Interview with Alison Cooke - Maynooth to Rio & Back Again


i-studentglobal spoke to Alison Cooke, International Student Officer at Maynooth University, Ireland about her one-year career break in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the relationship between Ireland and Brazil and why she loves to go back to visit.

1. What inspired you to take a career break in such a different location to Ireland?

Well, for some time I wanted to take some time off and spend some time in the sun, given that I live in fairly rainy Ireland and am a sun worshipper! I travelled to Brazil in October 2012 as part of my work at Maynooth University when we started to collaborate on the ‘Science Without Borders Programme’. After signing up an exchange agreement with a university in Rio de Janeiro for our students, I was offered a free place on a one-month intensive Portuguese language course there as a staff member.  A cliché I guess but I fell in love with the city, particularly its Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas (large lake in the city), mountains and beaches. It is just so spectacularly beautiful. The following January I returned and did the intensive Portuguese course, made some nice friends and had a wonderful time. From then organising my career break in Rio was a natural progression.


Alison Cooke at Maynooth University (above) and on a career break in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (below)

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2. You mentioned that you have visited it before, what keeps bringing you back to Brazil?

Well, my work has brought me back many times! The Brazilian government have poured a lot of resources into funding third level education for their citizens over the last number of years and Maynooth University has been a part of this. On a more personal level, the pure natural beauty of the place always draws me back, the fun and positivity of the culture and city, and my intrigue and academic interest in the less beautiful and darker element of Brazilian life also. It’s nice for me to go back and practice my newly acquired Portuguese, see Brazilian friends and to feel the familiarity of a place that I’ve spent a much time by now. I love smell of coffee and pão de queijo (yummy gooey cheese bread balls) as I step into the airport terminal in whatever city I arrive in… ahhh.

3. What are the best and worst parts of living in a country such as Brazil?

I can only speak from my experience really which was a short-term (one year) blip in the scheme of things. I was there on a career break, so I had a job in Ireland to go back to and some savings to keep me going. Living in Brazil for a year in this context, the best part for me was the freedom I think. I had a lot of free time and because the weather was generally good one of the best parts in living in Brazil was the enjoyment of the sunshine and the beautiful outdoors; we went to many different beaches, to the Lagoa, to forests and parks. Although there is A LOT of rain also despite popular belief!

The beautiful paradox of a city like Rio is that all the nature is juxtaposed next to a monstrously sprawling, urban city. The atmosphere is very rich, with all types of music (such as Forro, hip hop, Bossa nova) oozing out of the neighbourhoods, such as the well-known Lapa. I adored the graffiti art all over many of the city’s wall, the street food (tapiocas, churros) and ongoing celebrations that were always happening on the city’s streets, Carnival, football matches… any excuse for a party! Brazilian people, Cariocas (people from Rio de Janeiro) especially, were a real pleasure, very warm and fun, relaxed and non-fussed generally. That said, like in a lot of cultures it can be hard for a ‘blow-in’ to go deeper and form more lasting connections with ‘the locals’. I was lucky though and made a couple of really good Brazilian (as well as international) friends that I continue to see on that side of the world and this.

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Street art in Lapa, Rio de Janeiro

The worst parts…well, the obvious really, the inefficiency and slowness of things, the poverty and the crime. It used to drive me mental going to the supermarket! There’d be a tonne of supermarket workers hanging around mopping the floors of the cramped shopping aisles during the busiest shopping times when you are trying to shop; the checkout lines would take absolutely forever to get through, the checkout assistants would take their sweet time! It sounds strange now, but if you were there you’d understand how frustrating it was.  I’d have to remind myself that the process was going to take a very long time and there was no point trying to rush or get stressed about it! Then of course the poverty and crime, both of which there is a lot, are difficult parts of living in Brazil. There’s a huge amount more suffering and violence than us privileged folks on this side of the world will ever see.

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Vidigal, Favela in Rio de Janeiro