Living the dream

Posted by on May 28, 2013

With the end of May close at hand, this blog post ought to be my last entry about April so that I can actually talk about May and usher in June with a clean slate and no further struggles to remember EVERYTHING that I’ve experienced in the last two months.

Of course, when your homework is obligatory, you put it off in favor of assignments that aren’t due for at least another week. I’ve had an idea playing in my head since mid-April, one that I meant to save as a closing entry: my final thesis, as it were, of how Argentina has changed me. Because it’s the question everyone asks, isn’t it? “Did Argentina/France/India/China absolutely change your life?” The expected response is yes, every time. And it wouldn’t be a lie to answer yes. But lest anyone be fooled, Argentina has not impacted me in such a radical and (sorry) life-changing way that I have suddenly, miraculously, become a new person that will move mountains and affect dramatic social change in the United States when I return. I’m certainly more confident in my vision and my capabilities, I’ve certainly grown in important ways, and Argentina has certainly provided me the opportunity to escape from my normal sphere of understanding and influence to evaluate exactly why I came to Argentina in the first place. These are all important, but has my life truly changed? Did it need to?

I could expand on a number of revelations and profundities that have struck me over the last nearly four months of my stay here, but I’ll narrow it down to one idea that should be simple yet has confronted me weekly if not daily:

“Living the dream” is an individual endeavor.

Maybe this is a better way to say it: “Living the dream” is not the same concept for every person.

So, to start, what is the dream of every foreign exchange student? Well, according to the brochures and every student travel blog, you’re going to arrive and be immersed in this culture unlike any you’ve experienced before. It’ll be rough at first — don’t forget to mention the inevitable culture shock that will result in important self-evaluation and processing of new information — but pretty soon, you’ll feel right at home in this new world and open yourself to a diversity of cultural exchanges that you wouldn’t experience anywhere else. After that, there may be some language acquisition (it depends on the purpose of your program, but your fluency is sure to skyrocket in a short period of time) and the much-awaited periods of free travel. Stay at hostels, take trains or buses instead of planes, talk to everyone around you, take so many photographs that you can’t fit all of them into one Facebook album! And at the end of your adventure, you’ll be so in love with your host country that you’ll never want to return home, because it was there that you became you.

This is not to knock on foreign exchange programs in any respect. I’m part of one such program right now, and I loved being able to show up in an unfamiliar city and immediately be introduced to basic cultural aspects, important landmarks in Córdoba, and necessary information just to make it to class every day. In that first month, I did experience my share of culture shock and my share of excitement at the newness all around me. I traveled by bus and spent the night in hostels. I stayed out until 5:00 a.m. on weekends to experience Argentine nightlife. I went to every event possible while also organizing a chemistry internship and my one integrated university course in translation.

Let me tell you, by the end of March, I was tired. I’m still tired. I haven’t taken a day trip to Las Sierras since April or hit up a boliche since March. I haven’t seen Buenos Aires, or Mendoza, or Iguazú, or Tierra del Fuego (yet, I hope). I haven’t created even one Facebook album — and since my iPhone was stolen, I haven’t taken any pictures. There are plenty of days that I work in the lab, go to class, and then head straight home to enjoy hot tea and a brief respite before tackling homework and connecting with my friends in the United States because, what do you know?, I miss them desperately.

Could this possibly mean that I’m not taking advantage of my time in Argentina? Could I be missing out on “the dream”?

I’ve been here for almost four months. I’ve grown and experienced and embraced and will continue to do so until my plane leaves on July 31st. I love Argentina and have this fierce hope of returning one day to see it all over again, with older, wiser eyes and without the obligation of attending class every week.

But you know what? I have accomplished nearly every goal that I brought with me to Argentina, and if I haven’t yet, then it’s in the works.

  • Improve my fluency in Spanish, check!
  • Develop a good relationship with my host family, check!
  • Develop meaningful friendships, both in my program and out, check!
  • Take the opportunity to travel throughout Argentina, check!
  • Fulfill a chemistry internship to enhance my professional experience, check!
  • Enroll in a university course to meet local students, check!
  • Learn Latin dance, check!

The only things left on my “list” are a few more Argentine regions, visiting my brother in Peru and my first host family in Chile come July, and learning how to make alfajores. I’ve experienced more than I could possibly have imagined and still have two months to go!

So what if I didn’t go out every night? So what if I didn’t buy an impressive camera the moment mine was stolen so that I could document every single experience? (That’s why you bring friends with cameras with you.) So what if I have friends and family members that I connect with every week when I could be drinking mate with my friends here? So what if I can’t say at the end of this trip that I saw it all?

I discovered part of my dream during my first month here: to improve my Spanish to a level that would be useful and effective in a Spanish-speaking community in the United States, wherever I may end up living. To have the capability of bringing positive change and support to people who need it. To use my language skills in ministry and in professional environments. Through lots of self-evaluation and confirmation from my companions here and there, I know that I am much more prepared to live this dream than I was before.

I also know that I’m not going to suddenly change my major to translation or immigration law or international relations. Because something else that I’ve realized about dreams is that they don’t have to be extravagant. Argentina definitely qualifies as larger-than-life, but I don’t need to justify it with magazine-worthy pictures or come home as a drastically better version of myself. I don’t need to be recognized as the model foreign exchange student to be confident that I lived my dream and that my dream was even worth living.

