Week 2 in Brasil: Rio de Janeiro

Apologies for the late update: I have fallen behind on my blogging since I returned from Brasil a few days ago. Towards the end of my first week in São Paulo, I began developing a cough/cold/throat/nose condition, which put a damper on the Rio portion of the trip. My immune system is not the best. Fortunately, I did not get anyone sick, and as of today, I have finally recovered.

We flew from São Paulo to Rio two Mondays ago. While at the airport, Renata received a phone call from her uncle insisting that she go to the Spain-Chile game with her sister, Fernanda. [[Back story: we had not fared well with securing tickets for World Cup games. Lottery and first-come first-serve didn’t work to our advantage. Renata’s uncle (who attended the opening game in São Paulo) gave four tickets for the Spain-Chile game to Fernanda and Renata. Fernanda was bringing her friend, Anila. Renata had three friends though and planned to give her two tickets to cousins on the other side of the family]]. We decided that the fair way to pick who goes to the game amongst Morgan, Olindi, and myself was to put names in a hat, literally. I read my Air Force Officer’s Guide on my Kindle while all of this was happening, as if touching anything would jinx my luck. Olindi and Renata wrote names on papers while Morgan crumpled them into Olindi’s American top hat. Renata pulled out a name, and I thought my heart was going to drop. Even after Renata said “Afsoon” and Olindi and Morgan smiled at me, I couldn’t believe it and continued reading my book. Really, I wanted to jump up and down and hug all three of them. Worst part though, I wished that Olindi and Morgan could come too.

We missed the first half of the Iran-Nigeria game, but we arrived at our hostel in Copacabana for the second half. Both sides played well enough by my account with a 0-0 score, the first tie of the World Cup.

I skipped over a quick detail… when we arrived at Copa Fun Hostel, I could visually see Olindi and Renata’s jaws drop as low as mine. I do not want to be a hostel snob, but maybe I have been in more upscale hostels in Europe. At Copa Fun, the receptionists and staff were lovely. The living area with the television was decent enough. The wi-fi would occasionally work. Our room, however, was possibly the smallest space you could fit three bunk beds. Our sheets were worn. Lumps of cotton formed what was supposed to be a pillow. We had no blankets, which turned out okay because it was too hot in the room for blankets anyway. Only two toilets in the hostel flushed well. Of the three showers, one had cold water, one had mostly hot water but would drip on you as you’re trying to change clothes, and the third had no hooks to hang your things. It was not very functional for the number of individuals staying there. Bright side: the hostel was quite clean. I grew pretty comfortable with the environment by the second day, but my first shower back home was absolutely luxurious in comparison. In the end, Copa Fun Hostel was a fabulous experience with lots of hilarity mixed in. “Copa fun”, being a ratchet version of regular fun, will now be a commonplace phrase in that group of friends.

Because Morgan was leaving early, we spent our first day seeing the big tourist sites. We signed up for an all-inclusive tour of Christ the Redeemer, a walk/drive around the city including Escadaria Selarón and the cathedral, and cable cars up Sugarloaf mountain. Copa fun began at the very start. After already driving up to the line for Christ the Redeemer, the tour guide and driver returned down to the city for a casual one-hour detour to pick a person who signed up last-minute…and NEVER showed. A good chunk of people were getting horribly carsick from the cobblestone drive; I was especially concerned for Morgan. The tour group turned hostile when the tour guide said we didn’t have time for the city tour and that there would be no refunds. In addition, we were previously told we could cut the line to see Christ the Redeemer – no such luck! We made the best of it though and took pictures galore. Although we only had 20 minutes to enjoy the top, the view was fabulous.

Christ the Redeemer

Christ the Redeemer

The tour began to redeem itself a little (heh heh) when the tour guide gave us 70 reais back, due to Sugarloaf Mountain’s closure that day (womp womp). We got to complete the city tour and conclude the day by chanting, “this is copa fun!” That evening, we enjoyed the beach at Copacabana and watched the big screen for the USA-Ghana game (2-1). GO USA!!!!

The next day was the Spain-Chile game. It was an experience I will never forget. The energy of Brazilians and especially crowds in Rio for the World Cup was unbelievable. Chileans made up the vast majority of attendees, and Brazilians clearly outnumbered the Spanish. Sitting six rows away from the action near the goal post, I was rooting for Spain but witnessed the previous World Cup champions be the first country officially out of this World Cup, losing 0-2. The stadium constantly chanted for Chile: “Chi Chi Chi, Le Le Le, viva Chile”. I could see both goals so clearly. I didn’t even need to zoom my camera to take pictures of the action. We were lost in a sea of red and specks of yellow.

