Saturday, July 2, 2011

I Guess Time is Funny That Way

Call it a stretch, but I think Benjamin Button knows a thing or two about Rotary Exchange. I’d seen the movie a couple of times before, but when I watched it while waiting for my flight back home, I really felt like he understood what these years are like.

The minute we land, we jump into a life that is completely new to us, and only us. Just as Queenie took in Benjamin, we are also taken in by our hosts, and we begin to refer to them as “family”, “mamá”, “home”.  We have to learn how to communicate all over again, using hand symbols and pointing when the words we want to use are yet unlearned- and unfortunately we realize that sometimes even small children know more than we do. Just as Benjamin was amazed by life around the corner of the house or even just the sound his fork made when whacked against the table- the most mundane things to everyone else are amazing, ridiculous, sometimes even hilarious and we constantly look to satisfy our curiosity in everything. With everyday, we figure out the patterns in the way things work a little more. As Benjamin retold the quirks of the characters living in his home- I couldn’t help but remember the quirks of the characters living in Formosa; the way Vito would sing in the car and talk about Hillary Clinton everyday, or how Maya would apologize for everything- even if it were just helping us, or how those four older men would always be playing chess and listening to Tango music while walking into town in the late afternoon. Gradually instead of being amazed by things that are new, we are instead comforted by things that are normal. We accept that we are always going to be different from those around us in ways and that time will pass differently for them, but we make the most of it- often (especially if we’re blonde) it works in our advantage. As we grow and mature, we are given the chance to explore and see more of the world and to celebrate special moments and holidays, and we take up any and every opportunity that arises. But then all too soon, we become well aware of our end date, and how quickly time is passing by. We then find ourselves ending our journey, reflecting over everything we’ve done, seen, and tried- and realizing our perspectives have always been unique but that, in reality, that has only made the experience all the more incredible.

I really do feel like I lived a lifetime in Argentina this year. Not that time went slowly, but just because it still doesn’t seem possible to me that everything I’ve done down there was done in just under a year. Argentina was unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable. It was the best country I personally could have been sent to, I have no doubt about that, and I love it with all of my heart- the good and the bad. But to say that leaving that ‘life’ behind was “hard” would be un understatement. And I know it will probably be a long, long time before I’m able to put into words just how amazing this past year was and what it meant to me.

All I can say is that I’m grateful this whole process doesn’t end at those hard goodbyes. Despite a few complications and delays in my return, it was still before I knew it that my plane was landing in Minneapolis/St. Paul. My ear to ear smile as we flew over lakes and green trees must have been obvious, because as the man next to me looked up from his SkyMall magazine, he knew right away to ask, “You coming home?”. I couldn’t even walk at a steady pace from my gate to baggage claim, knowing I was just minutes away from seeing my family again. Finally I just gave in, and ran. I can’t even put into words the excitement and pure joy of coming (okay, sprinting) down the steps at MSP airport and into the arms of my parents, brother, and two very best friends. That reunion will always stand alone as one of the happiest moments of my life. 

I’ve now been home three weeks- and time has flown by faster than imaginable. My summer list of memories grows with every hour, and I already can tell it will go down as one of the best. From sharing stories of our year around bonfires, piling up with all the girls on my swinging porch bed, impromptu kickball games, and ding-dong-delivering homemade fudge to friends on sunny summer nights… to shopping in the cities with my mama, skiing with my brother at sunset out at the cabin, Loaded Questions nights in the basement, road tripping to Omaha, or screaming my lungs out on the Power Tower at Valley Fair- I’ve had plenty of fun to keep myself busy (especially on top of two part time jobs).

It is crazy, however, that despite so much fun, I still miss Argentina so much. I can’t say I wasn’t warned about the reverse culture shock. Being from Northfield, I’d say I had more people warning me about it than most, but it has still caught me off guard. I made the mistake of thinking that if I made it through the first week and a half without much of a glitch, I would be smooth sailing for the rest of the summer. But I think it’s just something everyone has to go through, as brutal as it may be. Brad Pitt really did say it perfectly in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button when he said “It’s a funny thing about comin’ home.  Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You realize what’s changed is you.” I know I’ve changed this year, it would be a shame if I didn’t let anything I experienced this year affect me.  Honestly, these changes and transformations are one of the very coolest things about Rotary though, and in the moments where I feel like this past year was just a dream, it serves as proof that it really did happen. It serves as proof that I really am that lucky, that my life- or rather, my lives- really are that wonderful.

