On January 11th, 2000, I hopped on a plane to start a 12-month Rotary Youth Exchange program in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
It was the first thing I had done in years that gave me genuine feelings of nerves, anxiety and excitement wrapped up together.
I had just finished high school in a cloud of smoke, uninspired by anything that was taught and just feeling trapped in a small Australian country town in the middle of nowhere.
Rodeo & ute popularity, tall-poppy syndrome and general apathy were just a few things that had worn me down.
To move from a town of around 4,000 to a city of around 17,000,000 was daunting but exactly what I wanted and needed.
How can I aptly describe how this year away changed me and the course of my life?
For one, the impossibility of learning to speak another language lost its power. After only knowing a few words and phrases, within 3 months I was communicating okay. By the end of the 12 months I was thinking and dreaming in Portuguese.
I was really lucky with the families I lived with.
Normally an exchange student would stay with 4 families, each for 3 months. I stayed with 2: The Shimabukuro family for 7 months and the Stefanelli family for 5.
Each family had children who had just been on the same kind of exchange program to Turkey, as well as other siblings who were just top-quality, interesting people.
Liana, my first host-sister, turned out to be one of my closest friends. Very down-to-earth and supportive. Called me on my bullshit when required too.
Apart from both families being lovely & welcoming people, I had relative freedom to go out, meet people and do things that interested me. And they were quite lenient in giving me chances which might have otherwise had me sent home.
Rotary has a policy called the 4 D’s:
- No dating
- No drinking
- No driving
- No drugs
Other exchange students told me of some of their unpleasant family experiences/situations and I just thank the exchange program gods for ushering me to my beautiful host families.
For the first couple of months, my closest friend was another exchange student from Japan, Hiroshi Inaba. I wrote about our friendship here.
In Brazil I was attending high school however, as I said, I had already finished high school in Australia. The school principal was easy-going. Later in the year, after repeated days of me turning up a couple of hours late she called me into her office and kindly suggested if I was going to come late I should just not come at all.
I took her at her word. So for the last 3/4 months of the exchange I was only going a couple of days a week, if that.
But I was lucky with my school.
(Just like my host-families.)
I got to know many awesome and supportive people there.
One guy in my class, Luiz, was just (and still is!) the most positive, calming, welcoming, comfortable-in-his-own-skin person I could have come across.
For example, one day I came a bit late. I walked into class and in Brazil when you see someone you give a kiss on the cheek with girls and a handshake for the guys.
I kissed the first person closest to the door.
Unintentionally, I had started a chain-reaction of needing to walk up & down the aisles past every desk to kiss-hello or give a handshake to everyone in the class! The teacher stopped for me and everyone obliged, many of them not-so-enthusiastically.
I felt like a real drag.
But when I got to Luiz he stuck out his hand with his chest puffed up and a huge smile. He genuinely wanted to greet me as a friend.
He instantly made me feel welcome.
Amazingly, his younger brother Leandro was just as kind and positive. We are all still friends today.
Despite smoking and drinking a lot of the year away, I dedicated quite a bit of my time learning capoeira, a dancing martial art that was created by Brazilian slaves hundreds of years ago.
The Portuguese colonizers had outlawed any kind of activity that might have helped the slaves start an uprising, including learning how to fight with their hands.
So the slaves disguised their fighting practice as a dance which developed into unbelievable feats of acrobatics, flexibility and power.
I learned the basics.
Enough to impress people who had never seen it done properly!
There was opportunity to have done and learned so much more though. What is the saying? Youth is wasted on the young.
But I did learn the language, which is the root of any culture. And embracing the Brazilian culture meant transforming into a boisterous and outgoing… creature?… 🙂
At the start of the year I was genuinely anxious in almost any social situation.
I could feign confidence, which I did.
But in Australia, I never felt like I was connecting with people (apart from as a high-ranking squash player, which was more about others wanting to connect with me because of my skill/status).
This anxiety culminated halfway through the year when a
2-week 1-month 20-day ‘grande viagem’ (big trip) was organized by Rotary. 50 exchange students would travel together to all corners of Brazil in a fantastical, unforgettable bonding experience.
I still remember sitting in the car as my host-dad drove me to the coach where everyone was waiting to start the adventure.
Peaked anxiety quickly started to subside as I got to know so many wonderful people from all different countries.
By the end of the
two weeks 1 month 20 days I didn’t want the ‘grande viagem’ to end. Yet, at the same time, I felt like a butterfly which was breaking out of its cocoon.
I was going to make the most of the rest of my exchange.
The Northern-hemisphere students returned home soon after the grande viagem and a new batch of students arrived. The reality that my exchange would end in a handful of months hit me square in the face.
I was left with the advantageous mindset of having nothing left to lose. As I saw it, the impending end to my exchange was a kind of death.
Like someone who is told they have a terminal disease, I tried to make the most of every situation.
And by the end of the 12 months I felt comfortable in my own skin. A couple of weeks before I headed home, I remember walking down the street imagining what it would be like to return home and see so many faces who knew me only as the dude before the exchange.
I just wasn’t the same person.
It’s not something I was anxious about, just curious. And I thought,
“I don’t care what I do in Australia, I just want to be happy.”
Later my focus on happiness evolved into one of fulfillment as I was drawn down a path of learning how to actively relax my muscles via the art of Wing Chun kung fu which helped me to reverse an abnormality in my spine.
Along my post-Brazil path, amongst other things, I also…
- drove buses & taxis
- flipped pizzas
- posed nude for art students
- recorded an album
- wrote a book
- designed & created a board game
- completed two 10-day Vipassana meditation retreats
- created a squash fitness website
- ran a marathon
- dabbled in polyphasic sleeping
- spent extended time in solitude
And I eventually reconnected with almost all of my friends from my time in Brazil through Facebook, including my now Turkish wife Ece, who I met in the last couple of months of my exchange.
We now live together in Turkey with our little girl, Asya.
My time in Brazil came completely full circle last weekend when we had a 20-year reunion on Zoom with about 15-20 of us. And more are joining our Facebook group to share their memories & experiences.
You might be too old now to participate in such a youth exchange. But what about your kids? 🙂