Renata and I at the Spain-Chile game

Renata and I at the Spain-Chile game

Interestingly enough, I later learned that a group broke a window at the stadium during the game and tried to break in. I imagined it began from the enormous crowd of Chileans out front begging for tickets, but I never looked up the full story. Throughout the entire experience, I felt really safe, even with protests nearby. The police and military force were strong in the streets and near the stadium. I never encountered individuals disrespecting one another’s countries. The crowds were positive and excited.

Renata’s cousin, Renato, and his girlfriend joined us in our last few days. For the rest of the trip after Morgan had to leave, we enjoyed the beach (where Olindi and I won Miss Boom Boom and ended up on Panama TV), going out in Lopa, and food. I must say my favorite is drinking coconut water straight from the coconut. We met awesome people at our hostel, including three Argentinians who joined for meals and the beach, a German, an Australian/American, a French girl, and a group of college kids from Boston. We also met a couple nice guys from Chile who helped alleviate my feelings toward Chile (the streets of Rio were packed with obnoxious Chileans). Rio had an energy about it, and it is definitely the city to visit during the World Cup.

Gorgeous shot of Rio from the airplane [photo credit goes to Fernanda]

Gorgeous shot of Rio from the airplane [photo credit goes to Fernanda]

We flew back to São Paulo last Saturday. Timing worked out perfectly because we ate at a nice restaurant at the airport during the Argentina-Iran game (the game that our three Argentinian friends from the hostel attended in person). While eating yet another Brazilian buffet, I enjoyed the company of a varied group supporting either side, with my immediate friends supporting Iran for my sake and rooting against Argentina as competitors challenging their prospective favorites. Alas, it was a loss for Iran (0-1), but I was proud to be Iranian American! They kept the tie up until the final minutes of the game. Even though they didn’t make it to the final 16, nobody had anticipated Iran would do so well during the group stage.

Our last couple of days in São Paulo were relaxing before heading home. It mostly consisted of watching games and eating all the Brazilian food we could get. My two weeks in Brazil were copa fun! I had a great time, memorable experience, and enjoyed the fabulous company. Time to get back to reality and start a new journey at home.

Excited for the USA game and for returning back to the states soon :)

Excited for the USA game and for returning back to the states soon

Advertisements

Week 1 in Brasil: São Paulo

Fun fact about myself: I get extreme travel anxiety. Not that it stops me from traveling. The month before, the week before, and especially the day of my flight out to my destination (especially when it’s international), I am in no way excited. Mostly I am unhappy I decided to partake in such an expensive and inconvenient adventure. Once I land, the story changes. It’s such a fabulous learning experience, and I love broadening my horizons, acclimating to an unfamiliar culture, and participating in local activities.

To be fair, Brasil isn’t all too unfamiliar. I visited 8 years ago around the same time (summer for home, winter for here). That time I went to São Paulo, Campos dos Goytacazes, and Bahia, a great mixture of places where I got to enjoy the city, the mountains, and the beach, respectively. I am lucky to have a Brazilian best friend since third grade, Renata, who also happens to have an amazing family, including both her nuclear family in Virginia and her extended family in São Paulo. Another fun fact: her grandfather was a famous politician in Campos, and we celebrated a festival in his honor when we visited before. Give me five minutes and I can easily draw her family free. Definitely cannot say the same for my own family.

Well here I am – back in Brasil again! Like 8 years ago, the World Cup games are the talk of the town. Unlike 8 years ago, I get to experience the games happen around me. Unfortunately, soccer game tickets fell through for my friends and me (we were 2 tickets short and decided to duck out as a group instead of leave anybody out), but Renata’s sister and her friend will go to the Spain v. Chile game while we’re in Rio. So jealous! But I will try to get over it…someday.

Finishing up week 1 in São Paulo. I left to Brasil later than the rest of the group so I could celebrate Andrew’s birthday last Sunday (the poor guy spent most of his birthday weekend working on a proposal project due the next day). I took a red eye Monday to Tuesday, watching movies galore instead of sleeping as per usual, and after successfully navigating out of the duty-free shops to arrivals, I was welcomed by Renata, Olindi, Morgan (childhood/high school friends), and Michael (Renata’s grandmother’s awesome driver slash former security guard). Her grandmother and one of her aunts are gracious enough to house us during the São Paulo portion of the trip. We are leaving to Rio de Janeiro on a flight tomorrow afternoon.

This past week is beginning to seem like a blur. Because my phone pictures aren’t importing properly and it’s 3:30am here, I will simply share highlights.