“Its never too late to be whoever you wanna be. There's no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you're proud of.”
-The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Sunday, June 12, 2011

in between home and home

So I know myself well enough at this point to realize that if I don’t post something now I never will. I’m currently sitting in the Dallas Fort Worth Airport. That’s right…. I’M ON AMERICAN SOIL! And it is so weird. Everything is in English. There are so many blonde people. Everything is clean and shiny. Everyone is in such a hurry. I can see what they mean when the talk about reverse culture shock… I’m sure there will be a lot more of that to come. But I don’t even care right now… because in just a few hours, I will be with my FAMILY!! Words can’t even express how absolutely pumped I am to see them! AKLSJLJK!!! It’s been a while :) 

So quickly, an update on this crazy thing called the return…

I knew from my crazy arrival that my year would be anything but uneventful, and I guess I decided I might as well go out with a bang, too. Or by bang, I should say eruption. The Puyehue-Cordón Caulle Volcano in Southern Chile became active last weekend for the first time in half a century, and spread an ash cloud across Argentina, reaching all the way to the Buenos Aires area. Flights all week have been canceled in and out of the capital, and when Thursday night the ash cloud situation was more severe than ever, I was told my flight Saturday from Formosa would most likely be canceled… and that I would have one last Argentinean bus experience left in my year.

The goodbyes then came quickly. Before I even had time to realize what was happening, I was at the bus terminal (sobbing my eyes out) and saying goodbye to Vito and Graciela, Cele and Lucas, Maya and her family, Ro and Mamá, Jim and Philipp. I still couldn’t believe that day had already arrived. It is going to take weeks, months, maybe even years to soak up everything I’ve experienced in the past ten months. The things I have done, places I have seen, and people I have met are simply too incredible for me to comprehend, let alone try to explain. All I know is that I have never cried harder in my entire life than my departure. In all honesty, I am so incredibly lucky, the tears were just a testament to the amazing relationships and memories I’ve formed over the past year, and there are very few other 19 year olds that can say they already have possibly the hardest goodbyes of their life behind them. This year went by fast. Really fast. Too fast. But it only seems that way when I try to sum it all up at once. When I look back at the individual moments, pick the memories and experiences apart and line them up side by side, I have well over a years worth.

In all, my travel log is really somewhat insane. This final 16-hour bus ride bumps my final km traveled to about 41, 591 km (just counting trips). The distance around the world at the equator is 40,076 km, meaning that if someone were to build a road around the earth, it would be as if I hopped on a bus and rode that thing around completely, and stayed on for a little extra just for kicks! I mean seriously, how awesome is that? I don’t even know how to begin to add up hours spent traveling, but I know that I’m going to end up topping my entry travel time of 43 hours, with a whopping 48 hours and 10 minutes, or that is if all goes well! My flight from Buenos Aires to Dallas ended up being delayed until 2:45 in the morning last night, and so I missed the 10:50 flight back home, the 11:15 flight was canceled, and the 12:55 was full, so I am currently scheduled to go home on the 3:45 flight… which as of right now is delayed until 4:50. Whew! Good thing Argentina has taught me just how relax and go with it.

Ah. I still can’t believe this day is here. I’m really at a loss of words right now. I suppose that’s what happens when you mix excitement, nostalgia, exhaustion, reverse culture shock, and okay, just a lot lot more excitement, together. So I guess I’ll just leave it at that, Argentina- you were fantastic. I can’t wait to come back to you soon, and to bring my family with. But right now, it’s time for another part of my life. 

And that part starts with some of the worlds biggest hugs and kisses at the MSP airport.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

There's something about Argentina..

So somehow, I went from writing five blog entries before I even got to Argentina- to trying to sum up five months in one final blog at the end of my exchange. Now normally, I'm not one to point fingers, and if there’s one thing my papa’s taught me, it’s to know “when to take responsibility for my actions”... but I SWEAR this time, it really isn’t my fault for being such a negligent blogger! I know I would have done a much better job at updating this if Argentina hadn’t been so dang awesome all the time. But now here I am: with months to update, so much to say, and not a clue where to begin. 

So let’s break it down.

My host mom and sister took off on their own summer trip to Brazil a few days after I returned from mine, and I found myself back with my first host parents Vito and Graciela in the middle of February. From my first step in their door, I felt completely at home again. It was funny how quickly I found myself falling back into old routines and habits, and realized then more than ever how much the two of them really do feel like family to me. Between Vito's stories, Graciela's cooking, and the added entertainment of living with the German exchange student, Philipp- there was never a dull moment. The weekdays went by quickly and the weekends even faster, as we spent most of them going to the Cejas' summer getaway home in Pirebubuy, Paraguay. Blame it on my Minnesota blood or just my cabin fever, but I have no other way to describe those weekends than to tell you to imagine what a weekend out at the lake would be like if the cabin was in the middle of a jungle, if a passport was necessary to get there, and if there were fresh picked mangos as afternoon snacks instead of Mr. Freezies and cabin toast. (So okay, it's a stretch- but cabin fever is cabin fever.)

