Thursday, December 22, 2011

Let the YAs'11 Meet Again

One of the greatest things about going on exchange programs to other countries is the possibility of making lifelong friends. People bond easily when traveling, they rely on each other as if they were family. They, in fact, become family. That is the case with the Youth Ambassadors kids.

Every year, the U.S. Embassy sponsors a diplomatic trip to the U.S. to a group of Brazilian high school students interested in strengthening the foreign relations between the Americas. These kids, who come from all over Brazil, spend three weeks together, cooperating in discussions and activities to improve their understanding of their own and the American cultures. During these days together, they develop strong friendships and the certainty they can always count on each other.

Usually on April, the U.S. Embassy hosts a trip to Sao Paulo, Brazil, to allow Youth Ambassadors of that year to meet again and share their new experiences and new endeavours since their return to Brazil. This year, unfortunately, the Youth Ambassadors 2011 didn’t have their reunion. They were the first group in the history of the Youth Ambassadors Program that couldn’t see one another again.

That -- and I am speaking as a former Youth Ambassador -- is the most frustrating thing. Youth Ambassadors come from humble backgrounds, and flying to other cities to meet their friends is absolutely out of question. Youth Ambassadors count the days til reunion, and are very anxious to be reunited once again. Although we understand the reasons why the U.S. Embassy, which is always so supportive of all of us, couldn’t sponsor their reunion, we’re not going to give their meeting up.

I mentioned the Lumix Panasonic contest before, but I am going to remind you once again, because today is the last day to vote for their photo. The Youth Ambassadors still need your vote to help them go on an all-expense-paid trip to Sao Paulo, sponsored and hosted by Panasonic and MTv. So, vote, vote, and vote. Here’s the link:

And, please, spread the news. There’s Twitter, Facebook, and so many other social networks where you could ask people to vote for the Youth Ambassadors 11’s photo. It means a lot, and you have no idea the good you’re doing.

Thanks! Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Voice of Youth Series -- Danielle Santiago, The Geologist

Danielle Santiago.
Photo taken by Risalat Khan at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah 

Danielle Santiago went to Military School of Recife, joined the U.S. Embassy’s Youth Ambassadors Program and is currently in her junior year at Amherst College, Massachusetts, where she is majoring in geology and mathematics. Feel free to contact her at

#1) How would you describe your personality? Were you always this way? Have you changed? (Why? Why not?)
I am extremely perfectionist and very emotional. I try to pretend I am strong and that people don’t have the power to hurt me, but that is all fake. I’ve always been like that, but now I am more aware of it. I am also very friendly but really like some time by myself.
Living in America has changed me in so many ways. I became more independent, open minded and learned to respect people’s life choices much more than I used to. But it’s not all good. I feel like I’ve became less idealistic. I usually say that my college is a bubble. We live here without knowing much of what is going on in the “outside world,” so I haven’t been exposed to poverty, violence or injustice as much as I used to back home. It just gives us the illusory feeling that everything is alright and we can live our lives without caring too much about those who struggle. I have to constantly fight against that prospect.

#2) What was the most significant moment you've lived? Do you think it contributed to shaping who you are today?
I don’t think I’ve been shaped by any one significant moment. It was a series of struggles I’ve been through with my mother and my brother that have contributed tremendously to shaping my personality. There is not even one moment when I feel sorry for that, though. I think everything happens for a reason.

#3) How would you describe your life as an international student? Was it difficult to move to a different country?
It was difficult to leave home and it has been difficult to live away from home too. I usually say I am a true international student/person. I don’t fit in very well. I still don’t understand some aspects of the “American way of life,” but it doesn’t prevent me from being happy nor is it an obstacle to my success in here. On the bright side, I still encounter people who get excited when I say I am from Brazil and that always makes my day!

#4) How would you describe the community you come from and the one where you now live? What are the differences and similarities between them?
The idea of a community makes much more sense to me in here than it does back home. Jaboatao dos Guararapes is a huge municipality. You know some of your neighbors and that is about it. The living pace is much more frenetic, there is a lot more to worry about. Amherst is a very small and safe town. College and public places blend in nicely. It feels cozy, I like it a lot. The commoners get together and celebrate holidays, festivities, Independence Day, they care about the public property too, so you don’t see trash everywhere, graffiti on the buses, and all that. Although I love my hometown, it is much nicer to live in a smaller city. The thing I miss the most, though, is seeing people’s smiley faces everywhere you go back home.

#5) Do you feel there are things both communities could teach each other? Do you feel you are a mediator of this knowledge?
Most definitely. I strongly believe we have a lot to learn from the American experience, the same way we could help them with some ideas to liven things up too The thing that impress me the most about the place I currently live in, though, is people’s politeness and respect towards one another and the public space. It is an old dream of mine that my people would learn to act the same way, but it can only be conquered with a better education and honest politicians.

