Category Archives: Brazil

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.


  • 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!


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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!)


  • 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!


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

Pop Quiz

Who doesn't love a post-it cartoon?

The last few weeks I have been busy with testing, so I thought why not continue the trend with a little Brazilian trivia? The questions below are a collection of some random facts I have learned since coming here, so this is a fun way for me to share them. I’ll post the answer key in a day or two. And…I did my best to spell-check my Portuguese, but I’m sure there are mistakes. Forgive me, I’m still learning 😀

  1. Itacoatiara’s nickname is
    • A – Pedra Pintada (the painted rock)
    • B – Rio Claro (Clear River)
    • C – Grande Anaconda (big anaconda)
  2. Which of the following is not an Amazonian fruit?

    Name that fruit!

    • A – Cupuaçu
    • B – Goiaba
    • C – Pirarucu
    • D – Guaraná
  3. It is normal to eat your pizza smothered in
    • A – Ketchup
    • B – Mayonnaise
    • C – Chocolate
    • D – Condensed milk
    • E – All of the above
  4. A hand signal that DOESN’T mean sex is:
    • A – Thrusting your fingers downward, like tapping them on a table
    • B – Holding your hand up, palm outward, and closing your fingers into your palm repeatedly
    • C – Smacking the back of one hand into the palm of the other
    • D – Hitting the top of a closed fist with the palm of the other
  5. To summon a waitress/waiter, one should:
    • A – Whistle or “psiu”
    • B – Wave
    • C – Hiss “mossa!” at a great distance
    • D – Any of the above
  6. Which of the following common expressions is a swear word?
    • A – Puta que pariu!
    • B – Nossa!
    • C – Olha-là!
  7. What Brazilian league team does Fisk sponsor?
    • A – Flamengo
    • B – Corinthians
    • C – Vasco
    • D – São Paulo
  8. Which of the following is NOT a type of music?
    • A – Forró
    • B – Pagode
    • C – Purão Alemão
    • D – MPB
  9. To confirm with the Polícia Federal that you are in the country legally with a proper visa, you must:
    • A – Show up to the station one week after arriving and give your name
    • B – Go to the station twice, the first time to show your paperwork and the second to get finger-printed.
    • C – Fill out documentation online and pay two fees. Go to the station at least three times because the online paperwork will not print. On the fourth try, be informed that you are now later than 30 days so you have to pay another fee. Get fingerprinted digitally and in ink. Have a head shot taken. Sign multiple documents. Provide certified copies of other documents. Return for a fifth time to make sure everything is kosher.
    • D – You don’t need to go to the Polícia Federal; you can check in at Customs at the airport.
  10. The event everyone wouldn’t shut up about was:
    • A – Samba Manaus
    • B – Rock in Rio
    • C – Children’s Day

I have more, but I can’t think of them right now! I will post the answers soon, along with explanations for everything I mentioned. Post your answers in the comments section before the results go up!


Filed under Brazil, funny, immigration, Itacoatiara, pop quiz, red tape

How To…

Oh man, there is so much to say I don´t even know where to begin!  I think I´ll write a list of things I´ve learned over the past week, and elaborate as I go.  This will definitely be an ongoing project!

1. Endurance: I had read before that Brazilians don´t snack much, but they weren´t kidding!  We eat three meals a day here.  Breakfast if I´m lucky at 8am, lunch sometime between 12 and 2pm, and dinner at about 10 or later.  If you´re keeping track, that means I´m going about 5-9 hours on just one meal.  And, although in Canada I was proud of having shrunk my appetite down to smaller portions, it means I can barely stomach enough food to fuel me through that amount of time.  So I have to shovel in as much as possible because you never know exactly when the next meal is – or else you fill up on water!  The other thing is that I haven´t had more than 6 hours of sleep a night since I got here.  I just finished six weeks of vacation, so it´s hard to adjust, but getting easier.

