I just got back from a trip to Brazil, 3 wonderful weeks built around 2 days of teaching at a human services agency in one of my favorite cities. If you counted only the actual hours of standing in front of a group of Brazilian professionals and stumbling along in Portuguese, I was being paid an obscene amount. But what were my real hours, let me count the ways – and waits.
Landing the job took many email and Skype exchanges, never quite sure the deal was sealed in both English and Portuguese. Assembling a PowerPoint presentation from my dozens of “.ppt” iterations, some in Portuguese from prior trips, took many hours. Preparation for the trip included half a dozen trips to various thrift and hardware and grocery stores to get the right black pants, flat shoes, Ziploc bags, flashlight, airplane mystery novel and snacks. Packing my suitcase was only slightly less complex than solving a Rubiks Cube. I pack small and light as I hate to check bags. This alone was a 40-hour work week.
Then getting to Brazil, around Brazil and back from Brazil was equal to another 40-hour work week. I was in the air for 30 of those hours, on layovers another 6 and slogging to and from airports the rest.
Well, not so back. 80 hours of prep for 10 hours of work. 90 hours total. Still an amazing fee, though now half what my coach friends get paid for their time.
But the work was not done. Not at all. I put in the better part of 5 work days in Brazil going to half a dozen government offices (several twice) to get the proper forms filled out and documents issued to affirm what the naked eye and my passport could prove: I am a real person, not a cipher in an international money laundering scheme. For whatever reason, a check could not be written without involving literally dozens of functionaries in various warrens of cubicles where bureaucrats, each one authorized to approve one piece of data, or interpret one codicil of the law did their best to pass me along to the next cubicle without signing anything that could get them in trouble. And still, when the moment came for the designated bank to deliver the check to me, I needed more documents. Or better ones. Or different once. Four hours and several coffees later they were so very sorry but they just couldn’t, no way, would I like more coffee? No? Well, it’s just that we’ve never heard of such a thing…
My real hourly wage is now in the range of what I paid some young people with a truck to haul away my tree trimmings.
Such a calculation can help determine if the job is worth the life energy invested. We don’t often calculate, however, the emotional life energy expended. By the time the bank officer dolefully told me that the check sitting right in her desk drawer could not be delivered to me I was on the verge of losing it. But I was in Brazil. I couldn’t speak enough Portuguese to make a dent in the bureaucracy. I had never been paid in a foreign country so didn’t know which walls had secret doors and which ones were topped with razor wire. And, like a teacher for whom teaching is a calling, I was in this Catch-44 (Catch-22 doubled) because I love Brazil – the people, the culture, the vitality, the sway of it – and was willing to forgive the way you forgive a divine lover for snoring. Had I chosen upset, though, you could darn well double the bureaucrat hours and take my speaking fee down to minimum wage.
I actually had to leave before getting the check delivered. As I sat on the plane I realized that all of it – the prep, the teaching, the tour of the bowels of the Brazilian bureaucracy – was weaving my life more fully into the life of Brazil, a country that opens me and opens to me more deeply every time I visit. Inwardly I lowered my prayer request to just getting my airfare reimbursed (rhw=slave labor) and am prepared to even fail there and call it all a pretty cheap vacation, all told.