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!