Monthly Archives: September 2011

In and Around Manaus: Forró 101

This week I have been off of work for the first time since I got here. It has been really nice to sleep in, but mostly it was nice to stay in one city for more than four days at a time. I have been here in Manaus since last Friday, and will stay until Sunday when I go back to Itacoatiara.

Other than sleep, the main benefit of being in one place for so long is that I actually got to do some touristy things, and more importantly, began to gain an understanding of where things in relation to each other. I am the kind of person who needs to be spatially oriented, and I also really like understanding the history and culture of a place. Besides being type A and just liking that stuff generally, it’s also a big part of how I learn; I need to be able to see the big picture to understand and appreciate the finer points at close range. This week, I got the full perspective on geographic, cultural, historical, musical, and natural aspects of Manaus.

As I mentioned before, I had my first real taste of Brazilian dance music last weekend when I went to a Forró party (pronounced foh-HO). I’m going to have to give a bit of a background here, so bear with me. I heard forró music for the first time on my first night here, and I thought it sounded lively and upbeat for dancing, if a little repetitive. Maria asked me if I liked it, and I said sure, because it was my first night and of course I was going to say that, but she just laughed. This became a trend: anytime forró came up, the person would ask me if I liked it, then stare at me intently until I responded. They would then either tell me they hated it, or they would just laugh. So I was never sure if I was allowed to like forró, and the style of music isn’t something I am used to, so I decided to reserve my opinion until I’d seen some dancing action. I had also been warned by Paul (the Irishman) to beware the forró party, as they can seem tame enough at first with the vigourous dancing, but then you notice that the dance floor more closely resembles a porno and it’s not so innocent anymore. Of course this was both horrifying and fascinating, and I knew it was an aspect of the culture I had to see to…believe.

The International Gang had made plans to go out last weekend, and Albert in particular had requested we try out the forró. So against the better judgement and taste of Paul and Vinicius, and with a club recommendation from a teacher and self-proclaimed “forrozeira,” we headed out in search of this club. Now, everything in Manaus is far, even if it’s close. The roads are all twisty and full of boulevards and one ways, so it usually takes 20+ minutes to go anywhere. It takes about half an hour from my house to get to Ponta Negra, the really posh, beautiful area where all the good bars are. Well…we drove and drove, we got to Ponta Negra and passed the pre-drink gas station party lined with motorcycles, we passed through the well-lit streets, and we found ourselves on a road to the middle of nowhere. The boys always joke that, if Vinicius’s car runs out of gas, I have to get out and push (it’s frequently on empty) – but even the boys were hoping we didn’t break down along this road. Nevertheless, we didn’t break down, and we knew we were getting closer to our destination when traffic started picking up. And just after the speed bump the size of a raised boulevard, we turned down a road full of cars and came to our destination: Kabanas!

The parking lot was filling up fast, and we were directed into a spot. When we got inside ($40 cover for the guys, but only $20 for the ladies), some promoters handed us fan-shaped flyers which were actually a life-saver. The club area itself is pretty huge, and I was worried about losing the guys, but fortunately it wasn’t extremely crowded when we arrived and we were able to stake out a spot. Then I was able to make a first impression of the raison d’être, the forró! There was a live band playing at the front of the club, with professional dancers onstage.

The end of the night, with the fan

The pros were really impressive, but even more so were the dozens of couples around me dancing just as fast. But it didn’t look like something I couldn’t handle, and I was eager to try – well, maybe with the exception of the extreme pelvic thrusting that some of the dancers thought was an integral move. So, after grabbing some beers (um, they were R$2.50. Whaaa?), Cristina grabbed me and taught me the basics…and soon we were whirling around, dancing faster and faster, and making our high-heeled feet work overtime! It was great, because I never get to partner dance like that.

My dance partner and me

Cristina was a really good teacher, but I didn’t get the chance to dance with anyone else so I don’t know how I’d fare with one of those guys (they are so good, you don’t actually have to know how to dance if you can follow a lead). I guess that’s an adventure for another day.