#6) Have you had a chance to attend college in Brazil? If so, have you noticed any differences / similarities between the Brazilian and the American “college” way of life?
Yes, I have and they constitute totally different realities. The public universities in Brazil are definitely not even close to be as organized as the American ones. Here, professors will not miss a class; they also don’t act like they have all the power in their hands and thus can do whatever they want. Furthermore, the infrastructure is better and there is a lot more money being invested in the students’ education. However, it feels like we are competing for our lives most of the time. Being in a small, elitist school can drive you crazy. It is definitely not as healthy of an environment as the one I used to live in back in the University of Pernambuco. It was easier to make friends, competition was not so obvious and there was much more collaboration amongst peers.

#7) Why have you picked the career path you now envision? Was it always your dream to do so? What made you more secure about your career plans?
Coming to Amherst has changed my professional career too. I’ve never thought I would want to be a geologist in my life. I always thought I would be a History teacher. I took my first Geology class here and fell in love. I then realized I was back into sciences and, honestly, it felt good Now I want to pursue a career in Geology (not sure which branch of it yet) and am very, very glad I had the chance to get to know the field. Now I feel much more secured about my career plans because there are more opportunities in the area and because I just fell in love with it!

#8) How do you plan to contribute to improving society? In fact, what are the aspects that – in your opinion – need improvement?
That question bugs me every day of my life since I came here. I don’t want to become the selfish person one can turn into by being in such small, secluded and perfectly set place. Although I want to go into the sciences, I want to figure out a way of keeping myself involved with issues like education and environment protection. There is just SO much my country can improve by investing in educating its people. And, in times of such economic progress, people should also keep an eye on the environment. Hopefully, I will have the chance to contribute in both fields.

#9) How would you describe the participation of youth in today's society?
Youth is so powerful. As cliché as it may sound, I do believe we are “the future.” I get very excited when I see friends and young people all over the world fighting for all sorts of things, getting more interested in politics, protesting against corruption, helping those who struggle. We need to get even more educated, eliminate our own prejudices and work on becoming the honest people our country (and the world) needs in order to change. A society is the reflection of its people and their actions. As happy, cheerful and welcoming as we are, there is just no chance of real progress and change if the same vicious people keep in charge of the important decisions in our country. Overall, I guess we are on the right track, but I would like to see more action than plain idealism.

#10) Do you feel the Brazilian youth could teach something to the rest of the world? If you had a chance, then, to speak for them, what message would you leave to the world?
Yes! Somehow I feel that we grow up a lot faster. And we do so for safety reasons. We have to protect ourselves against the odds of living in a society hunted by such high social inequality. There is no certain future if we don’t work hard to reach it. As the strong people that we are, I do believe we have a lot to teach. So, if I had the chance, I would tell the world how hard we are trying to improve as individuals with a common goal: living in a more fair society. I would say how much we struggle to show that Brazil is not only the “Country of Soccer,” but a place where people are lively, caring, and eager to improve. I believe that, that being true, we would become the best place in the world. And only then could we be an inspiration for all of the other nations on Earth.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The [Most] Perfect Gift Ever


I’m back in Madison, after a few days in Mount Horeb at Michael’s parents’ house. Remember that a few days ago I was talking about how I wish I had a calligraphy set and parchment paper? Well, I got none of that, but here’s what’s surprising: I got a journal for Christmas.

I’ll try to better explain: I have a wish list on Amazon, and that list has the many little things I wish I had, including a few Italian leather journals I’ve been courting for about a year. You know -- that is, if you know me well -- that I’m a journal and pen geek. I love journals, I have 23 finished journals and am these days working on my 24th; also, I love pens. I absolutely love and adore pens, particularly fountain pens. But really nice journals and pens aren’t cheap; and, unfortunately, cheap things are the only ones I can afford.

Michael’s brother and sister-in-law didn’t know me well. In fact, they didn’t know me at all. In the past, they probably heard a thing or two about me, but other than that I am a complete stranger. Imagine, then, how surprised I looked when I unwrapped the Christmas gift they gave to me on Saturday. It was an Italian leather journal, and a box of chocolate. Guess what. . . I love chocolate, too!

Surprisingly, also, Michael’s brother said he was actually planning on adding a calligraphy set, or just a quill, to my gift. Yes, I’d have died if I had seen this awesome combo. So, just on the verge of dying, I managed to ask how they came up with the idea of giving me a journal.

“You’re a writer,” Waz said. Waz is Michael’s sister-in-law, and she is particularly good -- actually, she is pretty awesome -- at playing Apples to Apples. My theory, in fact, is that she knows how to read people’s minds with the precision of an expert on soul reading.

I kept thinking: Am I that predictable? Are all writers out there absolutely crazy about journals and pens?

They didn’t know about my attraction to writing supplies, so predictability has to be the answer. They were, though, as surprised as yours truly when I unwrapped my gift. They, of course, hoped I would really like it, but they didn’t know I’d actually worship it. It truly felt as if they’d known me for 23 years. . . Well, whatever system they used, or whatever spell or magic dance they applied to coming up with the most perfect gift ever, I shouldn’t care. It was the most perfect gift, and that’s all that matters. Thank you, John and Waz.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Youth Ambassadors -- A Series of Memories -- #1) When They Called Me

Hello, guys. I hope you're having a great week. I'm still complaining about the lack of sunlight in my life, but today I'll dedicate this blog entry to other topics. Or, rather, to a (singular) different topic: The Youth Ambassadors program. In January, the new YAs will be coming to the U.S. and I often see how nervous they are getting on Facebook, how excited and anxious to know more and more about what awaits them next year.

