Monthly Archives: February 2012

Metro Cool

This is my own photo, for once! PS Never, ever Google "Rio Transit images" unless you like being terrified of intra-city travel.

Maybe it’s just me, but I really feel that, in order to really know a place, you need to know its public transit system. I think this is really the key to travel: not only does it enable you to get from place to place, but it means you are going through the same daily actions as locals. It’s another way to get closer to the “underground” (haha) culture of the city. It’s rarely beautiful, often frustrating, crowded without being touristy, and most of all, functional. Knowing a transit system means you know the layout of the city. It means you can sympathize when someone complains about the cost, the terrible musician in such-and-such a station, and the inconvenient construction at your end of the line. The subway literally maps out the most important destinations in any city, and stops are usually named after neighbourhoods, so it’s nearly impossible to get lost. The bus can be a little trickier, but it’s the cheapest way to get an above-ground tour of the lay of the land. For a traveller, the cost of transit beats cabs almost every time, with the exception of late nights or excessive luggage. Personally, once I’ve conquered a city’s transit, I feel a great sense of accomplishment and connection to that place.

Some of the places whose transit I’ve “conquered” include (among others): Toronto, Ottawa, New York City, London (UK), Paris, Rome, Naples, Rio and São Paulo. These are obviously some pretty major world cities, and their transit networks are both vast and intricate. I didn’t pull this off easily; in fact I frequently got lost, had to retrace my steps, ask for directions, or pay to re-enter the system. However, I have always been proud of my ability to read a map and locate myself geographically, and this has served me well. I’ve also had to get over any shyness about asking for help and admitting to being a foreigner/non-local. It’s definitely not cool to be the clueless person on the subway, but the longer you go without asking, the longer you’ll look like a fool.

This brings me to another point: it can actually be dangerous to appear as that clueless passenger. It marks you as an outsider, a tourist, and a great opportunity for pickpocketing. I always try to blend in with the locals on transit, not just because it makes me happy to be adapting to their culture so accurately, but because I don’t want to get accosted or robbed. That being said, nothing makes me happier than when I get mistaken for a local when people ask me for directions. It happened to me in Toronto over Christmas, even though I’d just gotten off the airplane and was hauling a massive suitcase through Spadina station (I proudly pointed the way to the Northbound train). Even more delightfully, it happened to me in Rio as I was waiting at a bus stop with some friends. I explained, in Portuguese, that I wasn’t Brazilian, but I gave as much accurate information as I could. I turned back to my friends with a grin – they don’t speak any Portuguese, so I felt pretty cool.

Rio and São Paulo were my most recent conquests during my January trip. First of all, it must be said that these cities have done a lot to upgrade their metros recently in anticipation of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, so they were sparkling with new bilingual signs, brand new lines, and high-tech safety features (the new Sampa lines have glass doors that prevent passengers from falling onto the track). There was really no excuse for me not to find my way around in these cities, all things considered. Even better, though, was taking the bus in Rio. The Cidade Maravilhosa runs along a curvaceous coastline of beaches on one side and buildings on the other, interrupted by the famous towering hills. It really is as breathtaking as you’d imagine, and fortunately it can be experienced in all its gritty glory for the low cost of R$2.75 (or sometimes R$3.00). Fortunately, the hostel where I stayed in Lapa was good about giving out bus information, and the hostel residents were quick to share their knowledge, so after about two days I knew the names of the buses that would take me anywhere I wanted to go and back again. Additionally, I was getting braver with my Portuguese, and began verifying my destination with the bus drivers before I got on the bus. All were friendly, and some were even helpful enough to get out and ask another driver if they weren’t sure themselves. I felt like the city was mine on the day I told my friends to go ahead without me while I continued shopping; I knew I could get back on my own.

