A Matter of Perception This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

January 7, 2012
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Despite all that I had been told since I was a little girl about walking the streets in the dead of night with two people of the opposite gender, here I found myself doing exactly that, and to be honest, I was having the time of my life. The night sky swirled with black and grey, the radiant moon peeking out from behind a sea of clouds, sending white rays of lustrous light across the sky. Below, the streets bustled with people and activity; gleeful shouts and laughs were audible, intermingling with the techno music, throwing echoes from block to block. A fast-paced yet steady beat pulsed through my skin as we walked among flocks of people down the brightly lit, yet tenebrous street. As we neared the pedestrian crossing, a shape suddenly darted in front of us, causing us to come to an abrupt halt. I took inventory of the figure in front of us: a short Brazilian woman in her early twenties dressed in a pair of shorts, a revealing bra, and a jacket. Her eyes scanned over all three of us until they stopped on the tall seventeen-year-old African American, Davis, walking beside me.

The sides of her mouth quirked up into a smirk before she spoke in a thick, Portuguese accent, “Where are you all from?”

The three of us exchanged glances before I spoke, trying to be as vague as possible, “America.”

“Atlanta,” our chaperone, Mr. Crossley, a short African American, chipped in enthusiastically, eyeing the seductress with a little-more-than-friendly pair of eyes.

Her eyes widened and she exclaimed, “Oh, really? Uau! Will you take me back home with you?”
She pouted and directed her comments at Davis.

“Umm.. I – I don’t know.. What are you doing out so late?” Davis stuttered for words, trying to change the subject. Big mistake. She giggled.


Mr. Crossley, clearly enjoying the attention of a female, asked her a seemingly innocent question, “Oh? Where?”

She let out a laugh and slurred, “Sex party.”

The three of us stood stock-still, replaying what she said to make sure we had heard correctly.
Before any of us could respond, she blubbered, “Would you like to join? It will be fun. Promise.” She giggled again.

Davis and I exchanged glances before we turned to look at Mr. Crossley for guidance on how to tell her we were not interested. Mr. Crossley, on the other hand, looked ready to go anywhere with her.

Rolling my eyes and sighing, I told her, “Thank you very much for the offer, but we have to get going back to the hotel.”

She directed a pointed glare at me before turning to Davis with a glittering smile, hoping for a different response.

Davis, looking visibly uncomfortable under her gaze and the situation, spoke, “Yeah. Actually, we should probably get going. It’s getting kinda late.”

Her smile dissolved into a frown. “Oh. Have fun then,” she said with a gloomy look on her face and sulked away back to a group of similarly dressed middle-aged women.
This is one of the many unique and unusual experiences we twenty-two ambassadors had in Brazil. While not all of them were as uniquely ludicrous as this one, they all equally impacted my perspective and unveiled a deeper understanding of cultural differences.

My first step into the Brazilian streets was soon followed by an admonition from our tour guide, executed in her slightly French accent, "Students, please keep in mind that Brazil's streets are known for having clever-minded slash-and-run robbers. It is extremely advisable to keep handbags in front of you and to place your possessions in bags. For all of you carrying backpacks, wear them on your front side instead of your back side." With this warning, a bell deep in my head started ringing, making the connection that Brazil had a high poverty rate. Determined to enjoy Brazil, I pushed the thought and the bell to the back of my mind. As we continued walking, we stopped at a crosswalk, or lack thereof. Just as I was about to take a step onto the road, our tour guide’s shrill voice rang loudly above all our voices in an almost mocking tone, "I hope you all will not be clueless tourists and will heed my warnings. I think it is important for you all to know that in Brazil, pedestrians do not have right of way as they do in the United States." Mid-step, I took two giant steps back. Almost immediately, just as our tour guide had told us, a car whizzed by at a speed that would rarely be found on highways in the United States, seemingly oblivious to the group of students in near proximity who darted back onto the sidewalk. Nearby, an old man wearing nothing but a Speedo who had been watching us the entire time, snickered and continued leisurely strolling down the street.