The other source of entertainment was Albert. We all waited patiently for him to try out his new skillz (from the forró dance class he’d taken the previous day), and it didn’t take long for him to approach a group of girls nearby. The only problem was, on closer inspection they appeared to be about 16 or 17! Ohh Brazilian clubs. Anyway, it was still funny to see him bobbing around, trying to avoid stepping on their feet, and the girls swooning simply because he has blond hair and blue eyes. After a while the band finished their set, and the club played hip hop during the intermission (which actually got Paul dancing…who knew?). By the time the band returned to the stage, Paul and Vinicius had decided they’d had enough forró for the night and Cristina’s and my feet were pretty sore, so we dragged Albert away from the jailbait and headed back to the car. By the time we got back to the city it was 2am, and I realized I’d been up since 6:30 for work, so I asked to be dropped off. Apparently the boys went out to Porão do Alemão, a rock club that I’d been to the week before, and stayed out until 5:30. If I missed some hijinks, it was definitely worth it to shuck off the heels and get some sleep.

In fact, I got a lot of sleep for the next couple of days, and my next adventure didn’t happen until Tuesday…but that will be the next post. The final verdict on Forró?  It’s a lot of fun, but not an every weekend thing.  And if you’re going to go, take a nap because it lasts all night, and wear heels you can dance in!


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Filed under friends, funny, Manaus, nights out, something new

Fisk: a breakdown

As requested, I’m going to spend some time talking about what it’s like teaching at Fisk. As some of you may know, Fisk is one of the biggest, if not THE biggest, language schools in Brazil. There are franchises everywhere (hence even in Itacoatiara), with over 900 in Brazil and another 150 or so in other South American countries and even in Japan. There is instruction in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, and these days they are doing a booming business prepping people for the tourism explosion that will be FIFA World Cup 2014. All things considered, I was a little concerned about the quality of instruction and the expectations of teachers and students with this particular school. I did my research before arriving, and what I found was that the quality of life for a teacher is entirely dependent on the care given by the franchise owner. Here in Amazonas, Mr. Henrique manages all the schools with careful attention to detail, a passion for the language and its varying cultures, and consideration for the staff.

That being said, the ‘franchise’ aspect of the school definitely shows its true colours – pun intended. The branding is everywhere, from uniforms to student supplies to text books, and the company also sponsors Corinthians, one of the Brazilian soccer teams. Even when off-duty, teachers are expected to wear Fisk t-shirts to any school related function (something I have neatly avoided thus far; last time I just carried it around with me). It is highly recognizable here in Brazil; you might even call it the McDonald’s of language schools. And, like the fast-food chain, it is highly effective because the president came up with a system that satisfies customers, then streamlined it into efficiency.

There are two book series Fisk students may enrol into. The first is designed for kids, mainly in their pre-teens, called the Teens series. The books are called (in order) Teenstation, Teens 2, Teens 3, Teens 4, and Teens 5. I only have Teens 4 on my roster, so I can’t speak for all the books, but I have found the material to be very simplistic and somewhat lacking in explanations for grammar points. However being that I have experience, it does provide a reasonable base for my lesson, which is largely oral and makes use of the whiteboard for explanations. My biggest challenge with this level is that the kids are only 11-14, so I have a hard time holding their attention. Even if I were speaking Portuguese I would have this problem, but the fact that they have to try so much harder to participate makes paying attention even less desirable. Additionally, at this age the kids are there because their parents pay for them to take lessons, and not because it is something they have chosen. Therefore, teaching out of the book would be not only boring but nearly impossible, as they can barely complete one exercise without constant prodding after each question. I try to make each lesson as engaging as possible, so we play games, challenge each other, and move around whenever the lesson allows.

Most students finish the Teens levels around 13 or 14 years old, right when they start developing an attention span. They then move onto the “adult” series, the titles of which are themed around the life cycle of a bird. The books are (from lowest to highest): Breaking Free, Spreading Wings, Aiming at the Sky, Flying High Expanding Horizons, Wings of Freedom, and Focus on Fisk. If the student completed the Teens series they may begin the adult series at a higher level, but if they are new students they have their level assessed and may begin with Breaking Free. A student may also skip a level if they improve their English outside of Fisk; for instance, a student who does an exchange to another country might skip to a more advanced level. The normal route is to take each book in order for one semester (August-December or February-June), then take a test at the end of the semester. Students must score 7/10 or higher to pass, and if they fail they repeat the level. Students in Focus have a much more challenging and comprehensive test, so they get a number of practice opportunities throughout the semester; they also have to do a final project that includes written work and an oral presentation.

