More than halfway through my study abroad experience in Brazil and the lessons I have learned up until now are too plentiful to recount. I feel as though I arrived at the airport just last week, although the fact that I recognize street signs and know how to speak Portuguese without an accent remind me the long months passed since my first awkward day in Rio. That is why I am much more comfortable admitting that despite the incredible views all around the city, there are inklings of homesickness that sucker punch my heart and leave me breathless unexpectedly from time to time. I guess this is what happens when you try to rest your roots in an unfamiliar place even for what seems like a second in the grand scheme of your entire life– you learn to adapt but you never really lose your principal tastes and preferences. Your lens stays intact and so does your love for the elements that make up who you are.
So if you’re a study abroad student who is currently having a hard time placing yourself in the social fabric of your destination or a person who paradoxically exhibits pangs of wanderlust yet fear of jumping out into the world alone, I guess this is my wholehearted tribute. A personal account, in solidarity.
Craving Home, Literally
I have to say that the first thing I yearned for was food from home. Even ingredients that I was so accustomed to see in my kitchen or dorm room. In Rio, beans and rice are staples just like in many Latin American countries. But the black beans and white rice made here is a contrast to the orange Spanish rice or Puerto Rican rice I grew up eating. Cuisine here is even a contrast to the cuisine in other parts of Brazil which have more African influence and therefore incorporate more spices. Many plates are savory yet lack flavor, which I would be concerned to say as a foreigner with a different taste palette, save the fact that many Brazilians also agree. The food is not terrible– just could use a serious kick.
I cook a lot here with my housemate to stretch out my stipend and to try to bring some of those home flavors back into my every day. I use pimenta on nearly every food project because I miss jalapeños. It was not until a couple weeks ago that she made me realize I had a habit of using limón on a lot of my plates too. To say how much I appreciate the indigenous people of Mexico and Central America would be an understatement of everything I feel in reality. Because they are one of the few reasons I can feel desire to eat. One day I felt compelled to research my favorite food items and found that many of them had their origin in Mexico. Others, in places the world over. Jalapeños were traditionally cultivated in Veracruz and their names derive from the nahuatl form Xalapa, the state’s capital. Avocados are believed to have originated in Puebla and their name derives from the āhuacatl. Nopales grow all throughout the state and their Spanish name derives from the word nohpalli. The varied versions of maize and flour tortillas, which I long for especially when I need a quick filling meal, were introduced to the world by indigenous folx to form dishes that range from enchiladas to sopes to tostadas. I have two months before I head home but my stomach already wants to hitch a ride back. Being here in Rio made me realize how often I take it for granted that all these foods aforementioned raised me and were accessible to me.
I have been able to adapt my diet with some tasty Brazilian foods though. Until I return, I am making due with all the rich fruit Brazil has to offer, coxinhas, and my memories of the food I ate in Salvador, Bahia, where the food satiated my hunger.
The Missing Piece
The following is likely the hardest to explain out of all the emotions I have been feeling this past week. Not because it is difficult to describe but because it is difficult to resolve. Corporealizing my fear through writing and giving it a form makes it much more likely that I will burden it without solutions that I can obtain easily. But my ruling planet is Mercury so I have to communicate this piece in order take a stab at the bigger picture.
I will never forget my experiences here in Rio. Not the way favela Vidigal lights up almost in an instant as the sun sets on Ipanema or the view of what seems to be the entirety of Rio’s coastline from when you stand at Pão de Açúcar. It would be difficult for me to misplace the memories of the sardine-like method people pack into the Metro during rush hour to get to get home or to somehow repress the truth that I prefer riding mototaxis. The memory of Carnaval and the days I made it back to my bed at 4 or 5AM have a permanent place in my vault of good times and bad decisions. And the cara in my Portuguese class, who almost missed his oral presentation and determined to create a revised one in ten minutes in the corner of the classroom before bargaining with the professor, whose entertained smile and reaffirming comments post-winged presentation concluded that his lightheartedness and ridiculous courage saved his grade– he will be etched into the short list of people I want to be more like. So far, I have been lucky to collect many funny and beautiful images here. I have learned a lot about myself throughout these past three and a half months. But a subtle externality of all these triumphs and tribulations is feeling like the people I want to share them with are going through a different time and space than I am. There is a connection to this place that I am missing that I have yet to overcome and that becomes ten times as intense when I feel lost. Navigating people and the city is overwhelming and I do not think my support system is present to understand or inform this.
I am not really vocal about when I am going through a hard time. I try to resolve my personal problems on my own, working through it to identify what it is that might be a the source of my stress. The downside to being self-reliant is that it becomes much harder to reach out naturally when I cannot define the triggers and people miss out on my happinesses too because I forget to announce those as well by habit. I have started reading for fun a lot more than I used to and that has been a healthy activity to give myself a breather. I think running helps clear my mind when it is muggled. But I have yet to figure out how to truly deal with the functions of separation, physically and emotionally. Over the past years, “I miss you” messages have ceased to be enough for me to feel okay. Which is a good thing to know now at this point in my life. I realized that making future plans with people with whom I want to maintain relationships is something I need to prioritize more as I get older. I think scheduling family trips or trips with friends for shorter periods of time would be a healthier way for me to explore new places.
Returning to School is Going to Kick My Ass
The sub title needs no more elaboration but for the sake of materializing the intricacies of being a student abroad during the spring semester for the culture it does not suffice. Senior warned me about studying abroad spring semester. Friends cautioned that it would be a difficult transition back into Pomona’s academic culture for senior year, especially as thesis research begins before counterbalancing their advice by insisting that study abroad would be a worthwhile experience. A month after my program started, I knew this was an inconvenient truth. I do not know how to mentally prepare for senior year after this semester. Although socially adjusting has been exhausting in Brazil, my academic course load has been much more forgiving. However, I fear that neither will be stable in August when syllabuses require ten to fifteen page essays and numerous assignments.
Stemming from my previous comments about separation, I dread that relationships I have will remain at a distance due to the pressure we all will be facing as seniors. I am trying to stay present in my current moment here in Brazil but the mixture of homesickness and anxiety sends me off in a frenzy of emotions that distracts me on days like today. I know this is one of the slumps that is normal to being away from familiar places for a long time so I hope my anguish diminishes soon. I am just grateful I can share my experiences to talk some truth into the experience of studying abroad. As a first-gen, low-income Latina, I think I have gained valuable perspective being here about my values and what I need to do support myself when I feel like I am missing my community.