Mercury is in retrograde, eclipses are happening, and a lot of planets are also in retrograde. Thus, all of this cosmic energy has me reflecting on the past year. Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to read this post. If you feel called to, keep on reading.
Surviving. Not yet Thriving:
Let’s go back to my time in Lavras, Minas Gerais. More than a year ago at this point. I hope to share some of the learning gems I was able to gather from my reflections. Mind you, while I was living it, it seemed like all was disoriented. So let me take you back to my first 3 weeks in Lavras. They were a learning curve right from the start. My Co-ETA and I were trying to Survive and not yet thriving. Come to think of it again, I’m not sure if I ever thrived in Brasil. If there are current Fulbrighters or Travelers in Brasil Thriving – please share with me how you got there and how you live in that space of Thriving. I did not thrive – I merely survived.
The very first day we arrived in Lavras on a Friday night. We came on the bus from Orientation in Sao Paulo. We knew our host professor was not going to pick us up. Rather, she sent a graduate student at the time and another professor to pick up us. Wonderful families that later took us to dinner and then the hotel on campus where we were to stay while we figured out our bearings. It was still warm in February. We quickly learned there was no air conditioning and only a fan in our room. We said our goodbyes and went to sleep. We had been traveling by bus for about five hours and were exhausted. The next morning (Saturday – the day of the week is very important information – I will share in a moment why) I recall waking up disoriented, tired, and hungry.
Like I said, it was Saturday and no one told us we had breakfast at the hotel or that it was included. We did not think to ask because well we were tired, disoriented and I personally did not speak Portuguese. I knew the common phrases yet Minas Gerais and Lavras in particular had a thick “mineiro” accent. Thus, communicating was very intricate. To ask a simple question required several attempts in Portunhol and showing the person the translated phrase in my phone on google translate. When my Co-ETA and I finally mustered up the courage to venture out into the world and find food we started walking towards the road past campus at around 3:00pm on Saturday. We bumped into a kind soul who helped us walk to the nearest coffee place to look for food options. There we quickly learned that at 3:00pm was too late for lunch and too early for dinner AND all of the restaurants were closed to re-open at around 7:00pm. Well, like I mentioned before we were tired and hungry from our travels the day before so we settled for the small coffee and Pão de Quejo from this mini shop. We bought some water bottles and crackers to hold us off until 7:00pm when we could go back into the world and find something open.
Eating times were very strict in Lavras. Breakfast from 7:00am to 11:00am and lunch from 12:00pm – 2:00pm then restaurants would open for dinner at around 7:00pm. If you wanted to eat at any other times — you had to cook it or have snacks. We learned this quickly, however since we were in a hotel with no kitchen we had to eat out for the first couple of weeks. Today, that experience makes me chuckle and realize how important communication is. As well as access to transportation. If I were in the United States I would have gotten in my car and drove somewhere. While there in Lavras, I did not have a car or know the bus schedule yet. The only option at this point was walking and trying to find somewhere to fill the most basic needs of food. These first couple of days so poignantly stand out because in many ways we were left to fend for ourselves and figure it out. The host professor, graduate student, and the other professor didn’t check in with us until maybe Monday or Tuesday.
There were no students on campus and it was very quiet everywhere. Later we realized that Lavras is a college town and really buzzing when students are on campus. Not necessarily when we first arrived. Though those moments were agonizing and stressful I was jolted back to the true notion of study abroad and the purpose of living abroad. What I think the universe was trying to remind was that I was no longer the academic adviser preparing students to study abroad and share with them the gems I found when I went to Spain or Australia. No, in these moments I was the student. I was the one on this voyage. Something ignited in me to apply for the Fulbright grant and go through the process. I could not believe I was actually in Brasil doing it. So what was left was to DO IT and do it with fun and try to be in the process as much as I could. To try and enjoy it because that is what I told my students to do when they would talk about their fears about living abroad. There I was, in the same space as student and adviser — both speaking to me. The duality of it all. Adventure continued in the next couple of days when the CPF Scavenger Hunt Began.
CPF Scavenger Hunt:
When the kind souls left us at the hotel the first night we agreed to meet early in the week on Monday or Tuesday to go to the phone stores and get a Brazilian Phone number. Sounds simple enough, right? Not. We got a ride from one of the professors husband (who does not speak any English) and her 17 year old son. So generous of them to come and pick us up and take us to find this form of communication. We were so excited to leave the hotel and finally see Lavras other than the campus we explored on our own. We got picked up and with our very limited Portuguese we set off for the store — we chose VIVO because most people recommended this for us. They said it was the best cell phone service company (cheap and with good data plans). We arrived and asked simply that we would like a cell phone chip and plan to use in Brazil. The lady kindly asked us for our CPF document (Brazilian Social Security type of document). We shared that we did not have it BUT that we had our passports, Working Visa, and Fulbright Grant document which showed the work we would be doing on campus. Turns out we could not use any of it because there was no way to connect our names to our documents because they were not Brazilian documents.
