Category Archives: travel documents

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

Two-Week To Do List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sticker Picker-Upper

I’m sitting on a bus on my way to Toronto, which means I got my criminal record check this morning! It was a little hectic, as I had to drop my mom off at work, stop off at my work (to deliver a notice of resignation), and then go to the police station all before 9:30 am. I was hesitant to go to the station, because the woman I’d been talking to had done me a great favour already, and this was the second time I’d be showing up without waiting for her phone call. I approached the customer service window with a sheepish look, but fortunately she had the envelope right there waiting for me! Bingo!

I called my dad to confirm that I could come with him (he is doing business in London today), then rushed home to pack. As I was rushing around triple-checking I had all my relevant documents, my grandma shuffled downstairs in her nightie and handed me a twenty. I asked her what it was for, and she just replied, “For being a good girl.” Adorable. It’s going towards my subway fare, as I don’t have any cash on me, but at this point $20 is a big help towards not dipping into my travel savings before I leave!

I also sneaked in a quick email to my prof, notifying her I’ll be in town. I’m hoping I can meet with her today, so I can go straight to the Consulate tomorrow morning – and thus have time to deal with any potential problems before the weekend (here’s hoping there are none).

Have you ever seen the TV game show “Minute to Win It”? It’s a pretty new program, but the concept is really simple: teams of contestants perform challenges with props made of household items in a series of minute-long rounds. Each round brings the team closer to the ultimate prize of one million dollars. I don’t usually watch it, but my grandma does sometimes. The other day it was on, and I watched one team compete in a challenge for $125,000. Their task (or one girl’s; only one person plays at a time) was to hold an egg on a tray and roll it around to pick up these little red stickers without letting the egg roll off – in under a minute. It took her two tries, but she did it and won the $125,000.

This may sound like a stupid challenge, but when you’re standing in front of a studio audience with spotlights and there’s that much money at stake, I can imagine it must be pretty nerve-wracking. In fact, I’m pretty sure I can relate. It’s like I am that egg rolling around on a tray, trying to pick up elusive stickers on a timeline. Strategy goes out the window, and so many times you think you’ve got one of those suckers when in fact, due to the natural curve of the egg, you missed it entirely. I feel about as vulnerable as an uncooked egg too; my emotions are stretched so thin that if all of this falls apart (and I metaphorically roll off the tray), I’ll crack for sure. Let’s just hope that doesn’t happen – or if it does, that I have a lifeline like the girls on the show and get a second chance!

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Filed under Brazil, Canada, cheesy metaphors, IICA internship, red tape, Toronto, travel documents

Nothing Worthwhile is Ever Easy

Contrary to what you may think, this has nothing to do with Brazilian bikinis. And you're gross for thinking about it.

You’d think this (the title) was a lesson I’d learned during my undergrad…alas, it is one that I will likely need reminding of my entire life.  It was a pervasive theme throughout all the other mini lessons I learned today.

After last week’s craziness, I decided to put the stress out of my mind for the weekend and get back to it on Monday. So, today was round three of my pre-departure errand marathon. Rather than bore you with the specifics, I decided to make a list of lessons I’ve learned in the last day or two, and in the course of things explain how I learned them.

Lesson 1: Nepotism Works for Me

I found out once I’d received my documents package that I needed a criminal record check, which was a huge piss-off because I could have gotten one done while I was waiting. Luckily, my sister had to get one a few weeks ago, and when my mom went to pick it up for her she got to chatting with the Police secretary. It turns out that she knows my grandma from when she worked at the police office ~12 years ago! She encouraged us to notify her if we needed police services again…well, just three weeks later (last week), I went in with my own police record request. I popped in today to check on the status, as I hadn’t asked her how long it would take. She informed me that she’d put it in as soon as I’d brought it to her last week, and it would be ready likely tomorrow! This is great news, as it’s now the last piece of information I need other than the signature from my Humber professor. Which brings me to…

Lesson 2: Keep in Touch with your References

You never know when you’re going to have to call in a favour, and references are so crucial to getting the things you want. Jobs, internships, and graduate school are some of the most obvious things for which references are needed, and at this point in my career, my résumé isn’t strong enough yet to recommend me on its own. I had a supervisor for my fourth year thesis who would be a killer grad school reference, but I haven’t talked to him in two years. I guess I’d better get on that, before it’s a month before some deadline and I’m praying he answers an ancient email address. Luckily, my college career was only a year ago, and the professor who is referring me for the internship/visa is super nice. I’ll just have to email her with a time to meet up and she should be able to sign my forms. J

Lesson 3: Don’t Forget to Floss

Okay, this one isn’t strictly related, and it’s kind of a no-brainer. But I went to the dentist today for a check-up and cleaning, and got the usual tongue-lashing (no pun intended) from my dental hygienist about flossing. Actually, she phrased it in the nicest possible way. She said, “You’re too pretty to be ugly,” which apparently means I have great teeth but I’m risking having awful ones later if I don’t pick up a dental pick every once in a while. Lesson learned, Veronica, lesson learned.

