Category Archives: Excited!

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!

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

August 10 – Welcome to Miami

Hello from Miami!  Today is the day I’ve been waiting for: it’s first day of my adventure abroad!  Things are rolling along pretty smoothly so far, although I won’t get to Brazil until tomorrow around 1 pm.  But my journey began when I left my house at about 11:00 this morning.

I haven’t written anything in a while, though not for lack of things to say.  I even started a few posts (you’ll get to read them later, since they aren’t time-sensitive), but in the end I wanted to have real news to report before I posted again.  Unlike many others (cough BreandJamie cough), I felt no rush or stress in the days leading up to my departure; I’d been waiting for too long for there to be any last-minute details to throw me off.  My suitcases have been collecting items in them for weeks now, and as I’ve already reported, all the big things (i.e. flight, travel insurance, domestic details) were taken care of well in advance.  I haven’t had to work for six weeks, although I picked up a supply shift last week.  So I’ve literally just been going to the beach, eating excellent summer meals, and hanging out with my closest friends before we all go our separate ways again.

This morning I woke up early, around 8 am (no hangover, despite the copious amounts of Wild Vines consumed the night before) and cuddled my dog a little longer before gearing up for the day.  I did a load of laundry, showered, chatted with my family, and packed up the last of my toiletries.  Breanna stopped in to say one last goodbye since she couldn’t come to the airport with me, even though I’d just seen her the night before (as she was the responsible party for the oversized bottle of vino).  My mom ran out to get my send-off breakfast: Tim Horton’s breakfast sandwiches and coffee.  I am so under the influence of patriotic advertising, but I’m willing to accept that.  Tim’s sausage breakfast sandwiches are delicious!

Side story: my mom was waylaid on the way into the house from picking up the Tim’s by our new neighbour, my grade 7 teacher Mr. Jones.  Cue “keeping up with the Joneses” joke.  Anyway, Mr. Jones was a pretty epic teacher, given his Royal Canadian Air Force background and general Britishness.  His parting advice to me: “Good luck and watch your back.”  Will do, Mr. Jones.

My dad came back from work to say goodbye, and I hugged everyone including the dogs a last time.  I was also made to pose next to my luggage on the way out the door…not with my camera, so no photo to accompany my departure yet.  We hauled my two pieces of luggage and one carry-on out to the car, and my mom, sister and I set out into the sunny but relatively cool day.

I would say our drive to the airport was uneventful, but that wouldn’t be true.  We had no trouble getting over the bridge, and traffic was average along the I-94 most of the way.  However, none of this accounts for crazy American drivers.  We stuck to the middle lane and tried to go the speed of traffic (not having a speedometer with markings in miles), and three different times, a car from the left lane cut right in front of us to exit on the right lane!  The third time this happened, the car cut us really close and forced an SUV in the right hand lane to slam on the breaks and swerve into the barrier.  It was really close, and our hearts were pumping after that!  I’m pretty sure the SUV driver was fine, but we saw the woman who almost caused a massive accident pull off the highway, cursing as if it wasn’t her fault.  What an asshole.

Luckily, that was the only negative thing that happened all day.  We made it to the airport a solid two hours before my boarding time.  At check-in I had a really nice attendant who told me that, since my itinerary includes international flight within 24 hours, I could check my baggage for free!  Score!  I still had to do some shuffling of weight between my two bags, but managed to get my big suitcase to exactly 50 lbs – double score.  The smaller suitcase was pretty full, so I had to throw a few extra items in my carry-on, which made it pretty heavy, but I didn’t really have to part with anything.  After a few more minutes with my mom and sister, we said goodbye and I went through security and found my gate.

When I boarded the plane about half an hour later, I smiled at the pilot and flight attendant who were greeting the passengers as they came in.  “Going on vacation?”  the pilot asked me. I answered, “No, I’m moving!”   For the first time it seemed like it was true.  In a quick exchange they asked me where and why, and as I moved on into the plane I heard them remark to each other, “Wow, that’s a big change.  It sounds exciting.”  There’s nothing like having strangers recognize your achievements to make them feel real.

I had a window seat booked, but it turned out there was nobody else in my row.  As the plane took off, I felt a rush of emotions that were hard to keep track of.  I was a little scared, a little homesick, a little wistful, and a lot excited.  I let the tears flow for a few minutes while I peered out my sunny window at the shrinking ground, but as we rose above a sea of big, fluffy clouds, I shook off my momentary melancholy and relaxed.  After all, I was partaking in “the miracle of human flight,” to quote Louis C.K.!

