Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Why it's all worth it

Traveling is both exhilarating and heartbreaking, sometimes at the same time. During the two weeks in Brazil, my longst trip to date, I encountered some of the less than romantic side effects of spending significant time in a foreign country.

Food tastes differerent. Deliciously so, but after while you begin to crave what you remember from home. For me, I missed my husband's egg and cheddar cheese spread sandwichs on whole wheat toast.

Personal space, at least in Brazil, is almot non-existent. For the most part, this is actually a pleasant thing. You begin to feel very loved when every person you meet kisses your cheek and asks you countless questions about your life and country. Smiles are directed your way along with food, drink, and more food. You begin to feel like you may actually be an interesting person after all. However, after 9 days or so, you begin to crave that space and ability to simply "zone out" if you wish. That is very dificult in a country where everyone you meet wants to know your name.

Homesickness. The kind of homesickness that hits on Father's Day, and the day of your anniversary, and late at night in your hotel room when the Internet connection is down and so the only interaction you have is with the room service menu which is written in....Portughese. And besides...after the endless gracious offers of food, it's difficult to even glance at a room service menu. Put simply, you miss your family. Your home. Your dog. Homesickness.

Airports. Even after an amazing trip, the 23 hours spent in airports and on airplanes is less than pleasant. Enough about this one. Flying is never fun.

So, why travel? With all of the discomforts, is it even worth it?

YES.

Those matters become trivial when you realize that you look at your whole life diferently after a trip to another country. The school systems in Brazil are filled to the brim with passionate, hard-working teachers and artistic, loving, hopeful students. In many public schools, they are forced to make do with so little. When an overhead is a luxury in a Brazilian classroom, it makes me feel like my school won the lottery. Every day.

Not to mention, a little homesickness and living out of a suitcase pales in comaprison to the human relationships built during travel. Every personal quality of yourself and the people around you is amplified. This makes for strong relationships in short periods of time. There are some students that have aleady kept in touch through email and facebook, and I look forward to keeping a strong relationship with my host teacher as well. I also made some great friends in my travel cohort. There is no better time to bond with someone than when you are so far away that every relationship instantly feels like a friendship.

I know travel is worth it when I realize that I am a different person stepping off the plane than I was when I walked on.

Obrigada

Obrigada. Thank you.

When I first felt comfortable enough to use this Portughese word of thanks, it started sneaking out in little mumbled whispers after a waiter refilled my coffee or a gentleman held the elevator door for me. After a day or two, I became more confident and my obrigadas rolled out of my mouth like a native. I soon found myself thanking everyone for everything, and loving the sound of gratitude in a foreign language. Obrigaada. I even chopped off the first syllable here and there in an informal, "I feel so comfortable here" version that sounded like 'brigada.  So cool.

I began to realize how much I would need this word about 4 days into my trip. There were so many instances of generosity that I began to worry that this one word could never be enough to show my gratitude. My host teacher devoted 8 full days to my travel partner and me, making sure we visited as many schools, cultural sites, and beautiful waterfalls as was humanly possible. She did this, along with her full teaching schedule, family obligations, and nightly paper grading. So to my host teacher, Lolly, obrigada.


The students who geeted us at each school graciously prepared music, dances, homemade food, and slide shows to welcome us to their country and school. One student even handcrafted a box to carry two lovely souveniers. Two students baked Brazilian chocolate truffles and presented a full plate to us at 8 am, saying these are the best and please can you taste them now? Despite the early hour, I ate three and loved every one. To the students, obrigada.

In the capital city of Brasilia, we visited a glass cathedral that still remains in my mind the most beautiful place of worship I have ever seen. The sun glimmered through thousands of blue stained glass panels and shimmered across the pews, bathing the entire cathedral in a blue, ethereal light. I thanked God for every kind of beauty that has taken my breath away, whether it is a glowing catherdral or the smile of a 4th grader singing the alphabet. For all of this, obrigada.


