Teaching English in Rio – Interview with Ute Heinzel

Teaching English in Rio - Ute Heinzel with her afternoon class

Ute Heinzel from Germany goes to Brazil, she wants to teach English in Rio de Janeiro. On a visit to Belo Horizonte she learns to see the land of her childhood with new eyes, and spontaneously decides to leave her life as a marketing executive in chic London for a year to give something to the poorest of the poor in the favelas, to teach them English. At the beginning, her Portuguese is still basic and she has yet to get used to being considered a “Gringa” in her childhood country.

Every morning she has to get up just after six to get the bus in time, which then has to find it’s way through the morning traffic jam in the Avenida Brasil to the suburb Batan. But Ute quickly gets to know the people from de Favela, makes friends, and gets her English students on their toes. Also, the life in the hostel, where she is housed as a volunteer, she appreciates very much.

The shared chats with the other volunteers, excursions and barbecues, where she is invited by the project coordinator Felipe, quickly make her forget the simple conditions in the dorm of the hostel. After all, Rio de Janeiro lives more outside. In the end, contrary to her original intentions, she meets a love, begins on joint excursions to see Rio through the eyes of a Brazilian.

What inspired you to volunteer abroad?

Brasil was the country of my childhood, as my Dad took me to Rio when I was eight years old. It took me 26 years to return to Brasil. In 2014 I went to Belo Horizonte, but my views on life changed with this visit. I’ve lived in Berlin and live in London now, so I’m used to homelessness and poverty, or so I thought. Seeing drug addicts and homeless people in Brasil made rough sleepers in London almost look cushty. That was when I felt that I had been extremely lucky in my life and that it was time to give something back, and so I decided to volunteer.

Why did you choose Iko Poran Association?

Once I had made the decision to volunteer, I did some research and was overwhelmed with the possibilities and organisations. I actually wanted to build houses in a favela, but the particular organisation that offered the program allowed volunteers only to stay for a maximum time of four weeks. As it was clear to me that I’d apply for a sabbatical at work and that I’d like to stay for at least three months, I decided against it. Instead I thought of how people at work always told me that I train them so well, so I thought “Why not teach English?”.

What was your favorite part about Rio de Janeiro?

Rio de Janeiro is a beautiful city, one of the best places in the world. Despite the fact that more than six million people live there, you can actually manage to meet the same people over and over: at the bus stop, at the many Botecos, at the beach. I loved the diversity in the city and how widespread it was. I was never really scared and felt pretty safe most of the time. That said, I think it does make a difference if you make sure to dress as simple as possible to not attract unnecessary attention. I will always be spotted as a 

Teaching English in Rio Ute Heinzel
After climbing Dois Irmãos

gringa, my skin will just not get dark enough and my Portuguese is still slow, but if you make the impression to have everything under control, I experienced that people are cool with you.

What characteristics of your program made it unique?

The program itself is surely not unique, teaching English to underprivileged people in favelas is something that every organisation offers. What made it unique for me was that Felipe, the manager of Iko Poran, was always hands-on with everything; from picking the volunteers up from the airport to driving them to the placements to going out for drinks and organising spontaneous BBQs, he was always up to get together and interact with us. His life experience makes a huge difference in how he handles things and I felt in really good hands during my three months stay in Rio.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

I already spoke about Felipe, the one that “works his magic”. The local staff in the hostel where the volunteers were staying were absolutely amazing. I can, in all honesty, say that I made friends for life in this place. Those guys were my Portuguese teachers, they helped me get around, they chatted with me when I was bored, and gave me a hug when I was sad. Not to forget the parties they took all of us to. It was because of them that three hostel months in a shared dorm with three others didn’t feel like that at all.

Then there was the local staff at the “NGO Tatiane Lima,” where I was teaching: Eliane, Luciano, Jaqueline, and Dayane. Those people were simply amazing. They welcomed me with open arms and open hearts, and supported me in everything I wanted to do. They organised field days for me and made sure I spoke enough Portuguese. It was such a pleasure working with them and I miss them dearly.

What’s one thing you wish you would have done differently?