Also, our Federal Police documentation/registration was not done yet (another bureaucratic document we needed to get done in the first months of being in Brazil). So we asked if the teenager who brought us could use his CPF. That is when we learned that he was only 17 and needed parents consent. Great success, y’all. Ok no cell phone chip that day and no CPF. That is when our CPF Scavenger Hunt began that week. Anyone we asked they really didn’t know how to explain to a foreigner how to get one. Granted, they all had theirs and did not know how to explain the process. Which is fair – I don’t think I would know how to explain the process of obtaining a Social Security Number or Tax ID Number to a foreigner in the USA. So guess what – we googled it. Boom, started the process. Step one we went to Receita Federal (a government agency). The kind woman told us to go to Correios (the post office) to generate the order and pay for it. Then she instructed us to come back to Receita Federal in order to authenticate the document and get the CPF. Finally, we laminated the CPF for good measure. BUT that sounds all easy peasy, right? No my friend it was a scavenger hunt. And here is why:
- HELP: We asked the same 17 year old to try and help us. He sent us a link to Wikipedia. Granted if we wanted to google it and find wikipedia we could do just that. However we thought asking a local would help us more than the internet. We were wrong. Our host professor was still not present, the international student department also sent us a list of how to do it in Portuguese (even after we told her we don’t speak or read it very well yet). The one place we thought would offer support since that is what it is set up for. Unfortunately, they did not really help us. Keep in mind this is about 3 weeks before school started and there were still no students on campus and we had no formal relationships build yet. We were left to google and asked the woman in Receita Federal “how do we get a CPF” – she kindly told us the first step – to go to “Correios” (Post Office) and then come back to Receita Federal. On our way to Correios was an adventure all on its own. We walked around with our screenshot maps list trying to find the streets that led us to “Correios” (keep in mind we did not have wifi and our data did not work on our phones — too rural for Sprint to reach). Then we came across a guardian angel or magical spirit. This kind woman walked us to the Correios after we asked “Onde fica correios.” She motioned with her hands and told us to follow. Why did we follow a stranger? Great question. We just wanted a CPF to then get a Cell phone chip. That was the goal! Thankfully she was going there too and helped us. 🙂 SCORE! Step one of OPERATION CPF.
- AT CORREIOS: Our guardian angel/spirit guide showed us the machine that would generate our number for the document we needed to get. The kind lady at the counter looked at my name smirked then looked at me again then called over a colleague and showed her my name again. At this point I was not 100% understanding why my name was such a huge ruckus in Brazil. (Reminder: this is like week 2-3 of being in Brazil). This interaction was foreshadowing what my future months would look like every single day, numerous times a day when I encountered a new person in Brasil and I had to introduce myself with my name. (Check out my other blog post about my name for more details). Back to the story: We hand over our documents and everything looks like it’s going smoothly because she is smiling at us. Then she hands us a piece of paper with our receipt and we run to Receita Federal to get it done.
- Receita Federal: Once we get there and happily show the same woman our receipts she kindly explains to us that the CPF processing is only done in the morning from 9am – 12pm and we got there at 2:00pm. Needless to say our CPF was not ready that day. The next day it is. So we went and had a nice lunch and laughed at the many steps we had to take to get this done. Next day came along. We woke up early and began our trek back to the Receita Federal office right when it opened. We waited a couple of minutes then got called in to the office to start the process. The employee asked for our documents again — passport, visa, and Fulbright Grant document showing we were English Teaching Assistants coming to work at the Federal University. He had me sign some documents and then printed the GLORIOUS CPF. and when I mean glorious I mean glorious. Because this baby helped me ALOT in Brazil. I used it at the supermarket for discounts, to buy bus tickets, and as my main form of documentation. Rather than having to carry around my U.S. License or Passport.
After we received this golden ticket we laminated it. That was the best 3 Reais I ever spent.
Then, we hiked up the hill and continued on our way to the Vivo store to see if we could finally get a phone chip for our phones. Nope not going to happen — our CPF was too new and it did not let us purchase a cellphone line to be able to have a Brazilian phone number. We even tried other people’s CPF number to try and see if it worked. Nope, not going to happen.
A couple of days passed and we realized we could just purchase a chip at one of the magazine stores on the streets of Lavras. We finally did it. And guess what we didn’t even need the CPF for it. The irony. We had to tap into our raw skills and the tools at our disposal in order to win this CPF Scavenger Hunt. We asked for help when we needed it and learned that there are great humans willing to support us along the way. I needed to Participate in my own learning while operating as an English Teaching Assistant. That is what the CPF Scavenger Hunt allowed us to do. A year later I can reflect and be grateful for those experiences. However in the thick of it, it was hot and scary with a combined feeling of uncertainty.
