As I write this, it is currently four in the morning and I am looking outside the plane window and I can see the lights of Cuba below me. I am less than three hours from touching down in the United States of America.
Exactly five months ago, the scene was similar to this. I was sitting on a plane, looking at the flight tracker on the small screen in front of me, and I was looking down on the world as the sun began to rise. The first blog post I wrote was about how I had only 432 miles to go until I touched down on the country of Argentina. I was freezing, terrified, excited, nervous, and everything else in between as I went into the unknown. Today, I am nostalgic, excited, and, I will admit, a little nervous. Overall, though, I am totally calm and content.
Five months ago, I got off the plane and was completely overwhelmed by everything, but it was the language that was the hardest. I asked the sleepy guy at customs “como?” (what?) at least five times as he instructed me on what do to before I finally gave up and followed visual clues while wide-eyed and confused in order to get by. Tonight in the Lima airport, I was struck each time with awe when I answered “si” when asked “hablas español?” rather than my original “um…un poco.” When asked which language I speak tonight (ingles o español?), I responded “los dos” (both) and had no worries or fears about the fact that I would then be spoken to in Spanish. Even if I missed a word or two here and there, I still knew what was being said to me and I was able to answer with confidence and ease. I no longer get the feeling of complete fear and shock when spoken to. That used to paralyze me and stress me out, and I would stumble out incoherent words and be left feeling like a fool. Now, I still make plenty of mistakes, but rather than feeling incompetent, I make a mental note of my error and fix it the next time. Spanish also comes so naturally to me know. I will definitely miss hearing and speaking Spanish so much. Let’s be real, though, I will probably keep spitting out Spanish instead of English forever. (Bets on how many times I will forget English in the airport in a few hours and try to speak Spanish?) I have come such a long way, but I know that I have so much farther to go. This entire semester, I would constantly go through waves of both loving the language and wanting so badly to learn it to hating it with a deep burning passion of frustration and wondering why I even try and wanting so badly to just give up and not care. The truth is, though, is that I do care, and I look forward to doing all that I can to continue learning.
In addition to Spanish, so much has changed in these past five months. I get overwhelmed just thinking about it. How do I conceptualize and summarize my experience here in South America? I could put it into numbers. Five months. Four countries. Three cameras. 180 pages filled front-to-back in my journal. Hundreds of hours and thousands of miles.
There is so much more to my experience here than numbers, however. I don’t know how to put everything into words or photos or even thoughts, but I will try. I just looked outside the window again in time to see the floating lights of the Bahamas down below. On our right, we are well into Florida and inching closer every second to our destination. Whew, the thoughts are flying now! (Literally and figuratively.)
I will miss so much about Mendoza, Argentina, and South America in general. I already do! I will miss doing, seeing, and learning new things every single day. I will miss the food. The people. The besos (right-cheek greeting kisses) and the loving nature of the people. I will miss kioskos, the cheap food and wine, and the people selling all sorts of miscellaneous goods on the streets. I will miss the insane public transportation systems, the fancy busses, and walking and exploring new streets and places. It will be strange, yet comforting, to no longer be the foreigner or odd-one-out. I will miss the satisfaction of having a conversation and laughing with a local. I will even miss the siestas (nap time), lack of most organization, and the “productive laziness.” I will miss seeing things that amaze and energize me and others that sadden and humble me. I will miss the beautiful landscape and rich culture. Maté. Dulce de leche. The fact that you can usually only buy things in bulk to share. The fun and easy access to bars and boliches (clubs). The never-ending battle to understand why on Earth things function (or don’t) the way they do. I will miss the familiar faces and places and the life and routine that I created for myself. The list goes on and on.
There are also a handful of things that I won’t miss. I won’t miss the piropos, the disgusting culture of machismo and the feeling of being objectified as a woman. I won’t miss the lack of respect of the ridiculous lack of sense and efficiency. At the end of the day, though, even these things can’t tarnish my experience as a whole.
As time goes on, things will begin to slip away from my memory. It is the little things in particular which will go first: the uneven sidewalks, the simple beauty of the roses blossoming in Parque San Martin, and the Aguila chocolate I love so much. My tan from the beautiful South American sunshine. I am afraid and saddened by that fact, but I will know that I will retain so much.