The sight below me was pretty amazing, and I wished I hadn’t put my camera in the overhead where I couldn’t get to it with the seatbelt light still on.  Below, shallow Lake Erie was green where the sun touched it, with dark blue patches of shadow from the many clouds; just below eye level were the clouds themselves, a cottony sea of white and blue that billowed and undulated into the distance; and straight ahead, a clear, summer blue sky.

The cloud cover was consistent the whole flight, and when we landed in Miami three hours later it was uncharacteristically overcast and a cool 80 degrees Fahrenheit.  I deboarded, somewhat bemused from my nap and my emotions, and attempted to orient myself for my next move.

Baggage claim was to the left of the gate, while to the immediate right was the Admiral’s Club I’d sourced out before leaving.  So I risked leaving my bags for a few minutes in favour of checking out the AC.  Once again, I had a really friendly attendant.  I explained my situation, and though she didn’t seem to think it would be a convenient option for me, she told me to “be her guest” and just go in anyway.  So I took the opportunity to read through my paperwork to find out where I had to go for the next flight, and then used the nice private bathroom and freshened up a little.  I could definitely have taken advantage of the free beverages and snacks, but I wasn’t really in the mood.  I figured I had better go hunt down my luggage before somebody took it.

Well, my bags were the last pieces to be claimed, babysat by a couple of airline workers.  I rented a cart, hoisted my stuff on top, and set out to find the ticket counter for TAM, my next airline.  It was way on the other side of the airport, and on my way I passed myriad shops and restaurants, realizing I was starving (should have taken advantage of that free food!).  I actually stumbled across the Miami Airport Hotel, which has reception right inside the airport.  It was tempting, since by this time I was in no mood to pull an all-nighter in the airport, so I asked for details.  It would have been $125 plus tax, and all they had was smoking (WTF?  Is this 1992?), so I said I’d come back.  Further down the line, at the very end, I found the TAM counter and negotiated my cart through the red tape maze of the economy line, only to be told I wouldn’t be able to check in until 3am.  So that pretty much sealed the deal that I’d get a hotel, as I wasn’t about to babysit all three pieces of luggage and a purse all night on the non-security clearance side of the airport.

I located information and the courtesy phones, and called a Days Inn that offered free wi-fi and shuttle service.  I went outside to wait for the shuttle…and was immediately devoured by insects.  I think I got about 12 mosquito bites in as many minutes.  Welcome to Miami!  After waiting for the shuttle for almost an hour, the one that came with the Days logo told me they actually went to the Runway Inn.  I said I didn’t care, as long as shuttle service was free and 24 hours, so that’s where I went.

My room was pretty much what you’d expect a $70 room near the Miami airport to be, but it was clean and quiet.  I got a takeout menu from the front desk, ordered a philly steak sub and some cheesecake, and kicked back to watch the flatscreen.  What was playing, you ask?  Nothing less than Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, with no commercials!  I caught Up In The Air (appropriate) on another channel after that.

All in all, it was a pretty successful day of travel.  Even though having my flights 13 hours apart was awkward, it ended up working out since I had so much time to figure everything out.  All this relaxation and winging it, I feel, is very in line with my new Brazilian lifestyle, I expect.  And as usual, the Canadian trademark smile and small-talk goes a long way to getting great service and helpful advice!  I’m very much looking forward to tomorrow’s sequel – hopefully you are, too.

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Filed under Excited!, fear, Flights, goodbyes, Harry Potter, hotels, insecurities, Miami, travel documents

Mission Accomplished!

Note: I wrote this post yesterday, but due to internet issues I couldn’t publish it until now.  Enjoy this post, a day late – I’ll try to write something else for today later.

I did it – I submitted my visa application, glitch-free! Well, I say glitch-free, but as you know there was a lot of work and worry that went into getting me to that point.