That’s a tough one. It’s hard to say because I’m quite content with how things went. I think I would have liked to use my energy more wisely maybe, because towards the end of the program I felt really tired and exhausted; I think this was due to the fact that I was almost uber-euphoric in the beginning, and was trying to motivate everyone and make sure everyone was happy and content. In the end, I sadly had to realise that there are few people that don’t want to learn English (despite coming to every class), so you have to let go and accept it isn’t happening.

Describe a day in the life of your program.

Teaching English in Rio - Ute Heinzel at NGO Tatiane Lima
My Familh at NGO Tatiane Lima

On a normal day I’d wake up at 6:15 a.m. (yes!), have a shower, breakfast, and then leave the hostel at 7:40 a.m. to go to the bus stop. I did never quite figure out how often the buses were going in the morning, I assumed every 20 minutes. It was important to catch a particular bus at five, 10, or 15 past 8 a.m., because one bus later and I’d be stuck in traffic on Avenida Brasil and would be late for class, which started at 9:30 a.m. It happened to me a few times, it’s nothing I’d deliberately want.

I’d arrive in Batan around 9 a.m. and would go to the bakery to have a coffee before class. The bakery in Batan was my favourite place because it was so central in the favela; you could always see who’s coming and going and you’d meet lots of people from the community. After that I’d go to the community centre, print off handouts if need be, and say hi to my students. I’d always wait until around 9:40 a.m. before I started class because from experience there were always latecomers, no matter how often you’d tell them to be on time.

In class I’d try to do lots of speaking, so we went through the phonetic alphabet and found words starting with a, b, c, etc. according to the sound they make. When class finished at 11 a.m. I’d sometimes help Eliane clean or, if she didn’t need my help, I’d go and get my nails done in a salon on the main road, where the owner Cintia had already “adopted” me. After that I’d have a quick bite to eat and then start my afternoon class at 1 p.m., where we’d do similar things to what I’d done in the morning. The students were different though, I had certain people only coming in the morning and others only coming in the afternoon.

That class would finish at 3 p.m. and after a chat with Eliane and Luciano I’d go to the bus stop and go back to the hostel.  Once there it would be chats, dinner, and beers until it was time to go to bed.

What did you enjoy doing on your free time outside of the classroom?

Sunset seen from the Hostel in Rio de Janeiro
Sunset seen from the Hostel in Rio de Janeiro

As life never cooperates and follows the plan you make for it, I actually managed to fall in love in Rio with a Carioca. This has made my time there so much more precious because I could get to know Rio through his eyes. When I wasn’t working I was spending a lot of time with him, exploring Rio, just going for a walk and looking at posh houses in zona sul, or going to the beach. Other than that I loved to just go out for a few beers and a meal. Since it’s pretty warm all year round, you are outside most of the time; all the buildings are airy and you are only inside to sleep.

Our hostel was located in Santa Teresa and just ten minutes down the hill was Lapa, the infamous party area of Rio. So whenever we fancied going out, we could just go down the hill and find a party that suited us.

Would you recommend volunteering with Iko Poran Association to others?

If you want to volunteer in Rio de Janeiro I’d absolutely recommend Iko Poran as your number one organisation. Felipe is a great guy with lots of positive energy and he will strive to make every volunteer happy and have a good time. He has a huge network of NGOs in Rio and the outskirts so that practically everyone can find a program that they will be happy in. I can only advise everyone that wants to volunteer but doesn’t find the right program on the Iko Poran website to drop him a quick email with ideas and I’m sure he’ll find a way to make that happen.

If you could volunteer abroad again, where would you go?

I’m tempted to say I’d go back to Brasil, because the people are so amazing and I feel now that I understand the culture better and speak the language, so I’d probably be able to be of even better use and influence than I was this summer. If I was to volunteer again it would be building houses this time or working in one of the communities to educate about HIV prevention and the use of condoms.

About Ute Heinzel

Ute relocated to London in 2010 after having lived in Berlin for more than 10 years. She worked as a sports journalist, but gave that up to move to the United Kingdom, where she currently works in marketing. She only started traveling in the past five years, but enjoys it a lot and can’t decide where to go next.

Want to volunteer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil?

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