A Tale of Two Cities (Part 1): Family

by kangcuzzi

When people ask me what I’m doing in Brazil, the response slides right off my tongue:

“I’m living with a homestay family, doing service work and learning about local culture.”

Boringly succinct, but accurate. The vast majority of my blog posts revolve around the lattermost concept: capoeira, Candomblé, communities and the like. Many blog posts later, however, I’ve just realized that I haven’t actually written very much about the first two elements of the Bridge Year experience. So I thought I’d take advantage of these slower Chapada days to talk about the remaining two-thirds of my time in Brazil, both in Salvador and in Palmeiras.


First, I’d like to start by talking about my families.

It makes sense to begin with Salvador. In Salvador, I lived in an immediate family of three: I had a twenty-one-year-old sister called Maiana, a twenty-six-year-old brother named Marcos (who goes by the diminutive ‘Marquinhos’) and my mother, Inês.

Maiana is one of the most beautiful Brazilians I’ve met. Thus, it isn’t surprising that she was always the one to turn to for anything aesthetics-related. It was Maiana who took me on my first clothes shopping trip to Avenida Sete, introduced me to a crazy cheap waxing salon, and showed me the full extent of the Brazilian gym wardrobe. On Christmas Day we baked banana bread together and she gave me a very Brazilian pair of bright red underwear. Still today we occasionally exchange the wayward message on WhatsApp, and she looks stunning in her display picture.


Me and Maiana on her 22nd birthday.

Marcos is, not entirely coincidentally, also one of the most beautiful Brazilians I’ve met. He’s the kinda guy I can see live in Hong Kong: he’s into business, big buildings, nice cars and business magazines. For now, however, he works in a used furniture store in Candeal and takes a really, really long time to get out of the shower (which I don’t think is a great business asset, if you ask me).

And then there’s Inês. I could write a book about how I adore this lady. To make a long story short, Inês is my kindred spirit equivalent of a mother. In fact, several times during my five months in Salvador, people claimed that we could be biologically related (which is flattering because well, look at her children). Anyways, on a superficial level, Inês cooks amazing Bahian food, makes the best chocolate and banana milkshakes and, although quiet, has a pretty great sense of humor. We’ve spent many nights sitting on the couch conversing, gossiping, giggling and watching the dog, and to this day my heartstrings ache with saudades for our evenings together. On a more visceral level, Inês’ sensitivity and compassion for others never cease to amaze. She can pick up changes in my mood even when no words are exchanged. She’s always willing to listen to me, even when others aren’t — a quality which I especially appreciated at the beginning of the program, when my Portuguese wasn’t proficient enough for flowing conversation.


Me and Inês at the weekend JAM no MAM event.

There were other people who, to some degree or the other, were part of my family: Rita, my constantly smiling aunt; Tadeau, the downstairs neighbour whose cooking and sewing abilities stunned me multiple times; Ivana, Marcos’ girlfriend and the most patient listener only second to Inês; Leonardo, Maiana’s boyfriend; Flex, the dog, and others like Matheus, the six-year-old cousin who came to visit in February and was always eager to share his stash of cookies with me.

To be honest, I spent most of my time with my homestay mom, seeing as my siblings spent a lot of time outside the house (or stayed inside the house, but were on their phones). Towards the end of the program I began going to the beach with Inês, David and his mom Ciete, and watching Inês wade out into the ocean would’ve convinced anyone that it wasn’t her first time at the beach in five years. I still remember the way she put sunscreen on my back as if she were my real mom, and it definitely felt that way, even as I sit her in my kitchen in Palmeiras writing this post.


The whole family celebrating on Christmas Day!

Which leads me to Palmeiras. Unlike the other kids on the program (minus Conor), I’m living with the same homestay family I had back in September. Here, my mom is called Neide, I have a dad called Luis, and two sixteen-year-old twin sisters named Ana Luiza and Vitória.

Neide is the kind of person I want to be. She’s always doing a creative project of sorts, be it making fuxico (a kind of sewn artesanal product made with cloth), t-shirts or vases made from recycled glass bottles. She always seems to be smiling, and makes really good chocolate cake. She’s also — or it seems, at least — to be one of Palmeiras’ most beloved citizens, judging by the sheer number of people she knows and the general goodness of her heart; even the city mayor calls her up to chat sometimes. She works for the local environmental organization GAP as a recyclable trash collector and separator, which means on most days of the week she does the kind of stuff Wall-E does. Although she’s quiet, we share nice conversations about her family whenever we sit down together at the dinner table. Recently she taught me how to make fuxico, and I helped her decorate some of the glass vases to sell at the GAP store.


Neide, Asia and me on my 19th birthday!

I don’t really interact with my homestay dad Luis, but when we do, it’s great. He’s also really badass. Every morning he cycles to a patch of land he tends a half hour ride from our house, and only recently I found out that his bike doesn’t have brakes. He was one of the founding members of GAP, back in the days when he fought forest fires barefoot and with minimal equipment to fight the flames. He’s also really fast at separating trash, as I learnt the other day at work (which will be featured in my next post, I promise). The names of his daughters are tattooed on his arms, and sometimes I come home to find them laughing really hard at a joke he made.

Then, of course, there are my sisters. Coincidentally (or not so much), they’re both really into K-Pop and East Asian pop culture in general. They’re shy, but always with open hearts and a great willingness to learn about the world. I admire this in them; whereas most of the young Brazilians I’ve met so far have not been interested in the world beyond their country (or even neighbourhood), my sisters are always reading about other countries and itching to meet friends the world over. Another novel quality is the fact that they study a lot, in a country where kids spend more time watching television than they do at school. At night we watch the Korean soap opera Dream High together, which is something I thought I’d never do in Brazil but have grown to enjoy tremendously. For my birthday they printed lots of Korean flags to decorate the party space, and for that I’ll always be grateful.

I haven’t really gotten a chance to do stuff with my family in Palmeiras, given that I’m quiet busy and my sisters don’t like leaving the house. Yet the quiet moments we share at home are always precious, and offer a nice respite from the quick pace of Salvador.


Neide and the girls!

I’m not a big believer in the ‘homestay lottery’, but I think I’ve gotten very lucky with both my homestay placements. Sure, both are quiet and unlike the traditional, very exuberant Brazilian family stereotype (with huge extended families and constant visitors and a lot of noise and greetings and the like), but that just means I got the personal space that I need to recharge. Besides, I’ve learnt that love can be expressed in so many different ways, and sometimes the best and strongest kind of love isn’t necessarily something that’s verbalized and openly shared.

The little gestures, like an evening walk with the dog or a handmade birthday present, are what say it all.