I decided, then, to write a series of articles dedicated to my Youth Ambassadors memories. I don't know how helpful they are, but I just thought that reading what a former YA went through might help them get a tiny idea of how wonderful this opportunity will be in their lives. Of course, every person experiences this program from their own perspective, but in general all of us seem to be on the same boat when it comes to feeling overwhelmed by the world of possibilities the U.S. Embassy offers.

I hope you'll enjoy my articles, and feel free to contact me if you have any questions, general doubts, comments, words of wisdom, etc. If you don't know me, I'm Rebecca Carvalho, YA '07, from Recife - PE, Brazil. I currently live in Madison, Wisconsin, and last summer I graduated with a B.A in English from Lawrence University. Nice to meet you, and congrats if you're a new YA. If you aren't, I encourage you to apply again next year. If you can't apply due to whatever reasons you might have, there are so many other opportunities -- some of them even offered by the U.S. Embassy -- that I highly recommend you should try. Never give up!


When They Called Me
By Rebecca Carvalho
Youth Ambassador '07, Recife - PE, Brazil

I couldn’t believe the U.S. Embassy was calling me to say I had been chosen to be a Youth Ambassador. I started crying on the phone. I think I momentarily forgot everything I knew about good manners, and simply started sobbing. My mom, poor thing, didn’t know what was going on. She thought I had received awful news, and took the cell phone from me to hear them as well.

There’s a good chance I scared Edvaldo, too, who was calling me in behalf of the embassy. He still jokes about it. He said he didn’t know what to do, and was afraid that my mom could have thought he was upsetting me.

It’s just that he caught me off guard. That day my head was filled with different worries. I ddn’t know whether Federal University of Pernambuco would accept me into their journalism program. I was afraid I wouldn’t be going to college. I was overwhelmed -- Yes, entirely overwhelmed by my future and the possibility of failure. That year, 2006, had been the strangest in my life.

Most of my friends at Military School had been investing on private afternoon lessons. They were avid learners and competitive classmates. Some of them wanted to go to military academies, and the competition to get into one of those schools is even stronger. At very young ages, they were already ruthless mathematicians, they knew literary history by heart, and physics was as easy as if they had been the writers of those laws.

My family, however, didn’t have the means to pay for extra classes. I had never been good at math, and that year I was particularly afraid that what my knowledge wouldn’t be enough to get me into a federal university -- the only place where we could afford, since it is free.

“You don’t need private lessons to succeed,” my mom told me, “you can do this on your own. Your brain is healthy and you’re a determined girl. Fight with what you have.”

I, then, followed her advice. That piece of wisdom is what kept me studying non-stop for an entire year. I dedicated my afternoons to mathematics, chemistry and physics, and read Brazilian and Portuguese literature to relax. Although humanities had always been dear subjects, I knew I couldn’t simply ignore them. I spent Saturdays and Sundays with world and Brazilian history, reading and learning everything my instinct told me was necessary to know.

My routine that year was very strict. I got home from school at 1:00 p.m. and from 2:00 to 5:00 I studied locked in my room. Since I didn’t have a computer, there was nothing that could distract me. It was just me, with an occasional cat sleeping surrounded by piles and more piles of books, and learning. At 5:00, I took a break to eat dinner and spend some time with my family and watch TV. If I didn’t have anything that required more studying -- like an exam, or a presentation -- I simply stayed in the living room watching TV, writing and reading. If I had something that required more preparation, I’d just take an hour break at 5:00 and go back to studying until midnight.

On Fridays, the day I took time to sleep, I’d go straight to my room after lunch, and often slept from 1:00 p.m. non-stop until around 5:00 a.m. the next day. I don’t know what made me sleep so deeply, but perhaps my body was in constant need of recovery. My dreams were often populated by teachers I had never met in real life, who told me what I had to study, who advised me and explained problems I had trouble solving. They were always, always right. One day a teacher in my dream told me: “You need to study modern Brazilian literature more. Focus on that.” I did what he told me. Surprisingly, ‘vestibular’ that year was all about modern literary history. I almost got 100% of my exam right, and to this day I trust the advice of these friends we only know in the world of dreams. And then, on the weekends, I studied from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., stopping only to eat.

So, in 2006, although I was very excited about the possibility of becoming a youth ambassador, there was very little space in my mind to worry about it. When Edvaldo called me that day, I was so distracted I had even forgotten the date the embassy would be announcing the list of new youth ambassadors. I knew, of course, the date was getting closer and closer, because Globo TV and Jornal do Commercio had interviewed me to check how anxious I felt, but I didn’t remember precisely when it would be.
When Edvaldo called me, I could hardly believe they had chosen me.

“This is Edvaldo Amorim, calling from Sao Paulo in behalf of the U.S. Embassy,” he said, and his voice was happy and confident, “have you heard the good news?”