My time with the Cejas family once again came to a close, and I found myself packing my bags and moving on to stay with the next family- this time a family from Minnesota! Ruby Manoles' parents, Tim and Chrysanne, came down to Argentina to visit her, and invited myself and Andy Ward (one of the exchange students from Arizona) to Resistencia to hang out with them for their stay, too! The week was hilarious, and I had a blast hopping around and getting to know the city just two hours south of Formosa. 

Once back in Formosa, I packed and unpacked my bags for the last time until June and settled back in with the Riveros. School across the country started again in the beginning of March, and the over three-month-long summer vacation came to an end..... for everyone else! Since I was already 18 years old when I arrived, however, I was put in the final year of colegio last year and graduated in November. So I instead of going back to school with my sister and the rest of Formosa, I got to continue the [very rough life of] fiestas, siestas and soaking up the sun! 

Jim’s parents and sister came to Formosa mid-March, so I pulled the “I’ll help translate!” card to tag along to all the tasty asados our friends and families offered up throughout the week. They also generously invited Philipp and me out to Iguazu Falls with them for a couple days, so we hopped on the colectivo to Puerto Iguazu- and fifteen hours later were at the base of the world’s longest waterfalls. I’m not sure if it was the fact that we had two absolutely gorgeous days or the fact that we came after the rainy season and there was twice as much water cascading down upon us, but I was even more taken aback by them then than I was when I first went half a year earlier. Plus, I was in good company :)

All of my activities started up the week after the Noras headed back to the States. I began helping out in Carmen Caballero (my would have been second mom)’s classrooms teaching English to 50+ eleven yr olds every Monday and Tuesday. I began taking classes to become a “Profesional Pastelera”, or Professional Pastry Chef, every Wednesday, followed by catering classes every Friday. And every Thursday, I weave baskets with Indigenous women at the local arts center (no, that’s no joke). As random as it is, I absolutely love my schedule and, although it’s made the weeks fly by even faster, I know that I’ve enjoyed every minute.

As it turns out, I was sent to the capital city in Arg that shares a birthday weekend with me! When followed by Easter a week later, April turned out to be a month of celebrations.

It all started the night of Thursday the 7th, as friends and I went to town to celebrate Formosa's cumple with fireworks at midnight, a plaza filled with craft tents and music playing from the grandstand. Since my friend’s brother-in-law is the drummer of a folklore band, we stayed until the very end, singing and dancing Chamamé and Samba.

Friday night, I was invited to an asado to celebrate my Spanish teacher Maya’s sister Ana’s birthday (here in Arg., that really isn’t as distant as it sounds). Their families, Jim, Philipp, Vito and Graciela, and the families of my classmates all sat around eating empanadas, sopa paraguaya, and all my favorite Argentinean snacks. It wasn’t until midnight, when the music was shut off and replaced by the sound of trumpets and maracas, that Ana told me that her birthday isn’t until July- and that they had thrown the whole party (and hired a Mariachi band) just for me. I have no way of describing the rest of the night without being cheesy or cliché. All I know is that I will forever have the memory of standing there under the stars, surrounded by my friends and families, with a big sombrero on my head and Maya’s five year old daughter wrapping her arms around my waist as tight as she could, as I was serenaded birthday wishes in Spanish.

My family threw yet another birthday celebration for my friends and me Saturday night, combining all of my favorite Argentinean things: family, friends, asado, karaoke, and boliches. To top it all off, I was able to skype my family from back home and celebrate a bit with them as well. I’ve had a lot of amazing birthdays in my life, but something tells me this one might always stand out a little bit from the rest :)

Semana Santa, or Holy Week, was a very different experience for me. To begin with, I’m living in a Roman Catholic country. This meant that Thursday through Sunday there was no school or work at all, but unlike the rest of Argentina’s long weekends, this one was quiet. There wasn’t cumbia music blasting from backyards or dancing or even going out. It was far less commercialized, without any Easter Bunnies or baskets, jellybeans or dyed eggs. Instead, my highlights from the weekend include a thunderstorm that took out the entire town’s power and ended in a surprisingly beautiful candlelight asado at Lucas’ house with his family, a last supper meal of Yacaré al Wok (stir fried crocodile), and even attending Easter mass in the Catedral (even though it was three hours long).

