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Jesper didn’t speak any Portuguese when he applied to his exchange in Brazil. But here he recounts how he overcame the language barrier, got to know himself, and found himself participating in a volunteer project
Why? Why would anyone with decent wits go studying in a Portuguese speaking country on the other side of the Atlantic that is just as famous for samba as it is famous for its widespread corruption and staggering crime rates? Here’s why.
When I was applying for exchange studies, I sat down and asked myself: ”Jesper, why do you actually want to go abroad?” While dealing with this question, it became clear to me that I wanted to go abroad in order to challenge myself and learn something that I couldn’t possibly learn anywhere else. I wanted to entangle myself in a context – academically, socially, culturally, linguistically – that was far apart from my relatively easy and pleasant Copenhagen life. Hence, I opted for the country of favelas and samba, of soccer and the Amazon, and of The Marvelous City of Rio de Janeiro.
Jesper overlooking Rio de Janeiro
In numbers, Brazil is rather impressive. For example, 200 million people live in Brazil, which makes it the world’s fifth most populous country. By area, Brazil is also the world’s fifth largest country. Brazil is just slightly smaller than all of Europe. Also, Brazil holds the largest share of the world’s largest forest, the Amazon rainforest. Brazil’s share of the forest is the size of India. Digging down into facts like these prior to my exchange, I couldn’t help being amazed.
And then, as if out of nowhere, the paperwork was done and I suddenly found myself looking for a place to live in Rio de Janeiro, meanwhile the infamous Carnival of Brazil was raving in the streets from morning till, well, many days later.
More or less by chance, I stumbled upon a vacant room in a republica, a crazy five-storey hillside house with 16 other young people living in it from Brazil and abroad.
During those five days, the locals got new houses, and I learned a lot about the locals … and about myself.
Owing to the fact that the house was a borderline favela, I had to convince myself to go for it, and thinking back on why I chose Brazil, I thought: ”This must be it.” Also, its close resemblance with the Swedish fictional Pippi’s Villa Villekulla made it homey.
Besides the location, living with other people proved to be invaluable to me in several regards. Of course, the benefits of the social part of it cannot surprise anybody.
Since the Villa Villekulla was equipped with a huge garden with banana palms and hammocks, it was close to mandatory for us to host ‘churrascos’, the party of choice in Brazil. Basically, ‘churrasco’ is like a barbecue party. The only major difference is that everybody brings something to put on the grill, but, as opposed to barbecues in Denmark, whatever is cooked is sliced up for everybody to have a bite of. Oh, another difference would probably be the 24/7 warm weather.
‘Churrasco’ – a Brazilian barbecue party
Besides the social part of living together with other people, it was also very beneficial with regards to picking up Portuguese. I was to be taught in Portuguese at the university, and when I applied for my exchange studies I didn’t speak any Portuguese. What to do then? Besides from practising with your textbooks, Duolingo, and whatnot, it’s nice when hanging out with your housemates has an element of studying to it.
With regards to studying, the beginning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro was obviously quite challenging thanks to the language. This improved fairly quickly, though, and I really came to appreciate my courses and them having a foreign perspective to me.
For example, one of my professors couldn’t really wrap his head around the logic of Danish minority governments and how the prime minister is chosen – and for me it was fun taking courses that relied on other things being taken for granted than what I was used to.
However, it was unfortunate that the students and professors during my exchange stay decided to show teeth in displaying their dissatisfaction with the public administration in Brazil.
Due to major upcoming cuts in the already flimsy amount of money directed towards education, students, professors, and many others took to the streets several times during my exchange stay. This caused my university to be blocked almost half of the time I was there, on and off, which was unfortunate for me as it impeded both my studies and my social connections to my fellow students. However, zooming out from my own perspective, the consequences of these budget cuts were of course much, much worse for the local students – a perspective I personally think is very important to keep in mind in general when being abroad.
A demonstration against education budget cuts
Besides from stepping up my effort to improving my Portuguese, the time off from the university allowed me to spend more time going around the country to explore other parts of Brazil, as it has many other facets to offer than solely those of the big, modern cities.
One day, when I came home from my Portuguese classes, that kept going despite of the blockades, something popped up in my news feed. Some of my Brazilian friends had shared the update from an interesting organization named TETO (which means ‘ceiling’), that had sent out a call for helping hands in the upcoming week’s construction project. ”Already next week,” I thought, as the project was to span five days and I was not even sort of ready. As I thought this was both important and exciting, I signed up anyways.
It was a five-day construction project, where hundreds of volunteers were split into smaller groups and went to different challenged areas in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. There they built donated houses for the locals, locals that otherwise owned close to nothing. As volunteers we had to supply several kinds of tools ourselves, and we had to bring 10 litres of water each to limit our drainage of the sparse amount of water in the area. Oh, and we were to bring those wet, hygienic napkins too as we were not supposed to shower during those five days for the same reason.
Jesper and other volunteers at the TETO project
This would prove to be one of the hardest, but also one of the most insightful experiences during my half a year in Brazil. During those five days, the locals got new houses, and I learned a lot about the locals there, about Brazil in general, and about myself. Feel free to insert your own metaphor of building houses and building relationships.
So, all things considered, not only bad aspects came out of the blockades at the university as seen from my perspective.
I think this is one of the major elements in going abroad – you will definitely meet lots of difficulties and find yourself in situations you hadn’t planned.
In these situations you can either go for the easy way out, or you can go for the unknown, and, as you have probably guessed, you should go for the latter in order to go out there and challenge your preconceptions.
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