1) Opening game: Brasil vs. Croatia. The first Croatia goal startled us all, and Olindi came up with an escape plan in case a riot broke out: climb to the roof if possible or leave to the bar atrium near our table and then climb to the roof towards refuge. The plan proved to be unnecessary, as Brasil scored three more times and won the game. Wish I could upload the awesome video I have of the crowds cheering in the streets of São Paulo when Brasil won; I have never experienced anything like it. No matter what jersey you were sporting, no matter what country you were representing, you were just another World Cup fan excited for the games. Everybody got along fabulously, and the caparinhas kept the crowds alive. I also had a headband that day with the Iranian and United States flags to support my motherland and my homeland. Gotta represent.

From left to right, Morgan, Renata, Olindi, and I in our opening game attire

From left to right, Morgan, Renata, Olindi, and I in our opening game attire

2) Food and drinks galore. All natural fruit juices. Cheeses like catupiry and requeijão. Bread and cheese varieties like pão de queijo, quatro queijos pizza, and breaded cheese on a stick. Coxinha chicken dumplings that melt in your mouth. Pastel deliciousness of Brazilian-type hot pockets. Desserts of the condensed milk variety: brigadeiro, beijinho, and doce de leite, as well as many other flavors.

Caipirinhas: passion fruit, lime, and strawberry

Caipirinhas: passion fruit, lime, and strawberry

3) Zoo Safari, formerly named Simba Safari, featured emus that stare viciously into your soul, these hog-type animals, ostriches that bite your fingers, pigeons, flamingos, peacocks, lazy alligators, a hippo, monkeys who attack cars, adorable South American deer who slobber all over your hands for food, tigers, a lion and lioness, albino peacocks, camels, and llamas.

Everyone's favorite: the camel, who's loving up on Morgan

Everyone’s favorite: the camel, who’s loving up on Morgan

4) Sight-seeing: a gorgeous cathedral, the city-center of São Paulo, Paulista Avenue (where we witnessed metro riots over the World Cup), and more! Statues, architecture, and streets in different parts of the city all tell a story. Renata, her sister, and her cousins constantly share information about São Paulo’s history and culture with infinite pride.

Beautiful day in the park of the zoo

Beautiful day in the park of the zoo

Favelas with the best view of São Paulo

A few favelas with the best view of São Paulo

São Paulo skyline

São Paulo skyline

That’s all I have for now. It’s been a memorable week, and I definitely appreciate what São Paulo had for us. Next up, Rio de Janeiro!

Finding my own kind of happiness

I still remember the day in eighth grade I asked my dad, “When will I stop being sad?”. He told me that it gets better, reminding me that those who truly know suffering are the ones who feel happiness at its greatest. I agree.

Well, today I am sad, but it’s the good kind of sad. I am interrupting my paper-writing to pause and reflect. I sometimes get this need to grieve for the loss of my mother, the woman who visits now and again but seems lost to her insatiable mental illness. At this point, I just want her to be happy, but I am powerless to help. The other day I realized that fighting mental illness is like fighting cancer. It can get better, you can feel hopeful; it can seemingly go away, it might come back, it might not come back; it might follow you to the grave. But mental illness is not like cancer in the respect that your neighbor won’t often help you with words of support or acts of kindness. Psychiatric disorders are somehow shameful, and nobody wants to ask for help. It is a very rare type of person who willingly aids the mentally ill, and for all of you beautiful individuals who have helped my mother in her struggles, I wish I could thank you a thousand times over. You give me hope for humanity.

I finally see now that you cannot save someone you love from drowning if he/she won’t stop swimming. You got to let go and trust that life will work itself out. In this very moment, my mom is in Michigan and plans to leave to California before she stabilizes on an appropriate medication regiment. In this very moment, my dad, brother, and sister-in-law are sorting through my mom’s things, setting aside sentimental items for storage, but mostly giving everything away through Craigslist and Goodwill. My mom seems happy now, at least that’s what her texts suggest. She’s finally looking to the future instead of the past, and I completely respect her for that. I understand now why parents struggle with letting their children go off and become adults on their own. It’s a scary thought. I worry about my mom taking care of herself. I keep trying to remind myself that she is the strongest person I know (if there’s an apocalypse, my mom would likely be the last one on Earth standing). But still. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to grieve. Allowing your mind to feel and accept your emotions is the best way to let them go. It’s the best way to find my own kind of happiness.

[[For anyone who sympathizes with mental health concerns, please just TALK about mental illness. Talk about how it’s okay to struggle with your mind, your emotions, your comprehension, your perceptions. There are too many individuals suffering from different types of mental illnesses, and we need to take action to change the landscape of mental health in today’s society. Otherwise, I would keep my personal life to myself.]]