It turns out that I decided to keep all four syllables of this word intact. The thanks I wanted to give deserved every syllable and more. Obrigada.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Coffee, bananas....and one amazing school



Today was surreal in so many ways. It started bright and early on a loooong drive away from Po├žos into a rural area in the mountains. The paved road quickly gave way to a rutted dirt trail, and I gripped my seat as our little Fiat puttered precariously around steep curves, tempting head on collisions with trucks barreling down the mountain. My fears soon turned to awe when the landscape suddenly turned into banana trees and coffee plantations. It was stunning. Think of the lush, green tropical wildness of a country like Costa Rica combined with the sprawling olive groves and vineyards of a place like Tuscany, Italy. Beautiful.

The most beautiful part? The tiny village school perched at the tippy top of the dirt road. The nine or so classrooms surrounded an open air square where students with guitars were gathered in a semi circle to greet us. They sang and strummed while I tried to process where I was and how lucky I was to be in that very moment.

In surreal moments like this, tears are inevitable. When we entered the second grade room, the students cheerily sang out "bom dia!" and waved their hands at us until I thought they might fly off their bodies. They showed us their artwork and the fable they were reading, and when it was time for a picture, their endearing, youthful smiles brought clarity to the moment. Our youth is our future, and here I was hugging our future on a mountain top in a remote village in Brazil.

Monday, June 18, 2012

We're all in this together.....

During the 9 hour flight to Brazil, and the 6 months anticipating the trip, I couldn't help but wonder what major differences I would find when I learned about the Brazilian education school system. I pondered the vast canyon I would find between my country and this one, 5,000 miles away. Turns out, we are not so different at all. Sure, in the states we do some things differently, like have students rotate instead of teachers. Or decorate or walls instead of leaving them blank. Our government offers serious money to struggling public schools under Title I , and in Brazil the public schools fend for themselves.

But I am talking about the universal sameness of teaching. In both Brazil and the US, teenagers sneak text messages under their desks. Graffiti finds its way on bathroom stalls. Teachers laugh with kids, they are inspired, they get burned out, they aren't paid like doctors like we all deserve. (Brazilian teachers much worse in this struggle.) In both countries, high school students spill out of the classroom the minute the bell rings, some stay after to talk with a favorite teacher, papers are graded, friendships are made.

Our struggles are very similar. Will the students care enough? Will the teachers? Will teaching ever be a respected profession? In these struggles, we are the same.

Today I spoke with a group of passionate teachers in a public school that was in a low-income neighborhood. The teachers and students had pride in their school, from the brand new computer lab to the beautiful vegetable garden out back used for school lunches. The teachers I spoke with lamented about low pay and respect, and we decided as a group that educators, beyond country borders, need to stick together. After we said this, a friendly teachers next to me gave me a half hug and pressed her face against mine. She continued to hold me close to her side and smiled at me frequently. She did not speak English, but she didn't have to. I knew what she was saying.

We are all in this together.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Friendly Faces

The people in Brazil are nice. Really nice. Smile at you, offer you food, compliment your rusty Portughese nice.

When I tell Brazilian teachers and students this, they smile and laugh and just get nicer. I have met warm, friendly faces in the schools, the hotels, the taxis, and the stores. Today I had a wonderful experience buying haivanna flip flops. The store manager patiently waited and agreed with a smile when I asked to try on 7 different colors. It is okay if things take longer, if things don't happen as planned, or things don't happen at all.

In the public and private schools I have visited, the school community feels honored to welcome Amerian teachers. More than this, they have honest, curious questions about education in America and what it is like to get into college. I feel valued as a visitor here.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The City of the Future



The city of Brasilia, Brazil could be in a science fiction movie. We arrived Sunday, June 9th, 11 U.S teachers total, to start our trip to learn about the educational system in Brazil. The architecture made us feel like we were in the city of the future. The buildings, made mostly of cement, flow in soft curves and lines. The cathedral curves towards the blue sky. One government building spills water from each level from infinity-edge waterfalls. Despite the futuristic architecture, we also experienced a very simple, down to earth aspect of the city on our first day. Every weekend there is a an outside market where local artisans display art, sculpture, and other goods. Delicious smells lured us to the food section of the market' where we ate empadas and pastels, or fried pockets of pretty much any kind of meat and cheese. We didn't understand the Portughese, but after a smile and some pointing we were able to spend our first realais and have a snack. This first day of sightseeing and exploring got us all excited to see where the city of the future goes to school. Our first stop will be the public school, Elefante Branco.