The illusion of experience
A summer in São Paulo
The first barbecue that Garrett — my roommate in Brazil and teammate on the MIT men’s soccer team — and I were invited to this summer was located in the Brazilian equivalent of the suburbs. We were working at Insper, a Brazilian business school, and had been invited by a couple of friendly Brazilian college students who shared our passion for soccer; we were gathering for the final of the European Championships in France, and Portugal, the nation of Garrett’s heritage, was facing off against the host nation. To get there required a 45-minute car ride that took us away from the skyscrapers of central São Paulo that we had grown accustomed to and into the nicest area we visited in Brazil. The house we visited, occupied by an Insper student and his family, was a multistory, Spanish-style home complete with a swimming pool, entertainment room, and outdoor barbecue area.
The second barbecue that Garrett and I attended was located in Morumbi, a wealthy area situated next to the second biggest favela (slum) in São Paulo, Paraisópolis. The event was a reunion of sorts, as we had already finished our project at Insper and had moved to a different neighborhood of São Paulo. The home we visited here was not very similar to the other in physical appearance, but matched it in luxury. A penthouse in a multiple-building gated complex, this apartment had two stories and was beautifully furnished with plenty of modern ornaments and effects. The balcony on the second floor of the apartment had a surreal view overlooking the Morumbi neighborhood, as well as its own barbecue area and swimming pool.
At this second barbecue, something that the host’s mother said stuck with me for the entirety of our trip. “My sister moved to Florida because it’s really dangerous here,” she had explained to us. “All of our cars have tinted and bulletproof windows, and we have to be extremely careful when we go out.”
This resonated with me because it contradicted everything I had come to learn about Brazil. Everywhere we had gone had been relatively safe. Getting around at night had been safe as long as we didn’t do anything that brought unwanted attention to ourselves. This testimonial was a sobering reminder that we had formed a one-sided view of São Paulo, despite having lived there for about a month and a half. Someone would later tell us that the main difference between Rio and São Paulo was that in São Paulo, it’s possible to never see the class disparity of the city because of the distinct separation between rich and poor neighborhoods.
In our defense, the reason we had formed this distorted view was not so much a result of willing ignorance as it was a byproduct of the nature of our purpose in Brazil. After all, for the first month, we had been working with engineering students from Insper College, who I realized were for the most part relatively well-off, and both of the apartments we rented were in wealthier areas.
Working with Worldfund, a nongovernmental organization aimed at improving STEM education in Latin America, gave us the eye-opening opportunity to construct a more thorough perception of Brazil, especially when we visited Rio and saw the state of public schools. The work we were doing with Worldfund consisted of first creating interdisciplinary, computer science based projects to help Brazilian STEM public school teachers teach more efficiently. We then went to a Worldfund workshop and helped trainers successfully teach these projects to public school teachers. In Rio, we saw schools taken over by students, and we heard from teachers that some had even taken to destroying school materials in protest of the broken public education system.
What I thought really made our trip different from others, though, was a night we went out with some twenty-somethings with whom we played futsal (a variation on soccer) every Saturday at Ibirapuera Park. We had met them the third or fourth week we were in Brazil and proceeded to play with them every Saturday morning at the park’s futsal court. By the end of our time in Brazil, we had grown quite close to them, and on our last Saturday night in Brazil, they decided they would be taking us out.
That night, we walked around side streets just off Avenida Paulista, and people were everywhere. The streets were packed to the point where cars had trouble pushing through the crowd, and loud funk music from the clubs only added to the scene’s manic ambience. Empty, broken liquor bottles littered the gutters and conversations consisted of yelling to the person beside you. It was obvious this was not where the wealthy of São Paulo went on Saturday nights.
At the end of the night, we found ourselves at a park, equally crowded, at three in the morning. Despite all of this, I never felt unsafe or in danger. This, I remember thinking to myself, was an experience I would have missed if we had never explored or met anyone outside of work. As we walked around through the almost never-ending supply of intoxicated people, it struck me that this was a very rare experience for a tourist, let alone an MIT student, to have.
From all this, I gathered that the most important tool to have in the face of a completely foreign situation (like traveling to a new country) is an open mind. All of the friends we made in Brazil told us about new and different experiences they had in their country — watching their first Corinthians game, eating their first pastel (a Brazilian pastry), dealing with the impending impeachment of President Dilma. It was my job to constantly combine these stories with what I learned or observed on my own in order to accurately answer the question, “What did you think of Brazil?”
MISTI — MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives — is MIT’s pioneering international education program. Each year nearly 1,000 MIT undergrads and graduate students are matched with hands-on international projects through MISTI. To learn more about internship, teaching and research opportunities across the globe, check out misti.mit.edu.