Jericoacoara.

My pre-departure letter was where I first mentioned that my writing in South America were going to be part of a social experiment. I wrote that this blog is a device I intend to use in place of a private journal, so that I can learn the effects of exposing my writing to the public and with the internet as it’s medium. And thus far my writing has been honest, yet tame. However, while in Jericoacoara, the remote beach town 300 km away from Fortaleza in the northeast of Brazil, I experienced for the first time extreme reactions to my post about Recife, linked here. Staying true to the uncensored quality of this blog, I would like to elaborate.(Some commentary and photos of my time in “Jeri” are at the end of the post).

The post entitled “Recife” is the most provocative I have written thus far, yet if you read it now you probably wouldn’t agree with me. That’s because, being completely contrary to the self-imposed rules I’ve created, I had to delete some paragraphs. Before I hit “publish” I had written a much longer post, one that included commentary about my visit to see my maternal grandfather and my views about his marital status, observations of household values that were in reference to specific members of my family, and a reflection on the varying degrees of meaningful exchange I have with family and with travelers on the road. I slept on it and decided in the morning to trim these portions, but also with the intention of adding them back in at a later date, after the potential initial rush of family members read the post as soon as it was published. My intention was to subtly make the changes so that few would notice, and also to indirectly avoid any conflict or hurt feelings between the parties involved.

When the post finally went live on my birthday I didn’t think that anyone would have any concern with this unknowingly edited version. But, the edited version is not what is available now. I removed one paragraph, which I’ve pasted here:

“But I see it differently. I see it as a reflection of ignorance. The more I travel, the more I come back to this notion of ignorance. I see just how different my life is from theirs, not so much in the day-to-day but in the grander scheme of how different my life is just because of the place where I grew up. Because of how different my mother’s life became after she moved to New York.”

I will not describe exactly where this was placed, but it’s not difficult to figure out the context. What I can say is that it was removed after receiving an email from a friend of the family, one that I have known most of my life and who has always been a very important part of my “New York family.” I was told that the entire post, if read by members of my family, would be hurtful to them and that it was in my best interest to take it down immediately. I was also told that much of what I wrote needed to be shared personally with a therapist. I wanted to confirm if any of these sentiments were felt by the person who reads my blog the most and whose family is in question, my mom. And so after several whatsapp audio exchanges I decided to take only this particular paragraph down. I asked my mom if she was ashamed or embarrassed by my honesty and of what I wrote, and she said that she was not. Rather she didn’t feel comfortable with my using the word “ignorance” in the context I had placed it in. It was solely because of her that I removed this portion, but I also made her aware that my next post would be discussing this in great detail. Although very personal and detailed, my recollection of both this email and the exchange with my mother publicly to you, the reader, is all part of this experiment.

While I will not privately respond to this person, I will say publicly that I welcome all reactions to my posts and I encourage them to be made publicly in the comments section, the way others have done so far. After all, if any reader of my blog truly understands the point of it all by not only reading that pre-departure letter but by reading all of my previous posts, they would know that this is the blog’s purpose. There is a deliberate and thoughtful reason to why I write in this way. And as a result, I want to read not only the encouragement and the love but also the frustration, the anger, the shame. I want to create the dialogue that I wish I could’ve had with my family in Recife. I want to arouse in others the raw emotions that I yearn to feel every single day while I travel. I want people to know that travel is all about feeling things across the entire spectrum: the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the right and the wrong, the selflessness and the egotism, the strengths and the weaknesses. It is no surprise to me that along with this reactive email I also received extreme praise from other loved ones about this very post, both privately and publicly. The post was also re-blogged by a complete stranger to his blog of 800+ followers. It is a well known fact that with every piece of art made, every article written, every speech given, every opinion expressed, there will be varying interpretations. There will be conflict. There will be as much of a divide as there will be unity. And as such, all of the effects of my writings are welcome.

And so, the experiment continues.

