This time around, I'm going to work on a research project with the Brazilian equivalent of the USDA (EMBRAPA) for six months looking at the environmental impacts and productivity of growing corn with different sources of nitrogen. Sounds a lot more legit than ,"I'm going to work on a farm in Thailand, and I'm not really sure what they grow yet." This trip has admittedly a little more structure going into it. There's a set research plan, I have colleagues I've already talked with, and the work is should be a great experience as a scientist and student. But I'll dig into that in the next post.
First, I want to stick to the personal side of things, and the ups and downs of the first two weeks. My journey got off to a bumpy start as I watched the single baggage carousel at the Petrolina airport slowly lose travelers, until I was the only one left twiddling my thumbs. Both my checked bags were nowhere to be found. I quickly realized that I might be in over my head as the airport employee tasked with filling out the recovery form knew no English at all. I had been working on my Portuguese for a few months, but all the Duolingo apps in the world didn't seem like enough practice to understand his rapid words after 24 hours of flying. I eventually muddled my way through the form using pictures of luggage to describe my items, and was assured that my bags would arrive within a couple of days via Google Translate.
With all the time it took for the forms to be filled out, all the taxis had left for the night, as only one flight arrives to Petrolina each day. I spent the next hour lamenting my bad baggage luck and trying to ask people to call me a taxi, eventually getting through to one woman who contacted her friend who owned a taxi. The sun had already gone down, but I sat with relief in the passenger seat. The driver was a woman with a face weathered by years of what I can only assume are smiles. She didn't speak a word of English, but proceeded to tell me everything about the city she had lived in her whole life as we drove through the night. I understood about 10%, but she kept talking, I think knowing I needed someone to fill the lonely silence. As she dropped my off, she handed me her card and said I could call any hour of the day. I had made my first friend.
The next few days I took to the task of settling into my new apartment and city for the next half year. I unpacked everything I could, but it didn't feel like enough with the vast majority of my items still on their way. I walked for hours on the city's streets, saddened by the hot and dry air that wound its way through the cobbled streets and buildings, many of which seemed long empty. Even the riverside beach was paired with an apocalyptic fairground that sagged under the heat. I was convinced this was a hot and lonely place.
My dad likes to say, "There's value in being alone, but not lonely," whenever I strike out to a new location. And while there is some fatherly truth to this saying, I often forget how hard it is to follow those words when I first arrive in a new place. I think back to my time in Thailand and unless I really concentrate, I can't remember the first couple of weeks. I've covered them up with the rosy memories of when I had created friendships and learned to love the town of Mae Mut. And in Brazil, this has been an even harder process in some regards. When I left for my gap year, I wanted to be the lonesome traveler, wandering and wondering. But in the past two years I have put my roots into the southern soil of Atlanta. Gained friends, co-workers, and purpose in my career choice. And found a home I never thought possible with a woman named Grete and a dog named Ranger.
So this time around, it's a lot harder to settle in, to get rid of the loneliness while being alone. The excitement of getting on that plane was compounded with the sense of yearning to keep my feet right where they'd been for over two yeas. And yet, it's the right choice. I have the support of my family, friends and Grete. I'm about to embark on a journey where I get to do some amazing science, create connections with and learn from incredible people, and might even become fluent in Portuguese along the way. As the ache of loneliness starts to dissipate, I've extended my root system into the semiarid and fertile soil of Northeast Brazil. I've met wonderful people at EMBRAPA who I can already call friends, joined a gym, ran a 5K, bought a bike, swam in the river, and even checked out Thor in Portuguese at the theater. I'm on my way to that elusive un-loneliness of being alone.