I met up with my professor last night, and she signed my visa papers with no questions asked. I had a little chat with her about what I’ve been up to the last year and where I’m going, and also what she’s been doing since TESL. It was really nice talking to her, because she’s also a graduate of the same program as me about 7 years earlier, so it’s cool to hear her successes, too. Right now she isn’t teaching TESL, but is managing the ESL-equivalent English program at the college’s main campus. She said that the ESL classes are pretty much taking over the program, even though the classes (Communications) are mandatory for everyone. We also talked about the availability, or lack thereof, of ESL jobs in Toronto. Pretty much none of the school boards are hiring, and some of the larger centres have gone through restructuring recently, meaning that those with seniority (and I’m talking like 20 years’ experience) have jobs, while newer staffers (<20 years) are being let go. However, my prof assured me that there are jobs to be had for those willing to work multiple part-time gigs across the city. Basically, the situation is about what I thought; but it does go to show that only people who are creative and flexible are going to find work, which is good to know. I left my professor with a little Starbucks gift, and headed back downtown to meet my sister for some amazing frozen yogurt.

Anyway, that brings me to today. I woke up early, around 7:30, with the intention of getting to the consulate at a good hour in case I needed to do more running around before they close at noon. I took the subway two stops over to Bay station (too nervous to walk all that way) and went to the TD which happens to be on the ground floor of the same building to get a bank draft. When I checked the website this morning to verify the cost of the application, I anxiously scanned the other document requirements, praying I hadn’t left anything out. Well of course there was something that had been overlooked, because the internship people didn’t tell me everything. I also needed to prove residency in the Consular jurisdiction. Fortunately a quick word to the bank teller got me a printout with my name and address, which was acceptable.

Okay, well it's scarier on the inside.As I said, the Consulate General of Brazil is in the same building as the TD. For anyone who knows Toronto, this is on the corner of Bay and Bloor; and yes, it is a giant high-rise. 77 Bloor is a scarily corporate building, with a lobby, a front desk, and two types of elevators for different spans of floors. I had to go in the higher one. I was sweating bullets already, and it had nothing to do with the 38 degree temperature outside (yes, it’s 38*C in Toronto. I was here six months ago and it was literally -38*C).

On the eleventh floor, I entered a long, quiet hallway of tall, opaque doors. I entered the correct one hesitantly, to find a room like a fishbowl with a bunch of other nervous-looking people milling around. I found the window for visa requests, and fortunately there was nobody there, so I stepped up.

The woman I spoke to was nice, but didn’t really crack a smile (perhaps she was just naturally mimicking my demeanour, as I’m sure my fear was projecting as seriousness). She rifled through my documents, commenting that the photos were the wrong size (I had the other size too – no issue), my application was two years out of date (not my fault! It was sent to me by IICA!), and worst of all, she noticed the one signature was not an original but a copy. I remained quiet as she examined the page, then offered a copy of my email correspondence with IICA where I asked them to send me the originals and they told me to figure it out because there wasn’t any time.

Luckily, the woman told me I could just fill out the correct application on a computer in the corner and she’d print it out for me. She cut the photo I had down to the right size and gave me a gluestick to put it on myself. She collected everything, took my passport, and then told me I’d be able to pick up my visa…next Thursday!

What a relief! What did I say about my crazy attention to detail paying off? I can now officially say that I am for realz going to Brazil in 20 days!

(Oh God, I hope that wasn’t premature; I don’t have the visa in hand, after all. Let’s ignore that and celebrate my success, okay?)

The only thing I had left to do was run down to the post office across the street and pick up an ExpressPost envelope so she could send it to me. Much as I love Toronto, I don’t really know what I’d do for yet another week with no money, no AC, and no bed (still on the sister’s couch). So I’ll stick around here for another day or two, then mercifully head home to enjoy the beach and use of my parents’ car for another two weeks 😀

Add cachaca to crushed ice, muddled lime, and sugar. Stir and serve!

And because I’m anal retentive and have already bought, packed, and planned almost everything else I need for my trip (with some exceptions…you’ll get details later, rest assured), I can fully enjoy some catch-up time when the Third Musketeer, my friend Breanna, comes home in a week or so. I picked up a bottle of cachaça the other day and am very much looking forward to testing out some caipirinhas prior to the real thing in Brazil!

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Filed under Brazil, Canada, crazy like a fox, Excited!, mail, red tape, Toronto, travel documents

I Booked My Flight!

Woo!!