UFLA Students became my teachers:
In the end we realized that we can not change huge systems already in place deeply entrenched in the culture and day to day activities. This brought me back to my time in TFA when I was a recent graduate and faced educational inequity every single day with my students. In Lavras, I experienced something unique with these students – they wanted to learn. Half the battle was won. I had some great gems at Cross High School who motivated me to keep going on the days when it seemed like 20 out of the 25 students only wanted to be on their cellphones and not pay attention to my lesson on conjugating irregular Spanish Verbs. In Lavras, our students had the grit and determination to succeed in spite of all their odds. Most students in Letras at UFLA are considered low-income, work 2 or 3 jobs in order to support themselves and sometimes their families while they study. They have an optimism and hope that truly filled me up and renewed my drive to fight for educational equity. Some students taught themselves English because their primary education did not include English. They arrived at UFLA and majored in Letras. One student told me during Office Hours that he began his career as a business major and then changed it to Letras because he wanted to make a difference in education in spite of the fact that he knew public school teachers did not make a lot of money.
My Co-ETA and I heard over and over again the stories of our students really dedicating themselves to their studies and eager to make a difference on the educational landscape. The biggest area of growth for students was gaining confidence in speaking and practicing English. They would be embarrassed to speak because they thought they did not have the “right accent”. Slowly, they gained confidence and realized that they were able to communicate with us and others. I would remind them that they were able to communicate much more in English than my own ability to speak and communicate in Portuguese at the time. I constantly reminded them that we were both on this language learning journey together. They were moving through English and I was just beginning to grasp Portuguese.
I am glad I did not speak Portuguese before I went to Brasil, because this gave me the opportunity to share with students the quarrels of my personal language acquisition. We were able to co-create strategies to facilitate our language learning process. Therein, lies the intersections of power and privilege. Rather than coming in as an “AMERICAN coming to teach English to students in rural Brasil”. I strived to carry myself as “Delicia, a person who was born in the US, with immigrant parents from Paraguay, who happens to be an ETA learning Portuguese along the way”. In short, these intersections of power and privilege would still exist; however would not be at the forefront of these conversations with students. In essence, I hope I connected with students in a way where they felt heard, seen, and able to make mistakes related to language development because we inevitably were on the same path. I don’t know if they realized how much they made me feel heard, seen, and in a safe space to make mistakes with pronunciation and speaking Portuguese.
I am so grateful for their positive energy and enthusiasm. They supported me in my language development and taught me slang that would help me with communicating in Brasil with locals. In our weekly office hours, they asked poignant questions about U.S. Culture and we in turn asked questions about Brasilian way of life. My favorite part of the Fulbright ETA experience was learning with the students. Though, many layers of the Fulbright experience were challenging, in our office hours I was reminded the big “WHY” I chose to go on this journey in the first place. When I applied for the grant I was yearning for a cultural immersive experience. Looking back on almost two years of choices I believe I was placed in Lavras — a deep rural town in Minas Gerais to relearn my own skills of cultural adaptability. Again, the academic advisor became the student. Many times I felt like a freshman in college again, trying to find my way. Merely Surviving and not yet thriving.
So I encourage anyone who has a quiet whisper of adventure to listen to it and jump. I dove into the deep end and lived in Brazil with zero Portuguese language training. Maybe not the best strategy. Yet, the best for me. If you can not do a big scary thing like quit your job, leave a Masters Degree Program, AND go abroad to learn a new language, that is ok too. I encourage you to find one uncomfortable thing daily. Not uncomfortable in the sense of danger danger. More like, what are you curious about. And move towards that. I was curious about Brazil and learning Portuguese and it propelled me to do what I did. Yet, that is uniquely my journey. I would love to hear about your own musings — if you would like to share with me! What are you curious about? What would you like to do outside of your comfort zone?
Though my Fulbright experience in Lavras was not always Luxurious; these moments reminded me to take a deep breath and ebb and flow with the process. I continue to sift through what I learned in Lavras and hope to bring it with me on my next adventures. These particular happenings stuck out to me as reminders to be fully present and revert back to being the student and participate in my own learning.
I leave you with this quote which has brought me great peace: “Trust that all you’ve learned was worth learning, no matter what answer you have or do not have about what particular use it has in your life. Let whatever mysterious starlight that guided you this far guide you onward into the crazy beauty that awaits” ~ Cheryl Strayed
I hope you enjoyed reading this post and share with me your own reflections! Until next time!
Much love, Delicia