The summer after my second year of medical school, I was lucky enough to travel on a student exchange to Brazil. I was so excited to go to the South American country, yet I was scared too. In the 1990’s when people thought of Brazil they thought of a developing country, that was clear cutting the Rainforest (our planet’s lungs!), drugs, and guns – lots of drugs, and lots of guns. So the danger of traveling to such a place did not elude me.
As I boarded the Red Eye to Sao Paolo, I was nervous. I was traveling alone for the first time. I had traveled to South America and to India before; but it was always with someone. This time it was just me.
As I got on the plane, I was quickly introduced to the warm hospitality of Brazilians. Once one family found out I was a medical student on an exchange, half the plane knew. They welcomed me and introduced me to others my age. Phone numbers were given and invitations to Belo Horizonte, Curitiba, Porto Alegre soon followed. When they asked me where I was going, I replied Salvador. Their faces dropped in fear. They grabbed my hand and said “Oh – it’s not safe there. Be careful!” This was not reassuring.
Upon arrival in Salvador, I was met by the student coordinator. She was to take me to her house to rest and wash up prior to going to my host family’s home. On the way to her house, I had my first glance at the infamous favelas- the neighbourhoods of the poor. We then reached her neighbourhood: a secure, gated community. There was a visible and shocking divide between rich and poor.
I was napping in the guest room when I first heard them outside my window:
I froze. Then I got up and slowly inched my way to the window. Peering over the edge, I saw the beautiful wealthy neighbourhood, and the favela right next to it.
The sounds came fast like thunder.
My stomach sank.
Blood rushed to my feet and my heart began to race to pull is back up again.
I began to sweat.
“Oh no” I thought. “What have I gotten myself into?”
I managed to calm myself down to a manageable level of anxiety. “I am here now, I will have to face what comes.”
Later that night, I was taken to my host family’s home. Being exhausted and full of fear about my new surroundings, I excused myself to my room without dinner. I blamed my fatigue on jet lag, hoping they did not see that I was still very anxious. I did nto sleep well and the anxiety lasted all the next day.
That night at dinner, I was still eating like a bird, when I heard it again.
It was here, in this neighbourhood too!
The fear of death came over me. I am sure my face went white as a ghost (which is a feat considering I am Indian). Immediately my host mother asked me if I was ok. "Todo Bem Shailla?"
Tudo was not bem.
My Portuguese not being so great, I pointed outside and made the international symbol for guns with my hands. I began to act out the gunfight that was happening outside.
They looked at me, and looked at each other, and all 10 of them sitting around the table burst out into laughter.
“No! No! No!”
My host brother grabbed me by the hand and dragged me to the den and where he turned on the TV.
It was the America’s Cup. Brazil’s National Soccer Team was playing. Every time they scored a goal, people would celebrate by setting off firecrackers. They had a good team. They scored many goals. So there were many reasons to celebrate and no reason to be anxious at all.
They went on to tell me of the players, the adversities they faced, and how they overcame their hardships to carry Brazil to victory! They spoke of Pele, Ronaldo – famous players whom they held in Saintly fashion. Listening to their passion, and their joy, I quickly became indoctrinated into their religion.
I will never forget that night. How my misperceptions drove my anxiety! How quickly it disappeared once I saw things as they truly were. I will also never forget the people of Brazil, and my introduction to the passion that surrounds the beautiful game.
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