2. How to eat:  Basically I am a baby here.  Everyone babysits me: I can´t get anywhere or feed myself without help.  I don´t know what anything is called, or even what´s in it, but I do know when it looks and smells delicious!  Everything I´ve eaten has been good.  They keep asking me what we eat in Canada…honestly it´s the same food (rice, beans, chicken, beef, pasta) but it is made so differently that it´s hard to explain!  Etiquette is also something that takes some getting used to.  People don´t just pick up their burgers and fries with their bare hands; oh, no.  Use a napkin for the burger, and a fork for those fries!  Put your coke in a glass, don´t drink from the bottle!  The worst thing is, most of the people I´ve hung out with have never been outside of Brazil, so they don´t realize why I´m so hesitant to do anything – they don´t know any different.  I, on the other hand, feel awkward leaving my tray at the table in the food court for the mall maids.

3. How to talk:  This is for sure my favourite section.  Even though I work at an English language school, most of the people I talk to have limited or no English.  Lee, the administrative assistant, took me to Itacoatiara (Eeta-qwa-chara), and we spent four hours making small talk with extremely basic words and the aid of a dictionary.  I then met Eli, my roommate and the receptionist, who is on the first English book and has maybe 30 words in English.  Lee struggled to translate for a couple days while he was here, but we all had a really good time together playing ping pong and soccer, swimming, and eating out.  Then Lee left.  Eli and I communicate using a mix of random words in English and Portuguese, charades, onomatopoeia, and Google translate.  It somehow works.  Today, he pointed at the sky and said, “big moon,” and I laughed and told him he meant sun.  Hilarious!  By the way, Eli wants me to call him “Brad Black” because he thinks he is the Black Brad Pitt, and always reminds me that he is “beautiful.”  Do you see what I mean by characters?

4. How to go to the bathroom: I had some indication that bathroom sanitation would be different here, but it´s so hard to get used to different standards of infrastructure.   Especially here in Itacoatiara, the power goes out frequently, and even the water is moody.  Besides that, there is no hot water, and zero pressure.  The toilets are simply not equipped for anything larger than your standard No. 2, and even then, you can´t flush your toilet paper.  You get to deposit it in a smellylittle garbage can along with everyone else´s used paper next to the toilet.  And…this one took me DAYS to figure out…when you do go No. 2, sometimes you have to use a bucket full of water that you pour into the toilet while simultaneously pulling the chain from the overhead tank.  Nobody talks to you about these things, and they´re really hard to ask!  I still don´t know what I´m going to do about tampons, but I´ll cross that bridge when I come to it.  There isn´t any hot water, although that isn´t any problem in the heat (since you asked mom, I haven´t been keeping track of the temperature although it´s definitely in the mid 30s, and no I´m not melting because they´re all addicted to AC down here), but sometimes the water will shut off for half a day for no reason.  So much for 3-5 showers a day, and welcome to Itacoatiara!

5. How to get around: So unless you have a car in Manaus, you can take public transit – but the busses are over-crowded.  Or you can take a taxi.  There are two options: a communal taxi that might pick up more people on the way, or a private taxi.  Maria, who I stayed with in Manaus, has a friend who drives a cab and takes her (us) everywhere.  It´s kind of expensive if you ask me, but that´s what she does.  Even more exciting is here in Ita: people drive motorcycles everywhere!  The ratio of motorcycles to cars is probably 10:1 for the bikes.  And yes, I´ve ridden them lots of times (with no helmet!  Nobody wears a helmet except the moto taxi drivers…but don´t worry mom, they don´t go very fast).  Likely I will learn how to drive a motorcycle while I´m here!

Okay, that´s all I have time for for now.  I should say that the only thing that´s the same is teaching, so no surprises there!  It´s nice to be an expert at something, even though I´m truly a baby in every other sense.


Filed under Brazil, Uncategorized

August 11 – Bem-Vindo a Manaus!

I’m here!!!  I can hardly believe it.  I don’t think it has fully sunk in yet, and I’m already feeling a little culture shell-shocked.  But I’ll start from where I left off, so you have an idea of where I’m coming from (literally and figuratively).

I had set my alarm this morning for 3:45 am, but somehow I still woke up before it.  I got up, showered, and moved some things around in my luggage, then hauled myself out the door to catch the 4:30 shuttle to the airport.