Some of you may have noticed that I did not include Manaus in the “conquered” list above. There is a reason for this, although I’m afraid it isn’t really a good one. To be honest, up ’til now I have been a huge baby about learning transit in my own city. Part of this was out of fear: what if I got lost somewhere in the city and couldn’t get back home? What if I was late? Another part of it was the minimal amount of time I actually spent in Manaus last semester – two days a week, but a good part of one of those was spent teaching – but really that’s an excuse. Another excuse was that, since my host family never uses public transit, nobody was able to teach me. The real reason I didn’t learn the bus system is because I was too afraid to speak Portuguese. Really, it’s a stupid reason. I could tell taxi drivers where I wanted to go, and I had to learn specific language for that, so why not for the bus?

After Rio, I realized that I was certainly able to do it on my own. My language skills were up to par, and (as I mentioned before) I have enough spatial awareness to know when I’m in the right or wrong part of town. The difference is that in Rio I was forced to use my resources to take the bus, with effective results. Here in Manaus, I have friends and family who often drive me around. Last semester I usually took cabs when going out at night (sensible) or when coming back from the bus station (realistic). I definitely did not need to cab to the mall or home from class, but I did because it was easier and less scary than the bus. This semester, I came back with a new resolve to try. It also turns out I have a need as well, as my classes are in the Centro school, and at times when my host mom won’t be able to drive me. I have zero excuses – all the buses actually lead to Centro at some point during their route. And I’m pleased to say that, as of Monday, I have officially taken the Manaus bus by myself! Today is Day Three of going to and from work on my own, and it’s started to turn into routine. Maybe by next week I’ll stop sitting on the edge of my seat during the last 15 minutes of my journey and take my eyes off the road long enough to read a book! Despite the dangers and discomforts (yeah, 40 degrees Celsius and raining) of bus travel, I’m looking forward to saving myself some cash and getting into the local rhythm, and adding one more city to my “conquered” list.

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Filed under bargain hunting, fear, Learning Portuguese, Manaus, overcoming fear, something new, Transit

Les Misérables of Today

Five year old Cosette, sweeping the steps of the Thenardiers' inn

I got a Kobo e-Reader for Christmas, and ever since then I’ve been devouring book after book. The one I’m currently working on is Les Miserables, one of the freebies available through the Gutenburg project. I decided to try it out because a) I’m too cheap to buy another book right now and b) now that I have an e-reader I don’t have to worry about hauling around a 5 kilo tome in my purse. While I’ve seen the movie before (ages ago), I’ve never seen the play or read the book. I’m only eight percent into the story right now, so those of you who know it well will probably roll your eyes, but I am totally involved in the life and times of Jean Valjean at the moment.

True to the title, the tale begins by outlining his wretched existence up to the present: orphaned as a child, he resided with his sister and her family until the sister’s husband died. He then took up the post of provider for her and his seven nephews and nieces, barely scraping by. One winter, out of work and sick of watching his family starve, he broke into a home and stole a loaf of bread. No sooner was he away from the house than he was caught; and for this, he was penalized with a jail sentence of four years. He attempted escape on a number of occasions, causing extensions of his jail time until, after 19 years of prison, he is released into society at the age of 45 with nothing to his name but a hundred francs and a “yellow passport,” which assures its bearer to be constantly denied at every door.

The book ruminates on the effects of such injustice on the human mind: how can he move forward rationally, or re-enter a society that he has only known to suppress and victimize him? I would ask, further: can we (as readers or as fellow humans) really find fault with any missteps – however cruel – such a man might take?

Strange though it may seem to a North American, certain elements of this post-revolutionary French classic have parallels with contemporary Brazil. Poverty, homelessness, undue social exclusion, classism, illiteracy, ignorance, and violence: all of these are things that I have observed in Brazilian society. They exist in rural and urban areas, in the North and in the South, all intermingled so that a person can be ambling along one of the most expensive commercial avenues in the country within a few blocks of a cross-street notorious for prostitution. A Lexus driver can stop at an intersection and look blindly through the child juggling limes in hopes of earning 50 centavos. And, broadcasted into the living rooms of all, regardless of class, are nightly news reports of gory murders and terrifying robberies. One would think, with social decay staring a person in the face, a reaction would be called for; yet many would rather brush past and continue on their narrow trajectories. Sweep the dregs of society under the carpet; if you don’t look at them, they don’t exist.

A child from a modern-day Brazilian favela

I have no doubt that these daily encounters make most Brazilians guiltily uncomfortable at the least; however I have also noticed that the general attitude of the population (as reinforced by the media) is this: “Look how terrible the lives of these poor people are! Oh, how corrupt is our government? Why doesn’t somebody do something?” And to most, it never occurs that in a democratic society, THEY are the ones who need to act; THEY are the “somebody” who should do something. Furthermore, in the next breath, they will complain: “Those people are lazy; look, all they do is drink beer all day, then they spend their nights finding another way to rob us. I can’t find a good maid who won’t steal from me and gossip about me. I want someone who will work 40 hours a week for R$600/month, but there is just nobody good available.” No connection is made between the money they have to spend and the attitude they have to give and the misery they know exists around them. Government is another entity, disconnected from their sphere of influence; and if money talks, it only talks to those above, and not below.

It must be emphasized that I absolutely do not think that Canadians are a better breed of people than Brazilians, nor that they are necessarily more socially conscious. The fact is that Brazilian society, as reflected in government, has not evolved to the point of providing a secure social safety net. Poverty here is unlike any poverty in North America, and it is far more rampant. The emerging middle class is not at fault for wishing to differentiate itself from its past, but it should certainly be held accountable for remembering from whence it came. How much simpler it is to forget to look back in respect, and instead only look down in pity and disgust.

There is another character, in fact the first to be introduced in the story: a bishop who accepts Jean Valjean without question. In his view, a wretched man is more deserving of kindness and pity than a man who lives well in society. While this character is doubtless a beacon of goodness which most people cannot live up to, he serves as a reminder that the kindest thing we can do for our fellow humans is to give them respect without having earned it, and to call them “brother.” It is this respect, unflinchingly and ungrudgingly given, that allows Valjean to feel that he is part of a community greater than just himself for the first time in nearly twenty years. The narration tells us that, after so many years of being put down to a level below dogs, Valjean was equally as likely to lash out in irrationally malevolent acts as to premeditated immorality. As the story stands thus, the reader (me) does not yet know whether he will continue a life of criminality or will reform. Nevertheless, for that one night in the bishop’s home, he is able to be a person, conscious of having a place in society, and a duty to uphold it by not disturbing the peace of others in that house.

A friend and co-worker of mine was just yesterday telling me about his church, and the “random acts of kindness” they like to do. He and his congregation do simple things like bake cakes and give them out to the young men who sell cold drinks at intersections during the hottest part of the day. My favourite story was about handing roses wrapped in messages such as “You are important” to street prostitutes at night. They leave no name, make no mention of God or the church, and expect nothing in return. This message not only acknowledges to these societal fringe-dwellers that they exist, but it helps to reaffirm it to people who have lost any sense of place. Like the bishop in the story, my colleague and his friends are giving hope encompassed in a small token. Showing acknowledgement and respect is something that any one of us is capable of.

I have a theory that the simple kindness of meeting a glance from a stranger has a way of trickling up into more substantive social change. Living in North America, it’s easy to think that we don’t need to do anything for the people we see on the street, as long as we support the existing charities and welfare state. I would argue the opposite; that it is the daily kindnesses we show to others which evolve into stronger, broader institutions. I hope you’ll forgive me for sounding preachy, but my intent was not a didactic essay on how we should treat the poor. Rather, I wanted to show the difference between North American poverty and South American, while drawing parallels with Western society’s development in the past two centuries.

Readers, I know you come from different perspectives: North American, Brazilian, Westerners living in Brazil, and Westerners living on other continents. What do you think about my theory? Can you find any similarities or differences where you are?

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Filed under Book Review, Brazil, Poverty

Halftime Recap

What I wouldn't give to hear Don Cherry and Ron Maclean hash out the plays and players of my last semester. Also, I realize that hockey has intermissions and not halves...

