Out of the Hole

Like Saddam Hussein, I crawled out, unkempt, squinting against the glare of the sun.

I had survived Summer CELTA Camp, all thirty days of it.

Yes, I know it´s hard to believe that life in Brazil could be less than sublime, but the truth is that the worse kind of hell is when Paradise is within sight, but you can’t touch it. You are too exhausted, sleep-deprived, hungry, and have way too much studying to do.

The view of the ocean, one block away from my apartment, may as well be on television. I trudge to school shortly after sunrise where I will remain for 12 hours in air-conditioned, curtains-drawn rooms. Where I am force-fed Teacher-ese and CELTA-ese until I obediently regurgitate it word for word – no creativity tolerated. I trudge home after dark to write papers and prepare lessons, work until two or three in the morning (sometimes four), set my alarm for 7 and do it all over again.

Students are watched at all times by´´trainers´´ who take notes, whisper to each other at the back of the room and behind closed doors about your “progress”. I begin to wonder if there are cameras in the bathroom and I suddenly understand what made Patricia Hearst capitulate. Sometimes it’s easier just to go along than to fight.

[photoname] “It’s only a month.” I kept reminding self as my body and soul rebelled. My face broke out, my complexion turned pasty, my muscles went soft, I lost weight from calorie-draining worry, and by the end of four weeks, I was in tears every time something moved. Did I mention that I ran out of toilet paper for two days, used shampoo to handwash my clothes, and went for two days with no drinking water in my apartment?

Some of the students actually seemed to like it. Several had arrived direct from London and were spell-bound by the ocean and balmy (if mostly rainy) air of Recife, even if they didn’t get to breathe much of it. Those who weren’t from Britain were Brazilian teachers on holiday – a break from their regular routines to learn more about their profession in order to reap a certificate that would qualify them for higher paying jobs.

It was a break for me too – from most everything that made me sing: natural light, warmth (the air-conditioned rooms could’ve kept raw meat fresh for weeks), physical exersise, fresh air, sun on my skin, art, tasteful architecture, scenic geography beyond high-rises, raucous laughter, creative writing, reading for pleasure, conversation with intelligent, artistic, witty friends, live music, crisp vegetables, creativity run amuck, and bouganvillas.

Among the twelve students several romances developed. In hindsight, it was good strategy – nothing like a little love to make torture more tolerable. I became the designated decoy, invited along on infrequent outings to make “couples” look like ´´friends´. And I was the one who took a taxi home – alone.

The course ended day before yesterday. After I woke up, I walked the ten mile stretch between Boa Viagem and Pina beaches. I literally felt the sun move through my body, melting away the misery, making room for my once positive self to move back in.

A CELTA certificate is now tucked under my belt, and although I´m not sure what I’ll do with it, I have an idea.

I’ve been dreaming for years of running retreats in foreign countries, offering workshops in writing, photography, yoga, and English immersion.
It´s official now. You can read about “Travel With a Purpose” workshops on this site.

Last night, over Bohemia beers and caipirinhas, Peter and Helena, two students with whom I’ve spent the past month, said they felt good about completing the course, a feeling, they said, that one gets only after surviving something particularly grueling.

“Huh?” I asked, “Are you saying we need to be punished in order to feel good about ourselves?”

“Yes,” Peter replied. “Regularly, and with whips.”

Thank God for the Brits.

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