This past May, I had the opportunity to spend three weeks in Brazil through a general education class at my university. We spent two weeks in Salvador de Bahia with host families and one week in Rio de Janeiro in a hotel. It was the first time I was going to formally study the culture of the country I was in, and looking back it was one of the most eye opening experiences I have ever had while traveling. I particularly enjoyed understanding the social, governmental, economical, and cultural factors at play within the community, and I hope to continue this type of travel in the future. Listening to the locals’ stories about life in Salvador and understanding the history of Brazil changed how I view many social justice issues in the US and around the world, and it made me realize how connected these issues are between countries. These next few posts will be a bit different as it is not just merely a recap of what I did during my travels but also some realizations and lessons learned abroad.
We arrived in Salvador late on a Saturday. My classmates and I were picked up by a shuttle, and we went straight to our hotel where we were greeted with a wonderful hotel dinner. I decided to stay in the first night as the airport process had been long and draining, and I wanted an early start the next day.
The next morning, we had orientation with the director of ACBEU (Associação Cultural Brasil-Estados Unidos, Cultural Association of Brazil-United States), the school we would be attending for those two short weeks, and then met our host moms. Despite the language barrier, my mãe (mom in Portuguese) was amazing and one of the best cooks I have ever met. We would have an appetizer, entree, and dessert for every meal, and she loved trying new recipes and smoothies on my roommate and I. My favorite dish was called stroganoff, slightly different from the typical Russian stroganoff, which had beef and a delicious pink sauce made out of a mixture of ketchup, cream, and other ingredients. If you are really curious, just google Brazilian Beef Stroganoff and there are tons of recipes for it. It is best served with potato sticks and rice. My mãe also made an assortment of smoothies and fresh fruit juices, my favorite of which was Acerola, a type of cherry I had never heard of.
We have the room with the hammock on the balcony
On our first day with her, she brought us around some of the local sites, and we spent a few hours walking along the coastline. It was a beautiful city, and I already knew I was going to miss it when we had to leave. The closest beach to us, Praia do Porto do Barra, was only about a 20 minute walk, so we meandered down to the water. Because it was Sunday, the beach was very crowded, but the warm waters made it easy to wade in the ocean for hours. After we had our fill of the water, we walked along the coast, stringing together the little amount of Portuguese we knew to communicate with our host mom. We stopped at the Museu Nautico da Bahia (Nautical Museum) and Morro do Cristo, a small park on the oceanfront. After that, we headed back home to prepare for the first day of classes in Salvador.
Staying with a local family is one of my favorite accommodation options while traveling because it immerses you within a culture completely. Although I absolutely loved my time in Spain living in an apartment, I do wish I could have stayed with a local family in order to tune my language skills and learn more about Spanish culture. This opportunity in Brazil to live with a host mom taught me how the locals live and forced me to practice my Portuguese.
However, there were a number of things that stuck out to me about our homestays, one of which was that many of the families were comprised of single mothers and their children. Growing up with a single mother myself, it was fascinating to see the number of families with this dynamic.
I also learned that the average monthly wage for people in Salvador is somewhere near 1500 BRL (less than 500 USD). If you do the math, that equals out to just $6,000 USD per year. This might make you think that the cost of living is extremely cheap in Salvador, but it is not. To this day, I do not understand how people are able to survive off their wages given that rent is usually at least 1200 BRL per month for a small studio. I was glad to hear that ACBEU pays their families well as these good-hearted people deserve a break from financial stress. In fact, I believe that many of the families, my mãe included, had made hosting exchange students their full time job. ACBEU has a constant flow of students running through their doors, and they house them with these families.
Given that we were studying culture and race in our class, one of the most striking differences I noticed about our host families was that almost none of them were black. As one of the major hubs during the African slave trade, Salvador remains one of the largest Afro-Brazilian populations in Brazil. Yet, our neighborhood and host families were 90% white. We were witnessing institutionalized racism, and I would not even have noticed it if I was not taking a class about Afro-Brazilian culture.
My time in Brazil was one of the most intellectually productive travel experiences I have had, and I hope to continue thinking this critically about every city I visit.