It has been a long time since I have written in this blog I first created back when I started my study abroad experience in Buenos Aires. I have finally returned to Argentina after a 2.5-month journey across Latin America to begin the second semester of my yearlong abroad experience. Looking back, I learned so much form my first semester and as a result, have changed as a person. I knew from the beginning of my abroad program that I had to learn how to live in Buenos Aires. The truth is, I had no clue what Buenos Aires was and what I would find there. I knew I was going to study human rights to develop my passion for women’s issues in Latin America, but it seemed like I would never be able to call Buenos Aires home. Besides struggling with the language, I kept feeling like it was the wrong decision to have moved to Argentina for a my entire senior year – the most important year for any undergrad student wanting to gain professional experience after graduation rather than continuing school. I was so scared about the year ahead of me (and I am still scared – but now I ask the question who isn’t scared of their year ahead?). However, so many undergrad students, like myself, think our university educational experience is limited to the academic setting on a campus or in a classroom. Moving to the metropolis of Buenos Aires however, not only allowed me to gain more experience in a university setting (quite a unique university setting I might add, as I took classes I normally wouldn’t have such as “Culture of Peace and Human Rights” taught by Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Perez Esquivel), but I also learned more about myself and my own capabilities. In my entire first semester in Buenos Aires, I had no idea what remaining cities in South America were like or how difficult they may be to start a new life in as a foreigner. I just thought my own lack of cultural understanding or language capabilities were the reasons why I wasn’t adjusting as fast as I wanted to. The truth is Buenos Aires is a metropolis. I never bothered to look up the population numbers between BA, Santiago, Lima, or Bogota etc but I am certain now that anyone even coming from a huge city in the US would struggle as much as I did to start a new life in the city. (I have to also note that my experience was profoundly effected by the fact that I chose to live in BA for a year rather than a semester where I would have felt more like a tourist because I would be going back home after 5 months). I got lost each day-not only on the streets, but also in between people’s Spanish sentences. I also pushed myself to take a full course load at the public University of Buenos Aires, which when you step inside it, looks like every student activist that ever existed left their political views on the walls. I now understand that being flexible and having the strength to accept (not tolerate) a culture different from my own is something that may pay off in my next destination.
I will never forget a specific experience in my time abroad when I decided to attend this party a friend of mine from Buenos Aires invited me to in a barrio in BA that our study abroad program warned us not to travel to. I decided to go anyways because I knew I didn’t want to prevent a budding friendship with her. Getting to this party was a really cool trip for the bus ride there, especially when I entered the areas of BA I had never visited, and I had this instant rush of confidence feeling like I had accomplished something great making it safely to this party without getting lost. However, my return home (which was at about 2am because parties in BA don’t start till about 11 or 12) I remember this instant sense of panic because I had to walk alone to the bus stop that was about 3 blocks from the party (and at that time of night a woman walking alone in this barrio in BA is just asking for trouble). So I did what I had to do and asked the gentleman at the party in the clearest Spanish I could for the exact directions on how to get to my bus stop so I wouldn’t get lost. All he could do was tell me to walk the 3 blocks and try finding the bus sign (often in BA the bus stops are not very obvious and they can sometimes even be a faded sticker with a number on a pole indicating the bus might just stop there), and I walked those three blocks scared as hell because I just couldn’t find this bus stop. Suddenly a truck rolls by with two men and stops at the red light where I was. I’ll never forget the face of the man in the front seat of that truck. He was just glaring down at me like he knew I was a woman alone and if he tried to pull anything there wouldn’t be anyone to stop him. I felt like an object as a woman helpless and alone at night in front of him and that’s just when I realized the simple fact that I am a woman (not a man) studying in Buenos Aires. After the slowest 15 seconds of my life Suddenly I saw my bus approaching and saw the pole I was next to had a frayed sticker with my bus number, and I safely jumped on the bus . That man could have pulled something that would have completely changed my abroad experience (and possibly any further abroad experiences in my future) but the point is that if I am to understand the people of Buenos Aires well, I have to start with my gender for that has so far had a huge impact on my daily life in BA. My gender in BA (not my gender in the US, but specifically Buenos Aires) now affects how I plan my nights out, my dreams of traveling throughout South America, and so many smaller things I never even thought about when I lived in the US. All that said, I managed to make it through the first semester and made some great friends on the way. I am so grateful for being presented with the challenge of adjusting to life in Buenos Aires and I hope I can carry these skills with me wherever this ambitious world traveling heart of mine desires to go.
After about five months, it was time for yearlong students to take a break between semesters for the “summer” holiday, which is confusingly around Christmas time for us. We had about 2.5 months until we had to be back in Bs As to begin the second semester. I have to admit that even by the end of November, I had no definite plan on what I was going to do for this time period between semesters. I kept hearing students’ plans to travel back home and knew that wasn’t an option for me. I made the choice of leaving the US and studying in a foreign country for a year and wanted to stick with my decision. I quickly paired up with a fellow yearlong student to start traveling with a bus to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to celebrate New Years. We both knew it couldn’t happen once we couldn’t find housing or even a bus to make it there safely. That’s where I learned the lesson that in life, no matter what you aspire to do, you have to have a plan B.
Struggling to establish my plans for the break period was truly the first time in my life where I had to fend for myself, and of all places in Latin America. My semester’s stay at my comfortable host family home that was funded by my scholarship program was gone come the date of the first semester’s end. I had to quickly decide where I was going to go, how much it would cost, and for how long I would be able to survive on my limited funding sources. It’s very important that I reflect on the fact that although I tried to plan out all the details of my 2.5 month journey, much of my backpacking trip across Latin America was improvised because like India, Latin America never runs on a perfect schedule. So If you’re a fellow traveler like me on a journey to greater understanding, I salute you, and if you’re reading this and thinking of me as a traveling hippie wasting my life to just have fun in South America for 2.5 months, you don’t know what you re missing.
I bought a bus ticket to begin the journey in Santiago, Chile a week before I would be officially without a home in Bs As. After hours of sitting at my laptop reading South American travel blogs including all the scary stories of tourists being robbed, kidnapped or cheated by buying bus tickets for nonexistent bus lines, I decided that even as a woman traveling alone, I needed to make this journey. I study Latin American studies as an undergrad, and there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to really know Latin America and its peoples’ past and present before graduating. I pushed myself to arrange a route that would require me to travel mostly by bus from country to country where I avoided spending money on hostel stays by connecting with people I knew (and I have to admit I was quite scared to try couch surfing being that I was traveling alone).
I noticed in Santiago, Chile that there is a much larger presence of indigenous culture in Santiago, due to the Mapuche indigenous population, but the sense of embarrassment once someone is claimed as indigenous still exists here as it did in Buenos Aires. The woman hosting me previously was such an exception because she would proudly claim herself as a proud indigenous woman and she explained that because the Mapuche population was so large here in the past, there’s such a strong chance most citizens of Santiago have Mapuche blood, though they may not claim it as proudly as she does. This immediately made me think of being an Indian -American in the US, and witnessing so many fellow first generation youth try to hide the fact they were Indian by strongly assimilating into western culture by refusing to learn an Indian language or only wearing clothing from popular western brands. Was this Mapuche indigenous identity so badly looked at in the past from colonization that people today deny their own race?
After Santiago, I continued onward to Arica, Chile where I found a route in order to cross into Perú. I read it was possible (and possibly dangerous) to arrive in Arica, Chile, the most northern part of the country, and then negotiate with a cab to take you to the border to cross immigrations to enter Tacna, Perú. Although making it safely through, I was immediately bombarded by men upon exiting my cab at the Tacna bus terminal (not in the good kind of way, as they were all salesmen trying to get me to buy bus tickets from their bus line). My plan was to bus from Tacna, Perú to Arequipa, Perú (about 5 hours), where I would then stay a night to rest and continue to Cusco to visit Machu Picchu together with my Argentine friends. Arequipa was a small but beautiful town and visiting it was my first real experience with any indigenous culture in South America, as I never experienced indigenous culture in Buenos Aires. After Arequipa, it was onward to Cusco, and this was where I really started to feel like I was backpacking in Latin America. Luckily my friend in Argentina by chance mentioned to me she was going to visit Cusco and Machu Picchu, and we made it work to stay at the same hostel.
