When and where did you travel abroad? Did you backpack?
I lived and traveled in Brazil for several months. I mostly stayed in the region of Foz do Iguaçu, but I also took some time to go backpacking around the southern states of the country. I backpacked in the states of Paraná, Santa Catarina, Rio Grande do Sul and São Paulo.
What made you want to travel abroad?
My family traveled a lot when I was a child and I have always been passionate about other languages, cultures and, of course, food. I went to visit some friends in Brazil with my mother and brother for a few weeks and they invited me to stay longer. I had already thought about taking a gap year to travel and decide what I wanted to to with my life, so this seemed like a perfect opportunity. It was also a chance to spend an extended period living away from my mother for the first time, and I knew that staying with locals would allow me to significantly improve my Portuguese skills and learn more about the typical Brazilian lifestyle.
I’d originally intended to go to Europe to volunteer for a year, but upon receiving the invitation in Brazil, I changed my plans. There, I knew that I would be living with friends, who I’d gotten to know during the two-week visit with my family. Also, the overall cost of living in Brazil is much lower, and having been a full-time student prior to the trip, I hadn’t had a chance to save up much money. The convenience of it all played a major role: I was already in Brazil and summer break had already started, so why waste more time trying to organize another experience? There was one right in front of me!
What was the biggest surprise about your travel experiences abroad?
I spent the majority of my time in a city that was once considered to be Brazil’s most dangerous, as it is located on a triple frontier and is a drug trafficking hub. Everything I read about Foz do Iguaçu (and Brazil in general) led me to believe I’d be dodging bullets and getting things stolen on my first day. The reality was nothing like that. Foz do Iguaçu is a city of contrasts, but you can comfortably use an iPhone while walking on the street and still have it when you return home. The city (and the south of Brazil as a whole) is also quite advanced technologically. For example, if you want to withdraw cash at a bank branch, you will be required to verify your identity with your fingerprint or wrist print. Overall, I felt very safe during my time in Foz do Iguaçu, even when I had to walk through residential neighborhoods at night. I also didn’t have anything stolen from me and most people I talked to had the same experience.
Did you participate in cultural activities abroad? If so, how did they differ from social activities in your home culture?
I did my best to make the most of experience abroad, so I accepted invitations from new friends and went to events in the city. As a Canadian, I was really impressed by Brazilians’ talent to do more with less. The average Brazilian get-together or celebration is a lot simpler than what we have in North America, but in my opinion, these events are more authentic. People don’t try to impress their guests by renting out an expensive venue or getting catering from fancy restaurants. Instead, dinner parties are held in the host’s backyard (with some chairs and tables set up on the street if there’s not enough space) and barbecued meat is served, alongside rice, beans, salad and fruit for dessert. The main drinks are Guaraná and local beers and wines.
No one really feels left out at these weekend get-togethers. Even if you don’t know many people there, by the end of the night, you’ll have made at least a few new friends.
What made your travel experience abroad a success?
I would say that already knowing some Portuguese helped a lot. The majority of Brazilians only know greetings in English, so being able to communicate in the local language helped me in my day-to-day life and allowed me to be a more active participant in the events that I attended.
I studied Portuguese on my own for around a year and then I took a semester of Portuguese at University before going to Brazil. I would say that I had a conversational level in the language when I arrived and this helped me improve faster since I could engage in conversations with locals.
How did you finance your trip abroad and did you find any creative solutions to stay on budget?
Being in South America and living with friends are two major factors that helped me not run out of money. I didn’t have to pay rent and just needed to help with some household expenses and groceries, which are quite cheap in Brazil, when compared to the prices in Canada. I only had a tourist visa when I was there, so I could not work officially, but that did not prevent me from giving private English lessons. Demand for English lessons in Brazil is high, so I didn’t have trouble finding students, both for online and in-person lessons.
Near the end of my experience abroad I found myself running a bit low on funds, since I had to purchase a return ticket to Canada. I still had a few places I wanted to see that weren’t close to Foz, so instead of taking a bus, I hitchhiked. This was an amazing experience for me, not only because of the amount of money I saved, but also because of the people I met and the stories I heard.
What was your return like?
I went home in November, so the first thing I noticed was the extreme temperature change. November is the beginning of the summer in Brazil, so when I left, it was around 30 degrees Celsius and when I arrived in Canada, I was met with almost 0 degrees Celsius.
Apart from that, I really missed, and still do, the informality of Brazil. You can very easily buy eggs, produce, bread and baked goodies from the mobile vendors that pass through residential neighborhoods every day. No one requires your documents if you want to take a short course (like one that I took where we were taught to prepare traditional Brazilian snacks): you just show up, pay and leave a contact number so that you can be reminded when the start date is near. The same goes for when you want a short-term part-time job, which I did purely for the cultural experience since casual and entry-level jobs in Brazil pay horribly. I found the lack of organization frustrating at times, there is beauty in this way of life as well.
What is your number one tip for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Don’t be afraid to spend money abroad, especially if you’re in a country with a low cost of living. Try some new foods, visit all the landmarks and museums that appear interesting and travel around the region as much as you can. I would give the same advice to myself if I were to go to South America again or another region. There were some cities I didn’t visit and some experiences I missed out on because I thought the tickets were too expensive. Despite the expense, next time I would definitely take the opportunity to discover something new. Remember: having money in the bank is nice, but having experiences that you will talk about for years to come is even better.
What are your future plans for going abroad and for your career?
I have plans to return to South America this summer, but this time I’m thinking of going to Argentina. Once again, I’m hoping that the favorable exchange rate will help make my trip more affordable and I want to brush up on my Spanish. This time, I’m thinking of volunteering on farms, in schools or in hostels through Workaway. I did it once during my first trip to Brazil and I loved it, so I would like to do it again, but in another country. To be honest, I still don’t have a concrete idea about what career path I hope to pursue, but there are some areas that I have developed a keen interest in: psychology, tourism, and education. For now, I am working towards a certificate in Event Management and hope to earn an associate’s degree in the field as well. I still give private English lessons online and I have a passion for this activity, so I am considering going into the area. Psychology is more of a personal interest of mine and it is a subject that will be useful no matter what I decide to work with.
We commend Emilia's willingness to dive into a foreign culture head-first and immerse herself in the local language and culture. Picking up a casual job not for the money, but for the experience, and choosing to backpack in Latin America shows true globetrotter spirit! These choices represent a willingness to step outside her comfort zone in pursuit of rich cross-cultural experiences. Although she has fallen in love with Latin America, we would also recommend venturing to another part of of the world to experience cultural contrasts. Her experience teaching English would open up many opportunities in Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. A professional internship in Portugal would also allow her to use her language skills while exploring new territory and contrasting culture. And, of course, in terms of pursuing tourism-related careers, the world is literally her oyster! We wish Emilia luck as she pursues further international experiences and builds towards her future career.
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- The Ideal International Profile will help you look ahead and consider what skills you’ll need in order to build an international career for yourself.
- Tips for Making the Most of Your Time Abroad provides some tips on how to maximize your time abroad to boost personal and professional value.