Being An 'Oddity' In A Foreign Country Taught This Woman To Access Her Inner Strength And Resilience

"It set me up for everything that was to come in my adult life, giving me faith in the kindness of strangers ... "

Majoring in Portuguese was a great way to turn big, impersonal Harvard University into a small college. I was the only student in the major so I had the two professors of Portuguese doting on me. The only problem was that there weren't enough "Portuguese and Brazilian Studies" courses available to fulfill the requirements!

The obvious solution was a semester abroad, which would get me a bunch of Portuguese credits. But, back in the 1970s, good old Harvard believed that no experience could match staying on campus. I had to petition some august assemblage of deans in those ivy-covered buildings for permission to study abroad during my junior year. It took months for the verdict to come down, and I felt like I was waiting for a Papal Edict or something of that magnitude.

Amy Newmark
Amy Newmark

I got the OK, and became perhaps the first Harvard student to get academic credit for studying abroad. At age twenty, I was on a plane to Rio de Janeiro for the greatest adventure of my life. I started with a six-week language immersion course and some Outward Bound–esque training that involved dropping us off twenty miles away with no money—to see if we could use our language skills to get fed and cared for by kind strangers.

Then I was off to the poverty-stricken northeast of Brazil to do research for my thesis for a couple of months. Somehow, I had heard about an esoteric type of Brazilian literature called literatura de cordel, meaning "literature on strings." These were crudely printed little booklets—folhetos—that were displayed hanging from strings in the marketplaces. These folhetos were the way that lower-income Brazilians shared folklore, fairy tales, and stories about miracles and religious figures and local heroes. In addition, there were famous improvisational singers—cantadores—who would engage in singing battles against each other, surrounded by hundreds of their fans. Their songs and exploits would become fodder for new folhetos.

When I look back on it, it was pretty crazy. I traveled all over the interior of Brazil by bus via the Amazon Highway, speaking only Portuguese. I had a gold ring on every finger, there were no cell phones, and no one knew where I was. It's remarkable that nothing bad happened to me, but I expected the best and that's what I got. (I also told everyone that my gold rings were fake. This was in a place where even wedding rings were just some kind of worthless beaten metal, so everyone believed me.)

Amy Newmark
Amy Newmark

People were so kind and helpful. When I needed to meet someone for my research, the connection would be made. I was known throughout the literatura de cordel community in the vast Northeast of Brazil as a pesquisadora americana (the American researcher). Wherever I went, there were newspaper interviews and sit-down lunches with the local bigwigs of the community. I went to the singing battles and they would sing about me, the pesquisadora, and I'd sit up there with the cantadores in front of the crowds.

I went into communities that had never before seen someone as pale as I was. In one town, deep in the interior, I found myself surrounded by about fifty women and children of Indios descent. They stood around me in a circle, staring, and occasionally one of them would be brave enough to run over, touch my waist-length blond hair or look into my blue eyes, and then run back to the circle, giggling. I was an oddity — a freak. I took a couple of steps in one direction to see what would happen and the whole circle moved with me. I took two steps back and the circle moved back with me.

I was traveling among the poor and I was living like them too. I stayed in the most disgusting, ramshackle $5-a-night hotels you can imagine, filled with the sick and downtrodden who were on religious pilgrimages to the places I was visiting, which were hotbeds of local saints, religious heroes, and legends of miraculous healing. I still vividly recall one tiny hotel bathroom where I was eye to eye with the largest cockroach I'd ever seen, several inches long and no more than two inches from my face as I raced through the fastest shower of my life.

I spent those months interviewing poets, folheto vendors, the people who printed them, the cantadores, local scholars, and everyone else I could find who had anything to do with the popular literature community. And boy did I collect stories. That's what my thesis ended up being — one story after another about the lives of all the colorful characters I encountered.

Of course it was the best semester I ever spent "at Harvard" and what I got from that time in Brazil was invaluable. It set me up for everything that was to come in my adult life, giving me faith in the kindness of strangers, teaching me inner strength and resilience, training me to connect with people I didn't know and elicit their stories, and preparing me for the hard, lonely trips that were to come in my business career. Those months in the northeast of Brazil, which were scary, surreal and magical, created reserves of strength and trust inside me that I still draw on, four decades later.

This story is written by Chicken Soup for the Soul author, publisher, and editor-in-chief Amy Newmark. It is published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Step Outside Your Comfort Zone: 101 Stories about Trying New Things, Overcoming Fears, and Broadening Your World © 2017 Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC. All rights reserved. 

Cover image via  Matej Kastelic I Shutterstock

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