From Rio to Chicago

“This is the last time I will be riding this boat in this direction for a while”, I think to myself as I take the ferry across to Niteroi one last time. Golden light seeps into the cabin, as the ocean gently rocks the craft. White collar workers doze off around me like babies in a cradle. Since making a good friend who studies at the Fluminense Federal University a couple months ago, I have gotten used to making this commute occasionally on the weekends. My mind wanders and I begin to think of the Portuguese stone sidewalks I usually stomp on without care, of the tapioca and açaí stands, of the pasteis at the feira, of the reais in my wallet, of the sand beetles on the beach, of everything I will have to say goodbye to. My mind has developed the recent habit of coating everything in a tinge of spellbinding sadness as I prepare to leave.

Sunset over water

The boat lands, and I walk off reluctantly. As I head off to the university to work on my final essay before meeting up with my friend I notice a little, anxious, regretful voice chattering inside my head. I think of the possibility of having studied at this school—I considered it seriously when looking at study abroad options. I think of not having seen Cristo Redentor, or the city of Salvador, or the Amazon.  “I could have seen more, I could have done more”, the voice relents. I try my best to remind myself of the fact that I still managed to make my way here—that I am still here. My last moments in this country begin to feel almost meditative, like an exercise in being present. When my friend and I finally meet up, I completely forget about the tourist attractions I didn’t get a chance to visit. The walk to their apartment during sunset, eating tabbouleh, and playing guitar together fill me with a very specific type of joy. The joy of feeling right at home.

I first realized that Rio de Janeiro felt like home after returning from a trip to São Paulo. The familiar city center greeted me as I looked out the plane window, and an undeniable sense of relief engulfed me: “I’m finally home”, I thought. This thought was immediately followed by an “Oh crap” moment of recognizing that in a month I’d have to face a very difficult goodbye.

Except now I am not even in Rio and I feel at home! Feeling at home in Niteroi helps me realize that I no longer conceive of “home” as a physical place. Now home is a feeling I have learned how to actively cultivate in my life. Spending time with friends, family, or in community is home. Making music is home. Eating my favorite foods is home. Not even the new beach, or mountain that I visit in Niteroi on my second to last day in Brazil are too unfamiliar for me to not feel the safe, calm of home. I carry home within me now.

My last morning in Brazil involves traveling back to Copacabana, savoring pão de queijo one last time, and packing my suitcase. Then I spend the rest of the day in Tim Maia’s (Brazilian musician who was one of my original inspirations for traveling to Brazil) neighborhood, Tijuca, where I eat bombas de chocolate in the praça and witness the very disappointing Brazil vs. Belgium game. I secretly feel happy that Brazil doesn’t advance, because I know that if they were to win the world cup while I am no longer in the country I would resent missing the party. Funnily, before coming to Brazil I never even cared about soccer. Yet another little marker of the ways this country has changed me. Immediately after the game, I catch a ride to the airport. The car ride feels like a dream, as we travel north through the city that once felt like another world. After I check my bag, say goodbye to the friend who gave me the ride, and cross the sign welcoming international travelers, I begin uncontrollably sobbing in the MAC store. The tears rolling down my cheeks make me feel a little embarrassed, but mostly just affirm how much this experience has meant to me.

After the emotional outpouring at my gate, I start to reflect on what waits for me in the United States. Nothing, besides my family, immediately comes to mind. It feels like I have a case of amnesia, because I genuinely have no impressionable memory of what the United States was like. It doesn’t help that I will be arriving to Chicago, a city I have never been to before, for an internship. Chicago is almost a third of Rio’s population and half its area, so I tell myself that I have that city under my belt. When I finally touch down at my final destination, it’s clear I do. After months of navigating in muddled Portuguese with unreliable cell service, navigating in English with Google maps feels like a breeze. Unlike when I nervously arrived in Rio for the first time, the excitement of being in a new city feels familiar rather than daunting. After successfully dragging my broken, 50-pound suitcase to my apartment all by myself through downtown Chicago, I relish in the confirmation of my newfound independence, composure, and overall growth. Six months ago, this trip would have surely overwhelmed me, but now I find myself smiling at the new city that welcomes a new me. Yet another little marker of the ways Brazil has changed me. As the mild amnesia turns into excited recollection (like happily remembering goldfish crackers and Targets exist), I can not wait to continue to discover the ways in which Brazil has changed me.

Chicago Skyline


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