Category Archives: insecurities

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

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

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

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

Oh Internship, how do you confuse me? Let me count the ways

Well friends, it finally happened…my documents package finally arrived from Brazil! This is the moment I’ve been waiting for since I found out I’d gotten a placement back in May. Seriously, it was a long and painful wait for the ten or so pages of documentation I needed to apply for my trainee visa! But it’s kind of a long story, so let me back it up a bit.

I mentioned in my last post that I’d emailed the internship people to find out if they had any details about the mail from their end, such as a tracking number. To my relief, I woke up Thursday morning to an email with both a tracking number and reassurance that, according to Brazil’s Correios, the package had arrived in Canada on June 30 (Note: it had been postmarked June 13; therefore, the main holdup was not with Canada Post, despite the strike/lockout, but with the Brazilian system!). I was advised to check it out on the Canadian end, which of course I did. So I entered the tracking number into the tracking box on Canada Post’s website…and nothing came up.

Okay, I thought, maybe it’s still stuck in Customs, or maybe the tracking number will be different on the Canadian end than the Brazilian end. So I called up Canada Post, expecting to be stuck on hold forever only to be told off for not anticipating delays after a shutdown. Fortunately I got a customer service agent right away, although she did confirm that the wait time was around 3-4 weeks, especially for international deliveries as there was a customs backlog. Great. Then she checked my tracking number, and again nothing came up. I told her about it allegedly having left Brazil, so she checked the Brazilian mail system…still nothing. Then I started to panic: was this a fictional parcel? Was IICA lying to me? Was there some crazy conspiracy between IICA, Canada Post and Correios to make me lose my mind?

Okay, it wasn’t quite that dramatic…but I really didn’t know what to think. I emailed my internship contact once again to confirm the tracking number, then did what I always do when I get stressed and called my mommy to deal with it. She loves this sort of thing, where you can research it on the internet (instead of doing real work. I just let her do that). Then I left the house and attempted to have a normal day by doing some more window shopping, patio reading, and meeting with a friend.

The next morning I awoke to another email:

Skylar:

Good morning. The correct tracking number is:

EB—05*****79BR

It was sent you EE, which is wrong.

Kind Regards.

Internship Coordinator

Not knowing whether to laugh or cry with relief, I quickly re-entered the new tracking number into the Canada Post site. Lo and behold, the item had cleared Customs and reached London, an hour away from home! I was hopeful that the package could even arrive at my house that day, in which case I’d have my mom Purolate it to me at my sister’s place and try to stay an extra couple days to go to the consulate. Alas, it didn’t, and I took the train home on Sunday night.

Monday: Canada Post, 9:00 am – item out for delivery (no delivery)

5:00 pm – item redirected to recipient’s new address (I moved a month ago)

Tuesday: Canada Post,    9:13 am – item out for delivery

10:41 am – item successfully delivered (!!!)

I was in my pajamas still this morning when the red, white and blue postal truck finally showed up in our driveway. I signed the little machine thing, and was handed a half-page sized envelope, which seemed pretty anticlimactic after all this time. I opened it, mom watching on. It was literally just the visa paperwork, with a page or two of sparse instructions on what to add, and half the pages were in Portuguese.

Upon reading a little closer, I noticed that my Brazilian address and workplace didn’t say Manaus, but Rio Branco. I assumed it was somewhere on the outskirts of the city, like Markham is to Toronto. So over breakfast I perused my information and decided to Google Map the location. Why didn’t I recall that this was a surefire way to start panicking, like when I first learned about Manaus?

I searched it and found the little pink pinpoint, but didn’t recognize any of the green surroundings, so I zoomed out. Still nothing, so I zoomed out some more. And out…and out…until I saw a country border, and recognized Bolivia, and then Peru! Rio Branco is the capital city of the most Westerly state in Brazil, Acre; a state, which according to the Lonely Planet, was bought/stolen from Bolivia in the early 1900’s, although “The Brazilian government…had never really supported the upstart Acreans and refused to name Acre a state, designating it the nation’s first ‘federal territory’ instead.” Great, I had just gotten used to the idea of moving to Manaus, city of 1.8 million though isolated, and here I was being shafted to a city so remote that even the Brazilian government couldn’t be bothered to acknowledge its existence!

My next move was to attempt to get in touch with my supposed contact in Manaus/Rio Branco (it was the same person I tried emailing a few weeks ago). I called the number on my documentation, but whoever answered the phone only spoke Portuguese and didn’t recognize the name I gave. I listened to dead air for a few minutes in case he’d just put the phone down to go get her (the connection was unclear) before getting an earful of beeping, signalling that I’d been hung up on. I tried my hand at emailing said contact once more, then sent an update email to my internship coordinator informing him I’d received the package and was a little confused at its contents.

I spent the next hour translating the Portuguese documentation into English before I had to sign my life away, and noticed another slightly alarming detail: my college reference, which at the time of my initial application was in no way involved as I used a general reference letter, was on my visa documentation! She is expected to vouch for me with her signature at the consulate level when I apply for my visa. This complicates my life just that much more, as I haven’t spoken to my reference in over a year, and she lives and works in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area). So I shot another email off to her.

