Running the gauntlet

Imagine this scenario: you’re working in some small rural town in Virginia, and you have to take a Greyhound bus to Richmond to file a single piece of paperwork at a particular bureaucratic office that is only available there, and then take the Greyhound back to your small rural town. That sounds like an annoying way to spend a day, but pretty do-able. In any other circumstances, I would whine and complain about having to do this, but I’d google it super quickly, hop on the bus and ask folks for help along the way using my mad English skills.

Doing the same in Brazil, where I’m basically a high-functioning kindergarden student, is outrageously intimidating. My science visa is, for all intents and purposes, a working permit, and so it has to get registered with the Federal Police (“PolĂ­cia Federal”) within 30 days of entering the country either in the capital (Brasilia, an overnight bus ride away) on in the state you’ll be residing in. The closest Federal Police station to Canarana is a 5-hour bus ride away in Barra do Garcas. So yesterday morning I hopped a bus at 5 am from Canarana to Barra. No turning back at that point.

Things I was scared of: not getting off my bus in the right town, not being able to find the police station, the police station being closed for some reason, not being able to explain what I was at the police station to do, not being able to understand what was happening if I needed to do anything else, not getting my visa registered and having to do the whole thing again at some point, falling asleep on the bus ride home and overshooting my stop at Canarana, and only being able to answer any random questions that were bound to come up along the way with “what kind of juice do you have?” (I am amazing at this phrase.)

One thing I’m finding in the field is that the struggle to do regular, non-research things often leaves me feeling helpless and generally incapable. Maybe everyone else is more comfortable winging it in unfamiliar cultural environments, but I am not very good at it. I can barely feed myself when I’m in town and not in the field. During this week I ate chips in my hotel room twice for dinner after messing up my other attempts at finding sustenance. That’s not normal, I don’t think.

Given that, it’s really easy for a one-day errand to get built up in my mind as some sort of definitive referendum on whether or not I can “hack it” as a field worker in Brazil. I don’t know my way around here and barely speak the language. Why should I get to be here in Brazil to work with ecological data when there are a million Brazilians who could be doing this project just as capably (on the science side) or a lot more capably (on the everything else side)? At what point will I transition from “high-functioning kindergarden student” to “acclimated field researcher who can walk the walk in Brazil”? (Judging from my mentorship team, 8-10 years is the place to start.) What kind of crazy drain on the human capital around me am I going to be throughout that time? Long story short, am I kidding myself by being here? If I can’t get this freaking visa registered by myself, I truly fear that the answer is: yes.

I got the freaking visa registered and got home safe. And even answered some questions in Portuguese along the way. But I felt like a complete moron the entire time. Baby steps, I guess.

In the meantime, get me back to the forest where I (pretty much) know what I’m doing (sort of).

Proof o’ registration: