Friday, August 29, 2003

Culture Shock

Well, here I am, adjusting to life in the states again, experiencing a form of reverse culture shock (what’s up with those huge super-sized french fries and monster soda cups?)

I have received a number of emails from people wanting to know how Kitty is, how teaching is going, how the car hunt went, etc.  I thought I would post here to give everyone a quick update on my life and to apologize for not sending more personalized responses.  I promise to start replying to various emails soon.

For those of you who have not heard, I arrived home on Sunday, Aug. 10th and was met at the airport with the news that my grandmother had had a heart attack the day before and was in a coma.  She never woke up and in fact, passed away (the night before my first day of teaching) and her funeral was that Friday, my third day of school (which meant of course that I had to arrange for a substitute, and thus get my sub folder together at super-sonic speeds.)  For those of you who have taught in the past or are currently teaching, you can just imagine my general sense of panic at the time, which of course, made me feel even worse about my grandmother’s death — at a time when I should be grieving, I also had to focus on beginning-of-the-year duties!  Ultimately, the result was that my first two weeks back, in particular that first week of teaching, were extremely stressful and emotional for me.  Luckily for me, working for a Catholic school has its benefits — my principal was very supportive and insisted that I take that Friday to attend the funeral and to be with my family.
Of course, the fact that I missed the first Friday of school meant that I also missed the first all-school mass, which I have to say was simply a matter of delaying the task that I dreaded more than any other in the world — being responsible for 24 squirmy, wiggly, whiny, giggly first graders.  In church.  With my friend and classmate Michael (who also happens to be the priest of the church) watching from the pulpit as I grabbed a child by the nape of the neck and dragged him off that damn pillar.  With the other teachers in the building cringing in despair as my first graders dropped their kneelers to the floor with a loud, resounding bang, because I forgot to lower them before allowing them to enter the pews.  With one of my children bouncing forward and backward off the kneelers, despite our reviewing all the proper and appropriate behaviors for when we are in “God’s house.”  With another child hanging over the pew in front of him because “Miss Uley, I’m tired” (in a whiney voice, of course).  With a third child swinging his feet so that they connected with a massive thud against the pew in front of him.  With a fourth child trying to rip a fifth’s child’s ponytail from her head.  With a sixth child crawling on the floor for god knows what reason.  With a seventh, eight and ninth child sitting in dead silence, their eyes focused forward, their hands in their laps, their backs straight, their mouths closed, because someone in their life had obviously pounded into their heads the deadly consequences of misbehaving in church (they’ll go to hell, no doubt).  And I haven’t even reached the tenth child.  Let alone the 24th.

Suffice it to say, there is a reason so many religions invented such a thing as Sunday school.  Because their parents couldn’t take the pressure of dragging their children to church service week after week!

And that doesn’t even enter the realm of Amy, who is not Catholic and is not familiar with all the various rituals involved in this mass.  There were the hours spent in the privacy of my own home, practicing the sign of the cross, not to mention that whole genuflecting thing (I had to practice to be sure I wouldn’t fall flat on my face… it’s harder than it looks!)  There was the whole I’m moving my mouth trying to give the impression that I actually know the words to these songs, not to mention the rote responses (I have to get my hands on something called a missellette — okay I have no idea if that is how it’s spelled, but I went with the whole French spelling, since it sounds so very francais — I guess this little book spells out everything I will ever need to know about attending a Catholic mass and looking like a native.)

As for the actual teaching portion of the job, I believe I have the international poster child for ADD in my room, and I most certainly have several poster children for the ”we took naps all summer long and it doesn’t matter what you say, come 2:00 we’re going to be napping one way or the other” club.  I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve had to pull a child upright in their chair and be the mean teacher who makes them wake up from a sound sleep (which they arrived at in literally 2.9 seconds).

Ah, the joys of teaching.  The thing is the kids are great.  They’re fun and cute as anything and their level of bad just doesn’t even begin to reach the darkest levels of junior high bad.  So, I’m counting it all a plus, and hey, if I have to drag a couple kids down from pillars in church or wake up the nap brigade or even ring my bell 20,792 times in one day just to get their attention and maybe actually get a word in edgewise, well at least I’m not confiscating fart machines and sending kids to the office because they’re threatening physical violence and squaring off with kids who are a foot taller than me and a hundred pounds heavier and confiscating notes about doing the nasty (in truly vulgar terminology) re other 14-year olds.  Then again, junior high had its rewards too.  As a teacher anyway.