I missed it by 5 minutes, and it comes hourly.

So the concierge, who had been working the night before, called the driver to request he come back for me.  In the meantime, he kept me awake in the lobby with a steady stream of flirtatious conversation (he’s Cuban…what else?).  The shuttle didn’t end up coming back until 5:30, and by that time there were a dozen more people waiting to be picked up, too.  Of course, the second the van arrived they made a mad dash to the door, and even though I reached it first, I ended up holding the door for everybody else as they stampeded past me (all I wanted was to get my second piece of luggage!), and wouldn’t you know I was the last person in the over-crowded van.  The driver looked like he was going to ask somebody to stay back, but I pleaded my case and he told me to ride up front (HA!).  In the end, I got to my gate around 5:40, so no harm done.

I grabbed some breakfast inside security and meandered down to the gate, where about a hundred other people who looked dead on their feet also waited for the call to board.  Well, we waited and waited, and the time drew closer to the 7:40 takeoff time, and yet no call to board had been made, though the screen still told us the flight was “On Time.”  I took this to mean it was on Brazilian time, so I read my magazine some more and waited.  We eventually got onto the plane and seated for takeoff in a relatively short span of time, leaving just twenty minutes late.

I haven’t mentioned yet that from the first interaction with TAM (the airline), everything was in Portuguese first, and English as an afterthought.  I was already getting nervous, as it took several tries for me to remember that the word for thank you is “obrigado/a” and not “graçias” – which is something I should know!  So when I boarded, I got a little worried about struggling through five hours with a Portuguese-only seatmate.  I guess fate decided I was too wimpy to deal with it at that time, because of the three non-Brazilians on-board, I was seated next to a very English, very American guy from Ohio who had also never been to Brazil before.  We traded stories – his wife of 16 years is Brazilian, though this is his first trip and he doesn’t speak a word of Portuguese – and bits of knowledge and advice for the first little bit.  He said he wasn’t feeling well, and when he went to the bathroom shortly after the seatbelt light came off, he didn’t return for several hours.  I had the row to myself during the hours when everyone was sleeping, which was nice.

He came back in the last hour and a half (apparently he’d found three seats together where he could lie down), and it was nice to have someone to exclaim over the view with.  Unfortunately the clouds from yesterday were both ubiquitous and persistent, so our first glimpses of the Amazon were fleeting and hazy.  Still, as we got closer, what had looked like brown roads turned into serpentine rivers that joined and divided, interspersed with lakes amid a vast canopy of green.  I remarked that I’d never seen so many trees before – which seems like a kind of dumb thing to say, but if you don’t say it out loud you can forget that it’s true.  Getting closer to landing, some roads did differentiate themselves in clay-red; meanwhile, the rivers, whose identity had heretofore been unknown, divulged their granddaddy: the vast and unmistakeable Amazon didn’t just appear, it unveiled its size dramatically as we spiralled toward the city and the airport.  I could also spot a suspension bridge arcing across the expanse.  I tried to take photos, but the window was not very conducive, and the task was distracting from my actual view.  You’ll see anything useful I might have taken.

Upon landing, I didn’t have any problems with Customs, though the luggage carousel was chaos as usual.  After about 20 minutes I located my stuff (everything intact, yay for not having to use that insurance!) and exited the secured area…into a food court.  I pushed my trolley a few feet into the food court, which wasn’t crowded but was permeated with the strangely American scent of grilling burgers, and gazed around to get my bearings.  Luckily I spotted Leilson and his Fisk shirt just a few moments later.  He and another Fisk employee, whose name embarrassingly still eludes me, greeted me and led me towards the car.  Both guys are in their mid-twenties, so we got along pretty well.  We were all hungry, so the guys said they’d take me for a***, a staple beef dish.

