Posted in Teresina

Erik

As I wait in Miami International Airport, it’s hard to imagine what the next ten months in Brazil have in store. I’m sure now that the experience will be positive, but I wasn’t so sure earlier.

This summer, the Fulbright program accepted me as an English teaching assistant in Brazil as part of an expansion program meant to prepare for the upcoming World Cup and Olympics. It was great news, but I was working long hours as a supervisor of high school volunteers in the Dominican Republic, so I didn’t give too much thought to what was coming.

I had wanted the position for several reasons. First, I’ve wanted to learn Portuguese since my first college Spanish class, when we read Brazilian poems with Portuguese and Spanish versions side by side. I loved that I could get the gist of the Portuguese on paper, while I knew I’d understand almost nothing if it were read aloud to me.

Second, I’d be doing challenging and valuable work that wouldn’t have to represent a step towards a certain career. I’d have time to plan out next steps as I learned the ropes as an English teaching assistant.

Last, I looked forward to a full year of building relationships with Brazilians. Working at the university level was particularly exciting since I’d be spending so much time with people my own age.

The problem was that, on top of all those goals, I began to imagine that I’d be in a beautiful beachside city full of music and dancing on streets lined with pastel-colored houses and churches. Basically, I imagined that I’d be in Salvador as described by Jorge Amado in novels like “Tent of Miracles” and “War of the Saints.” When you have this kind of image in your mind, you’re bound to be disappointed.

Salvador da Bahia
More or less what I expected my host city would look like.

Fulbright sent us our placements in November. I opened the email with anticipation, only to find that I’d been placed somewhere I’d never heard of, the Universidade Federal do Piauí in Teresina.

I looked up Teresina online. A scan of Wikipedia told me that Teresina was Brazil’s hottest city and the inland capital of Piauí, Brazil’s poorest state. Then I turned to my guidebooks. Lonely Planet had this to say: “Founded in 1852, [Teresina] was Brazil’s first planned city. The fatal flaw? Failure to plan anything interesting… If you are keen to see a provincial Brazilian city unadulterated by tourism, this is your chance; otherwise, keep moving.” Could a review be worse than that?

It was a few days before I realized that the only expectation I had for my time in Brazil that couldn’t be fulfilled in Teresina was the most superficial one: that it would be the type of city that guidebook writers swoon over.

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like my hopes for the English teaching assistantship would be more easily accomplished in a city like Teresina. The fact that it receives so few foreign visitors would force me to use Portuguese from the beginning and would make me more interesting to my students and neighbors. The phone conversations I had with grantees who worked in Teresina last year also confirmed that, because the Universidade do Piauí has collaborated with Fulbright for a long time, the professors know how to give their English teaching assistants the right balance of direction and freedom in structuring their conversation classes.

I’m excited to live and work in Teresina now. It may not have the flash of some other Brazilian cities, but I’d guess that my experience living and teaching there will better for it.