And that’s really all I have to say about the teaching right now.  I’m still getting into the swing of things and expect everything to continue along its merry, crazy path for quite some time before it begins to settle down.  But hey, as long as we’re having fun, who minds crazy?

As for Kitty, he’s doing okay.  I picked him up from the vet almost immediately after arriving in town.  I was given two prescriptions and a saline solution, all of which have to be administered twice a day.  If someone had told me, even three months ago, that I would be inserting a needle under Kitty’s skin every 12 hours, I would have told them they were fricking nuts, that I couldn’t possibly handle anything like that.  But the reality is we do what we have to when we care enough.  This treatment is really about maintenance as without it, he probably wouldn’t make it.  So, I will continue the treatment as long as he is able to enjoy life and is not in pain and hopefully my budget will continue to support that decision (given that the treatment costs around $200 a month).

I have had some minor difficulties in the process.  The first night I administered the saline solution, it took me 30 minutes to get up the courage to actually pierce his skin and by that time, he had almost finished eating and got quite irritated with me, resulting in him receiving less than the required amount that first time.  I also had technical difficulties with the line last night (I had just added a new bag to the line) and had to call my vet at her home (the emergency clinics were less than helpful — I actually called two before resorting to my vet).  Dr. Stuart was wonderful and walked me through all the various things I could do before we finally hit upon the solution.

Of course, by that time, Kitty had finished eating and was quite irritable with me when I followed through on the whole saline solution thing (I think he thought he might get out of it for once!)
In any case, Kitty and I are enjoying our time together, for however long it lasts, and of course, I haven’t yet given up hope and am still holding out for one more year.  We’re determined to beat Dr. Stuart’s “he may last a day, he may last a week, he may last a month” warning as we were leaving the clinic.  Though I know she doesn’t want to raise any false hopes, Kitty has surprised us before and may just do so again.

And lastly, my car hunt met with success.  I actually purchased my car the day after I got home and picked it up one day later. It’s a 2003 Honda Civic and basically has everything my other car did not.  Power windows.  CD player.  Working power locks.  Rearview mirror.  Working a/c unit.  Transmission.  Yes, indeed.  I’m living the good life.

Saturday, August 16, 2003

Week 9 in Brazil, Take 2

Well, I’m afraid this update loses some of its impact now that I’ve returned to the states, but I didn’t exactly have time to write my final missive twice.  I literally used my last 20 minutes at the youth hostel in Rio to type the tale of my final week in Brazil and as a result, after hotmail ate my words of wisdom re week 9, I had no choice but to leave the tale for later reconstruction as I had a plane to catch.  By the way, many thanks to all those sarcastic words of wisdom (no I did not forget something, Nancy, hotmail just hates me and yes, my week was EXTREMELY exciting, thank you very much, Jed).

And so… I will attempt to reconstruct my final week for you, my patient loyal readers, and also for me, since I find it impossible to leave this tale unfinished!

Speaking of Jed, he would be so proud of me (I forgot to mention this in week 8), for I spent one of my final evenings with my family playing the Brazilian version of that game whose name escapes me, but you know the one — it’s a war game, involving lots of armies with the goal being to take over the world.  In any case, I had to keep reminding the apparent cheaters in the family (the father and the 14-year old son) that no, if they wanted to fight with x number of armies, then they had to actually move y number of armies when they won.  I constantly amazed the young boys in the house with my knowledge of “cool” games and (amazingly enough!) music.

But that has nothing to do with week 9.  Week 9 I spent in Rio (and what fun that was!)  For the first part of the week, I toured the city with the other Americans in our group.  We visited Cristo Redentor at the top of a mountain via train and an endless number of steps; trekked across two other mountains on our way to a third (Pao de Acucar) via rikkety, grindy, terrifying slow, cable cars (my mom would have freaked!); ate at a churrasco buffet (the Brazilian version of barbecue where every two minutes a waiter hovered over your shoulder wanting to drop giant slabs of meat on your plate – I kept them away with my newly acquired Brazilian finger – that would be a no-no-no shaking of the finger not whatever the hell else you guys are thinking); spent hours at the beach; visited several "hippy fairs"; trekked through a botanical garden; visited the soccer stadium (why I ask you); and attended a hideous, tacky, Las Vegas showgirl type show well-known among Rio tourists for its “realistic” portrayal of Brazilian culture and history [scoffs and rolls eyes].