My hostel was called “Wild Rover Cusco” and was exactly what you would expect based on any backpacking adventure story. I had a bunk bed in a dorm room with 15 total travelers staying in the hostel (luckily all female) and the majority of the guests were either European or Australian. This essentially meant they had all been to very exotic places before and loved to party (and to particularly drink beer). I met so many fascinating people at Wild Rover, and each had a unique story to tell. Even the staff were interesting, as most had traveled all the way from Australia to visit Cusco and work at the hostel’s pub, where we partied every night, in exchange for their stay in the hostel. I met one man from Ireland named Ponch (no one ever knew his real name) and he was amazingly talented at classical Irish dance. I even met folks from my hometown of Los Angeles, California, and upon speaking to them (they couldn’t speak a lick of Spanish), it became obvious that the only reason they had come to Cusco, Perú was to see Machu Picchu (as is the case for most people who come to Cusco). I then realized that I really had not come to Cusco simply for the touristic motives of checking off Machu Picchu on my list of things I want to accomplish in my life. Rather, I knew I had to make this journey around Latin America, and I was lucky enough to find this group of Argentines to travel with in Perú and visit Machu Picchu. I then realized the adventure I was on was not at all one of tourism where I had just come to see something, but rather for travel, where I arrived in Cusco with little prior knowledge on the city, and I saw what was simply in front of me. It is said that the traveler sees what they see and the tourist sees what they have come to see.
I made sure wherever I landed I took a moment to acknowledge the fact that traveling across Latin America is a true privilege that even people from the continent itself can’t share with me. Remembering this made every moment on my journey, even the tough times, more precious. I pushed myself to learn as much as I could about each city I visited, to walk as many miles as I could, and to discover as much as possible. I even got to hear distinct Spanish dialects from each country I visited and started to lose my Argentine Spanish accent (which is basically the pronunciation of the Spanish double “ll” with a “sh” sound) so I would stand out a bit less as a foreigner. What I didn’t expect about the journey was the love ad pride I had developed for Argentina from my first study abroad semester. Going from being in such unfamiliar places alone prior to arriving in Cusco to suddenly being accompanied by fellow backpackers from Argentina made me realize what a blessing living in Buenos Aires was this last semester. Even though I knew only my one Argentine friend before my trip, I became very close with her and her friends as we progressed on our journey (We even survived the incident of our travel agency cheating us by not making sure all members of our group had a train ticket to return to Cusco after visiting Machu Picchu). This was what made it so difficult to part my new friends when I had to continue my journey onward to Lima, Perú to visit an old and dear friend I had made at my University of Wisconsin-Madison.
To save you reading time, I can just say that visiting Perú was a blessing and a great experience on my mission to understand Latin America better. Traveling through the distinct cities of Arequipa, Cusco, and then Lima made me realize just how diverse Latin America really is. Even though many in the US tend to categorize Latin America as a continent with just one similar culture and language, the truth is from the people, to the language, to the food, each South American country I visited could not have been more different from one another. I was able to compare each country and understood that no South American country could compare to the experience I had gained in my first semester in Argentina.
After surviving the long bus rides (some as much as 36 hours long) filled with my thoughts that I was stupidly risking my life by traveling alone, I made it through Chile, Perú and Ecuador to arrive in Medellín, Colombia. I was scheduled to begin teaching English for a foundation providing low cost educational resources to a local community. Being a person that likes to work hard, I was ready to get to work after so much traveling. I had spent exactly 23 days visiting sites, meeting people, and experiencing culture, but I was left with this overwhelming feeling that I had simply been taking without giving back anything in return. I believe it’s great when a country can benefit from tourism, but it wasn’t enough for me to simply travel through these countries to feel like I had truly given back. I thus arranged for myself to teach English to a community in Medellín in exchange for housing and food. However, it was only after surviving the journey from Buenos Aires to Medellín when my troubles began. I was scheduled to begin teaching on January 14th, 2013 and had discussed with my supervisor once I was in Ecuador that I would arrive early on the 11th to be as prepared as possible to start teaching my classes. That’s exactly what I never understood about Latin America- there is no way to be “prepared” for anything, just the present moment as it unravels itself in front of you.