Lesson 4: Never Assume One Party has Given You Complete Information about a Third Party

I’ve talked about this before, but I’ve had a lot of confusion with the internship people on exact details. Seriously, every time I email them with a question, one person (the assistant) will email me with one answer, and later another person (the professor) will email me telling me something completely different. Even the contact I’ve had with the school where I’ll be teaching (some of it in Spanish, with me using Google Translate) has added to the confusion, and now I don’t know if I’m teaching in Manaus or Rio Branco. But due to language barriers and me giving up, I’m just going to have to figure that part out when I get there. Anyway, I had some questions for the Brazilian consulate regarding my visa application, so I emailed them directly to find out what all I needed to have in order. It turns out I actually need my flight booked before I apply, so I can provide a travel itinerary. Wish I’d known that last week when I found that flight!

Lesson 5: Telephone Customer Service Agents can be your Best Friend

…if you are polite and firm. This also proves true for email and face-to-face interaction. I think I spent about three hours on the phone today talking to various people, and although I suffered through a lot of automated dialing and repetitive hold music, I got a lot accomplished. I jumped right on the flight booking (see my last post for details on the site I found for cheap flights). Fortunately, the cheap flights were still available – but when I punched in all my information to complete the booking, it turned out the website didn’t recognize my Canadian address. I called the 1-800 number and talked to a wonderful, friendly agent for a good 20 minutes. She explained that the ticket I was about to purchase, while cheap, wouldn’t be a good one to use if I need to change my booking because the fees would be high, and on top of that I’d need to pay the flight difference – which would likely be considerable. Instead, she found me a return ticket from Miami and a one-way from Detroit. Although the upfront cost is almost $500 more than the supercheap ticket, I’ll be able to change my ticket for only $50 at a later date. On top of everything, this is still considerably under the budget I’d set for myself, so I’ll have some money set aside for coming home at Christmas J.

*Sidenote: airlines only schedule flights about 320 days in advance. If you want to book a flight for later, you have to book an earlier one and then change it when you get closer to the date. I don’t know how this will affect my travel visa, but I’ll have to go with a June return date for now.

Things went a little sour when it came time to pay and my credit card wouldn’t go through. The travel agent I was speaking with said she’d call me back after I contacted the bank. We actually went back and forth about four times with me calling the bank, then the travel agency calling me, then me calling the bank again. Apparently Visa wasn’t too on the ball with lifting the hold from my account, but once again I had super friendly service and the people were very easy to talk to. I’ve never had a problem with Visa or with my bank, TD – part of the reason I can’t fully commit to an online banking conversion, much as I love ING Direct.

Anyway, I think everything has finally been straightened out. I’m now waiting for a flight itinerary and e-ticket to show up in my email inbox and I’ll be sure it’s all set!  Details to come…

Lesson 6: Make Sure All Relevant People Know You’re Going Away

I feel like I’ve been preparing to go away for a billion years (a.k.a. six months at least), and there are still things to be done! Some of these things will have to be done at the last minute, for example: informing my bank and credit card company that I’ll be out of the country. This was already a problem today when I tried to put a large purchase from an American company on my Canadian Visa. Other people I’ll have to inform will be OHIP (Ontario Health Insurance Plan, for any non-Ontarians) and EI (Employment Insurance), which I applied for last week – hey, I’m technically laid off for the summer, might as well be collecting while I’m in the country! If I’ve missed anybody important, feel free to tell me in the comments. This is my first time leaving for such a substantial period of time, so I’ll need all the help I can get.

Lesson 7: Remember to Breathe

Talk about a no-brainer (I once heard a blonde joke about this), but it’s actually the number one rule of yoga. My mom is pretty good at reading my stress levels (I’m usually projecting it onto her anyways), and this afternoon as I left to do all my errands she said I sounded like I was pretty tightly wound. And, despite a weekend of lying on the beach, watching Harry Potter, and drinking various alcoholic beverages, the thought of one day of running around totally did stress me out. At dinner I reviewed everything I did today, and my mom asked me when, during the next year, I thought I’d start stressing about the year after my internship. Well, I sincerely hope that a year in Brazil will cure or at least treat my rampant control freakism, but that may be too much to ask. For now, I’ll just remember the mantra of my yoga studio: “If you can breathe and smile, you’re doing yoga.” At least I have newly-cleaned and sparkling teeth!

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Filed under bargain hunting, Canada, crazy like a fox, Flights, IICA internship, Life Lessons, red tape, travel documents

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