The way Florida Rotary Youth Exchange determines exactly where you go works as follows: you’re given a list of countries based on your age and the language(s) you speak. Of the countries you’re given, you number them one through however many countries you receive, one being the country you want to go to the most. You are in no way, shape, or form guaranteed your first choice, or really any of the countries on your list. It’s purely a game of luck.
Because I’m older, I received four countries: Brazil, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Greenland, and I numbered them in that order. If you know me, you know my love for South America, so I was really banking on Brazil. Like I said, pure luck.
At our first outbound orientation, Jack, our country coordinator, gave us the opportunity to write a proposal for a city or region in Brazil. After some research, I proposed the city of Curitiba because I was told it is similar to San Francisco (which I adore). I also saw they had a Holocaust museum, which is always of interest to me.
Instead, I received Belo Horizonte, and wow, what a blessing that was.
Belo Horizonte is known, unlike other regions of Brazil, for its hospitality. From the moment I’ve arrived, I’ve felt right at home. Everyone goes out of their way to make sure I’m fed and comfortable and happy.
Luck has been a consistent theme throughout the short period I’ve been on exchange.
Last Saturday, it was a Rotarian’s birthday, so my family and I were invited to attend his party. By pure luck, an outbound student named Fernanda was having a goodbye party down the street. I was invited to attend.
By far the most simple, yet useful, knowledge I acquired in 144 hours of orientation for Brazil was this: always say yes. Even if it grosses you out, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Say yes.
So I said yes, hopped in the trunk of a car, and ended up down the street at a party with no one I knew.
Within five minutes, I met some of the most incredible people I’ve ever known. Each one went out of their way to make me feel comfortable and at home. They brought me candies and snacks. They asked about American culture. They laughed at my poor attempt at Portuguese and continued to talk to me anyway. They offered me jackets when it got cold. They had me put on sunglasses in the dark and take pictures with them.
Teenagers (in the United States at least) get the reputation of being petty, cliquey, mean, and noninclusive. Whether this is true or not, I can’t tell you. I’m biased.
Teenagers here, at least the ones I’ve encountered thus far, are more kind than you can imagine – the type of kind that goes out of their way to help you stay at the party because you’re getting along so well. The type of kind that helps you get home when you don’t speak the language well enough. The type of kind that asks for an “I’m home” message when they’ve only known you for a few days.
One of the things that has struck me the most is the maturity in relationships. Most of the friends I’ve made have been friends with each other forever, so they’re all very comfortable with each other. They compliment each other constantly and genuinely mean it, which I feel is very rare in the United States. They also greet and say goodbye to each and every person in the room with a hug and a kiss. This is so much more personable and intimate than the United States. I can’t explain exactly why this means so much to me, but I adore it.
In the past few days, I’ve been invited to so many things. Concerts. Parties. Boxing classes. Açaí dates. By pure luck, I met people that have rapped Eminem songs with me and taught me about Brazilian funk and common Portuguese phrases and made me laugh harder than I can remember laughing.
It feels like I’ve been here forever, spending hours on end with my lovely mãe, making plans with my new compassionate friends.
I feel incredibly lucky to be where I am at the this very moment, because if it had been one day or month or year off, I would continue to live my life without knowing these people exist.
With all of the bad things that have happened in the world in the last couple years (and days), it’s really nice to have so much good surrounding me. I’ll be sure to hold on to these moments when the bad days come.