I teach almost every book of the adult series, with the exception of Breaking Free (although I have flipped through it helping Eli). I am only a fifth of the way into the books so far, so I can only talk about the material we have covered. However, I can say that I like teaching from these books. The standard layout of a chapter, or “lesson,” is as follows: theme introduction and vocabulary activity; receptive skill activity; grammar point; grammar practice; productive skill activity; receptive skill activity; more vocabulary; more grammar; vocabulary review; homework and review. The chapter themes integrate the grammar points quite well, and are usually relevant and sensible. The only problem I have discovered is when a theme is not relevant to the audience, and then I spend two whole lessons trying to teach them something they will never use and don’t understand even in Portuguese. The grammar points have been level-appropriate and easy to teach, although I sometimes find that the amount of attention given to a point is not reflective of the difficulty level or common usage. For instance, sometimes there is only a passing reference in the book for something that takes me 15-20 minutes to explain on the board, and then there is no practice to follow. In one book there was a page and a half dedicated to the usage of “have + got,” a structure that Canadian English doesn’t even use. Of course I taught it, but I stressed to my students that it was not important, just something to notice when talking to different native speakers. Overall though, I have had few problems just opening the book in class and deriving a lesson on the spot (don’t tell anyone I do this haha).

The main reason teaching these levels is so easy is that each has a Teacher’s Edition. These books have the same pagination and layout as the students’ books, with the addition of instructional bubbles and answers written in different colours. More complex instructions or variations on activities are written in the supplemental instruction manual in the front or back. It is so easy that anybody with half as much English as a native speaker and some personality could teach the class…and they do. It is common for advanced students who have shown an interest in further development to be hired by the schools to teach the beginner levels. And remember that many students reach the advanced level by mid-to-late teens; thus, several of the teachers I have spoken with began teaching at Fisk around 17 years old, before they had even finished all the books! I found this pretty incredible at first, given the five years of post-secondary and one year of experience I had coming into this job as an “intern.” However given that we are in the Amazon and that there are few fluent English speakers and even fewer native speakers to be had, it does make sense that the system is a bit incestuous. But, like most inbreeding, there are problems that arise from bad habits being passed from teacher to student. The greatest bane of my teaching so far has been students in intermediate or even advanced levels who don’t understand verbal instructions in English. These students were done a disservice by past teachers who probably spoke 70% Portuguese in their classes, and they therefore never learned to actually hear the words they were learning. Granted that instructions are the hardest thing for any language teacher, but when a student doesn’t understand simple questions at an intermediate-advanced level, there is a major disconnect. I also don’t like feeling like the bad guy when I reprimand them for asking each other to translate each time I open my mouth. It isn’t their fault that they don’t understand, but it is their fault for refusing to try, and these are the habits that I have been battling since the first class.

All in all, Fisk is very similar to the private language school where I taught in Toronto, and presumably much like any other established language institute; nevertheless, it has a quality that I look for in every school that makes the experience of students and teachers substantially more enjoyable: it has a sense of community. From top to bottom, the people who work there care about each other and the quality of work they produce. They enjoy coming to work, they socialize in and out of the school, and they build lifelong relationships with those people they see daily or weekly. I have been very fortunate that I have found community spirit in each of the three schools where I’ve taught, and I am always thrilled to discover it in a new place. Yet I am not really that surprised to find it here; after all, Brazilians are warm, welcoming, friendly people. They build community wherever they go, which is a quality I recognized early on when I first taught them in Toronto more than a year ago. This is a big part of the reason I chose to come to Brazil, and I am glad that my gamble has been paying out.

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Filed under community, Fisk, methodology, school

My Brazilian Family(s)

Here in Brazil, I am being fully inducted into the culture through familial naturalization. I have a host family in Manaus which has all but adopted me and treats me as a daughter; but I also have a number of friends and co-workers with whom I’ve formed close, personal bonds in a very short span of time. True to Brazilian form, blood runs thick around here, although it doesn’t discriminate with genetics. Love, concern, trust, bickering, protectiveness: these are all present in my relationships.

