The experience of fear can be stifling, suffocating, and overwhelming.
We have all experienced that feeling.
Where your heart races, you get chills down your spine, and you can’t catch your breath.
Where words whirl around your head, you struggle to think clearly, and you feel the knot in your stomach growing bigger and bigger.
I know that I have let fear stop me.
I have allowed fear to hold me back.
I have allowed fear to influence my decisions and ultimately affect how I have lived my life.
Fortunately, that is beginning to change.
The first step towards this change was making the most frightening decision that I have ever made in my life: leaving my loved ones and everything I knew at home for a year of independent, international travel.
Throughout this year I have learned so much about my relationship with fear and I have been taking action to address how fear impacts my life.
With each destination I encounter new experiences, new challenges, and new fears.
As I settled into my new home here in Brazil the familiar thoughts and feelings of fear began to creep back into my mind as I started to explore a completely unfamiliar place.
I had moments where I felt alone. I had moments where I wondered if I would accomplish anything substantial for my project. I had moments where I began to fall into the familiar trap of doubting myself.
With the support of friends and family and by reminding myself of everything I have accomplished and experienced in the past ten months I began to fight back those feelings of worry, anxiety, and fear.
I took the time to think about what I was feeling and experiencing while also deciding to do what I could to remain as hopeful, optimistic, and brave as possible.
With a revitalized approach and a little bit of luck I began to make significant progress on my project and my experience.
After hours of exhaustive research, numerous rejections, and many unanswered emails I received the opportunities that I had been searching for when three separate projects invited me to visit their programs in three different favelas.
When I told my local host family and friends about my plans to visit programs in favelas I received mainly negative responses.
I soon learned that “favela” is a kind of “f” word here in Brazil. A word with an extensive, divisive, and complicated history. A word with negative connotations, judgments, and stereotypes.
When people became aware of my plans to spend a significant amount of time venturing into different favelas in order to explore my project they became hesitant, concerned and worried.
I was flooded with words of advice, concern, and caution.
I was told stories of tourists being mugged, murdered, and attacked. I was reminded of the heightened level of violence and crime, gangs, and drug trafficking in the favelas.
It became clear that even though many of these people hadn’t ventured into these favelas, they formed quite a strong and negative opinion about these communities.
I was warned to not take the buses because I may contract lice.
I was told that I should not walk around alone because there are many people willing to take advantage of a young, foreign-looking female.
Despite all of this, I wanted to maintain an open mind and create my own opinions based on my own experiences in the favelas.
With an open heart and an open mind I have spent the most incredible past three weeks in Pavao, Rocihna, and Julio Otoni.
My experiences have been unbelievably positive and inspirational.
At first walking into the different favelas was overwhelming because of how different the favelas were in comparison to the area of Rio where I lived.
It was like walking into a completely different world.
Buildings were stacked high upon the mountain tops with concrete, wood, and brick. Tangled electrical wires hung low along the streets and drainage canals along the sides of the roads carried trash and unpleasant smell. The streets were in constant movement with people, motorbikes, and markets. Meats were butchered and cooked in makeshift barbecue areas, stray dogs and cats scavenged for food, and children wandered around alone or in small groups. Deep within the community some buildings were so close and the overhead electrical wires were so thick that the alleyways were completely dark and you could see neither the sun nor the sky.
Despite all of the ugly stereotypes and stories that I have heard I also saw so much beauty.
I saw striking and elaborate art spray painted along buildings, walls, and fences.
I saw homes where the concrete was painted bright colors.
I smelled delicious meals being prepared in small restaurants and homes.
I heard the laughter of friends, families, and children.
I experienced the kindness of complete strangers who were extremely welcoming and helpful as they guided me along the streets to help me find my way.
And I have been inspired by the incredible programs that do so much with so little to help the children and families in their communities.
In Rocihna, the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro, I have spent time with an incredible organization called Project Favela. This organization was created by an American and has grown to provide several different programs to help children and the community. Staffed and supported by international volunteers, this organization runs projects that include English language courses both for children and community members at different times throughout the day, structured lessons for children at a local daycare, and an after school program focused on providing kids with a safe space off of the streets.
In Julio Otoni, I have been visiting the Julio Otoni Community Center for their morning activities with younger children and their afternoon activities with school-aged children. Here children play sports, complete crafts, and receive a light meal while being cared for by two caring and kind women.
In such a short amount of time with these projects I have learned so much.
I have learned that life in the favelas can be very difficult and that there aren’t many programs or services to help.
I heard stories about how some of the children rarely see their parents because their parents are working unbelievably long hours. I have heard how some children do not attend school and instead stay at home and stay on the streets caring for their younger siblings. I have heard disturbing stories that there was a child molester taking advantage of families’ difficult situations as he preyed on the children who are left unaccompanied throughout the day.
I also learned so much about different approaches to life and what it truly means to embrace life in a different way.
As I started to really get to know the children and community members I was inspired by their mindset and their approach to life.
Many of these children did not have very clean or well fitting clothes. Some didn’t have much food to eat. Most of the children didn’t have flashy toys or electronics.
While many people would comment that these communities had “so little”, I was able to see how these communities truly had “so much”.
They had so much positivity, laughter, and happiness.
I never heard the children comment on the way that they looked. I never heard the children complain about what they did or did not have.
I fell in love with this mindset.
Coming from a culture in America that is so obsessed with comparisons, money, material possessions and achievement, life in the favela was indubitably refreshing and inspiring.
The children played together, shared with one another, and helped one another in ways that I had never seen before.
There was a different level of appreciation, compassion, and love between members in these communities.
So many of the children and the community members went out of their way to help me and to help each other.
I feel truly blessed to have had the opportunity to be welcomed into their communities and to experience their kindness, compassion, strength, and resilience.
There have been so many moments throughout the past few weeks that I will always treasure and remember: drawing and painting, making animal crafts, the music lessons and concert in Rocihna, creating our paper chain decoration for the community center, jamming out and singing Taylor Swift and Beyonce songs, playing soccer and volleyball, making music together with a collection of old drums and instruments, and teaching each other different phrases and pronunciations in English and Portuguese.
With only a week left in Rio de Janeiro I have been incredibly humbled by my experiences in the favelas.
I have continued to learn so much about different approaches to helping and also different approaches to living.
I have realized that it could have been very easy for me to allow the opinions and fears of others to stop me from exploring the favelas and having this incredible experience.
My time in Brazil has further shown me that by taking a chance and venturing out of my comfort zone I am able to explore, grow, learn, and live my life in a completely new and different way.
Even though at times it may be difficult and even though I am sometimes flooded with the familiar insecurities, anxieties, worries, and fears that I will continue to battle throughout my life, I have been embracing change and progress.
I have learned that by leaving my comfort zone, taking risks, and embracing situations that would normally make me feel guarded and vulnerable I am liberating myself and giving myself the opportunity to truly live.