REPORTER Jane O’Neill has swapped reporting from Sunderland’s city centre to the depths of Latin America. Along with three other young professionals and a group leader, she is part of a Rotary-funded Group Study Exchange trip to Riberiao Preto in Brazil.
DRUMS and singing heralded our arrival at Ribierao’s airport.
It was the end of nearly 24 hours of travelling and months of preparation by the 2012 Group Study Exchange team.
Our Brazilian host families scooped us up in the hugs that we would soon learn was the norm for the warm Latin Americans.
Our five-strong team was separated as we left the airport with our respective families and I was soon siting in the kitchen of the Mauricio’s 14th floor apartment in the city of Ribierao.
Around 700,000 people live in here and I didn’t know any of them.
As well as being in a strange city, I was also struggling to make myself understood. My Portuguese is limited, but I cheerfully assumed English would be widely spoken.
Wrong. Father Davi, his wife Alexanda and daughter Gabriela none at all. Son Lucas, 15, is my lifeline as he has been studying English for two years.
After a much-needed hot shower, the family take me out for a traditional buffet meal, with lots of carne (meat), polenta chips, rice and sweet pumpkin.
Davi orders me several capricas, a deadly combination of lime, sugar and lots of vodka. The social ice is broken as I take a deep drink of the first caprica and screw my face up at the taste. We use translation apps on our iPhones to chat and I show the Mauricios photos of my own family.
After a good night’s sleep, leisure time is over and we start a tough schedule of tours and meetings.
First up is Ouro Fino, a massive agro-chemical business.
Foreign trade manager Renata Mattar Faggioni shows us round and explains cameras are banned and we must don protective gear to enter the belly of the factory. And women are banned completely from the area where reproduction hormones are produced.
After the tour, we have lunch in the firm’s cafeteria. We’re impressed to learn that food is laid on for free to the workers and again it’s healthy fare - lots of salads and black bean stew - apart from a sweet treat of the traditional desert, dolce de leite, a sticky caramel pudding.
It’s home from home for me on the next visit, as we are shown round printing firm Sao Francisco, which prints up one of Brazil’s most popular children’s comics, Cascao.
Although it’s autumn in Brazil, temperatures are still in the high 20s and much hotter on the busy factory floor. Business is booming at the family-run firm, says Sander Luiz Uzuelle, one of the three brothers who own it.
Temperatures are high at our next visit, but it’s pressure rather than the heat, as we are bombarded year nine students at the private COC school.
Lessons are taught on hi-tech interactive white boards and each student is given a tablet computer.
The youngsters want to know all about the UK - do we live in London, have we met the Queen and do we shop at Primark?
Clothes are expensive in Brazil and they are envious of our high street. The school bell rings and we’re off the hook, as the students rush off.
Even though it’s, 6pm, there’s still lessons going on.
“Give my kisses to Primark,” says their teacher, whose sister-in-law and husband work in Surrey.
Our month-long trip has begun and Sunderland and its Primark seem very far away.
•You can follow Jane’s trip on Twitter at @janethejourno #EchoinBrazil.