For starters, my family in Itacoatiara has nothing to do with bloodlines. It doesn’t even run in chronological order, and the familial roles change on an hourly basis. In my classroom, I am the head of the family; I have to herd my students in the right direction, discipline them if they get out of line, and reward them with praise when they do well. Most of my students are teenagers, so I can see it in their eyes when they aren’t impressed with me confiscating their cell phones or reprimanding them for whispering (loudly) to each other in Portuguese when I’m trying to explain a grammar point. But I know they love me, even if I am tough on them sometimes – they know it’s for their own good!

Outside the classroom, sometimes I’m the child. As I’ve mentioned before, there are a lot of things I can’t do for myself. More realistically, I could do these things if I had to, but there are a few reasons why I don’t. First of all, as a lone, foreign female, I’m a target here for danger. This is something I know intellectually, but find hard to consider when I don’t see any immediate threats walking down the street at 10pm with friends. The other reason I don’t have to do things for myself is that Fisk organizes and pays for almost everything. This includes meals, residence, transportation, and even social events. Fisk is like Big Brother; it always has something in mind for me, regardless of whether I know about it or want to do it.

After Big Brother Fisk comes Fisk administration, the people who do all the dirty work that I’m not allowed to. In Itacoatiara, this is Eli.

A horrible photo of us, but that's what I have

He has to order my meals (I just get asked, “chicken or beef?” and then it arrives 20 minutes later), coordinate my travel with Manaus admin, and buy my bus tickets. He’s always worried something will happen to me – mostly because it’s his job to make sure I’m safe. The other day, I was with a bunch of friends at the school, and he came up and demanded my passport information “agora!” (now!). Everyone started laughing that he was my father, because I dejectedly went to my room to get it, but I knew he just needed it immediately because he had to catch a ride with someone else to get to the bus station, and it was late. Sometimes he yells at my friends who drive me around on their motorcycles because he thinks they aren’t good drivers…but again, I know this is because he recently had a death in the family from a motorcycle accident.

On the flip side, and more commonly, Eli and I are more like siblings. We look out for each other, we know when the other is upset or stressed or missing home, and we cheer each other up. Eliveuto is also away from home (he was transferred to Itacoatiara from Manaus just a month before me to fill a vacant spot), and I think he’s having a harder time with it than I am. I deal with homesickness too, but those times when I know he’s sad I feel like the big sister because I’m older and have more experience with being away from home.

One of my students, Karla, is a particular friend. She is only sixteen, but she likes to hang around the “older kids.” Some of our other friends have started calling her “Karla Maharaj” because she’s always around me!

Karla, on the right

It cracks me up. Hear that, Aleeta? You aren’t the baby anymore! Anyway, it’s nice to have her around. She speaks English pretty well (she’s in one of my advanced classes), except when she’s tired, and then she doesn’t understand a thing I say! Actually, Karla “babysat” me once when Eliveuto had to go back to Manaus. A., the coordinator, didn’t want me staying in the school alone so he asked her to come stay with me. She had to bring her mother into the school so A. could introduce me and prove she wasn’t making it up. Poor Karla!

My other “sisters” in Itacoatiara, or more accurately my girlfriends, are Priscila and Nancy. They both work at Fisk so they speak English quite well. Pri spent five months in Canada in a small town near Red Deer, Alberta when she was in grade 10, so it’s nice to be able to talk to someone who understands my comparisons with home.

All my girls: Pri on the left, Nancy and baby Sofia, and Karla

She understands when I say I want a “grande” coffee I’m talking Starbucks size, not the whole Dixie cup instead of half. She’s nineteen but very mature for her age. Nancy is in my class with Karla. She’s twenty, but she’s married and has a baby girl named Sofia. Cutest baby ever! These three ladies are my female gang in Itacoatiara.

A "family-sized" pizza for our conversation dinner: Hudy, Pri, and Pedro

This post wouldn’t be complete without a mention of my “assistant,” Pedro. Pedro is officially in the class with Nancy and Karla, but he is taking full advantage of my being here and sits in on two or three other classes as well – which means I see him at least once a day. I love Pedro: the guy always comes in with a smile, whether it’s 8 am or 9 pm. He’s good-humoured and helpful in the lower level classes, and is very dedicated to learning the language, despite maintaining a busy full course load in Chemistry. He told me he may have a big job opportunity in the near future which would require him to do an English exam, so I’ll help him as much as I can with that. He was also the one responsible for suggesting an extra conversation class for our advanced class, which has turned into very fun dinners every Thursday night (we talk about all kinds of things…Brazilians are not very academic outside of class, if you know what I mean).