“No, I haven’t,” I said, and was a little bit clueless. My brain, in fact, went blank that day. I could barely make the connection between the U.S. Embassy and the Youth Ambassadors program.

“On, then, let me tell you you’re a youth ambassador.”

And I cried, and cried, and cried a bit more than you think I did. I had focused so much in studying to go to college, that I had barely realized how the Youth Ambassadors program was building up this invisible tension in my head, and the whole thing exploded like fireworks when I got that phone call. It was enchanting.

It was the greatest moment, the happiest moment in my life. I felt so relieved, so free. It was like the universe was telling me my work was worthwhile. It wasn’t just about the Youth Ambassadors; it was about everything in my life. It was about giving my best to accomplish my goals, and trusting that I would be rewarded if I really deserved it. It taught me to be less nervous about vestibular, as well, like I had been when I applied for the second time to be a Youth Ambassador. There was still so much to get done: Vestibular, arrangements for the trip, the trip itself; but, that afternoon, I felt re-energized and more confident that no matter how difficult to achieve them, dreams do come true when you’re ready.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Land of Perpetual Night

Where’s the sun? With the sun setting every day around 4:30 p.m., I feel like I’m living in the land of perpetual night. Have you ever imagined what a world without sunlight would be like? It doesn’t need to be scientifically defined, though. It could be, in fact, a magical world where people live in constant darkness.

I believe candle makers would be the richest people, and candle wax would be the most sought out good in the black market. People with private stocks of candles would burn them in hidden rooms at home, carefully trying to conceal the delicate smell of candle burning inside. In this land where the sun doesn’t touch, people would be very melancholy, and a little grumpy too. Well, we can’t blame them -- feeling cold and constantly exposed to animals and other creatures of the night, indeed, turns the nicest person into the most easily annoyed one.

And they would try to compensate the lack of sunlight with clothing that sparkles even more than cabaret outfits. And “you’re my sunshine,” would certainly be the highest praise someone could hear.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Merry (Early) Christmas And Night Elves

Hi! It's December..! I always freak out when I notice that time is flying. I remember, though, that when I was a kid I used to love this time of the year. My uncles, aunts and cousins would visit us -- I lived with my grandparents, by the way -- and it was always fantastic to see everyone. I'm an only child, so getting to be with my cousins was one of the few opportunities I had as a child, other than hanging out with classmates, to socialize with other kids. Sadly, I haven't seen my family since 2008. I'm looking forward to moving back to Brazil next year, though!

Christmas this year will be early. In fact, it will be next week, since it was the only time available to get everyone together. I'll be staying at Michael's parents' house, and I'll get to meet his siblings. I wish my family got a chance to meet them, too. Michael, though, will meet my folks next year! Carvalho-land is very excited to welcome him to our Brazilianess.

Other than getting ready for Christmas and to move out, there isn't anything extraordinary going on in my life. I'm still getting rejections from literary agents, still writing my stories and publishing articles, and hoping to get a few projects done before 2011 ends. Next year is very promising, I must say, but let's just focus on doing our best in the present.

I'll leave you with some more flash fiction. This is for young children and adults young at heart. Merry (early) Christmas!


Night Elves
By Rebecca Carvalho 
Raphael didn't like when the night came and the moon shone bright behind thin clouds, because when everyone went to bed and the lights were off, and the neighbor's dogs were not barking anymore, Raphael's house went alive with all sorts of little scary noises that kept him paralyzed.

The night when this story starts, Raphael had a nightmare. He dreamed of little elves coming from the woods, sneaking into the house and singing: "We'll catch you soon!" He was almost asleep again when heard a thump in the living room. Raphael curled into a ball as he heard a lion roaring down the corridor. He felt more relieved when he realized it had been just his father snoring and occasionally mumbling in his sleep.

Raphael remembered what his parents had told him when he started learning how to ride his first bicycle:

"Braveness is when you face your fears even though you are scared."

He left his room, and walked to the living room. A little noise by his dad's armchair made Raphael jump back. He looked down, ready to scream, and a pair of bright green eyes stared back at him. He thought: The elves are ready to attack me!

Raphael rushed to turn the lights on. The living room was bright again, and Raphael searched for the source of his bad dreams. But then he laughed. The pair of green eyes were still there, but all this time it had just been the family's cat, its eyes reflecting the moonlight like little flashlights to help it see in the dark.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Mookychick Blogging Competition (Flash Fiction): Pink Shoe Laces

Mookychick Blogging Competition
Flash Fiction – Pink Shoe Laces
By Rebecca Carvalho


For all ladies out there who just want a chance to be themselves, despite what feminist trends say they should or should not be or do. The following is a sad parody of what happens when we get lost in piles and more piles of theory.


She sat staring at her shoes. They had pink laces.

