My name is Jenelle Kappe. I am 31 (though I was 22/24 when I traveled Brazil), grew up in New Jersey but currently live in Chicago. For me, traveling is soul reviving. There is something incredibly liberating, fascinating and grounding about exploring and experiencing foreign cultures. It forces you to see this immense world in its entirety. Painting a bigger picture that has a tendency to be obscured by everyday life in the “western world”. My passion for life and love is rejuvenated when I travel. The cultivating awareness and knowledge of other cultures and the exposure to a boundless variety of people is so inspirational. It reminds me that the trials and tribulations of my everyday life – although at the time may seem detrimental – are truly trivial when it comes down to it. Travel is validation that there is more to life.
How does photography influence the way you travel?
I am not sure I can really say that photography influences the way I travel. However, I can say that photography heavily influences the way I perceive the places that I travel to. I think visual artists as a whole instinctively see things differently than the average traveler may. I find immense inspiration when I travel to new and unfamiliar places – discovering a new beauty and charm in daily life. Photography allows me to hone in on this inspiration, view the world through “new” eyes and share that vision with the world. At times this is as simple as sharing one still image. Other times the still image is solely the catalyst for a deeper purpose -- to convey an emotion or thought. The latter is where photography really hits my heart. When I am not only able to share a beautiful or captivating image with the world, but also able to share a thought, reflection and/or adventure – and inadvertently touch someone else with that. That feeling is indescribable.
What sparked your interest to visit Brazil?
There was a class offered at my college taught by a photo professor from Brazil that entailed learning the culture and history of the country for the semester and then spending a couple weeks there. Almost instantaneously my heart (and a piece of my soul) was captured by Brazil. After going for those few weeks -- before we even landed back in the States -- I was trying to find a way that I could go back to stay for an extended period of time. After months of groundwork, I got my break and was offered a volunteer job on Fernando de Noronha. I would be working with one of the schools that we visited during our initial visit, photographing their daily activities and aiding in English and computer classes. The first time I went, I was there for 3 months only to return later that year for nearly 6 months.
How did you navigate between each city you visited? Did you work with any tour companies or local organizations to coordinate your travel?
For the majority of my adventures I flew between cities. Brazil is a very large country and bus traveling is not the most convenient route, nor the safest. Fernando de Noronha is a small island off the coast of Brazil near Recife. It’s about an hour flight to get to the island, when I went I believe I used Varig airlines, which I think may no longer be in service. Fernando de Noronha is an archipelago of 21 islands and inlets and houses the largest concentration of tropical seabirds found in the Western Atlantic Ocean. Due to this and it’s extremely rich waters (providing feeding and breeding grounds for numerous marine species) it was deemed a World Heritage Site is 2001. In order to visit Noronha you have to pay an environmental tax, which is dependent on the length of your stay. The flights are generally not cheap, but it’s worth it. I believe that GOL and TAM Airlines offer Airpasses that allows for cheaper travel, if you are traveling to other cities within Brazil or South America. The passes have to be purchased along with a connecting international flight and I think they’re good for 30 days. When I was solo traveling I did all the travel plans on my own.
What was your experience as a traveler in Brazil? Did you travel by yourself or with others?
Traveling within Brazil included everything from being held up at gunpoint, to being welcomed into numerous families, to having the worst food poisoning in my life, to having money and jewelry stolen from my room while I was sleeping, to being so passionately loved and cared for by people -- that I barely even knew – that, to this day, I crave some sort of comparison.
For most of my traveling I was solo and I think there is something to be said about traveling alone. Powerful lows to inexpressible highs. The roller coaster of emotions you get while you travel are felt to the extreme -- everything seems to be more intense. There were moments I was scared for my life, moments I missed my friends and family back home so much it hurt and moments that I was completely overcome by tears and heartache unsure I made the right decision to travel to and live in Brazil. But I also had moments where I didn’t think I could be any happier, moments when I was so overjoyed I had tears rolling down my cheek and moments when my heart was so full of love and contentment that it burned.
Brazil is not the safest country to visit, but the larger cities are where you have to seriously keep your wits about you. If I was out walking the street I only kept a small amount of cash on me and more often than not, I would hide it in different places; sock, bra, different pockets. Just in case I was held up/robbed, I would still have a secret stash of money somewhere. Noronha is very safe. I would still take caution in being sure I locked my room door and didn’t keep valuables out, but I never felt threatened or unsafe living there.
Did you have any expectations or preconceived notions about the culture you would be exposed to? How did they differ from the way the culture actually was?
I don’t think I had any preconceived notions or expectations when I went to live in Brazil. All I knew is that something about the country captured my heart during my first two-week visit. There is this passion that the country and its people have for life and love that I have yet to experience anywhere else. I never expected to be so warmly welcomed into so many families while I was there. To have complete strangers open their home to you without a bat of an eye was something I have never experienced before. You don’t get much of that in the Western World. It’s almost as if here, it’s something you need to earn.
I will also say that I never expected the fears and sad days that I had in Brazil, but I think that comes along with being a young and slightly naive traveler. And to be completely honest, I would have never predicted to be as emotionally distraught as I was when I left Brazil for the last time. It was an incredible heartache for me. The day I said my goodbyes to my host Mom and all the teachers and friends I made in Noronha was one of the most heart wrenching days of my life. The tears lasted my entire plane ride to mainland Brazil. I remember towards the end of the flight, the women sitting next to me leaned over, gave me this loving embrace and said (in Portuguese), ”don’t worry you’ll be back.”