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“Pedra Furada”

Jericoacoara Beach one of the most beautiful parts of Brasil that I have ever been to, and I was so grateful to spend four and a half days enjoying this paradise. To get there is not easy: you either take a 6 hour bus followed by a 1.5 hour 4×4 transfer or a private, 4.5 hour 4×4 truck from Fortaleza airport. The roads for the last 45 minutes are bumpy and unlit: the nature of one’s arrival makes almost all visitors feel as if they’re on an island. Jeri is known for it’s vast expanse of sand dunes and fresh water lagoons. Nearest to the town are sand dunes that hover a long stretch of beach and calm ocean, oftentimes windy enough for the kite surfers to play. These dunes are the backdrop to the lush greenery of the town itself. Everyone within town by foot; motor vehicles aren’t allowed except the dune buggys that are used for day trips to the nearby lagoons. In Jeri you’ll find fresh fish, açai and vegetable juices, yoga classes, and stores whose floors are covered in sand selling all sorts of beachwear. Along the streets women crochet beautiful summer tops and bikinis while tattoo-covered hippies sell handmade jewelry with feathers and stones. There aren’t any ATMs in Jeri, but I did go to a Thai restaurant run by a French owner who brought in a chef from Thailand five months ago. The food was so authentic it brought me right back to Chiang-Mai.  At 5:30pm everyone climbs the dunes to see the gorgeous sunset that is followed by a local capoeira group. Practicing to the music and songs of a berimbau and drums, the all white-clad dancers and musicians almost glow in the dark, evoking the traditional customs of Bahia. All night forró happens on Thursday and Saturday nights, with traditional Samba on Friday nights. Every night of the week there is a beach party with some local DJs, where you can order caipifrutas made from fresh maracujá, kiwi, abacaxi, caju, siriguela, and various other tropical fruits from endless number of drink stands at the beach’s entrance. It’s no wonder that you’ll find visitors from all over the world here to enjoy the warmth and spirit of the northeast of Brasil.

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the fallen tree
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Paradise Lagoon
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Panorama of the sand dunes
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Capoeira

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One of Jeri’s beautiful sunsets
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Horseback riding on the sand dunes
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View of the lush, green town center from the dunes
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Caipirinhas made from a variety of tropical fruits
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Recife.

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Palm Trees in Porto de Galinhas

This is the post I have been putting off writing for a number of reasons. One is that it forces me to confront this city through the eyes of what feels like two different people. The first is through the eyes of someone who has been visiting Recife at least once per year since she was six months old, and who lived here when she was young. The other is from the viewpoint of someone so far removed from the day-to-day lives of her family, someone who grew up in New York accustomed to the American way of life. I am confronted with so many emotions each time I come to Recife, oftentimes conflicting with one another and lasting well into my return to the states. With each visit it becomes more difficult to adapt and to blend in with my family’s habits and underlying ethos. I should mention that my mother knows all too well the roller coaster of scenarios thrown at me in Recife and of all the emotions that result from it, for she has been either present to witness my experiences or she has been my soundboard to listen to the variations of my distress when I come here on my own. I know she struggles with seeing her daughter go through a partial identity crisis as she probably feels many of the same things as I do as a woman who left her home country at my current age.

This trip to Recife is the first time I visit while traveling for an extended period of time. It was originally meant to serve has a 2 week break from backpacking –  a way to rest and not worry about where I was going to sleep or how I was going to get to my next destination. I would have homemade food and family members to drive me from one place to another. I would have clothes to borrow so I wouldn’t tire of the ones I had been traveling with. I would have the comforts of home.

I am nearing the end of these two weeks, and I find that this was the most difficult trip to Recife thus far. At first I thought it was a mistake to come here – I knew some of the issues that I would face from past experiences, and I was afraid being here would throw me out of travel-mode and make me too dependent on others. But in my heart I knew a break was needed; I had been traveling two and a half months and planned to continue another three to four months.  Being here has taught me a lot of difficult things about my place within my family and my association with being a Brasilian citizen. I’ve learned just how much my lifetime of travels have affected how I perceive my family and my country, as well as how almost everything else is interconnected and shaping me every single day.