Meanwhile, I got response from IICA:

Skylar:

You initially had been screened for the school in Rio Branco.

The director decided you to be placed in Manaus, since the position in Rio Branco had been filled.

Thus you get your visa according to your papers and when you arrive a change of address from Rio Branco to Manaus will be done a imigration dept. in Manaus.

Kind Regards.

Heart attack averted! Only to be replaced by another email, minutes later:

Ms. Skylar:

Notice that two packages of visa paperwork were sent you. One in April, which I think you never received, and another one in June 13 (which is the correct).

The first one had xerox copies and not original copies. The second package sent June 13 had hard copies.

Be sure you have at hands the last one with the hard copies, since consulate of Brazil will not accept xerocopies. Void the first package, if you finally received it.

Kind Regards.

Which package had I received? It was date stamped for June 13, so I was pretty sure it was the one he wanted me to have…but the papers looked suspiciously photocopied. I verified…and was told to go ahead with this paperwork. Dear God, I hope there are no problems with it!

If all this wasn’t enough, apparently I’m also supposed to attach a criminal record check, which is notoriously a stupidly long waiting period, even in my hometown. I could have done it 5 times over while waiting, but nobody told me about it. Fortunately, my grandma used to work at the police station and has connections, so I went there today and used that nepotism to the best of my ability (pretty sure I won’t have to pay, but fingers crossed for expediency as well!). I’m also not sure I got the right sized passport photos done…I went back and had them re-taken, only to be further confused by different instructions on the consular website than on my documentation. Finally, I don’t know if I’m supposed to have my flight booked before flying, as the visa application requires a date and point of entry. Argh! So many things. At least I feel like I accomplished something towards leaving today, although once again, I’ll be sitting around and waiting for other people to act so that I can move forward.

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Filed under Brazil, Canada, fear, IICA internship, mail, red tape, travel documents

Aimless in Toronto

A stereotypical Toronto photo...not mine, clearly

…Which is my current location. I’ve been chilling in T-dot for about 3 days now. You may recall a few posts back that I mentioned I didn’t know what would come next once I was done. Well, shortly after writing that, I got the bright idea to call up my old boss at the language school where I worked last summer and see if I could do some supply teaching. They’re always really busy in July. So I emailed him that night, and he emailed me back early the next morning to say sure, there would most likely be work for me. Hooray! I was super pumped about that prospect. I know, I know…a three day weekend isn’t exactly summer vacation, but I don’t take well to idleness. Or rather, I take to it too well – and then I just never get around to doing anything, ever again. I was also really excited to get to spend some time with my former co-workers, who have turned into great friends. And on top of everything there is always a good possibility of meeting some cool Brazilians (after all, it was working at this school with Brazilians that gave me the idea to go there in the first place).

The idea was bright and everything, and I thought I’d had things so well planned out. I would stay at my sister’s place, work during the day like everyone else I know in TO, then hang out with my various groups of friends in the evenings. If I didn’t have work I would read, blog, or learn some Portuguese (as I’d mentioned before). Well, here I am on Wednesday night, and no call from the boss to work. Which is strange because I have it on excellent authority (friends who still teach at the school) that enrolment is high and experienced staff is few. So that means that I’ve spent the last three days trying to sleep in (no such luck – sister and her boyfriend are babysitting a very needy cat [read: I am babysitting a needy cat]), shopping (I’d already bought everything I need for Brazil, and now I have no source of income), and reading in random locations across the city.

Future Bakery, a pastry shop/pub that's open until 1am every night - a student's dream!

The reading part forces me to be very creative, since I don’t want to just sit around in my sister’s basement apartment. So far I have nursed iced coffee on the patios of two Starbucks and one famous bakery, and read approximately 75 pages of Tina Fey’s autobiography Bossypants without buying it by hiding out in the corners of different bookstores for prolonged periods. I intend to finish the book – without buying it – before I leave Toronto.

This could be me at any Indigo location across the GTA

In theory, I’m doing everything you’re supposed to do on vacation. I’m reading, visiting friends, I’m eating well (I got groceries on Monday), I’m getting lots of exercise on my lengthy and unnecessary walks through the city, and I’m sleeping in (ish). Things should be great! But I am SO BORED. And antsy. And feeling not a little guilty that I just gave up an amazing job for seemingly nothing! Also, I know my disposable income (i.e. the money not allocated to travel) will run out very soon, and then I’ll either have to stop doing anything fun or leave for Brazil on my own. I really don’t know which is scarier (you probably don’t live in my hometown, so you wouldn’t understand. Or you do, so you know what I mean). Basically I thought I’d feel cool and carefree in Toronto, but instead I feel like a homeless, couch-surfing cat lady who loiters overlong in coffee shops and bookstores and makes other customers uncomfortable. At least I’m not talking to myself yet (or am I? What is a blog, after all?).

Anyway, I sent a long and hopefully evocative email to the internship people just before writing this, so hopefully they take pity on me and something gets done about this interminable snail mail limbo in which I’ve been mired for the past six weeks. I’ll try to write something less whiny and more entertaining and substantial in the near future. Until then, wish me luck!

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Filed under Canada, cat lady, fear, friends, insecurities, Toronto