It came out that the poor guys had actually turned up at the airport at 12:45 am instead of in the afternoon!  They had waited around for about half an hour before asking an employee, who corrected the error.  Oops!  I feel bad, but I’m also pretty sure I gave the right time – at least twice.  Anyway, they didn’t seem to harbour any ill feelings about it, and we got along great.  The second employee, whom I’ll call V for lack of more accurate nomenclature, speaks quite fluent English despite never having been outside Brazil.  Leilson struggled to keep up by comparison, but managed to follow along the thread of conversation quite well.  Sometime in the middle of lunch, he asked V to translate for him so that he wouldn’t miss any important details: all my needs would be taken care of at Fisk, including all meals and transportation; however, apologizing profusely, he told me the school was short on teachers at the moment, and they needed me to work both at one of the city locations and in Itacuatiara, a city two hours from Manaus.  So I’d be in Itacuatiara from Sunday night until Thursday night (teaching Mon-Thurs), then back in Manaus for a Saturday class, just for this semester.  Although this sounds like it’s going to be inconvenient, I think it won’t be too bad.  I’m pretty used to both commuting and travelling, and I don’t mind having some time to read and lesson plan on the bus.  Also, I’ll get weekends in Manaus, and I have two days off, even if they aren’t in a row.  All in all, the schedule is pretty reasonable.

After lunch, the guys brought me to meet Mary, a Fisk teacher and administrator whose home I’ll be staying in temporarily.  Unfortunately as soon as I got here she had to leave for an appointment.  She told me she’d be back in two hours, so I could shower and rest – which I gladly did.  Her apartment is tiny: just a kitchen, a bedroom with an extra mattress on the floor, and a bathroom, but everything is clean and neat.  When I woke up, it was around 6:30 and I could hear what had to be forró echoing through the street below the second floor bedroom.  Still disoriented from sleep and travel, I slid the metal shutter open, to a fabulously and uniquely Brazilian scene: a sky hazy orange sky with the silhouette of downtown in the distance; below, a man barbequing in the triangular median, a woman selling baked goods from her front step, a dog lazily wandering down the street, and the strangest mix of vehicles you can imagine careening down the narrow road.  The surroundings scream abject poverty from my North American viewpoint, but this is quickly challenged by the guy driving the hip-hop blaring, bright orange Camero convertible directly beneath me.  I feel more out of touch than ever.

Not long after this, Mary came home.  She suggested we head over to the downtown school to meet some of the teachers, and then go to the mall (“shopping” in Brazilian, you know).  We walked to a main road, where we caught a cab (which already had another passenger), then got out and walked to the Centro school.  Unfortunately everyone but the desk staff had already left, so we rested in the air conditioning for a few minutes before running out to catch a bus to the mall.  The bus was also confusing, because you only pay when you get off.  There was also a lot of awkward dodging of other passengers on my part when we tried to get off, due to my not having anything to say to them.  Note to self: learn more polite words!

The mall was a familiar scene, but I was too tired to really want to look around.  We went to an internet café, then got some dinner at the food court (finally got to try out this weighing-your-dinner thing, and it was pricey!).  Mary had a few items to pick up, but we didn’t stay for too long as it closed at 10:00 anyway.  Mary called a friend of hers who happens to drive a cab, and he came and picked us up, saving us a likely crowded and less safe bus ride.

When we got back, I was pretty happy to change into pajamas and crash on the little mattress.  I knew we’d be leaving the house at 7 the next morning, so I wanted to savour every second of sleep I could!


Filed under Brazil, Excited!, Flights, IICA internship, immigration, insecurities, Manaus, Miami, overcoming fear, something new, travel documents

Two-Week To Do List

I have a lot to tell you about, but it’s all been jumbled up in my head the last few days, so I think I’ll write a bunch of articles that I will post slowly over the next few days. I should apologize in advance, however, because it’s pretty much all to do with my travel preparations. I figure I might as well record it, because all this nonsense is part of the journey too – and also because if anyone else stumbles on this blog and thinks they might like to do something similar, they can learn from my mistakes.

First of all, I’m leaving in 14 days! People keep asking me if I’m getting excited yet. Actually, it hasn’t really had time to sink in properly because I’ve been so fixated on getting all these necessary details sorted out. In a way it helps the time go by faster…but I have a feeling I’m suddenly going to be on a plane looking down at endless rainforest and it’ll suddenly click in that it’s all happening.