Ary at the entrance to the school

A. is the coordinator for Fisk Itacoatiara, and he is very much like a parent to all the kids who grow up attending English classes. He knows everybody by name, greets the kids with a kiss and a hug, teases girls about their boyfriends, and is generally very jovial and committed to his job. He is my Portuguese teacher, and I have no complaints about spending three hours a week in his company. He speaks excellent English, due to a lot of effort on his part: he works all day in English, then goes home and reads English books and watches English TV. He told me sometimes he forgets Portuguese because he barely ever uses it!

I think that sums up the main characters in Itacoatiara. I will have to do another post to talk about my students (the ones that I’m not friends with). On to Manaus.

I’ve given an overview of my host family, but this week I’ve had more time to spend with Camilla and her father Marcos. I sleep in Camilla’s room when I’m here, so we are like sisters in that regard anyway, but this past Saturday I really got to see her in action when we went to the mall. Oh my goodness, I had forgotten what it’s like to be fifteen! I have two younger sisters, but for Kel it’s been a while since she was that age, and when Aleeta was fifteen I was away at university. Camilla and her friends were so funny though, I could barely keep up with them.

Camilla (right) and her friend Melissa at her Quize Anos

When I got to the mall they were in a movie, so I did my own thing for a bit before meeting up with them. There were four of them, but the group somehow just kept growing…and it took forever to decide to go anywhere, but once we did it was a mad dash up escalators and through crowded corridors – and then we’d get to the opposite end of the mall and they’d change their mind. And even though I have come to understand quite a bit of Portuguese, there is no way my brain can keep up with their tongues. I know I was the exact same when I was that age, but thinking back that far is frightening (god, I am old now haha).

Marcos, my host father, took Camilla and her friend Ana Clara and I out for churrasco on Friday night. He scolded me for not calling him on Monday like I said I was going to (although I have a chip (SIM card), it’s been on the fritz and only sometimes allows me to make a call). He said he knows I’m twenty-four, but he considers me a daughter now and he will worry about me like he worries about Camilla. The next day he gave me a new chip with minutes and texts and told me to keep in touch. Lesson learned!

(Sidenote: the second we set foot in the Churrascaria, the waiters figured out I was Canadian and got really excited. They then proceeded to foist every kind of meat on me (yes it’s their job, but when they tell you “It’s good! Try this!” you have to accept), attempted to educate me on the different cuts of meat and where they come from on the cow with a diagram, and brought me special servings of sushi just for my enjoyment. It was cute, but man was I full afterwards!)

Now comes the part where I tell you about my crazy international gang. These guys are my brothers in the truest sense: they honestly forget I am a girl 99% of the time. Vinicius is a Fisk employee, and a Brazilian. He picks me up at the bus station when I get back from Itacoatiara on Fridays, and he has been put in charge of taking the other intern and I to the federal police to register. He also picked me up from the airport with Leilson, so he is literally the first person I met in Brazil. Vinicius’s best friend is Paul, an Irishman who moved here with his Brazilian wife about 16 months ago, and who works at Fisk. Paul is soooo Irish.  He curses all the time, he bitches and moans about being in Brazil because he’s

Cristina and her fiance Vinicius, Paul, and Albert at the Forro club

homesick, he has an awesome accent, etc. Most of the time when the three of us are in the car together, I just sit back and listen to them rag on each other and cry with laughter. Our fourth gang member is Albert, the American intern. Albert is a hard character to pin down; he wasn’t very well-liked at Fisk initially, because he has a very dry personality and a slow, southern accent to go with it. But, as he’s spent more time with the three of us, he’s starting to loosen up and gain a sense of humour – or at least, project it outwardly. On Friday he told us that, since we were going to check out a forró club, he had taken the initiative to book a dance class! Ohhh the boys ate that one up. So when we went out on Saturday night we all just waited, cameras ready, for him to do his thing. What a guy, he has two left feet and a broom down his back.

I’ve posted some photos already of my Fisk Parque 10 family, so I won’t go into detail about that today. Hopefully you enjoyed meeting the “characters” in my life, and real family, I hope you aren’t offended that I’ve been adopted here, as well! After all, family is culture in Brazil.


Filed under community, family, friends, Itacoatiara, Manaus