My mom was the only child in the family to move away from home. She has been living in New York for 29 years, officially longer than the amount of time she lived in Recife. She became accustomed to life as an American citizen. She raised a daughter as an American – more specifically, as a New Yorker. I am an only child. I always felt the closest thing I had to siblings were my first cousins in Brasil. And so when I visit I have this expectation that because we are related and because I grew up spending time with them, that we have much in common and we will always have much to discuss. I see them the way I do some of my oldest friends, people that no matter how much time passes I can still talk to as if I saw them only yesterday.

However as the years pass and as we grow older, the more I see that this is not the case. My cousins have lived in this city their entire lives, and some of them have married and even one of them has an incredible little son. They are finding their place in this world. I am also finding my way, but our paths are moving in opposite directions. There is little I can hold on to, so little to talk about. Part of the reason is because I have a general sense of what they’re doing with their lives, but for some reason most of my family hasn’t any clue what I have been doing with my life beyond the photos I post to Instagram. Some of them are so out of touch they don’t even realize I am visiting them halfway between a six month backpacking journey across their own continent. Never-mind that most of them know little beyond the northeast of Brasil – I am not one to judge how far they’ve traveled or their reasons for traveling or not traveling to a particular place. What I do know is what I value in my relationships. I value conversation – a dialogue where we can learn from one another about where we’ve come from and where we are going next – both literally and figuratively. In a literal sense, no one seems to have an interest in where I travel to next on my journey. They don’t ask how my past two months have been, where I have gone, what I have learned. They don’t ask why I even chose to travel, and what I was doing beforehand that prompted this need to get out of New York. Perhaps it’s because they think they know me. They’ve seen me travel before, they know I have difficulty deciding what I am doing with my life. They know I am never tied down to any relationship, that I don’t have a child or even a pet to take care of. Maybe for them this is just the “same-old” for their niece, the same unorthodox routine for their cousin.

I have an increasingly more profound respect for my mom as I see what life could have been like for her, and what path she chose instead. I am steadily grateful that I was given the chance to experience so much just because of the city that I was born and raised in. And because I grew up in a liberal, open household. In a home where men and women are treated equally, where homosexuals are accepted exactly as they are, and where different religions are not only embraced but explored. Where doing things a little differently from everyone else is perfectly okay. Where speaking different languages is encouraged and where going to museums and shows are integrated into the monthly cultural calendar. Where travel is valued above all material possessions. I am acutely aware of how it could have been different.

Is my Brasilian family really home? My mother is my home until this day. My paternal grandmother was part of my childhood home. My father and his beloved partner of ten years were part of my childhood home. Recife is the other me that wants to try and be Brasilian too, who wants to fit in the mold of a Brasilian household. But it’s not really home. It’s a place where I can try and quench my thirst for nostalgia, for childhood, for preserving my Brasilian culture. Recife will always be here, and I know that I am always welcome. I come back each time with a blank slate, like a loyal dog that forgets its owner’s past faults and transgressions. Yet I keep thinking how every time I leave, I tell myself that I won’t be coming back unless it’s for an unmissable moment in my family’s lives, whether it be a wedding or a new baby. I always have hope that we have all grown up and reached a point where we can move towards crossing one another’s paths to find commonalities, but now I realize that my outlook may be too high. This is by no means my last time in Recife, but it is my last time here with the same expectations as before.

No one chooses their family. But they will always be simply that — my family. What I’ve tried so many times before was to reconcile the cultural differences and values I have with them and assume that we are not just family. Rather we can be a cohesive unit, one that can break the chains of ignorance together, one that can take the unique situation of having relatives from another culture and learn from one another. I wish that we could be friends, have commonalities, share what’s going on beyond the trivialities of our day-to-day. That conversations could crack the surface. Unfortunately I have not been able to do this at the level I had hoped. I feel sad that this is the case, but at the same time I accept that it is what life has given me. I can only take what I’ve learned and impart the same values that I hold true onto a future family of mine.

Despite all of this, my family is still there for me – whether I realize it or not, they think of me and care about me on a profoundly deep level. They are my blood and always will be. And they are truly incredible and beautiful people – despite our differences, I still hold them dear to me and I want to be as present as I can be in their lives.

