Category Archives: life choices

Warming up to the Amazon

Teatro Amazonas, the famous opera house in Manaus.

So it’s been a few days, and I thought I should give an update on my present state of mind vis-á-vis “the Amazon.”

Somehow, against all odds, I’m finding myself warming up to the whole jungle expedition thing.  Well, mostly because I’ve realized that it would be nothing of the sort; in fact, Manaus is twice the size of Ottawa at around 2 million.  If I were to judge my openness to this rainforest ramble on a scale of, oh say, degrees Celsius, then on Sunday night I was at or below freezing (0ºC, for all you Fahrenheit users).  Over the last few days, the temperature has risen slowly but surely (I would say like a Canadian spring, but that’s too unpredictable).  After I talked to the Embassy people on Tuesday it was around 25º.  After I told friends, family, and coworkers and got many encouraging responses, it was pushing 50º.  Centigrade by centigrade, with each conversation and Google search, the mercury has crept higher.  I’m really not sure whether the catalyst here is time or excitement, but the conversion is undeniably happening.

You may have noticed that I’m somewhat of an (obsessive) planner (at least for special events; I am way too lazy to plan for the day-to-day).  Basically, I like to know everything that can be known about a place before I go.  I memorize maps, budget out costs, research activities, talk to other people who have been there, and basically drive myself and others crazy with details.  Last fall I went to NYC with two girlfriends for a three-day trip, and I had a folder, an itinerary, and a home-made travel guide shortlisting all the activities I liked in the bigger travel guide so we could still “wing it.”  Yeah, they laughed at me, but it was totally worth it.  Anyway, my point is this: while I had researched the shit out of pretty much the entire Brazilian Atlantic coast, I hadn’t given a second’s thought to the interior, and especially not to Manaus after I’d dismissed it as impossible.  This led, as you know, to a massive freak-out when I was suddenly told by authorities outside my influence that my placement was in Amazonas.

I think that a lot of my first reaction was due more to unpreparedness (mentally and scholastically) than to a genuine aversion to Manaus.  I also think that the excitement that followed that initial shock was neither positive nor negative, and with the influence of my friends’ and family’s reactions, it has taken on a positive energy.  Hence, the upward movement in the jungle thermometer.  I’m really not much of a worrier when it comes to meeting new people, learning new languages, or starting new jobs; these are things that I would have to do no matter what part of Brazil I moved to.  Once that knowledge set in, I’ve come to realize I can probably handle whatever is thrown at me – and learn to love it, too.

Now that I’ve started to get over my fears, I’ve started becoming more receptive to some of Manaus’s many positive characteristics.  First, there’s the fact that it’s quite a large city, as I said earlier.  This truly is the best of both worlds for me: big cities are exactly my cup of tea (downtown Toronto is still “my” hood), but I didn’t want to get swallowed up in the hustle of 20 million Paulistanos or eaten alive by Cariocan favelas.  (Don’t ask me why enormous cities require food metaphors…must be a subconscious allusion to Atwood’s Edible Woman.)  Anyway.  In Manaus, I’ll get all the culture, night life, and diversity of a larger city without the same kind of hustle.

Secondly, while I probably won’t be able to observe the integration of Brazilian immigrants at close range as I wanted, I will have the opportunity to learn more about the indigenous people.  The anthro/socio side of my trip is extremely important to me, as I’d like to do a social sciences Master’s some time in the near future.  Fortunately I’m equally passionate about all human cultures (although I do tend to favour some at different times), so this change is fine with me.  Besides, I will actually be the immigrant – I don’t need to observe others, I just need to observe myself!

Third, I have always known that the host school and living conditions will be more important than location when it comes to happiness and ease of adjustment.  I had a major breakthrough in this area last night.  Thank God for the internet, it does everything!  I trolled through some of my favourite Brazil expat blogs in search of any hint about life in Manaus.  It was on Danielle’s blog, which I’ve been reading for half a year now, that I found a post with a few dozen comments from other English teachers on the quality of the very school (franchise) that I’ve been accepted into.  And then, the real bingo: I found the blog of a girl who actually went through the same program as me, in the same city, in the same school, and loved it!  All this was at around midnight last night, and in my animated exhaustion, emailed her for details.  Meredith has been kind enough to message me back words of encouragement and assurance, and I look forward to talking to her more.

All of these considerations have my little internal thermometer spiking upwards.  I’m at the point now where I’m sure I will go, as long as the visa pulls through.  However, I eagerly anticipate the moment when I reach 100ºC and my excitement starts to boil over, as is deserved by the trip of a lifetime.

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Filed under Brazil, cheesy metaphors, IICA internship, life choices, overcoming fear

Amazonian Woman?