How would you describe Brazilian culture?
The only way I feel I can describe Brazil and its culture is --- it’s alive! The music, the dancing, the food are all exceedingly spirited, intense and expressive. There is this dramatic sentiment that exists, everything that is done is done wholeheartedly. Their lives are very simple, with little to no materialism but they live their lives out vehemently. Constantly surrounded by friends and/or family, having barbeques, enjoying drinks, sharing conversations, arguing disputes. Being alone or needing alone time is not the norm.
What were some of your most memorable moments?
I think actually living and volunteering in Brazil gave me an insight to Brazilians and their way of life that the average traveler wouldn’t experience. An advantage I was, and still am, incredibly grateful for. As a culture Brazilians are incredibly open and passionate people. Their generosity, love for life and profound happiness in the simple things blew me away. I spent one Christmas with one of the professor’s (from Noronha) family in Recife (mainland Brazil). Walking into his apartment I was greeted by his mother, his two sisters and his two nieces. The smiles, embraces and love that I received immediately warmed my soul. What really hit me hard was when I realized this very small apartment had only two bedrooms, one bath and six people living in it ---plus me. With only four twin size beds in the home. The Grandmother shared a room with one of her daughters while the other room was her other daughter and two grandchildren.
Arnaldo (the professor from Noronha) would sleep in the living room on a thin mattress that was pulled out at night. When you travel – especially on a budget – you become very comfortable sleeping wherever’s available. I was happy to sleep on the couch or a mattress on the floor, but when I walked into the room they prepared for me I found an open bed. Arnaldo’s sister gave me the bed and chose to sleep on the floor – the tiled floor. I tried everything in my power to give her the room. I was the one intruding in their home, after all – I should be uncomfortable, not them. But she wouldn’t budge. I remember it taking so long for me to fall asleep that night. So torn by guilt and overwhelmed by kindness I didn’t really know what to do with myself. To this day I still think about that. I only wish my Portuguese was better so that I could’ve have conveyed how grateful I was for their hospitality and generosity but, even then I don’t think I could’ve accurately expressed it.
What recommendations can you share for future travelers?
There is so much to see and do in Brazil, but what I would recommend would be to visit the smaller cities. Skip Sao Paulo and Rio and visit Natal, Salvador and the outskirts of Recife, like Olinda. Each city has it’s own culture that is so distinctive. I would say visiting Fernando de Noronha is a must – especially if you love beaches. It’s one of the most gorgeous islands I have been on. Manaus is a beautiful city as well and is right at the mouth of the Amazon River. It’s always worth the flight to go there and see the Amazon. I would recommend taking a boat trip down the Amazon and I’d encourage you to take a smaller boat. When I went it was only me and a friend – a much better and personal experience. And, I think this goes with traveling anywhere, get in there. Experience the cultures, talk with the people.
What is your favorite memory from your trip?
One of my favorite memories was the night we spent sleeping in hammocks in the Amazon. Our guide took us in a canoe further into the jungle, away from the boat we were staying on. We hiked for a bit and then he set up camp. He cooked us chicken over an open fire, shared fascinating stories about his life and the jungle and then we went to sleep. I’ll tell you, sleeping in the Amazon with nothing but a mosquito net between you and everything that exists in the Amazon, is thrilling – and nerve-racking. The smells, the noises, the darkness, it was incredibly dark. I’ve never experienced anything like it before.
What foods did you eat? Did you have any favorite or unfavorable culinary experiences?
I thoroughly enjoyed Brazilian food. There are a lot of barbeques in Brazilian culture. Which is rightfully so, the meat is deliciously tender and satisfyingly salty - this would also include the barbequed chicken heart I had, so good. The fruit is heavenly, especially the bananas and pineapples. Man I miss them. There is this bread called Pao de Queijoo (bread of cheese – or cheesy bread) that is frighteningly addictive. There was a grocery store on the island with an attached bakery, I think one of the only ones on the island. Almost every day my Host Mom would buy bags of the fresh baked pao de queijo. It was dangerous. Adding to the list would be brigadeiros, a small chocolate truffle, and Pasteis, a pastry filled with either a meat, fish, heart of palm or cheese. One of my most treasured culinary experiences was when a friend made Camarao na Moranga, Shrimp in Pumpkin. It’s every bit sweet and spicy and so delectable. To this day, I make it as much as I can.
What surprised you most about your experience?
What surprised me the most about my experience in Brazil was the extraordinary bond that I developed with the people I met there. As I mentioned earlier, I never thought I would be even a fraction as sad as I was to be leaving Brazil and returning back to the States. It hit me really hard and it led to some severe culture shock when I returned. I remember sitting on the ground in the Miami airport waiting for my next flight stunned by how much I felt like I didn’t belong where I was.
What advice do you have for other individuals that would also like to travel to Brazil?
Do it! Go to Brazil! Be a savvy traveler and be careful of your surroundings. There is a lot of history in Brazil and each city and place has so much to offer. Be sure not to overwhelm yourself and try and fit too much in. You can literally see anything you could imagine in Brazil, the beach, the mountains, the rain forest, the sand dunes – anything.
What’s next for you?
I have a busy summer of work ahead of me, but it looks as though the end of this year I will either be heading to Cuba for a couple weeks or to Australia for at least a month. Plans are still in the works, so I am unsure as of now but I will be heading somewhere. That part is for sure.
Images Courtesy of Jenelle Kappe