Today is my birthday. The past few birthdays my thoughts seemed to center around this concept of family that currently I’m reflecting on in this post. It’s not any surprise that I chose to celebrate my birthday here. It’s as if I am deliberately celebrating this moment of significance in my life in a city and with people with whom I struggle greatly with. Birthdays are not just about the party: they are reminders of where we’ve come from and they guide us as we decide which door to open next.

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Celebrating my Birthday with my family
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Carnaval in the streets of Olinda

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Colorful houses in Olinda
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Street art in Olinda
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Porto de Galinhas
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Pipa Beach
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View of Pipa
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Low Tide at Praia do Amor, Pipa

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Rio de Janeiro.

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Ipanema Beach

I arrived in Rio de Janeiro ready to take on Carnaval, which this year began on February 5th. It was my third time in Rio but my first time visiting during the city’s largest and wildest week of the year. I have little to say other then that I had an incredible time not only partying with the blocos on the streets, but also of having the priviledge of parading in costume with a samba school at Sapucaí, the world famous Carnaval parade. I was also able to watch up close the other samba schools parade until morning in one of the Sambodromo’s exclusive camarotes. Here are some photos from my time in Rio!

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View of Rio from the top of Morro dois Irmaos.

 

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Street art at the Vidiga Favela
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Behind the scenes waiting to parade in the Sambodromo.
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My costume!

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Florianopolis.

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Praia Mole

I fell in love with Florianopolis, which was my first introduction to the south of Brazil. The capital city of the state of Santa Catarina, “Floripa” is made up mostly of an island called Ilha de Santa Catarina, which is 54km long. With a population of under 500,000, it has the third highest Human Development Index score among all Brazilian cities. I was fortunate to couch surf with an actual surfer who lived just off Lagoa da Conceição, the heart of the island, next to Praia Joaquina. The beaches are undoubtedly the most beautiful that I have seen in the entire country. I quickly learned that just one weekend was not enough to explore the island, and so I kept extending my stay. One week later, I realized I had to move on so that I could make it in time to Rio de Janeiro for Carnaval in the first week of February. After Florianopolis I planned to visit Ilha do Mel in Paraná and Ilha Grande in the state of Rio de Janeiro before going to it’s capital city. I was incredibly sad to leave, for it was the first city in Brazil where I felt that I could truly live in.

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Praia Matadeiro

I lived life in Floripa in the style of a local spending their summer weekends on the island. Late mornings at the beach, açai na tigela in the small town center as a late afternoon snack, and staying until sunset at yet another beach, watching surfers catch the last waves of the day. Over the weekend, spending all afternoon and evening at the beach until we reached a beach party, followed by a party at a club in the wealthy Jurerê neighborhood until morning. Sounds like the Hamptons in New York, or Miami, doesn’t it? It’s a privileged lifestyle, a bubble in the country currently in an economic crisis and abundant in corruption, skyrocketing unemployment rates, a widening income gap, and an entirely basic quality of life. Floripa is an extremely wealthy city, and most people who live specifically around the Lagoa da Conceição are staying at their summer home. Ferraris, Porsches, and Range Rovers are comfortably parked outside the clubs in Jurerê. There isn’t any problem walking in the streets at night. Assault and theft is rare. People respect the rules and have respect for others, and are generally considered law-abiding citizens. Yes, this may be a slightly distorted perception given that it is summer, and along with that comes tourists from all over the world and creating a densely populated center. But this doesn’t mean that everything changes when the tourists leave; the heavy traffic may subside, but the buses will still be clean, orderly, and function on schedule. People will still be nice and courteous. The restaurants will still have vegetarian and organic options. The people and the beaches will still be as gorgeous as ever, and the surfers will still wake up at dawn to catch the best waves. People will still work to live and to travel, and not the other way around.

It took 30 minutes to hike through the hill and down to "Secret Beach." It was well worth the trek - we had the beach to ourselves!
It took 30 minutes to hike through the hill and down to “Secret Beach.” It was well worth the trek – we had the beach to ourselves!

It comes as no surprise that Brazilians want to live here. Most of locals I met were transplants from the states of Rio de Janeiro, Paraná, São Paulo, or Rio Grande do Sul, all living in Floripa for five years or more. They moved for a host of reasons: to surf, for more temperate weather, to live in a small town with the infrastructure of a big city, for the more relaxed lifestyle, for the athletic and beautiful people.