I love irony. I really do; it’s the perfect type of humour in books, movies, plays, and Alanis Morissette songs. But in real life? In my real life? Not so awesome.

I’ve known I wanted to go to Brazil since last summer, and I’ve been working all year towards this goal. While I consistently tucked away cash, I read blogs, books, and websites for teaching English abroad and scoured the internet for job postings in Brazil. Based on what I’ve read, I can easily go with just a tourist visa and stick around to work, but some complications are that housing is sometimes hard to get if you don’t already own land (wtf? Why would you need to rent if you already own?), and that employers can take advantage of you if you aren’t working there legally. Also, the maximum amount of time I could stay on a tourist visa is six months. In February, I found what looked like the perfect solution: an organization that provides English teaching internships in different locations around the country. The school provides free housing and a stipend, and this setup qualifies the intern for a trainee visa – good for two years, and more importantly, one of the only legitimate ways of teaching English in Brazil. I requested an application package, then did a ton of research, including speaking with three past and present interns about their experiences. Reassured that the program was legit, I submitted my application, complete with a $450 deposit, in April.

Now, one major drawback to this program is that I have no say in where I am placed. It could literally be anywhere in Brazil, and the placements change all the time because they’re dependent on schools being interested in hosting an intern. When I spoke with the other interns, all three of them were placed in São Paulo state, which sounded fine by me. However, one girl mentioned that her reference had been placed in Manaus, a city in the middle of the Amazon.

Let me make this clear: I have zero interest in traipsing through the jungle, surrounded by boa constrictors and piranhas and 100% humidity, for an entire year. Manaus sounded like a horrible idea to me, but the girl I spoke with said her reference was there a few years ago and she hadn’t heard of anyone else being placed there since, so I thought my chances were pretty low of getting stuck in the rainforest. I figured if they put me in the rainforest I just wouldn’t go.

It’s been about a month since my application, and I’ve been on tenterhooks all day every weekday, checking my email constantly in fear and excitement. (I’m also really stressed about talking to my current boss about leaving, but that’s another story.) Finally, last Thursday, I couldn’t take it anymore. I realized it had been a full four weeks, and I hadn’t heard anything. So I emailed the program coordinator to ask if this was a normal waiting period, or if they were having problems placing me. Even if they were, I’ve been in contact with another school that could get me a visa, but I just wanted to know if I should continue to wait. I didn’t get an email back on Friday, so I figured I wouldn’t hear over the weekend, and I was going away anyway.

So. I’m in Ottawa, visiting friends and having an excellent long weekend. I get back to their place on Sunday night after a day of wandering around the Byward Market and shopping, totally relaxed after splitting a half-litre of wine with my friend over dinner. I open up my computer, casually refreshing my email…and BAM. Email response from the program.

I’m instantly nervous. I click open the email, afraid of what I’ll find. Lo and behold, there it is: three lines that determine my (potential) future for the next year:

Dear Skylar:

Your visa paperwork has been submitted to your host-school in Manaus to be signed and issued.

Within a few days  you will be receiving your package.

Kind Regards.

Program Coordinator.

Holy shit, they placed me in Manaus! What am I going to do?!

I actually said this out loud to my friend and her boyfriend, whose room I was in. Then, after about five minutes of reading and re-reading the email, googling the location of the city to show my friends, and searching for images (not soothing), I started laughing and crying hysterically at the irony of saying, for about two whole months, that I would go anywhere in Brazil – anywhere but Manaus.

Boa constrictor sleeping off lunch in Manaus, Brazil

“Boa Constrictor sleeping off lunch in Manaus, Brazil.”  Photo courtesy of Tripadvisor, categorized under “Food/Restaurants.”

So I spent the past two days basically freaking out. I emailed a bunch of my friends, talked to my mom, spoke to random food-vending Brazilians at a festival, and watched a (scary but awesome) TV show documenting these people’s trip through the Amazon. In between, I tried to forget about it. And this morning, I went to the Brazilian embassy (a convenient 15 minute walk from my friend’s house) to learn about visa stipulations and hopefully glean some insight from native Brazilians.

The response I’ve gotten has been overwhelmingly positive about the opportunity, but everyone has said that it’s a decision only I can make. And they’re right; it will come down to me. I’ve decided that I can’t let fear make the decision, and so I will make an effort to give this fair consideration. Instead of rejecting the offer, I’ll wait to see what information I get in my acceptance package (coming in the mail a little slower than email), and ask the program coordinator for a reference from a past participant from Manaus. I’ll utilize some Brazilian contacts (past students and other friends of friends) and learn as much as I can. I really don’t know how long I’ll have to come to a decision, and I feel the pressure, but at this point I’m willing to entertain the idea of becoming an “Amazonian woman” – which is more than I can say for myself two days ago!

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Filed under Brazil, fear, IICA internship, life choices