With our hearts beating rapidly inside our chests, we managed to make it alive to the restaurant where we would eat lunch. We had been expecting delicious and exotic foods when we had first stepped in Brazil, but nothing to the scale we experienced during that hour. Piles of food were everywhere, meat stuck onto sharp blades and buffet tables set up around the large room. That lunch was undoubtedly the biggest lunch we had ever eaten, period. Once we all congregated outside the restaurant with heavy stomachs and wobbly knees, a passerby stopped to talk to us, noticing our foreignness.
“Where are you from?”
One of us replied, “United States”
The passerby grinned.
“Ah. Did you enjoy your Brazilian meal? This is one of the best places to eat.”
We all let out a moan to show him our contentedness.
He laughed.
“Well that is traditional Brazilian food for you: heavy, delicious, and heavy. Say, I’ve never been to the States. What is the traditional food there?”
We all exchanged puzzled glances, not out of confusion, but out of the realization that the United States did not have a traditional food. We all started to mutter amongst ourselves, baffled. Some claimed that hamburgers and fries should definitely be considered a national food in the United States. But deep inside, we all knew it was not so. The passerby, noticing our confusion, quickly stalked off, leaving us to our baffling thoughts.

The next morning, we dragged ourselves out of bed at five a.m., our only motivation the prospect of seeing a beautiful sunrise. As we all filed down to the beach, I couldn’t help but notice my surroundings: a wide open beach, soft coarse sand, bright blue water, the fresh, clean, non-polluted air that smelled of the ocean, and the clear sky with not a trace of smog. Instantly, I found myself comparing these surroundings to Atlanta, listing things in Brazil I would miss once I returned home to Atlanta. That list was enormous, and it made me realize that the Brazilians living here take the beautiful scenery and the clean air for granted.

Later that morning, we all filed onto a bus that took us to a school on the edge of one of the many slums in that vicinity. This time, as we pulled in, the bell inside my head was ringing much louder than before, and I knew I could not ignore it any longer. As soon as we got out, younger and older children alike swarmed us. What struck me the most was how much they were like us: they high-fived us, laughed with us, joked with us, and we all became instant friends. Many of them spoke rapidly in Portuguese, their excitement evident in not only their words, but also in their eyes. Only after we were forced to leave were we told of the hardships these children endured. Each of these children was denied a proper education. They could not afford better schooling. This was the cheapest school. This new information left us all silent on the bus, each of us digesting what we were told and considering what our lives would be like if we were these children. The result was a realization that we students all took our education for granted, and a drastically altered thinking in each and every one of us.

Later that day, we all trekked up a massive hill lined with crumbling, makeshift homes to a meeting we were given no information about. When we walked into the old room on the top of a hill with crumbling walls and broken, creaking doors, we did not know what to expect, but once we got there, we understood the subject matter of the meeting: African Brazilian, or black rights. Blacks all across Brazil are less-privileged and at a disadvantage when it comes to financial, political, and social status. The various people who spoke to the small assembly were passionate, powerful speakers who spoke intensely about the matter at hand. One of the speakers addressed us in particular, "You all are so fortunate to be living in the United States of America, where black people are not nearly as racially segregated and discriminated against, where many different races live together in peace, where there are not large areas of slums scattered across the country, where a black man [Barack Obama] leads the entire country as President of the United States of America!" After the last line, the crowd erupted into enthusiastic cheers, applause echoing on the worn-down cement walls of the room.

On our way back out of the building, we heard loud gunfire accompanied by screams and shouts. We all ran to the front of the building, trying to get a glimpse of what was going on. The streets were flooded with people marching down the street carrying picket signs that reflected sharp colors across the night sky. When we asked our tour guide what was happening, she replied in a nonchalant voice and attitude, "Oh. Policemen and firefighters are protesting their low wages and are demanding a higher pay. Don't worry. They will pass by quickly enough." We all stared at her, dumbfounded. How could she be so coolly indifferent about the entire ruckus going on only a couple of yards away from us? Baffled by our tour guide's indifferent attitude, yet intrigued by the scene in front of us, we watched the swarms of people move as one, their shouts weaving into one prevailing, powerful voice. After we were on the bus we found out that this was only one of many similar occurrences taking place across Brazil. After hearing this, I tried to imagine the United States in a similar condition to that of Brazil, and attempted to see myself living among all the chaos. The alternate world I conjured up was so drastically different from my life in Atlanta that I understood how fortunate I was to be living a relatively peaceful life in a relatively peaceful city.

After the long, eventful day, we all were exhausted and wanted nothing more than to crash into our beds and fall into a deep slumber. But we resisted the urge, knowing this would be our last night in Brazil. By a unanimous decision, we all decided to momentarily forget all of the hardships Brazilians went through and all of the valuable lessons we had learned, and instead sprinted across the intersection, ignoring oncoming vehicles and leaving behind honking cars and screeching drivers, until we reached the beach. That last night in Brazil consisted of us jumping waves, playing tag, losing belongings to the ocean, collecting seashells, and enjoying the scenery for one final time. In our minds, we knew that all of the impacting experiences we had during our stay in Brazil had left us all forever changed.

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