There was a young man sitting nearby. She knew he was just pretending to be reading his newspaper. Who could read a newspaper in a day like that?
She quickly rummaged in her backpack and found a copy of “A Vindication of the Rights of Women.” She knew that Wollstonecraft would back her up.
But then, from the corner of her eye, she noticed he had peered at her.
She looked at him. He was back pretending to read. She looked at her pink laces again. He had stared at them. She was certain of it! What was he thinking just then? She felt terrible. That same morning, prior to going to the park, she noticed her white laces were not white anymore. They were gray with dirt. The pink ones were the only at hand.
Ah, how she hated pink. Pink was the most anti-feminist color, she thought. Pink was men's idea to segregate women. They had given them a color – just that color – and told them they were allowed to use only that. Only pink. Poor Grandma had not known she hated it. Those pink laces had been a gift, along with new shoes, of course.
She rummaged in her backpack again. Woolf waved at her. She grabbed “A Room of One's Own” and started reading it too. Wollstonecraft in her right hand. Woolf in her left hand. That would do just fine.
But her pink laces were still there. She knew he simply had to be looking at them. Who wouldn't look at such bright color? Pink was the sort of stuff that wouldn't pass unnoticed.
She needed more support. She needed to ascertain herself. She had a trump card and would use it gladly. That's when she pulled out her reputable copy of feminist literary theory. She placed it on her lap, and read it. And continued reading Wollstonecraft. And Woolf too. A paragraph here, another there, and a third one there.
Literary theory, though, was simply too boring. She thought of that vampire series in her bag, and wanted to read them, but couldn't. People said they were anti-feminist; just like her pink shoe laces were. She sighed.
The young man looked at her and smiled. Ah, oppressor! She had to fight back. So, trying to balance everything, she rummaged in her backpack one last time, and found Austen. Austen was sharp. Austen's wit would defeat anyone trying to enslave her thoughts. She held “Pride and Prejudice” along with “A Vindication” in her right hand, and “Emma” and “A Room of One's Own” in her left hand.
But, with her hands busy, she simply couldn't turn the page of anything she was reading. She leaned forward, and tried to turn pages using her nose. At first, it was difficult. But, when she was starting to get the hang of it, she noticed that her pink laces were actually sparkling sun beams. She didn't know they had glitter. Tiny bits of pink glitter!
She looked at the young man. He smiled again. She gasped. She knew he had noticed her shoe laces had started to sparkle.
That was enough. Nasty, nasty color! She started shaking her legs to get rid of her shoes. In her furious fit, she lost her balance and all books fell. She desperately jumped forward to pick them up. And, as she grabbed them back, she noticed that the young man had just approached her.
She stood up, and was ready to throw at him her best swear words. She wouldn't be intimidated.
“I was wondering if you know what the time is,” he asked her in a faltering voice.
“Um. . . four o'clock,” she said, after checking her wristwatch.
“Nice bright salmon shoe laces,” he said before leaving.
She stared at her shoes. “Salmon?” She murmured to herself. And stood staring at them for an hour. After that, she put her books back in her bag and sat back on the bench, this time with her vampire series. There was no one around. And her shoe laces were not pink. They were salmon. And they didn't sparkle. They were bright. She finally felt at peace.

This is an entry for the Mookychick blogging competition, FEMINIST FLASH FICTION 2011. Enter now.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Hello! Happy (almost) Thanksgiving!

We're having a strange, though interesting Wednesday. Our apartment smells like chicken, and that's not bad. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and we're (yours truly very proudly is. . .) making salpicão, which is a Brazilian type of cold chicken salad. It's a wonderful, magnificent (though, very simple!) dish I've never made before, but I've seen my mom preparing it many times. Our family is quite fond of it, and of her recipe in particular. Every Christmas, my family requests my mom to bring it to our dinner. Hopefully, my salpicão will turn out just as good as hers, because we'll be taking some to Michael's parents' house tomorrow.

Strangely, since I moved to the U.S. this is the first time I haven't seen snow on Thanksgiving. If I remember correctly, the two times I was invited to the Kozaks' house on Thanksgiving, Casey Kozak joked that I had brought snow with me. The corn fields would be entirely white. Deb Kozak would be afraid of driving. This year, though, there's no sign of it. I wonder what's up with the weather. . . Global warming, I suppose?

That's all I have to say for now. There's still cooking to do. And writing to work on later. With or without snow. . . happy Thanksgiving!   

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Another Blog Entry On Writing. And Neil Gaiman.

It's Sunday. Not a lazy one. Though not as busy as it should be. Michael is working at home, too. But, when he takes breaks from programming, he takes photos of me. Here's one. I'm happily (. . .I'm sorry if you can't really tell) working on the last chapters of my latest novel.

I'm glad this project is almost over, but I know I'll miss it. I'll miss my characters, the cities I've created, and the dreams I had at night because of my writing before going to bed. The idea is a year and five months old. There was a lot of writing, planning, thinking, worrying and celebrating.

I'll try to publish it. You know that already. Wish me luck.

Perhaps, later tonight I'll watch The Simpsons. I want to see a yellow, Simpson version of Neil Gaiman. The episode is called “The Book Job.” That might be interesting. I recommend it. He mentioned that the next step is to become a talking head in Futurama.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

First Time in the Countryside

I wrote First Time in the Countryside today. I'm not sure, but it is either a chronicle or a short story. Either way, it is a personal narrative, and I hope you'll like it.