I can’t possibly recount everything I did last semester in under a thousand words, but I think in order to move forward I’ll need to give some indication of how far I’ve come already. Bear with me as I whiz through the last six months, without giving everything away. I want to revisit some of these events in more detail later, so let’s just use this as a timeline for now.

August

  • I arrived in Manaus on August 11, with absolutely no idea of where I would live, what my schedule would be like, or who exactly had employed me in the first place. Greeted by two administrative staff members at the airport, I was soon told I would be working Saturdays in Manaus, and four days a week in distant, isolated Itacoatiara. I would live at the school in Itacoatiara, and with a host family during the weekends in Manaus. Exhausted from my long journey, I just nodded my consent and allowed myself to be led wherever they would take me. I stayed the first weekend with Maria, a receptionist at one of the schools.
  • That first weekend, my orientation consisted mostly of sitting around at the school, or observing other teachers give introductory classes. I had little instruction on what was expected of me inside the classroom (fortunately I wasn’t new to teaching), and zero instruction on administrative matters. Most of my learning was through observation, not knowing what questions I should ask. I also met a lot of people connected with the school, including the other intern, Allan, who is from the US. I quickly realized that are goals and interests for the year, as well as our comportment, was completely different.
  • I spent my first week in Itacoatiara, and met my new roommate Eli. I started my first week of classes, and got to know the staff and students at the small school, as well as the simple ways of the city. I also learned how to ride (or at least sit on) a motorcycle!

September

  • The first week of September was a mini-holiday for me, as there were two days off in the middle of the week, so I just stayed in Manaus. I got to see some more of the city and surrounding area, but most of the time I was left alone and a little bored. I really like teaching, and I missed my students! Also, everyone else was back at work or school.
  • I began feeling the exhaustion of travelling back and forth all the time. I also had problems registering with the Federal Police, which caused me undue stress. I was able to combat this with some great nights out with friends, but felt that I was lacking the stability of being in one place.
  • I was asked by administration to help organize a fashion show for a big graduation/Halloween party at the end of October. This would include managing a group of up to 40 students, and choreographing and teaching a dance. The time commitment was an extra couple of hours on my already long Saturday, but I couldn’t really say no – my contract stipulates that I should “participate in culture-sharing activities,” so I had a duty to step up!
  • The very last week in September saw a huge change for me and the rest of the school in Itacoatiara. This is at least a blog post in itself, but in short, Eli left the school abruptly, and I was suddenly without a roommate and the immediate support he provided. The very next day, there was a “Welcome” party for the students, one of the chief goals of which was to introduce me as the main attraction to the school. I had a hard time showing a good face after the earlier events of that week, but managed to hold it together – at least externally.

October

  • A lot of the stress factors from September continued into October, and I really felt myself getting worn down. It took another few weeks to get my approval from the Polícia Federal; rehearsals for the fashion show continued for the rest of the month; and I had to learn how to do for myself all the things that Eli had previously done for me in Itacoatiara.
  • Yet another stress-inducer came into my life in the form of Eli’s replacement, the new receptionist for Itacoatiara. This woman would be a daily thorn in my side. It became harder and harder to say that the problems I was having could be contributed to “culture shock” alone.
  • The greater part of my classroom activities for October consisted of preparing for, giving, and returning mid-term tests. I learned a lot – most of it through trial and error – about the paperwork side of my job (the students get report cards? Who knew?!)
  • Finally, the day arrived – the October 29th Fisk Flashback Party, including my pet project, the Gato e Gata runway show. The show went extremely well, the party afterwards was great, and I spent the rest of the night de-stressing by dancing like mad to the retro grooves of Banda Orion.

November

  • Officially halfway through the semester, I felt that I was in pretty good control of my classes. I made schedules to carry them through the end of the term, and teaching became more relaxed and less of a race to cram in curriculum items, as it was just before the first tests.
  • I was still up and down with my culture shock. Problems with the new receptionist started heating up when it became clear she was having troubles with other staff members as well. A plot hatched to get rid of her…the follow-through was deliciously dramatic, but fortunately effective. Again, there will be a blog post devoted to this topic alone!
  • Toward the end of the month (after said horrible receptionist was gone for good), I started feeling more settled and in control. I took the opportunity to make plans for my upcoming vacation in January, and spent a good amount of personal time playing travel agent (as you may know, planning things is one of my favourite pastimes!)

