Updated: Dec 19, 2020
This blog is brought to you by the wonderful Eleanor Andrews of the Elskitchn Instagram
account. Eleanor is a person you can definitely call well travelled and is clearly a person who loves other cultures, just as much, if not more, than her own. She is a graduate of Modern Languages and will be speaking to us today about her semester in Rio de Janeiro. Rio and Brazil in general is one of the places towards the top of our bucket list here at The Travel Story Society and reading this blog has made us want to go even more. From the urban rainforest to the beautiful scenery and amazing food shown in this blog, Eleanor takes you on a journey that will leave you wanting to book your flight to Rio straight away.
A far cry away from authentic samba, Cariocas, and caipirinhas, I am writing this blog post from my home in Darlington, England. Life in Brazil half feels like a lifetime ago, yet also feels like yesterday. My return from the Cidade Maravilhosa is almost 2 years ago to this date, but having spent five months living here, on the opposite side of the world, it would be fair to say that I am experiencing a multitude of feelings and reminiscing memories from my first part of my Year Abroad on a constant basis.
Turning the clock back to the beginning of my second year of my Modern Languages
undergraduate degree, I remember feeling daunted and overwhelmed at the huge decisions I had to make about my up and coming Year Abroad. My degree demanded that we spend a minimum of 8 months across countries which ‘speak’ the languages that we study. The one place that I knew I wanted to go to was Brazil... but I didn’t know what I wanted to do, how long I wanted to go for and when to go during the year. Even though I had only taken up ab-initio (beginners) Portuguese at university the year before to go alongside French and Spanish, I had fallen in love with the language and the Portuguese-speaking world. When I got offered in the spring term the chance to apply for PUC-Rio, the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, for a semester starting in August 2018, I jumped at the opportunity. It was earlier than I had imagined going and I had no idea if I was ready for such a huge change in just a handful of months, but I went for it and got a place on PUC-Rio’s study abroad programme. So, I packed up bags in August and spent some of the best 5 months of my life in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Arriving in the city of Rio by taxi after an 11-hour flight from London Heathrow was an experience, to say the least. It was the first time that I had travelled to South America, and although I have travelled within Asia, it was still startling to arrive in such a busy, noisy and hot city in complete darkness at almost midnight. I had travelled with another student from my university and prior to arriving we had made accommodation arrangements to stay together with a Brazilian lady in her apartment on the beachfront of Copacabana. Travelling to what was to be our new home for the semester in a taxi, we instantly saw significant poverty both on the streets on which we were driving through and in the favelas that we could see built up on the mountains in the distance. This continued from the north zone where the international airport is, through central downtown and way into the Zona Sul, Rio’s most famous tourist area where you can find the likes of Copacabana, Ipanema, Arpoador, Botafogo and Leblon. I learned very quickly that Rio is a city of great inequality, where the very poor live alongside the incredibly rich.
Arriving and living with another student from my home university was so helpful in terms of
settling in. PUC-Rio has a fantastic and well-established society called Brother Carioca for international students, so we could attend socials together where we’d meet new friends and contacts, but we could also get to know the local area together as this felt safer than walking alone. We even joined a local gym so that we could experience some ‘normality’ in our new crazy lives! I quickly got used to this amazing city – and two years later, sitting in my living room at home during a pandemic, I would do anything to see Christo Redentor on Mount Corcovado, the beautiful Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas and Morro Dois Irmãos like I used to every day on my way to university.
At PUC-Rio I took a French course and a physical geography course to go alongside my main subject, Portuguese. I loved all my classes, even though French was at 7am three times a week! It would get light at 5am and the campus is so beautiful, so I hardly noticed. All classes were taught in Portuguese and I was amazed at the relationships that Brazilian lecturers had with their students. It was an extremely supportive environment and both staff and students were very accommodating towards me considering that Portuguese is neither my first nor second language (even if this means being me pointed out constantly as an ‘estrangeira’ and how ‘different’ my university and culture differs to theirs). My geography classes were fantastic for exploring Tijuca, the largest urban rainforest in the world, found in the very heart of the city. The classes took me to the top of Bico do Papagaio and The Municipal Natural Park of Catacumba amongst many other places, so I not only got to do some incredible hikes but also learned about the natural landscape.
We studied the drainage systems of the forest and also the human uses of the rivers, which helped us complete our group assignment for our final assessment based on the Rio Carioca and Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. Of course, my Portuguese classes were the most helpful in terms of improving my Portuguese language; we studied films, songs and books to support our grammar and vocabulary learning. There is certainly no place to hide at PUC-Rio; you will have no choice but to leave your comfort zone with speaking the language; after all, only a rare handful of students speak English, anyway.