I was so anxious to start teaching that when my supervisor told me I wasn’t going to start work for another week so I could enjoy the city of Medellín, I felt like I was going to lose my mind. I had no idea I was going to have an entire week to simply enjoy the city. What really made me frustrated was that I clearly communicated to my supervisor when in Ecuador that I was going to arrive in Colombia early just to be ready to teach, and he said nothing but “me parece perfecto” (sounds perfect).
There are times during my trip where I thought about simply returning to America because things would just be easier- I wouldn’t have to worry about not understanding people correctly, I could have wi-fi everywhere I went, or I could simply trust others and be confident that mutual agreements would be respected without dishonesty (Are any of these things guaranteed in your life now and if they are, do you take them for granted?). However, I clearly knew that I was no longer in America, and I had to gather up the strength to adapt to unexpected circumstances everyday. I also knew that agreeing to accept free housing and food in exchange for my voluntary English position meant I had to be flexible with whatever I was given. After my previous travel and going some days surviving on one meal and a bus seat to call my bed, I felt more than blessed that someone was actually going to provide me with a place to sleep and a plate of food, or possibly two, every day. I was challenged, however, with remembering how blessed I was when I was sent to live with three male university students in a small apartment in an area I later found out was not the safest in Medellín, particularly for foreigners, but I was just to stay here until I started teaching. During that week I felt like I was basically just surviving because I knew that for three university students under one roof, food isn’t always the easiest to guarantee. Nevertheless, these men were so kind to me as they made sure I was comfortable and I could navigate my way around the city. I hope my newfound consciousness for how much I have been blessed with in my life never fades away, as I will never look at a bed or a plate of food again. I even remember once during my travels I had been served a hot plate of food and thought to myself, “I must enjoy every bite and every ingredient of this meal, because I am not certain what my next meal will be, where it will come from, or how much it will cost me”. I have flashbacks of this moment every time I eat something even today.
As I patiently waited to begin work and explored Medellín, I started researching its political issues, particularly those related to the conflict the entire world seems to think they understand. I read about Colombia’s history and how conflict began regarding the drug trade in the mid 80’s. I will never forget being told the incredible story on the drug lord and Medellín native, Pablo Escobar. It turns out Medellín, Cali, and Bogota were once the most dangerous Colombian cities to travel in because of the drug trade. The conflict is driven by the paramilitary groups Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (FARC), Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), and the Colombian governmental troops. The conflict between these three groups has led to one of the world’s largest migrations of local communities, as well an astounding prevalence of violence against women and a Colombian justice system that according to the locals I spoke with lacks justice. My attention was immediately drawn to the conflict’s impact on women. I learned that many women who lost husbands due to the conflict were forced to migrate with their children and lost their homes and all sources of income. What most inspired me however, was the countries’ fierce women’s movement on increasing women’s participation in Colombia’s paramilitary group peace talks. I fell in love with the topic and decided this would be my senior thesis topic for my upcoming final undergrad semester in Argentina.
