The entire time I wrote for Independent Skies I wrote about new things to find out about, foreign experiences and the discovery of cities, landscapes and cultures. Now, it was time for me to go back to a country I have already lived in, but didn’t have the chance to go back ever since I left. It had been more than three years since I went home from my one year exchange in Piracicaba, São Paulo state, Brazil, and more than three years since I saw all my friends, host families and “host relatives” the last time. The moment of leaving all of that behind was difficult and painful, as I knew that life as exchange student in Brazil was over forever.
The closer I moved from southern Bolivia to the Brazilian border, the more excited and inpatient I got to finally being back, but at the same time there was fear – fear things would have changed so much that I could never feel the same way about it.
All these thoughts were confusing my mind when we started heading north from Uyuni and stayed a few days in Sucre, a beautiful, calm and very nice town with amazing Bars and Restaurants and a pretty European vibe; and before we got to Santa Cruz, the largest city of Bolivia and the final release from altitude, cold and exhausted feelings. There, we took a 14h train to the Brazilian Border, went over a tiny bridge – and suddenly I was actually back in Brazil.
It took another two days and sleepless nights of bus rides to get to my city, but then suddenly we arrived in Piracicaba. I could recognize it from far away, and couldn’t stop myself from running like a child towards the arms of my Brazilian “parents”. Exchange in such a young age as I did it (I turned 16 a few days before leaving Germany) is such a unique experience that it can hardly be explained to anyone who hasn’t ever done it himself. Yes, many of us study abroad in university or at boarding school or do shorter summer programs, but it is a completely different thing if you actually become part of a family in an extremely different country. They were the ones that taught me every word of Portuguese I know today (ok, except slang and swearwords), the ones that took care of me when I was sick and homesick, they shared holidays, Christmas, Family Reunions and Birthdays with me and simply became such a big part of my life that I truly consider them as my second family. It is similar with all the friends and friend groups I became part of, and that I all left behind in 2011.
But now I was finally back in town, and despite my fear everything still looked the way I remembered it. I felt as close to my family as three years ago, and got along super well with most the friends I met again. On the other hand it was weird, because for me the time in Brazil had stopped with the moment I left, whereas obviously it hadn’t in reality: everyone had matured so much, many friends were going to university or in a serious relationship, some moved towns and others still lived with their parents. My baby cousins had started school and the older ones were getting married. People change, myself included, and somehow my unconsciousness was really surprised by that. With some friends I didn’t know what to talk about whereas with others it felt like I hadn’t even left for one week.
I met the kids of the orphanage I had volunteered at when I was 16, one of them was holding her one-year old son in her arms. She got him when she was 16 years old. Some of the other orphans had quit school or ran away. My host-grandmother’s memory got worse and she did not remember me, even though we had spent a lot of time together when I lived in Brazil. And one of my good friends was stabbed to death two years after I left. Certainly, not all the changes I experienced in my one-week visit were good ones; and some were quite hard to cope with. On the other hand, I also saw the importance of going back to such characterizing episodes of your life like a year abroad. Let’s be honest, it’s impossible to stay in good contact with every friend you make around the world. It just is. But that doesn’t change the fact that if those people really matter to you, you will still feel as much connected to them after years with very little contact as you were once you still lived at the same place.
This again is no unique exchange-thing, but rather the experience of everyone moving around the world and eventually visiting one of many places called “home” after being away for a while. It’s beautifully unreal like a dream, a mixture of languages, memories and phases of life, funny, lovely, familiar and weird at the same time and maybe the closest one can ever get to time traveling in real life.
By: Clara Bütow