Let me tell you all about a dream come true. After my experience in Salta, I knew that I wanted to travel again and have Sasha as my primary travel companion. I was wary, though, of traveling just the two of us, especially if we wanted to head south to Patagonia (and I really wanted to see Patagonia!). After asking around a bit, just to get a feel for my classmates’ plans for fall break, I found two girls, Megan and Jenna, that were thinking about traveling to Bariloche for the week. Sasha and I expressed interest in combining trips, and after two weeks of planning and two Friday nights of amazing food together — sushi one night, American breakfast the next! — the four of us, now much better friends, set out on our 24-hour bus ride south.

Being honest, not everything proceeded as we’d planned, but the good far exceeded what we had initially imagined. “Memorable” would be a great word to apply to the trip. The adventure started on Sunday around 2:45 p.m., fifteen minutes before our bus left, when Megan and Jenna realized that they had misread the time on their tickets and had to catch a taxi that very moment and hope to arrive on time! It’s a good thing this incident transpired in our third month here and not our first, because Sasha and I managed to convince the chofer (driver) to wait an extra ten minutes, and when Megan had arrived but Jenna was still on the way, our pleading and cajoling prompted him to compromise and meet Jenna at a landmark only about five minutes into the journey. Thank goodness, Jenna gave the new destination to her taxi driver, our bus hit every stop light between the terminal and Plaza España, and we were able to pick her up and not have to wait an extra day to travel! The rest of our bus ride was pretty tranquil after that.

As for Bariloche itself, stunning. Magnificent. Breathtakingly beautiful. The four of us found ourselves at Hostel Pudu that first day, home to travel writers, an incredible view of lakes and snow-capped mountains, and the most delicious breakfasts I’ve ever had! People praise Bariloche for its chocolate, but no one told us about the JAM. On French bread. With amazing coffee. Every morning. Add hot water and the cutest cat ever, and Hostel Pudu was a paradise!

Day two, we biked 27 kilometers (about 17 miles) in the Circuito Chico (Little Circuit) and enjoyed similar lovely views and a picnic lunch at the lakeside. Day three, we visited Villa La Angostura about one hour away and walked 13 kilometers (8 miles) through a beautiful wooded area to Parque Nacional Los Arrayanes. This natural park is a refuge of sorts for these beautiful, thin, red trees in various contortions. We didn’t get to stay in the park for long, since we arrived late afternoon and the last boat was leaving for the village at 4:15, but it was worth taking the ride back after a long day of walking! We experienced the same scenery without the trees obstructing our view, the boat staff provided hot chocolate, and we met three Chilean women who offered to take group pictures and shared their facturas (pastries) with us. One of them even gave me her beautiful artisan scarf after I complimented her! As much as I loved the Circuito Chico, our day in Villa La Angostura was hard to top.

Day four, we had planned to hike the Cerro Catedral, one of the longest trails in Bariloche and highly recommended, but a rainy day put a halt to those plans. Instead, we visited the municipal artisan’s fair, where each of us bought gifts for friends and family back home, and then tried chocolate at every cholatería (chocolate shop) on Mitre street. And when I say every, I really do mean every chocolatería. I’m pretty sure we received at least fifteen free samples in a two-hour period…and then we bought some…for our host families, of course. Day five was our return trip to Córdoba.

Of course, no trip with Sasha and me would be complete without home-cooked food. Since there were four of us, we switched off cooking nights, but everyone contributed to the supermarket bill. Here’s an idea of our menu:

  • Monday. Fideos (noodles) with sausage, onion, green pepper, red pepper, tomato, and cucumber. Side: pan casero (homemade bread).
  • Tuesday. Hamburgers with lettuce and tomato. Side: potatoes with onion, green pepper, carrot, tomato, and peppercorn.
  • Wednesday. Homemade pizza. Pizza no. 1: Vegetarian (onion, green pepper, tomato, spinach). Pizza no. 2: Ground beef and mushrooms.
  • Thursday. Spaghetti with tomato paste, onion, green pepper, tomato, and cucumber. Side: garlic toast. Dessert: BROWNIES.

Every day for lunch, we made sandwiches with salami, cheese, spinach, and tomato. We stayed very healthy and well-within budget. I love that fresh vegetables are so cheap in Argentina!

After a trip like this one, it’s nearly impossible to think that it could get any better. But the questions continue to surface: Why didn’t you stay for longer than four days? Why didn’t you go ahead and hike in the rain? Why didn’t you go to Chile or Brazil when you had more time? People ask these questions, and this is what I want to say in response:

Look at these pictures, see how happy we were, and then tell us that we didn’t live a little piece of our dreams.

This isn’t a criticism but rather an encouragement: dare to create your own dream, one that brings you fulfillment and doesn’t have to adhere to pre-conceived expectations, and then live it. It’s the only way to have an experience and not feel regret after. I may not have as many glossy 3×5’s to post on my bulletin board after this trip, but I have all my memories and the knowledge that I participated in something special. Nor does the journey have to end now. I’m here until July 31st, aren’t I?

The journey is just beginning…

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