GW Expat: Stepping off the boat into Brazilian beauty

Junior Stephanie Robichaux, a double major in journalism and anthropology, is spending the spring semester studying with the Semester at Sea program. A few times this semester she, along with other students spread out across the globe, will share her experiences and observations abroad as one of The Hatchet’s “GW expats.”

After a week at sea, 700 other Semester at Sea participants and I were dying to see land. The excitement of being on the ship eventually wore off somewhere between Puerto Rico and Salvador, Brazil. Despite all the horror stories I heard about crime in Brazil, I was dying just to feel the solid earth underneath my feet again.

Semester at Sea’s itinerary afforded us four days of Carnival in Bahia, Brazil’s northern state. After three days in the city, I was ready to leave the craze of Carnival behind and head to Cachoeira, a peaceful town on the Paraguacu River. I was looking forward to walking through the historic town snapping pictures without the threat of having my camera stolen at knifepoint. We American students had not been met with open arms in Salvador. I walked down the streets, constantly looking over my shoulder in fear of being mugged as others had been.

On the way to Cachoeira the tour bus stopped at an open-air farmer’s market. As we strolled by the stands of produce, little kids ran up to us, eager to have their pictures taken. The people were happy, peaceful. It was Fat Tuesday and almost everything was closed, but families sat under umbrellas as local music blasted from someone’s car speakers. They smiled as we passed by, quietly observing the busload of white people who had invaded their tiny community.

After a brief walk through the center of town, we continued to Cachoeira. The picturesque 16th-century town was colorful and cheerful, just like the Brazilians who waved at us as we entered. As the large yellow bus rolled down the narrow cobblestone streets, I couldn’t help but feel as though we were out of place.

Cachoeira seemed untouched by modernization. Except for the occasional Coca-Cola sign and automobile that I saw, I felt as though I had been taken back in time. The churches and rows of buildings had maintained their original character, a blend of European architecture and vibrant tropical colors.

As we made our way back to meet the bus by the river, the group split. I stopped on a side street to take photos of the charming old buildings. A little girl sat on the stoop in front of a pink stucco house. She had her knees tucked into her chest, and she watched her pet kitten prance back and forth down the empty sidewalk. She was surrounded by pieces of art.

I snapped a few pictures of her as she traced her fingers along the doorway. I am pretty sure that she knew she was being watched but did a great job of pretending she didn’t. Afterwards, I decided I would try to talk to her. “Tu nombre?” I said, hoping that she would understand my pitiful Spanish of asking for her name. “Daniella,” she replied, glancing up at me for a moment with eyes the color of coffee.

She continued to watch her kitten play in the street. As I admired the artwork I attempted to have a conversation with her in broken Spanish. “This is beautiful,” I said as I pointed to the canvases. “Did you make them?” She nodded yes.

I didn’t believe her, but then again, there is a good chance that she had no idea what I was saying. She asked me my name, and I told her. She studied my face, my clothes, my shoes. I was a pale blond girl wearing pants and flip-flops. She had bare feet and donned a pink sundress, a perfect complement to her bronzed skin and dark-brown wavy hair.

I asked her if the cat belonged to her. She nodded and told me his name. I couldn’t understand what she said but smiled as though I did. As I was about to say goodbye and walk away, her sister appeared in the doorway and introduced herself. I told Ana it was nice to meet her and waved goodbye.

I looked back, and Daniella smiled and waved. She grabbed her cat, which was nosing through a pile of garbage, let out a little squeal and went inside. As she closed the wooden door behind her, the street returned to its lifeless state.

I longed to stay in Cachoeira. It was peaceful there. But it wasn’t the right time for me to do that. Maybe I’ll go back later in life, but for now, it’s back on board the boat.

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