventually started getting better. And by the end of that trip, even though I was still far from fluent, I was no longer mute. I came back feeling proud, and I’m ready to start that process again with Portuguese. 

Walking out of the plane in Belem, I hopped on the crowded terminal bus barely noticing the pushes and shoves because I was excited to see my parents. It had been 5 long months being countries apart.

When I caught sight of them through the glass exit doors from luggage claim, I hurried my step and took a sharp left towards them. Well, apparently I wasn’t watching where I was going because my rolling suitcase got stuck on something. I tried to pull it past the obstacle, but it wasn’t budging. I looked back only to see my suitcase stuck on the staggering, leopard printed stiletto of a very agitated Brazilian women. Forgetting where I was, I quickly said, “Oh my gosh I’m so sorry!” She gave me the death stare as I rearranged the wheel of my suitcase to glide past her daunting 6 inch heel.   

Well there is one new Brazilian friend I will not have gained on this trip, hopefully I will have better luck tomorrow. But either way tonight was about my parents. They gathered up my things and took me in the taxi to what was going to be our new shared home. 

As we were driving, I looked out the windows at the streets. Some streets seemed nice, others very shady. I quickly began to realize this was not going to be like living in the safe town of Merida, Mexico – were you could walk in the streets at midnight alone and be fine. I would have to be more careful here, as in any bigger city. My initial impression of our new neighborhood was by no means sugar coated with my mother’s taxi ride stories. 

“We see our friend Bernal there every morning!” 

“Oh who is that?”

“He is the rat that lives in the gutter. He runs by every morning and goes Squeak Squeak Squeak!” 

….. oh lord. 

As we walked up the steps to our apartment, my mother opened the door and I walked in. I took about 4 steps, and then realized I was at the end of the apartment. This 10 ft by 8 ft room was going to be interesting for 3 grown adults to inhabit. The kitchen attaches to a small closet-sized bathroom, that opens up to the main room – consisting of one queen bed for my parents and one hammock for me. It’s no stretch to say that my freshman year dorm room would give this place a run for its money. 

But, even though claustrophobia will take on a whole new meaning over these next months, this just comes along with the experience. There are families who have to live in a suffocating small area with even more to house. And somehow it works out. 

I know one thing for sure, as the sound of my typing is accompanied by my mother praying the rosary and my father snoring loudly…  I will definitely be getting some bonding time with my parents. Whether I like it or not!


When I discovered I had the opportunity to live in Brazil for 6 months, I was ecstatic.

I get go to a place I love dearly, a place I’ve known since I was 9 years old. I get to go and become even more involved in the culture – finally learn the language.  And I get to do that while doing what I love … filming…. producing…. telling a story. I get the opportunity to taking another step towards the life I always imagined for myself. 

It’s exciting – but an experience like this … is also terrifying. 

My worse fear is that by month 3 – I am going to be ready to come home. I don’t want to give up on this – If I set out for 6 months I want to achieve that goal. I am up for challenge, but I can’ t remember  the last thing I’ve done for 6 months. I’ve never even been in a relationship that lasted that long, and I was about to make a pretty huge commitment to the country of Brazil.

In fact if anything, so much change has happened in less than 6 months during my lifetime. What’s crazy to thing about is that this inevitable change and growth is going to happen to me, in a different country. Who will I come back as? Who will I step back as in this same airport 6 months from now?

But I have realized this – no matter who I come back as in 6 months time – I know she will be a better person than who sits here today … the girl that sits here staring at that A9 gate entrance, is scared. I already admire that girl that in 6 months will be walking out of that gate after overcoming what is sure to be the biggest challenge of her life. Ready or not, I will step on that plane knowing I am taking the first steps towards growing into that very person.  

All we are in life are the decisions we make. Sometimes you have to put all reason aside and run face first into the challenges you know are sure to come down the path you choose. But you take off at a full sprint anyway, because what will come from it is not only a better person, but a clearer path for others to follow… thus little by little making this world a little easier to walk in.