Visiting this city was a shock to my system – it was the biggest surprises in my travels so far. Coming from the northeast of Brazil, I had this perception of the country that was far more homogeneous. I thought that the third-world qualities of the state of Pernambuco, although more severe, were also characteristic of the rest of the country. My first thoughts were why I hadn’t been to Florianopolis before, and why my mother didn’t think to bring me here when I came to the country to visit family. Geographically Floripa is very far from Recife and a flight, usually unnecessarily expensive, is the only option. Those in the south such as in São Paulo can easily drive or take an overnight bus. But what I still couldn’t grasp is how Brazilians from the northeast didn’t make it a point to visit this part of the country. Only one person in my immediate family has ever been there. More foreigners have set foot onto its beaches than people from my region of Brazil. Perhaps it’s because they’ll only feel the similar frustration and anger that I felt: why can’t where I come from be like this too?

Ignorance is bliss, but ignorance also stunts our awareness and prevents change. It’s a micro example of what happens when we travel: the more you know, the more you’ll feel. And you won’t only feel joy. You’ll feel frustration, sadness, anger, surprise, jealousy, numbness, disenchantment, and indifference. And with all of those feelings you’ll become smarter. You’ll relate to more people, to feel more of what they feel. You’ll sympathize with where they come from, and where they want to go. You’ll learn to judge with compassion. You’ll begin to understand just how complex societies are and how they can differ even within the same city. In my ignorance, I thought I knew what Brazil was all about. I didn’t even plan on coming to Brazil on this trip – it was a last minute decision, one that I am so happy I made. I still haven’t come close to truly understanding this country, but I am slowly learning just how complex and beautiful it is.

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Praia Jurerê

Iguazu Falls.

My last stop in Argentina and my first stop in Brazil was to visit Iguazu Falls (or Iguazú, Iguassu, Cataratas do Iguaçu, Cataratas del Iguazú). These waterfalls of the Iguazu river border the Argentinian province of Misiones and the Brazilian state of Paraná. I spent one day on each side of the falls – visiting both the Argentinian and Brazilian sides are highly recommended, as both offer very different viewpoints. In Argentina you can get up close to the falls, walk along smaller trails, and take a boat ride to the base of the “Devil’s Throat.” The Brazilian side offers a broader view of the falls and requires only half a day to see them. Despite it being solely a tourist destination, it is well worth the visit to see the incredible power behind these waterfalls.

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At the top of the Devil’s Throat on the Argentinian side of Iguassu Falls.

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Iguassu Falls on the Brazilian side.

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Buenos Aires.

Me with Mafalda, the famous Argentinian comic character from the 1960s.
Me with Mafalda, the famous Argentinian comic character from the 1960s.

It’s been awhile since I’ve written, mostly because I have been thoroughly enjoying the freedom of not having a schedule. No tours, no deadlines. Just visiting places at exactly the pace I want.

After Ushuaia I flew to Buenos Aires. I know I will get a ton of backlash from this, but I didn’t fall in love with the city the way so many others do. It is very European-looking, and as rightly people say it’s the Paris of South America, unlike any other metropolitan city on the continent. Frankly, I feel that the Porteños (the people who come from the capital) try too hard to live up to what Buenos Aires is supposed to represent to outsiders, and their egos are hard to suppress as they talk about the wonders of their city. The rest of South America isn’t too fond of Argentinians, and Argentinians don’t really like Porteños. Maybe I am biased being that my family comes from it’s larger neighbor, Brasil. But I have to admit that even as a New Yorker, I was surprised by the nose-in-the-air feeling of the city. Porteños don’t say they are from Argentina when traveling, they say they are from Buenos Aires. This sentiment is all too familiar to New Yorkers who when they travel wouldn’t even think to call themselves Americans. I should be used to the Porteño attitude. However, rightly or not, as I travel South America I let my Brasilian roots direct my expectations, reactions, and observations of a particular place. As a Brasilian I wouldn’t be able to live in Buenos Aires. But as a Brasilian I also wouldn’t be able to live in Paris, a city I fell in love with when I studied abroad there. And so visiting Buenos Aires allowed my never ending struggle with my identity surface, and I felt confronted with how I was supposed to act or feel based on my upbringing.