-- Rebecca Carvalho

First Time in the Countryside
The year was 2002. I was fourteen, and I had never been to the countryside.
I was born and raised in a big city in the northeastern part of Brazil. I come from a family of police officers and soldiers, so they over-protected me, sheltered me, and kept me indoors as much as possible. It was like I was one of the inmates they had to watch, except that I could watch TV, and the food was exceptionally better.
So, at the age of fourteen, I had not gone too far.
My mom, on the contrary, at that point had visited the countryside many times. She had friends there. She had even been to those rural towns where rain is scarce. It is so rare that people celebrate when it rains. One day, when my mother was visiting a town in particular, it started raining. She saw people dancing on the streets, dancing in the rain. She said it was beautiful. They thought she had brought rain with her, and so she was invited to many houses, where they fed her their best treats, and regarded her presence as good omen. She was like a goddess. A goddess of rain bringing fertility to their land. Those were her best days.
It was Easter. The entire country closed so people could spend that holiday at home. Kids didn’t have to go to school, adults didn’t have to go to work. It was perfect, except that I had tons to study. After Easter, our exams would start. The first one would be our Portuguese test.
My mom was invited to go to a farm in the countryside. She insisted I should go. She said I’d be able to study there. So, we packed our bags, leaped in the car, and left.
We arrived later that same day. My mom’s friends were there. The house was spacious, and they showed us our room. Everything was perfect, except that I felt lost.
Up until then, I had spent my entire life in a big metropolitan area, which means that our garden was just a narrow strip of dirt on the left side of our garage, behind a bench. One day, when I was five, I decided I wanted to plant a cashew tree. My grandfather had to break a hole in the cemented area in front of our house, by my window. In that tiny hole I planted my tree. The poor tree died earlier than you think, but the hole is still there.
So, I didn’t know what to do.
I tried to remember everything I had heard people say about going to the countryside. People talked about reading, so I decided I would do that too. I didn’t have fiction with me, so I got my Portuguese grammar book and sat in a hammock outside.
It was a sunny afternoon, and the view was pretty, and my book was boring. I stayed in the hammock, swinging back and forth, until I realized there was no way I could read there. For no particular reason, I looked back, and caught my mom staring at me from a nearby window. I think she was waiting to see how long it would take for me to give up on reading.
I went back inside, a little disappointed, and tried to think of something else to do. I leaned on a windowsill and pondered that if visiting the countryside meant taking time to admire nature, I would do that too.
So, I stood there looking at the horizon, and day dreaming was something that actually came to me quite naturally, when I finally looked down at a pile of logs, and my heart almost jumped out of my chest.
There was a spider there. The biggest, hairiest, nastiest spider I’d ever seen in my fourteen years of sheltered life. It looked as if it had been observing me all this time from that pile of logs, because it stepped back when I made eye contact.
I tried my best not to scream. I didn’t want to be the stupid city girl who goes to the countryside and squeaks in horror after the biggest-hairiest-nastiest spider ever seen appears on a log. So, I stiffly walked to a man who worked there taking care of the grounds, and told him I had found the biggest. . . just a spider below the window.
Of course, he paraded the animal as if it were a kitten. Of course, people there looked at it as if it were a kitten. And, of course, I had to pretend that spider was a kitten, because that was what they did there. There in the countryside.
But, when the spider was gone, I had nothing else to do.
I tried to think of other things people did in the countryside, and remembered that people liked to go out for walks. My idea, in fact, was praised by my mom, who is addicted to sightseeing. She used to go sightseeing even back where we lived, and took photographs of trees and doors like tourists so often do, and pretended to be from Spain, even though she doesn’t speak Spanish.
The farm’s owner suggested we should go see a waterfall he had in his property. My mom was very excited, my mom’s friends where very excited too, and I. . . well, I was there. The same man who had previously taken the spider received very specific instructions on which path to take that would lead us to the waterfall.
He seemed a little confused, but in the end he nodded, and condescended. Those were his boss’ orders, after all. I was the only one, though, who saw he looked confused. Now that I think of it, I should have asked him why he looked confused. I don’t know. I could have told my mother, right? Whispered something about it, if I were feeling particularly shy. But I didn’t. Regretfully, I didn’t say a word.
And so we left, wearing our swimsuits underneath our clothes. And at first, we took photos of flowers and rocks, and grass and more grass, and then we took photos of us pointing at more flowers, rocks and grass. We walked, walked and walked, and that afternoon seemed endless, as the sun refused to go down. And it was still very bright, although it was already late.
I would have been drinking coffee & milk, as I watched my favorite evening soap operas. . . if I were at home.
But I wasn’t. I was in the countryside, crossing what soon looked like a jungle, and eating sour berries that we picked along the paths we took. The only way to comfort our hungry stomachs.
After what to me felt like an endless amount of time walking, we heard water. We took a left, jumped over a handful of bushes, and we ran overjoyed to our precious waterfall.
But it turned out to be something else.
There was a pipe up in a rock, and water streamed from it down in what looked like a man-made lake bed. A woman was sitting there, washing her dishes and her kid.
Disappointment crept into our faces as we watched dirty bubbles floating on the water. There would be no swimming that afternoon. So, we went back, and going back was as fast as a quick turn up the closest path. And that’s what we did.
When he saw us, the farm’s owner burst into laughter. He hysterically pointed out he had made us go down the longer path to find. . . nothing close to what we had envisioned. And pointed at our hurting feet. And pointed at my face, which was deeply red, as it always gets when I’m exposed to sunlight. Or when I’m embarrassed.
Our guide scratched his head. “Oh, now I see why he told me to go the other way. I thought to myself there was a shorter one,” he said with a sheepish smile.
His life was spared due to his naivete.