I am also scared and unsure about the thought of the challenge I will face in trying to describe my experiences to others. How do I even begin to relay all that I did, saw, and learned? Sure, I have words and photos, but those can only go so far. How do I condense five months of experiences? How do I describe all the ups and downs? How do I answer “How was Argentina?” When I get back to Bowdoin and I see all my other friends who were abroad, do I just answer with “Good, how was ____?” until the excitement of being back wears off and we get back into our regular routines? How do I hold on to my South American life and all that I gained when I am back in my old, familiar environment of home and Bowdoin? How do I combine the two? How do I not get sucked back into the craziness of life and lose the relaxed and low-stress self I have finally found? How do I hold on to everything so that it doesn’t become a far-away dream land now that I am away from it all? How will people see that I have changed (if at all)? How will I express that? How will I be the same? How will this experience make itself evident in future situations? What will I take away as the most important parts?
The answer to all of these questions is quite simple: I have no idea.
Nope, not a clue. If anything, my challenges and experiences are far from over.
I have learned and experienced more this semester than I could ever conceptualize to myself– more or less to another person. I learned a new language, culture, and history. I learned which micro (bus) got me to my university the fastest from the corner of Belgrano and Juan B. Justo. (Group 8, number 103). I learned which alfajor is the tastiest (Guaymallen). I learned how to “ojo” (watch out) when crossing the crazy streets or walking in an unfamiliar area. I learned how to properly drink and share mate and the deeper, cultural meaning of it. I learned that “fresas” and “frutillas,” “tú” is “vos,” and “aquí” is “aca” in Argentine Spanish.
But there is also so much more than the factual knowledge. I learned that things will not always (or usually) go as planned, but that’s okay. I learned to let go of the little things and to not stress over petty things that can’t be controlled. To focus on the larger and more important things. I learned to have confidence, to just go for things sometimes, and to trust my gut. I learned that I have the capability to do things I didn’t think I can. I learned the importance of patience, of family and friends, and of enjoying all of life’s moments—especially the present. I feel more confident, grown, and centered than I have in my entire life. I learned to love my free time and I enjoyed not having such a crazy, jam-packed schedule all the time. I also realized that I enjoy a busy lifestyle as well, and I look forward to finding a balance between the two in the future. I learned to be flexible and that it is okay (and recommended) to ask for help when needed. I was constantly reminded of the kindness and goodness of strangers. And so much more.
This semester was absolutely chalked-full of ups and downs. There were high highs and low lows. I have cried my eyes out and given myself a stomachache from laughing so hard. I have been amazed and excited and disgusted and scared. I have wanted to do nothing but curl up in bed at home and not have to deal with things, and I have wanted to never leave and to soak up every single thing that I possibly can. I have felt confident and I have felt scared and hopeless. I have felt angry, sad, overwhelmed, enthralled, ecstatic, happy, content, indifferent, and everything in between. It has been a semester of extremes.
And in more ways than one it has been that way. I have skied in the fresh powder of the Andes, sweated my brains out in the desert sun, dipped my fingers in two oceans from four different countries, and trekked through the rainforest. I am eternally grateful for all the opportunities I have had to travel. I covered a TON of ground in Argentina, but I was also so lucky as to have been able to visit Uruguay, Chile and Peru. I saw and did so many amazing things, and I gained a little something different from each and every experience. On another level, I was also able to get to know a single place, Mendoza, closely and well. Besides Bowdoin, I had never lived in a different place for so long. I didn’t just travel this time. I lived. I did what I could to assimilate to the “local” lifestyle and to develop my own routine within that.
As we get closer and closer to our destination of Newark-Liberty International Airport, I find myself unable to sit still in my seat as I am filled with anxiety about what comes next. Despite all of the emotions, I am overall excited for all that lies ahead. I have so many things to look forward to. I am excited to bring back all that I have gained and to assimilate it into my “other” life. I can’t wait to share my experiences and stories with others as well as hear theirs. I am excited to see where the experiences I have gained will take me. I am also excited to stay put and just enjoy my time in the U.S. for a while.
I have completed everything I set out to do. I have zero miles to go on my South American adventure. I went to South America, I lived and learned, and now I am done. There are a million ways I could end this post, but I am not sure if anything will really suffice. First, though, I would like to thank you all for reading and following along on my adventures as I took on the Andes. It means a lot to me to be able to share my experiences and for you to read (and hopefully enjoy!) them.
I think the best I can say is that this has been an etapa (stage/phase) in my life, and now it is over and a new one will begin. I left South America in the setting sun last night, and I am now flying into the incredible pink, orange, and blue sunrise sky of the United States of America. The sun hasn’t set on South America, though. Rather, I will continue to carry its light with me until it hopefully leads me back again someday. In the meantime, the sun has risen here and now, and it is time to begin my next etapa.
And I can’t wait.