As you could probably guess from my previous posts, I’m pretty big on lists. Here’s my To-Do list for the days I have left. (I started it last week, so some things have been crossed off.)

  1. Obtain Visa
  2. Obtain travel medical
  3. Talk to family doctor
  4. Get an International Driver’s License from CAA
  5. Buy a plug adapter/converter (waiting for new shipment at CAA)
  6. Put BlackBerry media software on HP Mini (my travel computer…not sure if this is possible, as it doesn’t have a disc drive)
  7. Study Portuguese (I’m trying, but I haven’t done it every day)
  8. Get confirmations to IICA and host school
  9. Clean up room/put things in storage
  10. Talk to Rogers about transferring SIM and contract to a new phone (I’m bringing mine with me)
  11. Hand in 2nd letter of resignation (I forgot that my teaching job technically has two employers, thus needs two letters)
  12. Figure out how to bank from Brazil – create PayPal accounts?
  13. Notify bank and credit card I’ll be out of the country
  14. Submit OHIP paperwork (for health insurance extension…you have to do this if you’ll be gone for >182 days)
  15. Ask MP about address change on passport (the portion you write in by hand, since we moved recently) and any “Canadian” swag
  16. Take out money and traveller’s cheques
  17. Get Canadian/Ontario brochures and maps from Tourism Ontario

Obviously the list is still pretty long (though definitely not exhaustive)…good thing I still have two weeks, and I’m not working! Also since my mom is off work on vacation, there’s usually a car around to do some errands. Thankfully, I can cross “obtain visa” off my list once and for all, as it showed up in my mailbox Monday morning! I knew there was a good reason for going back to Toronto!

I have to admit, my biggest worry after getting the visa and my plane ticket has always been the travel insurance. I’ve seriously been looking into it since last December, because I had no idea how expensive it would be to insure myself for a year out of country. I thought that I’d found a reasonable solution that would cost around $500 a few months ago, but when I plugged in the numbers last week it came to around $900! I’m already pretty daunted by the number of things eating into my modest travel savings, so another $400 did not make me happy.

So, I did what any frugal traveller should do and started shopping around again. I think I already mentioned that I looked into some organizations which I already belonged to, to see if there were group discounts. I probably talked to about five different companies, and used about 3-4 online quote generators, and things were not looking up. The norm seemed to be around $1000, which I was not going for. The only place that seemed to offer reasonable prices was ScotiaLife, but I did not like the sales agent at all (everyone else had been really nice).

The main problem seemed to be the length of time I’m going to be away. First, the longer your trip the bigger the price-tag. Second, most companies won’t insure you for more than half a year, usually because OHIP doesn’t extend longer than that (unless you get an extension, which I am doing). This was the sticky point for me: it seems that most travel insurance that’s offered is not meant to be long-term. So where do people go for this kind of insurance? There are tons of people out there who are gone for longer than six months!

I was fortunate to get a great piece of advice from a TD insurance agent: she suggested I call the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association’s Ombudservice. I was pretty excited to find out this even existed; after all, who doesn’t want to talk to a neutral body when choosing their insurance provider? So I called, explained my situation to the man who answered, and after a few seconds of perusing some unseen list in front of him, told me, “TIC.” It turns out, TIC is Travel Insurance Coordinators, a division of The Cooperators – and they really did have the best rates around, not to mention would cover me for things like doctor’s visits and hang-gliding (so key, as this is one of my goals!). So TIC it is, and my budget thanks my persistent research skills.

Despite reviewing and adding to my list last night, today was pretty unproductive. I’m going to have to get at least one thing done every day before I leave if I want to finish it all. Happily, the major things are all done, so there are only a handful of things that are crucial (such as contacting the bank and printing and copying my essential documents). What do you think, should I try to relax? Or is there something I’m forgetting?


Filed under bargain hunting, Brazil, Canada, crazy like a fox, mail, travel documents, Travel Insurance