Reporter Jane O’Neill spent four weeks in Brazil on a Rotary Club exchange for young professionals. Here she looks back at her time in South America.
HECTIC, hard work yet absolutely unforgettable. Learning a language, meeting new people, absorbing ourselves in a different culture and working through an extensive programme of cultural visits.
Rotary International took us through a whirlwind four weeks and three days on its Group Study Exchange (GSE) trip.
I’ve returned to the UK with enough photos to open a gallery, a basic grasp of Brazilian Portuguese, a host of happy memories, four new friends in my travelling companions and more than a 100 new amigos on Facebook.
However, our time in Brazil was no relaxing holiday.
From sugar cane plantations to private schools, cathedrals to a cow insemination centre, we saw it all.
We stayed in 10 different town and cities, with eight host families and averaged around three instructional visits a day.
Most of our hosts spoke very little English, though all made us feel as if we were part of their families.
At the interview stage of the programme, we were warned the days would be tough and the nights short, with just six hours allocated for sleeping.
As a team of four young professionals – mental health nurse Yvonne Rob, council officer Maxine Watchman, engineer Robert Campbell and team leader Peter Tracey – we were used to tackling long hours in busy work places.
But I don’t think anything could have prepared us for the intensity of the GSE programme.
Robert, 26, who lives in Jesmond, said: “At points on the trip I was the most exhausted I’ve ever been in my life.
“We visited such a diverse number of places and had meet and greets with so many people I felt like the Queen. The Brazilians are very enthusiastic and welcoming people.”
Durham County Council officer Maxine, 38, added: “Prior to leaving England, I researched Brazil so I had a reasonable idea of what the country was like.
“However, by visiting the country I gained much more of a real insight into the country, its people, culture, customs, industries and language.”
She added: “I thought the trip was life changing.
“I learned so much about Brazil, the culture, people, working as a team, communicating with different people from different cultures and backgrounds and helping others.
“I learned how important some of the industries are in Brazil such as sugar cane, coffee and cattle and also how local authorities operate in Brazil, and will be able to take back some ideas back to my own work place.
“My experiences will definitely influence my future behaviour, thoughts and actions.”
Yvonne, 39, who works for Tees, Esk and Wear Valley NHS Trust, said: “Brazil for me was like being let loose in the pick and mix aisle as a child.
“It is vibrant, contains every colour and flavour and was a life-affirming experience.
“The social differences between the rich and the poor were the sour sweets, but it was heart warming to see so many people trying to lessen this disparity. My life is richer for having experienced Brazil and its people.”
Throughout the trip, the warmth of the Brazilian people and the excitement of exploring a new country helped boost our flagging energy levels.
They were all keen to learn more about life in the UK, with Harry Potter and the Royal Family as their main reference points.
And there was a lot for us to learn, as we picked up new Portuguese words every day and found out more about Brazil customs – putting your handbag on the floor is unlucky girls.
Also, it’s not polite to pick up food with your bare hands, but it’s perfectly fine to arrive an hour late to a party.
From a journalist’s point of view, there were also many differences in the work place.
Circulations figures are low and most people who do take a daily paper have it delivered and read it over breakfast, as the Germanic-sized Brazilian papers are considered too unwieldy to read on public transport.
From a Rotarian’s stand point, the motto of Service Above Self is put to the test even in an affluent state such as Sao Paulo, where there are still social issues that need tackling.
Standards of healthcare in the public sector appeared to be far behind the UK, and pupils at private schools outstrip their public counterparts.