December

  • On December 1st, Fisk hosted yet another party for me in Itacoatiara, this time to say goodbye. It had been confirmed that I would work only in Manaus for the second semester, as my schedule had been too hard to maintain with sanity (as was clear to anyone with any sensitivity who knew me). Despite everything, in the end I was quite sad to see my time there wind down. I had made some great friends and truly enjoyed my classes.
  • In my final two weeks, it really felt like everything had fallen into place right at the last minute. We finally got a capable receptionist whom everyone liked, and who turned into my very first Portuguese-only friend. My confidence in my linguistic abilities soared, and my social calendar filled up with “just one more night out.” My classes took their tests in due time, and I finished up my duties with some regret at saying goodbye to that place. At the same time, I was incredibly excited to go home to friends, family, and the comforts of North America.
  • I flew out of Manaus on December 18th, and arrived in Toronto on the 19th. I spent two days there staying at my sister’s, visiting friends, and soaking up my favourite Canadian city. Then I went back to my hometown for a little more than a week of blissful Christmas feasting, lounging, socializing, and generally doing everything and nothing – all the things I had missed the most about home.
  • On December 29th, I flew from Toronto to Rio, to start my fabulous vacation!

And that I will leave for subsequent blog posts, as there are far too many places and ideas to sort out in just a few bullet points J If you have any questions about events or their order, leave a comment and I will follow up, maybe with another post. All this is just to give a general idea of last semester, so there is definitely more to come!

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Filed under Brazil, friends, looking back

Rocking the Boat

My blogging attempts last semester were *almost* as big a fail as this Amazonian steamer ship.

Olá! It’s been a long time since I’ve posted, but it’s time I got back on the boat so to speak, and, to mix my metaphors, shake things up a bit. While I started last semester with the best of intentions for writing a few times a week, I clearly failed in that aspect. If you were following, I had been writing with a fair amount of detail about my new surroundings in Brazil, and was enthusiastically showing off everything for friends, family, and other bloggers. My posting dropped off rather abruptly, though, when I ran into some rough waters along the journey of discovery. How could I write home about the bad days? About people I didn’t connect with, food I disliked, and situations that were hopelessly out of my control? Culture shock hit hard, and hit early for me. As I didn’t know how I should or could continue, I decided to step away from the blogging world for a while.

Rest assured that I didn’t forget about my blog, or my original intentions; neither did I stop writing. Going back to my very first post, I asserted the following goals:

  1. Learn about the experience of immigrants and different diaspora groups in Canada.
  2. Explore other cultures outside of Canada through travel.
  3. Find out what it’s like to live in a culture other than the one in which I was raised.

I was still doing all of these things. It just turned out that recording one’s life in the public sphere, be it at home or abroad, is a lot harder than I had originally reckoned.

So, I kept writing, both for myself and to close friends and family, with as much integrity as I could. Things didn’t always make sense at the time, and even now certain stories defy logic, but I persisted with the hypothesis that all my experiences here will lead to a greater understanding in the end. Therefore, while my original intent of publishing as I had new experiences has gone out the window, I am hoping to work through them with the benefit of hindsight. And to that end, you are invited (once again) to follow along, and to contribute to any discussion which might arise.

In the next post I will give a brief overview of where I am now, what I’ve done with myself over the last 6 months, and what I’m going to do for the latter half of my internship year here. After that, expect to see some differences from my first few posts from Brazil…while I intend to keep them personal, they will reflect more on themes and ideas, and less on my daily drama. I’m also going to omit or change names at times for the purpose of preserving certain people’s dignity. Hope to see you tomorrow!

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Filed under Brazil, cheesy metaphors, goals, identity crisis, insecurities, overcoming fear