Despite my nerdy research discoveries during my week to enjoy Medellín before teaching, once the day arrived to start work, my supervisor had yet to communicate with me on where I was supposed to go, how I would arrive there, or where I would be able to live next for I was only supposed to be in my current living situation for one week. After about a dozen messages and missed calls, I was given the information that the foundation that was supposed to receive me was not ready, and all I could do was wait until I heard news from them on when I could start. As for my living situation, I knew I couldn’t stay in a home of three male university students depending on them to feed and host me (at moments the gender dynamic definitely became awkward, and they were so nice one of the men was even sleeping on the floor so I could sleep in his bed). I started looking for other housing options but I knew I couldn’t afford another stay in a hostel while waiting to begin work at the foundation that I anticipated would have no problem providing me with housing and food. All I could do was be patient, but when two days had passed and my supervisor communicated nothing to me, I started to panic. I felt like I was in limbo-neither enjoying the city of Medellín nor doing the volunteer work I set out to do. Just when I needed it, I also received an email explaining my application for the Fulbright Research Grant that I was counting on in respect to my postgraduate plans was rejected. That scholarship was my biggest dream. During my entire trip, I remember keeping the thought in the back of my mind that all the struggles I was enduring traveling alone in Latin America were going to pay off once I win this Fulbright grant. I had applied to conduct research on women’s issues in Argentina, and after having such a great experience with my Argentine friends in Machu Picchu, Perú, my heart wanted that award more than ever. I felt like a loser- I had no volunteer position, I was homeless in Medellín, and I officially had no post graduation plans. It was the exact same day as the first day of my university’s spring semester, and I was very close to booking a flight straight back to Madison, Wisconsin to end my study abroad experience and continue school in the US. It was the most humbling experience I have ever been through, and I even saved my rejection email for if I ever lose sight of how much of an expert I am not and how much more self-growth I have to push myself through. I felt like an Olympic champion losing a race they thought they had in the bag by milliseconds.
However, I also remembered the journey I had just taken and that I had worked hard to survive through while learning so much about my own strengths and the blessings I have in life along the way. I have that Fulbright rejection to thank for the hard work I put in to finalize my research thesis as well as apply to the Peace Corps and other service fellowships. What happened to me was life, and in all its ugliness and cruelty came something beautiful when I finally got news that I would begin teaching the following week and a friend I had made offered to host me for the remainder of my time in Medellín.
I fell in love with teaching. I had three classes and the majority of my students were adult women. I took it upon myself to make sure these women understood the value of education, especially because I particularly noticed that like Indian women, Colombian women are often dressed and groomed very nicely (this certainly made me as a backpacker with barely any clothes or makeup because, I lost all my vanity as a woman when I started traveling, feel like I didn’t fit in). My Medellín experience led me to think about the future post graduation possibilities of teaching in developing countries before applying to law school. I am also currently in full swing on my senior thesis on Colombian women’s participations in peace negotiations. However, just as I was mentally preparing myself to part Medellín with doubt I would ever return, one of the last surprises of my journey crossed my path. The friend I made who invited me to live with her happened to be an artist just like me and she works for an organization called the EARTH Project with the brilliant mission of sending artists abroad to construct art projects. In my final three days in Medellín, this same organization introduced me to an art institute in Medellín that was desperately searching for a female artist who specializes in women’s issues and is an American citizen. The institute had lost a previous candidate for an artist residency opportunity to live with a community of women in Palmitas, Medellín where women help each other gain economic empowerment through alternative methods of production of Colombia’s rich natural resources. The artist was then responsible for constructing an art exhibit with nine fellow artists based on her experience living with the women. The artist in residence was to also facilitate workshops with the women and high school students in Medellín on the importance of women’s leadership and economic independence. When I read the institute’s announcement, I almost laughed. Considering what I had just survived in Medellín and all the thoughts I had of not returning, I couldn’t believe this opportunity was real and that I was now in Medellín to introduce myself and my women’s issues and art experience with the institute director. I am now going to return to Medellín in April for this two-week artist’s residency to live with this community of women and to then construct an exhibit with fellow artists for the community so I can combine my passion for women’s rights and use art as a vehicle for dialogue and social change.
After surviving these 2.5 months, I have learned that I am a strong woman, and am much stronger than the woman I thought I was when I began traveling. I am so blessed with this experience to understand Latin America and my own capabilities. I realize now that life is not meant to be planned out step by step, achievement by achievement. We as humans tend to look at self-growth as if it were a model of a Fortune 500 company with the linear sales growth graph being an exponential line of success. Rather, to me self-growth is a linear graph of abrupt and not so abrupt ups and downs and after the lowest down comes the highest up, and so forth. You are the protagonist of your own life and your tomorrow depends on the actions and steps you take for yourself today. Having survived this journey and being so close to moving back to the US, I see absolutely everything, no matter how small, as a blessing. I hope I never forget what my travel around South America has taught me and I hope my story inspires you to take the steps necessary each day to fulfill your life’s maximum potential.
Saumya Viktoria Deva
A changed woman.