Pain of the Human Condition

Blue lights flash violently behind me. The police car has an unusually bright white bulb attached to the left of his windshield. It is dangerously distracting…seems ironic for a cop car. My auto-pilot hands pull my Honda to a side street, and park, and take my seat belt off. Released from restraints, I begin breathing deeply as if in meditation.

I have no idea how fast I was driving, and quite frankly, I don’t give a shit. I roll down my window and wait.

An officer approaches. He says his name and states how fast I was driving. Apparently I was in a zone that adds a $200 fine to any speeding ticket. Good to know, I think. I already forget his name and want to fast-forward to bedtime.

“Did you just take your seat belt off?”
“Yes I did.”
“License and registration, please.”
“Mind if I open my glove compartment?”
“Of course.”
As I reach over, a snap resounds and I see my silver heart pendant fall between the seat and emergency break. A chain falls into my lap.
Handing over my registration, I say, “Guess it’s one of those days.” I pick up the broken chain of the necklace from my lap and place it in the passenger seat next to my cell phone, a Droid devoid of use. I dropped it into the toilet the day before. Shouldn’t have left it in my back pocket.
“Where are you driving from?”
My voice cracks, “My mother’s.” I think he hears the pain in my voice.
“Have you been drinking?”
“No.”
I attempt to close my glove compartment, and somehow, the entire drawer breaks and falls to the ground.

You know, part of me wonders how much the ticket will be. Part of me knows my car insurance company will take away that snazzy no-moving-violation discount for the next 3 years. I could really use the extra $1200. And yet, I am okay with the ticket. I am okay about the phone, the necklace, the glove compartment, the insurance money.

Epiphany strikes, and usually when that happens, you had better hold onto it and listen. Guess that is what I am trying to do now. I am learning about pain of the human condition. I am learning what it means to find importance in what matters and to let go of what you cannot control. I am learning to appreciate the good and to embrace emotions when it comes to the bad. I am learning that it is okay to be sad.

Just moments ago, when I was sitting in the parking lot at my mom’s apartment complex, I was thinking of friends who I could ask for help. I needed to recruit extra packing hands so that my brother, sister-in-law, and I wouldn’t be in over our heads for my mom’s big move tomorrow. Here’s the thing: my mother suffers from severe mental illness. There we go. I said it. It’s public. Whatever. We need to get over this stigma of mental health, and I will join the crusade.

Here’s the other thing: I realized I had few friends who would spare time for an exhausting favor, and far fewer friends who would not judge my mom for her illness. That amounted in my head as no friends at all who would be willing to help, except for one who is actively involved in a mental health awareness group on his college campus. Within seconds of texting him, I received a positive response back, complemented with conscientious questions. Such kindness with an utter lack of judgment.

As I sit in my car, I think about this friend. I think about my brother, my sister-in-law, and my boyfriend. I think about the few people in this world I trust to understand my sadness and my overwhelming desire to address the pain of the human condition. This world is cruel somehow, with so few people in this world who care about what truly matters, sometimes myself included. We get so wrapped up in details and routines, that we forget about what it feels like to be overwhelmed by real pain, the type that attacks the gut and your heart at the same time. It’s nice to not care about the little things, though. It makes me feel like my life is headed in the right direction. Maybe by healing someone else’s pain, I can also heal my own.

Eternal Optimism

Eternal optimism: a coupling of words I do not believe I have heard before today. In times of adversity and hardship, an eternal optimist looks on the bright side – the glass half full – the grass greener – things could always be worse and we are headed in the right direction.

I just arrived home from The Atlantic‘s Health Care Forum in D.C. where today’s experts in medicine, public health, public policy, and health administration (a medley of self-proclaimed eternal optimists) gathered to discuss our nation’s health care system and future direction. Considering I have been pursuing health care as a career for the past five years, I should have heard the phrase “eternal optimism” before, but this was one of my first experiences where the primary discussion was policy as opposed to health itself. Perhaps health practitioners are forced into realistic worst-case scenarios, and policy-makers are forced to plan optimistically. Somehow, I thought it would be more the opposite. Politicians by nature disagree constantly; the voice of the opposition endlessly proclaims how the current administration is screwing up. That’s one of the many reasons we alternate between Democrat and Republican administrations. On the other end, practitioners provide treatment options, suggesting that patients can heal, that there is hope. Even hospice care is a field that empowers patients to take control and accept their conditions as they are – to enjoy the short time that is left, living to the fullest capacity. In any case, it seemed that eternal optimism was a theme throughout the talk, and it got me thinking…

I consider myself extremely fortunate. My parents immigrated from Iran to earn American educations and to live the American dream. It might sound cliché, but it’s true. I constantly hear about my friends who want to get out – out of their current city, state, region, or the country altogether. Meanwhile, I am a total homebody. I love where I grew up, and I cannot imagine living permanently in any country besides my own. My parents raised me in a manner that made me appreciate something certainly taken for granted in the United States – freedom. Even within the household, my brother and I were free to believe what we wanted, say what we believed, and do what we wanted. Both of us became independent at a young age with discrete moral beliefs and thrived as very different individuals who chose very different paths. That is the beauty of freedom.

