Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Expect the Unexpected

My brother, me, and my mom at the Memphis airport July 1
My brother, me, and my mom at the Memphis airport July 1

Before I stepped foot into Brazil’s “Marvelous City” (as Rio is affectionately known as), I didn’t realize there were several different phases of emotions that first time travelers normally experience-at least, for me there was.  The first, of course, was excitement.  I was bubbly with this emotion from the very onslaught and could barely contain myself when thinking about visiting this beautiful place I’d heard so much about! I did so much research on the culture, food, language, and attractions that I thought myself an expert long before lift off even began.

I imagined myself running through the Amazon Jungle and spying the beautiful animals and unique bird species that resided there.  I could see myself lying on the famous beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana, sipping on fresh coconut water and enjoying the winter breeze that never dropped below 65; or taking a short dip in the crystal blue waters of Ilha Grande.  I imagined pretty much everything you would expect from someone about to depart on their first overseas adventure to a beautiful tropical country- a constant state of bliss where even my biggest problems could be erased and replaced with the warmth of the sun and the last embers of daylight fading into a pink-orange glow that was sure to soothe my deepest qualms….

Then came the following days where I learned to “expect the unexpected”.

This started July 1- the day I arrived for my departure from the Memphis airport.  I came with my mom, youngest brother and a good friend that wanted to see me off.  At first I was fine; just the normal tingle of anticipation.  We had gotten there early enough to spend some time sitting around Starbucks and talking about random things like how I over packed waaayyy too much. (For real though… NEVER take 4 checked suitcases for a 6 month stay). But as it got closer to the departure time I started getting a weird sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was time to go through security check; so as we headed over together it finally hit me that I would not be seeing any of my friends or family for the next 6 months. This was the last time I could talk to them face to face, and as I began to say my awkward goodbyes I actually choked up. I held back tears as I walked through the security line with a huge knot in my throat, barely able to look back for fear they would see the tears that kept creeping back in my eyes. This was a completely new feeling for me….how was I experiencing what could only be considered homesickness when I hadn’t even left my terminal yet?? I can’t recall ever being homesick before, even when away for months at a time, so the fact that it hit me so hard at that point was very unexpected and confusing.

As I waited for my luggage to come through the scanner I turned and saw them waiting off to the side. I set my things on the ground beside me and waved for the last time; all the while feeling like I couldn’t breathe.

It got better during the flight and especially when I made a new Brazilian friend with the person sitting next to me. It was a good opportunity to start practicing my Portuguese and he seemed excited to talk about all his “American adventures” from the past two weeks. After a few hours of chatting the pilot announced we were 20 minutes from our destination: Rio de Janeiro national airport.

I’d like to say that once I stepped into that airport and my new life here in Brazil I was happy and carefree again, but I wasn’t. I’d always read about culture shock in books and heard other exchange students talk about it, but I had tons of international friends and hung out with so many different groups that it seemed like a foreign concept to me. I honestly did not think it was something I would experience, but….life likes to throw little surprises your way every so often; I guess to make things more interesting, cause let me tell you….culture shock is REAL and can last a whole lot longer than you’d think. Believe me, I’ve been here almost 4 months already and there are some things that still bother me or concepts and behaviors I just can’t get used to. I’m not saying that my entire experience here has been nothing but disappointments, (lots of exchange students absolutely love it here!) but I am saying that there has been a lot of adjusting and the homesickness still comes back every now and then.

Even though I’d read everything I could about Brazil, it was a completely different story when I actually came and started experiencing things first-hand. The crazy and congested traffic, the 40 minute bus commute to my university in place of my usual 4 min drive, the two hour classes that could be canceled without any prior notice, the continual tardiness of the cariocas-natives of Rio- and even the professors (which you will come to find is part of the Brazilian culture), and several other issues that I’ve never had to experience all conglomerated into one big mess that I never expected to deal with. That being said, once you finally accept these things as unavoidable and just go with the flow then it will be easier to shrug minor annoyances off. That’s been my mantra for a while now, and acceptance of your situation is one of the last phases I’ve come to experience during my time in Rio so far.

I know the last few paragraphs might have seemed a bit pessimistic, so before I go I’d like to leave you with the knowledge that my next post should be much more uplifting! I wanted my first post to be a bit of a lesson to anyone who hasn’t had the chance to travel abroad and who may mistakenly think, as I did, that culture shock would not bite them in the rear at some point haha. But thankfully I’ve had the good fortune of visiting some very beautiful places here and I would like to share those experiences with you in the near future. So until next time….beijos!



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