Unfortunately (or not), my Greek heritage doesn’t affect me the way my Brasilian ethnicity does. When I reflect on my Greek identity, I can only think of my Greek-American after-school activities during my childhood that my grandmother (without filtering my sentiment here) flat out forced me to participate in. This included Greek school, Sunday school, Greek soccer, Greek dance, and weekly Greek youth group. For better or worse, despite it having been such an intense presence in my childhood for over 8 years, I have let that part of me stay in the past where it belongs.

So that leaves Brasil. I am first generation Brasilian, with only my mother living in the United States from her entire family. I grew up visiting my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, extended cousins, and family friends in Recife my entire life. I spoke Portuguese with my mom and with Brasilian relatives and friends that she frequently hosted at our house. We still speak Portuguese, although when I am angry or upset I usually switch to English, as it’s easier to properly convey my emotions in that way. Growing up with cousins all within the same age range made it easy to transition to being “Brasilian” whenever I went to visit them. I didn’t let much of American culture influence my behavior while I was there, and aside from a small American accent in my Portuguese, I felt right at home.

Lately things have changed, and every time I go back to Recife I find my values more aligned with how I live my life in New York. One of the biggest issues I have with visiting my city is that it’s increasingly become a more dangerous place to live. I am comfortably apt at taking the subway at 4 am alone after a night out in New York City. In Recife, I wouldn’t dream of walking half a block alone in my own neighborhood past 9 pm. It’s two different worlds, and the one I try to fit into in Brasil only makes me feel more trapped. When I’m there my independence is gone, and so my behavior changes. Just as it has changed my family as they adjust to this safety problem, one that only in the last decade has become significant enough to affect quality of life. Recife is still very much a third world city in the way it’s people think and behave, and I am often frustrated at how some things haven’t changed despite the resources available, or how some behaviors and customs reflect an ignorance that has no excuse in our globalized world. I can also observe my mother often feeling the same when she visits home. I will be visiting family in Recife in early February; we shall see what happens then.

I find myself switching between my “Brasilian” and “New Yorker” selves whenever I travel. When in Western Europe, I feel like a New Yorker. In Southeast Asia, East Asia, and the Middle East, the cultures were so exotic to me that I honestly felt just plain “Western.” When in Colombia, I felt such a beautiful connection to Brasil as I saw so many cultural similarities between both South American countries. In New York, it’s a sporadic sway between both sides, depending on the situation (and can be a whole other blog post). In Brasil, well, that’s the ongoing conversation I have with myself, one that is directly affected by my relationships with my immediate family as I see how our values and ways of life are changing as we grow up.

In Argentina, especially Buenos Aires, I had never felt so Brasilian in my life. I felt so proud to come from a country whose people are so warm and welcoming, and who inject passion into everything that they do, whether it be dancing, eating, talking to people, loving one another and fighting with one another. They are proud to be South American, and to be descendants of not only Europeans, but of Africans and indigenous peoples. Brasil is rife with corruption, the widest income gap on the continent, violence, gangs, and favelas. But it’s also a culture that, similarly to the United States, has accepted such a melting pot of ethnicities and has nurtured and integrated them into Brasilian culture.

This all sounds terribly harsh towards Buenos Aires. I truly enjoyed so many parts of the city and its people: the lovely hipster neighborhood of San Telmo and it’s Sunday antique market, the milongas where you can learn and dance tango every night of the week, the oddities and behaviors of drinking maté, dulce de leche that is to die for, the gorgeous and lush parks, the Porteño respect for Evita, and their love of nightlife and of staying out until sunrise. I met some wonderful Porteños who were gracious and proud to show me around and make me feel welcome. It certainly won’t be my last visit to Buenos Aires.

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La Boca Neighborhood
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Traditional milonga evening of dancing
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Street music in San Telmo
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Sunday antique market in San Telmo

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