There are classic human rights we automatically think of: freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly (to name a few). I think one big freedom has unfortunately become a privilege in our country – an appropriate standard of living. “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of oneself and one’s family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care” (UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Certainly, not all things are in our control. A lot of health is determined by genetics, but we have the power to change the environmental and societal impacts on health. We can assume very different prognoses of a sick child  based on where the family falls in the socioeconomic hierarchy, and nobody should be okay with that.

Again, I consider myself extremely fortunate. I have always been healthy. Anytime I complained about co-pays, my parents reminded me to never think of money when it comes to health, that life is more valuable than any dollar amount – especially for preventative services. Unfortunately, the money game for Americans changes quality of life, access to resources, and health outcomes. A big part of today’s health forum discussion revolved around treating the social determinants of health, like education and poverty, investments with positive downstream effects that ultimately reduce costs. The US spends a whopping 17% of its GDP on health expenditures, and yet we have some of the worst health outcomes in the developed world. Stemming from talks of “eternal optimism”, I see so much potential in where our country can head in terms of health care policy, a potential that I do not want to see wasted as I progress up the ladder as a medical professional.

Preventive health care should be the epicenter of medicine, where diseases are detected and treated in early stages. We would like to think we are invincible; in reality, we will all die sometime between this very second and the next century. It’s a shame that primary care is downplayed in the hierarchy of medicine. Specialties are glamorous: there is more money and more respect. At least we are on a positive trend in the medical education system incentivizing careers in preventive health care, but health policies should encourage preventive health as well.

I have heard talk about rationing health care due to limited resources and high expenses, but we can change this thinking if we approach health care differently. When you address treatments before a disease state progresses, you avoid greater costs down the line. For example, it’s better to pay tens of thousands a year for hepatitis treatment early on than to wait until the disease requires a liver transplant upwards of a half million dollars (an intriguing article in case you’re interested in hepatitis C health care spending in relation to new drugs on the market: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/03/03/stateline-hepatitis-c-drugs-health-care-spending/5973133/). Besides catching chronic and acute illnesses at their early stages (behavioral illnesses included), we should publicly address the burden of health costs. For a chronic illness like Gaucher disease (although this is quite rare), annual enzyme replacement therapy costs about $200,000 a year. Imagine the quality of life of an individual with Gaucher disease who has to struggle with both a physical ailment as well as the unrelenting costs of a chronic illness. Paying premiums suck, but knowing that the money is an investment in one’s future health and covers treatment costs for other individuals with severe health problems makes me better understand the complexities of the system.

We have a long way to go, but I see why there is so much eternal optimism; it fuels movement into a positive direction. By no means am I as educated on this topic as I should be, but I think these are interesting topics to ponder. Hopefully we can all sympathize with the plights of the current health care system and think of ways to improve it for the future of our nation.

Logistics

I frequently get asked how my military life plan works, so I want to clear up confusion from the start:

– 4 years of medical school at Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Maryland (you can also opt for the HPSP scholarship and go to a civilian school, but I preferred USU)

  • 1.5 years classroom followed by 2.5 years of rotations nationally and internationally at military hospitals for all the branches. School is year-round.

– 4(+) years of residency

  • I am currently leaning toward psychiatry, but 65% of matriculating medical students change their mind by the end of medical school. If I do psychiatry in the Air Force, I will likely end up in San Antonio, Texas or Dayton, Ohio for my 4-year residency.
  • I could also squeeze in a General Medical Officer (GMO) tour before residency. The civilian equivalent is a general practitioner. Very common for Navy, but I do not anticipate doing it myself.

– 7(+) years of active duty service

  • Do my time as a military medical doctor. Will get deployed from time to time, but usually assigned to military bases in the U.S. unless I choose to be abroad.
  • If I serve for 20 years of active duty, I can retire in my forties!

– 6(+) years of reserve

All throughout, I do not have to worry about tuition or fees, insurance or malpractice, and I am a paid military officer. Wins all around.