I got a chance to pursue an internship at Sao Paulo state university (UNESP) in a small town called Guaratingueta in the state of Sao Paulo in Brazil. I was eager to learn about the culture and history of this quaint and secluded country. I was also eager to see the extent to which my predispositions about Brazil would contradict with the real deal.
It was a trepid month preceding my expected departure due to visa issues. The procurement of the visa, however, brought another kind of anxiety. Questions like “How will the food be?” and “How will I survive 8 weeks in a country far away all alone?” regularly popped into my head. With all these questions, I started gathering information, sending emails, and began preparing. This preparedness replaced anxiety and stress with excitement and adrenaline. I stuffed an entire bag with packaged ready-to-make Indian food as I found that being a vegetarian in Brazil wasn’t going to be easy. Before I knew it, I was on a flight headed to Sao Paulo, traveling for such a long journey all alone for the first time in my life. You’d easily guess which song was stuck in my mind while traveling.
“Brazziiillllll la la la la la la la la”.
I learnt something vital about human psychology as soon as I arrived in Brazil. As I was loading my bags onto a bus I was to take to Guaratingueta from the airport, I had my first interaction with a Brazilian local. When he asked me a question in Portugese, I panicked and replied not in English, but in Marathi, my mother tongue! Confused, the bus attendant just pointed to the luggage rack and I nodded in approval, following which he helped me load my luggage. I was amused at my responding in Marathi, and I guess it was my fight response in an attempt to be able to stay on familiar territory. I wonder if this has happened to anyone else.
I was being hosted in a frat house close to the college campus. The entire city is littered with these frat houses surrounding the campus, each with a name, housing 10-12 people. The relationship between the people of a frat house is incredible. They lived together like a family, with people graduating and joining every year. The newest member would be given a unique nickname by seniors which would stick for the entirety of college life, and as a part of an ‘induction program’, he/she would be made to do household chores and, you get the rest. To give an example of a nickname, a good friend I made there was named ‘Cedula’ by his seniors. This nickname came from a day when he was made to beg for money on the street, and everytime someone gave him money, he would have to wave the note in the air, and ‘Cedula’ in Portugese means a money bill (or note). It was only in my last few days in Guaratingueta that I found out that his real name is Lucas. Every name had a story and it was fascinating to hear stories such as these.
Each frat house had built up a legacy over the years. There would be competitions hosted amongst frat house and trophies handed out. It was so unreal and different that to me, it felt like I was being narrated a movie script. I was housed in ‘Republica Xanadu’, which is one of the oldest frat houses in Guaratingueta. Xanadu had murals on almost every wall, a ‘wall of fame’ with polaroid pictures of all the previous residents, and a beautiful resident dog named Erika. My entering Xanadu was a real first taste of the Brazilian life.
A lot of parties were thrown in these frat houses, each with a theme. The most memorable was the Xanadu ‘diaper party’, in honor of a resident’s expected baby. Entry to this party was through diapers only. There was no entry fee, but you would only be allowed in if you bring a packet of diapers. It was an innovative way to raise funds for his upcoming baby. By the end of the party, there was a large pile of diapers in the hallway.
A bonfire party in Xanadu
Over the course of the next few weeks, I would get acquainted with the residents of Xanadu and learn the life of the locals. It was quite a life. I learnt rock climbing, body building, and some basic Portuguese from the friends I made in Xanadu. I realized very quickly that people open up to you much faster if you show them that you have put in some effort to learn their language. And of course, humour is the best ice breaker. I learnt some funny anecdotes to tell people in Portuguese and soon gained their trust and friendship. I also realized the power that the United States has on entertainment. I could strike a conversation with almost any college student about a US TV show or song. I started loving the Brazilian people for their warmth, culture and love of life.
Even the Brazilian food and diet is fascinating. Their meals are dominated by meat. Most local restaurants I went to didn’t even have a vegetarian dish to serve. The typical plate has a central meat (usually beef) serving, surrounded by mashed potato and salad, which no one liked to eat. Seeing this opportunity, I would scavenge the mashed potato and salad from a plate or two and make it a meal. Because who doesn’t love a free meal!
Part Two of this series can be found here!