After A LOT of hassle with my credit card, I finally managed to confirm this morning that my flight booking with STA went through! I’ll be leaving from Detroit Metropolitan at 3:20pm on Wednesday, August 10, arriving in Miami International at 6:25pm. I will then sit on my luggage for approximately ten hours overnight, and then check into my international flight direct to Manaus,

Like Tom Hanks in The Terminal, I'll probably take a shower in an airport sink.

departing at 7:40am and arriving at 12:45pm on August 11. I ended up booking these flights separately because the Miami-Manaus return flight has moveable dates with minimal fees, and I’ll have to move the return date eventually. The Detroit-Miami flight is one-way, and has some steep penalties for changes (i.e. it wouldn’t be worth it), so I really hope I don’t have trouble with the Consulate later this week, or I’m screwed!

I’m also kind of glad that I only have one connection instead of two, like I would have with the original cheap flight. I will be carrying all my worldly possessions with me (okay, the ones I need to survive in hot weather and be able to teach, so not really all), and I am decidedly uncomfortable with the possibility of lost or delayed baggage. Even the travel agent girl who was helping me book seemed to think that American Airlines would be a more reliable choice than US Airways. Any thoughts on this?

Anyway, thinking about lost baggage got me to thinking about travel/medical insurance, and now that’s next on my list of things to conquer. I did some research last night (of course! Do you think I would take a break after accomplishing one goal?), and came up with a few providers that might work for me. STA travel actually provides travel medical at a reasonable rate, but when I asked an agent about it this morning he seemed to think it would be too expensive for me for a year, arbitrarily quoting around $700. Realistically, this isn’t that bad for a year, so I don’t know why he didn’t bother to get me a true quote. But I’m determined to shop around; I don’t want my flight savings to get eaten up by insurance!

I decided to check out providers who are linked with companies and associations I’m already a part of, for instance: my alma mater association, my teaching association, and my banks. I dug out the welcome package from my travel credit card (I have a TD Platinum Travel Visa) and read through the schedule of benefits. Boy, am I glad I did – and doubly glad I didn’t give up on charging the flight booking to my card when I could have used debit! Apparently, as long as I book my travel using the Visa, I have all kinds of travel insurance when on a “Common Carrier,” i.e. plane, train, boat, or rental car. This includes accidental death or dismemberment (ew) up to half a mil, up to $1000 for lost or delayed baggage for >6 hours, emergency flights home, cancellation, and I will never have to pay for car rental insurance again. This is all super exciting, and well worth the $99 annual fee I pay for my card.

Then I checked out the benefits with my newly-purchased ISIC card (shhh! They don’t have to know I’m no longer a student, especially since my college ID has no dates :D). The travel agent who gave the lazy quote also mentioned that the ISIC has basic travel – are you kidding me?This card cost $22 US! So for like $20 Canadian I’m getting some extra coverage on pretty much everything I mentioned with the travel Visa. Saweet!

I still have some following up to do on the alumni association insurance, but I have a phone number to call for another day. Additionally, I left a message with an agent from City Insurance, which is linked to ING (my other bank). And just a few minutes ago I got a tip from a friend who studied abroad recently – apparently her cheapest rate was with ScotiaLife, so I’ll have to look into them, too. That would really be ironic, as I used to sell Accidental Death for ScotiaLife as a telesales agent while I was still a student (hey, gotta make a living somehow). My last option would be to wait until I get to Brazil and buy insurance through the school when I get there, which might work out. My only problem with that would be that any contact with the insurers would be in Portuguese, which I don’t yet speak; but at least the contacts are in the same country as me if something goes wrong. Clearly I have some decision-making to do here.

As you can see, I am clearly anal retentive when it comes to planning trips – but I am crazy like a fox! (Hey, that should be a new blog category!) Between credit card points, thrifty but practical airfares, and shopping around, I bet I’ve already saved myself nearly a grand – which is a substantial portion of my savings, and almost enough to fly back home for Christmas with. I am quite pleased with this progress! On the other hand, I am still freaking out about my upcoming visit to the Brazilian Consulate. Now that I have my flights booked, I feel like everything is carved in stone. If I have visa (the legal document) troubles, I really don’t know what I’ll do, and all that savings will be for naught.

I didn’t get a call to pick up my Criminal Record Check today, so hopefully it’ll come in tomorrow and I can head to Toronto the same day. I’ll keep you posted as always, but in the meantime…wish me luck!

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Filed under bargain hunting, Brazil, Canada, crazy like a fox, Excited!, fear, Flights, immigration, red tape, Travel Insurance