After dinner, I still didn’t know what to do. But then I thought: Some people go to the countryside to write! There were many authors -- William Wordsworth, for instance -- who appreciated the idea of writing surrounded by nature.
I’ve always liked to write. And, at the young age of fourteen, I already knew I was a writer. There was nothing else I was good at. I horribly failed at sports, I had no sense of mathematical logic, and my drawings were as good as they had been when I was four; the difference was that when I was four, they said I was a child prodigy. When I grew up, it seems the world had grown tired of my art.
They had a covered area with a table at the back of the house. Lighting there was also good enough, so I grabbed my notebook and sat down to write.
Despite a few jokes I heard earlier that day about keeping journals, I felt very proud to be writing down my thoughts. I was also very proud I had finally found a thing to do in the countryside.
My happiness, however, was short-lived; and so was my writing.
The back of the house was pitch-black, but soon I noticed an army of geese had just entered the pool of light where I was working. I say “army” because that is precisely what they looked like. They were in formation, side by side, and very synchronized as they flapped their wings and turned to me. I felt like a general saluted by a troop.
But there were at least twenty of them there, and geese are always so intimidating. The truth is that they can be very vicious creatures. I asked them what they wanted, and they continued coming closer and closer. So I ran back into the house, scared. I had been cornered by them, by the army of countryside geese.
The next day, we packed our bags and got in the car to leave. Someone gave me an apple; and I played with it, throwing it up and catching it back. And I did that a few times as we drove away. I felt happy. I had not known what to do when I arrived for the first time in the countryside, but I found out I had learned important lessons to keep in mind when visiting it again: (1) Always bring a novel in your bag, (2) spiders are to be regarded as kittens, but shouldn’t necessarily be petted, (3) never trust your guide, nor your guide’s boss, even if the latter is a friend, (4) and geese can form very strong armies, so they must be avoided at all costs.          

Friday, November 18, 2011

Sickness, Possible Christmas Gifts (?), Sphinx's Queen, And Youth Ambassadors!

I spent the afternoon feeling sick, and that is always very, very frustrating. I don't know precisely what's the matter with me, but I think this time my anemia and this crazy sleeping habit are taking revenge for the way I neglect my body.

It doesn't help that I forget to take my iron pills. And, also, the fact that I barely eat during the day, always distracted with my writing, or job hunting. On top of that, I can't avoid staying up all night to write. From midnight to 5ish in the morning, my best ideas are at their peak. My words flow smoothly, and I feel I can better see my story when the rest of the world is asleep. But, going to bed so late is killing me slowly.

Do you also sometimes put work before your own health?

This afternoon, then, I'm paying the price for being reckless. A few hours ago, I felt so tired and weak, almost as if my body was begging to shut down. I thought I'd end up falling asleep, but I did my best to keep my eyes open, and tried reading a book. I did some reading, and then decided to watch a documentary. It was a BBC one. It was on Egypt.

When I felt stronger, I got paper and used markers to write down a few ideas for the short story I am working on for a literary magazine. So, I wrote as I watched the documentary. I felt like a scribe, inspired by Ancient Egypt.

Something I've always, always wanted to have was a calligraphy set, and parchment paper. Like these, for example:

It is very upsetting, though, to feel like the way I'm conducting my work is now starting to affect it. Physical and emotional pain, though at least today the latter is nonexistent in my case, are obstacles to writing. How can I concentrate, for instance, on describing happiness, when my body feels like it is falling apart? I remember earlier this year I was reading George Eliot's journals (or, perhaps, it was Frances Burney's!) and she complained that she couldn't do any writing that day because of a pestering migraine. One of those two writers complained about other migraines that didn't let them work.

I'm feeling much better now, yes, but I'm still a bit queasy and drowsy. I shouldn't be glued to the computer again, but I can't help it. I suppose I should try going to bed early tonight, but that will probably be difficult after so many days of my undisciplined routine.

On a different subject, I'm almost done reading Esther Friesner's Sphinx Queen. The book is great, the reading goes easily and fast, and I'd recommend it if you're interested in Ancient Egypt. At least when I'm interested in the life of an iconic figure, I can't help picturing what their lives really were like. What were their likes and dislikes? What thoughts did they have when facing such and such event? 

In general, it's the sort of stuff no historian would be able to address, because they not always have access to such information. Unless there's a journal or some other type of personal documentation, it's almost impossible to know what worlds people like Nefertiti brought within their heads. So, in this case, historical fiction plays an interesting role. Although it takes many liberties with history, which might annoy a few people profoundly, it also allows us a chance to continue building up our fascination for ancient cultures and historical actors, as we pretend we know what they were thinking, how things really went, and what mannerisms they had.

