Sorry, I’m American

The sun hurt my eyes as I stepped out of the small plane and into the hot, humid air. I walked down the stairs, across the tarmac, and into the airport baggage claim. As I retrieved a cart for my luggage, a cry rang out.

“Luis! Luis!” Ten yards behind me, I saw a panicked woman standing over the convulsing body of a man. His spasms lasted for a short time, and then he went still. A young man emerged from the croud, checked the man’s pulse, and began CPR. Blood started to dribble from the man’s mouth as his ribs were pounded.

After a couple of minutes, an ambulance, with sirens blaring, squealed to a halt outside. Two paramedics rushed in, strapped the man to a stretcher, and loaded him into the back of the vehicle. By this time the victim was looking around, indicating that the stranger saved him—or possibly just broke his ribs. The ambulance doors were shut, and it sped away. This is the first thing I saw upon arriving in Brazil.

In my freshman year, I was offered the oppurtunity to travel to Brazil for three weeks with a close friend and his parents, whom we have been friends with for my entire life. My friend’s mother is Brazillian, and she was returning to pay her respects to her recently deceased father. I jumped at the chance, and the first day of winter break saw me on a plane to Rio de Janeiro, immediately followed to a flight to Goiânia, a large city in the heart of Brazil.

Right after we saw the man have a seizure, I met my friend’s extended family. In weak Portuguese, I attempted to introduce myself. However, not being able to pronounce “Peter,” they called me “Pachu,” a name that stuck for the rest of my stay.

While in Goiânia, we slept at my friend’s grandmother’s house. We spent our time visting my friend’s mother’s family, seldom eating meals at the same place twice, and often driving for hours to reach the next one.

Perhaps the most astounding thing I learned in Brazil was the natural kindness in people. The only meaningful Portuguese phrases I could understand were “eat,” “let’s go,” and “good morning,” and I could say even less (my finest moments were when I said, “Sorry, I am American,” to a conversational stranger and, “No more papers,” while holding up an empty toilet paper roll).

Despite this, the people I encountered hugged me, fed me, gave me Christmas presents, and even teased me (my friend’s uncle made fun of my pocket dictionary by shoving a book down his pants). I found out later that my friend’s grandmother would refer to me as her grandson to others, which was one of the most touching things I’ve ever been told.

Many have the idea that life in Brazil is a combination of beaches, bikini wax, and butt-shaking, but I was struck by how normal everything was. Although poverty is much more rampant in Brazil, people there live happy, contented lives. They go to work, raise families, cry when their loved ones are in danger, get into arguments, and fall in love.

Although for the first time in my life, I wasn’t with my family for Christmas, I can honestly say I wasn’t bothered by it. I’m sure this is largely because I was with close family friends, but I’m also sure that that isn’t the entire reason. In Brazil, I was taken in by people who had never met me and who couldn’t understand me, but who didn’t let this stop them from loving me. I learned that compassion is defined by how you treat strangers, not how you treat your friends. I think this is one of the most most important lessons of all.

And I was learned it without understanding a single word.