Sitting here at 26 years old, I can look back at my decision to take a gap year at the age of 18 and know it was probably the best decision I ever made. After finishing school I decided that I wasn’t quite ready for university yet and I wanted to build some self-confidence, so I deferred my entry to university to explore the world.
I decided on Rio de Janeiro, Brazil as my first destination. I’m not sure if it was the breathtaking beaches with magnificent mountainous backdrops or the exotic dancing that initially drew me in, but I’d always loved Latin culture, so thought Brazil would be a good fit for me. I spent three months there in total and it definitely shaped the way I live my life today.
When I arrived I was as far out of my comfort zone as I’d ever been. I didn’t know a soul and I didn’t speak the language – not to mention the fact that it can actually be rather a dangerous city. Instead of arriving and just aimlessly exploring, I decided I wanted to do a volunteering program so I could help those who were much less fortunate than me and bulk up my CV at the same time. It was also a great way to meet other people, as I was living with other volunteers.
I was volunteering in the slums or “favelas” as they’re known in Portuguese with young children. It was a sort of crèche that was run by a local lady. It was in her own home – which was only one bedroom, one bathroom and a living room, and she cared for up to 20 children everyday, whose parents couldn’t afford to take them to day care. She was an incredible lady and so unbelievably selfless.
With no younger relatives or family friends, this was my first experience of working with kids. At first I wasn’t quite sure what to do but by the end I absolutely loved it, and they all became so special to me. Even though they lived in the favelas and many of them had lost one of both parents to gang crime, they were always so happy. They were fun-loving kids just like you see back home. Because, of course, they don’t know any different – they don’t know how disadvantaged they are.
One morning, me and two other volunteers were walking up the hill into work, when we heard some massive gunshots. Now, we’d hear gunshots every day in the favelas…but not like these. We looked across and we saw about 20 police officers aimlessly firing machine guns. We froze. We’d never seen anything like it. We later found out that one of the drug lords (who pretty much run the favelas) had been killed, sparking riots. The scariest part was when we walked just a few metres along and arrived at the crèche, the kids didn’t even react to it. Back in the UK, if that had happened, the kids would be crying hysterically. But to these Brazilian kids unfortunately it was normality for them. It really made me realize how lucky I was to grow up where I did.
Aside from massive gunfire, there is so much more to Brazil. I still remember the first time I saw Ipanema beach, it was literally like looking at a post card. There’s something about white sand beaches, palm trees and mountains all together that is simply divine. At nighttime we would sample the vibrant nightlife, and coming from a small town in the UK, it was quite a change. I’d always thought I had a reasonable amount of rhythm, but in comparison to these Brazilians I’d never felt more uncoordinated. The way they samba was just mind-blowing. It wasn’t just the adults that could dance, all of the kids knew how to too. It was like moving your hips in that way was just built into their DNA.
My time in Brazil taught me so much. It showed me how lucky I was and how I needed to appreciate what I had at home. It taught me to fend for myself and feel more confident. It also sparked a love affair with Latin culture, which would later lead to me spending every summer in Spain and later moving there for three years after university.
Guest Author: Andrea Furneaux
Psychology graduate Andrea Furneaux fell in love with travel at a young age, living abroad and exploring far corners of the world with her family. After volunteering in Mexico and Brazil on a gap year, she headed for Spain straight after university, where she has worked as an English teacher for the last three years. When she’s not lying on a beach on the Costa de Sol, she’s playing tennis at the local club or working on her new blog. Check out her blog: www.andreaisla.com