My only regret is that I never did get the chance to leap off that mountain in Rio and hang-glide down to the beaches below.  They kept cancelling our reservation due to inclement weather.  Damn them.  Of course, in retrospect, I think that maybe the inclement weather was actually the universe shouting at us, “HEY!  Enough risk-taking already, you MORONS!!”

My final three days in Rio I spent at the beach, wandering through Copacabana, enjoying my room at the youth hostel that was so very different from the room of broken pipes, waterfall streaming across the electric control panel and telephone, sprinkling in my face at 4:00 in the morning, nearly electrocuting me as I attempted to turn on the lights and turn off the a/c via the same control panel, unable to see the water that was turning it into a hazardous danger zone… this was the room I stayed in at our “classier” and more expensive group hotel we stayed in for the first half of the week.  My youth hostel was much calmer and had lots more character with a hammock on the balcony, bunk beds in the rooms, hardwood floors, ceiling fans and older architecture.

In any case, that was my final week in Brazil.  For the most part, it was calm with a distinct lack of excitement (mainly because I wasn’t with the group that ended up getting in an argument with a taxi driver — well, I did get in some arguments myself, but I wasn’t there for this particular argument — and were forced to exit the cab in the middle of a bunch of favelas, or shantytowns, with no idea of where they were or how to get where they were going, and ended up getting picked up by mega-scary, machine gun toting military police… they were eventually given a ride to civilization after enduring a lecture about wandering where they didn’t belong and having to hear about the German tourist who was shot not two blocks from where they stood two weeks before… yeah, I’m thinking I was lucky to escape all that excitement!)

And so my experiences in Brazil ended with a 12-hour plane ride home, 4 hour layover in Texas, and a 2 hour flight to K.C.  All in all, it was a great trip, crazy family, river rafting near death experience, cable cars, excessive hours in class, military police and all.

But it’s good to be home too!

Friday, August 1, 2003

Week 8 in Brazil

E entao amigos, como vao? 

I'm wrapping up the academic portion of the program here — took my final exam this morning, what a pain in the butt, like we’re supposed to study while in paradise… de jeito nenhum!

Although I must admit that paradise is sometimes an exaggeration (somehow the stench of overworked sewage systems detracts from the idyllic setting), it still seems absurd to spend our afternoons studying… which is why many of us have perfected the art of studying at the beach (that is to say, we pretend to study until someone else from the group shows up to pretend study as well, which usually results in happy, sunny hours with not a book in sight).

And so my academic program endeth, on the beach with coco water and a smile.

I did of course get a lot of work done on my research project (despite the time at the beach) but there is still so much more to do.  I spent the past several weeks, making observations in an elementary /middle school in Vitoria, speaking with teachers and interviewing adults students (who attend at night).  Unfortunately, I had a limited amount of time to pursue my research (given the rigorous academic schedule) and things in Latin America tend to meander along at a very slow pace in any case, so… I think that if I truly want to use the results of my research to write my master’s thesis, I’m going to have to return to Brazil sometime over the next year (how very sad for me, I’m sure).
And so my research stops, with too many questions for it to truly be at an end.

My crazy Brazilian family is already asking when I will return, so they can welcome me with loud shrieks of joy.  I of course am counting down the seconds to when I get to leave their nut house, though I will truly, TRULY miss the children (yes, even the whiney shrieky one).  And so I leave the wacky Brazilian family behind, certain that my family has, in no way, ever approached their level of wackiness (and that’s really saying something!)

I completed Capoeira last night with a video camera attached to my face so that I got out of actually having to perform in front of the hordes of Brazilians our professors invited to watch our (or at least my) shameful lack of coordination.  Too bad I never thought to borrow the video camera from my family sooner, maybe I could have avoided all those crazy evenings of contortionist play.

And so my Capoeira days are over, leaving me covered in bruises, hobbling through the streets of Brazil with a videotape and berimbau clutched in hand.

Tonight I head for Rio de Janeiro on a bus.  I begged my fellow travelers to fork out the extra money for an omnibus semi-leito (partial sleeping bus), but there seems to be a communal crisis of money at the end of this trip – I really don’t understand how the crisis can be that great when even I can afford to pay the extra TEN DOLLARS to travel without another passenger reclining in my lap, but hey…  at least they all agreed to pay the extra two dollars to have three more inches of space.

And so my time in Vitoria comes to a close.  It’s been interesting and fun and messed up all at the same time.  I can’t wait to see what Rio brings the second time around!  One final excursion to end the trip in style.

Ate mais…