I ended up moving accommodation 2 months into my time in Rio. To my delight I found another flat in Copacabana with a young Brazilian couple and two other Brazilian girls around my age. I was accepted into the ‘family’ straight away and I knew that this was the perfect place to spend my remaining three months in Rio. Most evenings we joked out about this being the perfect time for my ‘aula noturna’ (evening class!). I was shown and taught all sorts; from their favourite music, to how to make the best Brazilian food including brigadeiro, to talking about Brazilian politics. The run up to the national election and the event itself occurred whilst I was in Brazil and this was a majorly popular but sometimes problematic conversational topic for locals (and still is). I am so grateful for my housemates who taught and showed me so much in the city, more than I could ever have imagined.
My housemates shared with me their love of music and the arts, and they recommended the best art galleries, samba evenings and libraries. Everything was of course in Portuguese, and my confidence in speaking improved ten-fold. I know I was still making mistakes here and there and felt frustration when I couldn’t explain something very well, but I always had someone there to correct me as I went along.
Brazil has an abundance of national holidays (examples during my stay include Independence Day, Proclamation of the Republic and Black Consciousness Day), so it would have been ludicrous not to use this opportunity to travel. Travel in Brazil is expensive and difficult to plan when you don’t have classes to plan around, but if you can manage to work it out like my friends and I did, the effort is 100% worth it. How could it not be?! My two biggest trips were those to Iguazu Falls and Amazonas and I struggle, even now, to put into words how fantastic these experiences were. Watch this space for blog posts about these adventures! The state of Rio de Janeiro is so vast and varied; and I urge you, if you are visiting the city, to travel to Paraty, Búzios, Angra dos Reis/Ilha Grande and Arraial do Cabo because… well… you will not regret it. Your time management, organisation and problem solving simply must be on point; after all, I was able to plan two monumental journeys to Iguazu Falls in Argentina/Brazil and a five-day journey through the Amazon Rainforest between classes on a student budget which wasn’t easy. Believe in yourself and your passions - you can do everything you dream of if you put your mind to it!
As I reached December, my final month of my semester at PUC-Rio, I allowed myself to start thinking of home again, feelings I’d tried to shut away until this point in order to fully enjoy my time away. It concocted waves of emotions for me. I was always in contact with my friends from university who were also on their Year Abroad, and we would always support one another if one were having a bad day, but sometimes I wondered how our homesickness compared. I wondered how it felt to be able to fly home quickly and sometimes wished that my sister who had (so amazingly and kindly, may I add) travelled out to visit me for two weeks when I turned 21, I wish she could have stayed with me the whole time. I wished to swap black beans for baked beans! Usually I managed to snap out of this quite quickly, reminding myself of the reasons why I decided to go so far and to avoid Europe altogether. I knew (and always did know) deep down that I will probably never again have the chance to live for an extended period in a country with a culture and society so rich and different to my own, where opting to speak English ‘just like that’ isn’t possible.
I find it frustrating that most people who have never been to Rio seem to have the idea that the city is completely unsafe; that it is beset with violence, drugs and poverty and nothing else. Undeniably, these things do occur as they do everywhere, but thanks to the openness of my housemates, teachers, and simply random Brazilians that I met in the street who have shared with me their wonderfully colourful, musical and poignant culture, I slowly but surely learned – and reflect on now - what it is really like to be a Carioca. 5 months in the Cidade Maravilhosa passed in a flash, and I would go back and do it all again in a heartbeat. Rio is so much more than a city harbouring extreme inequality. What I do know for certain, is that Rio de Janeiro will hold a special place in my heart for many years to come.
*insert pic of Morro Dois Irmaos, Mount Corcovado and Pedra da Gávea*
It’s hard not to be ‘that girl’ who starts every sentence with “When I was in Brazil…”. I want to shout from the rooftops about my days at a university built in an urban forest environment, about the nights I spent fishing and sleeping in hammocks in the Amazon, about the exhilarating sensation of being stood at the top of the Garganta del Diablo at Iguazu National Park. I firmly believe I couldn’t have had a better experience. I will never forget the kindness and openness of the Brazilian people… fate even placed me next to a Paulista on my connection flight from Heathrow to Newcastle and we nattered the whole way in Portuguese about how much we both love Brazil. My French teacher threw our class a party to say goodbye to me, and my housemates, friends and I cried whilst promising to stay in contact as I waited for my taxi to RIOgaleão. To be honest, I tend to have a ‘live in the moment’ attitude to life, and this is especially true regarding my life in Rio.
So, reflecting on these times now proves to me how grateful I am to have learned so much about Rio de Janeiro and Brazil as a country, and even myself, in such a short period of time. I was thrilled with my progress in the Portuguese language, and my success of living independently in a city that at first was so alien to me. Thank you, Rio de Janeiro, for showing me how life can continue so positively and happily, even if you don’t have ‘everything’ materialistically. I took home with me a heightened positive attitude that I believe I employed in my next adventure in Peru and have since adopted in my everyday life. Obrigada Rio, Brazil, and new friends for this experience, I will forever be indebted to you.
Thank you once again Eleanor for sharing this post. If you would like to see a little more of Eleanor head to her Instagram page @Elskitchn. We will definitely be cooking up some delicious treats from it.