Here's the link to Sphinx's Queen on Random Buzzers:

Finally, I'd like to ask you a favor. The Youth Ambassadors '11 were not able to go to their reunion, because I guess the U.S. Embassy couldn't afford to fly everyone to Sao Paulo this year. They decided to participate, then, in a photography contest. The winner will be able to take 50 friends on an all-expense-paid trip to Sao Paulo to attend a party hosted by MTV. That would be their best shot at getting everyone together.

This is very important because these kids haven't seen each other since January. They live in different Brazilian cities, and it's very unlikely they'd have a chance to see each other again. And we're talking about a group of teenagers who only spent two weeks together, working as diplomats in Washington, D.C.; but, despite this short amount of time, developed really strong, dear friendships. The great majority of them come from financially unstable families, so traveling is a luxury they can't afford on their own.

The contest is Panasonic's “Lumix: A Vida Como Voce Nunca Viu” (Life As You've Never Seen), and to help them you only need to 'like' (curtir, in Portuguese) their photo on Facebook. Here's the link:

Many thanks, and feel free to comment.
Happy Friday!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Living Dreams


Last night (or, rather, this morning) I had the greatest dream I've had in a while. Well, I stayed up writing until way past 6:00 a.m. and I only went to bed because it was already very late, but I could have stayed writing. My mind was still buzzing with ideas, and I didn't feel as tired as I was supposed to be. But I went to bed, anyway, and fell asleep with a strange feeling that I had just arrived from a meeting with friends.

And then I dreamed. . .

I dreamed that I had been published. I had published fiction, perhaps my latest, I'm not sure. But I had been published, and it felt extraordinary to have a story in print.

Well, I remember when I got two copies of Operation Legacy. Professor Barrett mailed them to me, because I couldn't attend the signing. I opened it and went to the cafe upstairs to get coffee or just something to eat, I don't remember precisely; but I opened that anthology, and read my story (or, the story of the veteran I interviewed) as if it were written by someone else. I remember an acquaintance asked me what I was reading, and I proudly showed it to her. “It's my story. I got published,” I said and the feeling was extraordinary, it was amazing.

But, strangely, the way I felt in my dream was different. The way I felt when I got Operation Legacy was accomplished, proud that I finally saw one of my things in print. But, in my dream, I felt complete. This probably will be a very unfair remark about contributing to Operation Legacy, but when I read my piece of non-fiction one of the first thoughts I had was “I hope one day I'll be able to publish my stories.” And then, in my dream, the feeling I had was that I felt I had just fulfilled my biggest ambition. You know that old expression people say, something like “oh, if I die today, I'll die a happy person.” That's precisely how I felt in my dream last nigh. . . this morning.

And in my dream I believe my publisher, which happened to be Random House (..!), told me I would be going to Tokyo, I guess, on a tour. And I was very excited. I believe Michael and my mother would be coming along. And there was some other place I'd go to, but now I can't remember where.

This afternoon, I am feeling quite good about myself, which is strange. Strange, though, in a good way. I could still be either living my dream and thinking it to be real, which is a little alarming – or, and this second idea pleases me the most, somewhere in the world of dreams I am writer publishing fiction. So, if everything goes wrong in this concrete world, I could always say that in some other dimension I am what I've always wanted to be.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Lions Roar At Four

I was hoping I would get some writing done tonight, but it didn't go as well as I thought. I'm tired, and my sleeping habit this week is the worst possible, which affects my brain a little. On top of that, my anemia has been killing me, literally. I spent the day feeling weak and more tired than ever.

When I write, I have the strange tendency to tune in my characters' feelings. For instance, if I am writing about sad moments, I often feel a little down the 10 minutes or so after I'm done writing. If I describe a party or some other interesting social event, I feel just as excited and overwhelmed as I would have felt in real life. And, oddly enough, my mood also deeply interferes in my story. Happy days will trigger happy moments in my characters' lives, and sad days will bring disgrace upon them, poor things. We're all interconnected for better and for worse.

In general, I consider this literary-emotional engagement a blessing. It is good to be able to feel my characters' feelings, which allows me to describe emotions more accurately. At least I think it is, as long as I don't develop schizophrenic signs, right? The only problem, however, is when I am tired. Feeling exhausted brings nothing inspiring, unless I am writing about a character who's complaining about his work load. At this point in my book, I should be shaping up a few characters' tense meetings and then describe the most bizarre Halloween party. (And I might be hallucinating, but I just now heard a lion roaring outside. I sure hope it was just a neighbor yawning, otherwise I'm going to have to watch my remarks from now on on this blog). Anyway, at this point in my novel my writing needs to be more focused and engaging, and it must not reflect a tired, burned out mind.

It's almost 4:00 a.m. and I should be going to bed soon. I hope this Sunday will be more productive and lionless. But, despite my existential talk about my writing habits, I am getting more and more happy about my career choice. It is hard to be a writer, and my writing might be trash (or... rubbish), but I simply can't give it up. I'm already too involved to deny what I am. And, if you're wondering.. I'm a writer!