It takes confidence and an independent nature for a 16-year-old to go off to Brazil on an exchange for a year. Patricia LaSalle had both and the experience shaped her career.
I don’t know where I got the travel bug. All I can say is that at the age of 15 I took a bus with my best friend from where we live in Canada to Texas where her family, who lives in Mexico, picked us up. It took two days to travel though the US to the Mexican border and another two days to get back to Canada. We spent 10 days in Mexico so it was 14 days altogether and it opened my eyes to travel.
When I heard about the possibility of doing an exchange with the Rotary Club, I knew I really wanted to do that. I was only 16 and would be going by myself but I was ready for it. Rotary members interviewed me and looked at my marks and community involvement. They gave me the choice of either France or Brazil and I chose Brazil although I knew nothing about the country. I just knew I wanted to go south.
Most students choose a 1-3 month exchange but I wanted a longer one and was able to go for a year. My mother thought I was crazy but as it got closer to my departure day she was very supportive.
The Rotary arranged for me to stay with two families, six months with each. They both live about three hours outside Rio de Janeiro. The parents were protective and very affectionate. There were rules: Don’t drink, don’t drive and don’t date.
It was a cultural exchange. I went to school, learned Portuguese and participated in activities as much as I could. I never spoke English after the first month and could communicate well in Portuguese by the end of the year.
One girl in my class became my best friend and we are still very close today. I’ve kept in touch with my host families and have been back to Brazil a few times for I consider it my home away from home.
One time I led a group of university students to Manaus in the Amazon with Global Youth Network. The trip was a month long and a great experience. We spent most of our time at a children’s orphanage (abrigo infantil). One of our duties was to build a path from the school to the main building so children wouldn’t have to trek in dirt and mud, as it rains a lot in this area.
That was a very different experience from my other trips to Brazil for I was leading a team, speaking Portuguese on behalf of the team and putting into practice the skills I had learned on the exchange. I didn’t expect Manaus to be so different from other parts of the country but it was.
When people think of Brazil they often only think of the beaches but there is so much more. There’s the Brazilian Carnival, an annual event and the biggest holiday in the country. It takes place 46 days before Easter and is a huge deal. When I am there I always celebrate it in my town with my friends because it’s all about community. Carnival is influenced by African-Brazilian culture and there are parades and dancing. It’s such a happy time.
There is Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro, one of the new ‘Seven wonders of the world’, and Iguaçu Falls in the south of the country, which has three times the flow capacity of Niagara Falls. When you take the three-hour drive from my town Além Paraíba to Rio de Janeiro you drive along a mountain called Dedo de Deus (Finger of God); it looks like a finger pointing to the sky.
If you like meat, Brazil is the place for you. I was a full vegetarian when I lived there so didn’t appreciate the famous Brazilian barbeque—churrasco—where waiters move from table to table bringing different types of meat on skewers that they shave onto your plate. But I did enjoy their equally famous milk desert ‘doce de leite’.
I wouldn’t change a thing about the exchange I took at 16, not even missing out on a year of high school. If kids want to do something like this they should be encouraged but they shouldn’t be pushed into it. I’m glad I went for a year instead of three months; everyone I knew who stayed for three months lost contact with the host families.
No one in my family has ever travelled very far but this experience was a very good one for me and started me on the path for studies in international development.
This interview has been condensed and edited
Photo credits Patricia LaSalle
© Riding the buses 2012