I suppose it was silly of me to say that April was a month of celebrations, because really- EVERY month here Argentineans find plenty of reasons to celebrate. They start off May with Day of the Worker (which, just like Day of the Student or Day of the Teacher- means not working or studying at all). Quickly after came Philipp’s birthday, and later that week my own dad’s 55th (not sure if you wanted that number in print or not papa.. but too late now!) I was able to skype him on his big day, and skype a few other friends and family the next few days- but since the first weekend in May, this has been one of the very first times I’ve been on a computer at all. I shut down my skype, facebook (with the exception of talking to Argentineans) and email, and have been living incommunicado with everyone from back home since. This isn’t the first time I’ve taken a little hiatus throughout my year, but my motive has always been the same: to cut out anything and everything that distracts me from living entirely in the moment in Argentina. And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.

With the days and weeks before my departure date burning away quickly, now more than ever I have just tried to soak up as much Argentina as possible. I have no doubt in my mind that this year will stand out as one of the most incredible in my life- many thanks to the places I’ve traveled and once in a lifetime experiences I’ve had. But truth is, I think it will be the little things, the everyday moments, which I will cherish and miss the most. It’ll be moments of sipping mate with my host mom, or with friends down by the river late at night. It’ll be staying up until eight in the morning talking about boys with my little sister. It’ll be asados with 30 some people- all family- and realizing I was invited because this year, they consider me part of that, too. It’ll be siestas, lawn chairs in the middle of the sidewalk, and store hours that read “8-11:30 y 5-9:30” that remind me to slow down, relax, and take time for the things and people that are truly important. It’ll be hearing men selling “CHIPA! CHIPA CALIENTE!” from three blocks away. It’ll be walking downtown or going out with Jim and Philipp and being completely sure I was sent to Formosa with two of the most fun exchange students I could ask for. It’ll be moments of realizing we’ve gone ten days without eggs or flour, but being sent on an emergency grocery run because we are almost out of yerba mate (and moments of having a full aisle and a half of brands to choose from once I get to the corner kiosko). It’ll be ringing the doorbell at the Cejas’ home and being greeted with huge hugs and kisses from Ali, Graciela and Vito, and always feeling like I’ve just arrived home. It’ll be nights of driving around with Lucas, Patricio and Celeste listening to the same CD over and over again. It’ll be waking up to the sound of my neighbor’s parrot squeaking “Hoooola! Hola! Hooola!” It’ll be the assurance that I can run as far as a I want, because I know Formosa so well I know I wont get lost. It’ll moments of staying up until 4 talking in the hotel lobby with Jim, because going to bed at 11 with everyone else wasn’t possible after a summer in Argentina. It'll be getting in (and winning) a cumbia/reggeaton dance off. It’ll be picking tropical flowers from branches hanging over the sidewalk on my way into town. It’ll be the goose bumps I got at 75 degrees after months of upper 90’s. It’ll be days of sitting outside talking about life with the kiosk lady, Venny, across the street. It’ll be moments of forgetting words in English, and realizing that Spanish came more easily. It’ll be the moments that I just stepped back, laughed, and realized that "Yep. This is actually my life.” More than anything, it’ll be having so many moments and memories that I’ll never be able to sum up what ‘it was’ about Argentina, but knowing that bottom line, I have been more happy living here in Formosa (the little, industrial border city in the middle of South America) than I ever imagined I could be. And it’ll be knowing that no matter where I travel to or where I end up, that it’ll be one more place that I will call home.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Where to begin..

I really have no idea where to begin. The past two months have been some of the most incredible of my exchange so far. I have so many things to say that I know I would ramble on forever if given the time- but thinking that at 1000 words/picture posting photos will do a better job than I could :)


Everyone says Christmas is hard. Back home- I can never start the Christmas (insert: music/traditions/countdown/shopping/decorating) too soon. With the exception of a few members of my family and a couple select friends, I am the biggest Christmas-season-sucker around, and I thought spending it 5000 miles away from home would be near impossible. I kept waiting for the Christmas homesickness to kick in, hard, but I never hit that point. Christmas this year was just, well, unique. 

I never realized how commercialized Navidad is in the States until this year. There are Christmas pageants, carols, sales, cookies, sweaters, candies, lights, trees, presents, parties- you name it. Here in Argentina, however- I hardly knew the holiday was coming until it was already here. (Okay, that's not entirely true... a countdown was the background on my computer for weeks, but still.) Christmas was just SO different, and I knew I would never have another anything like this one, so I made the most of it. Instead of decorating a huge pine tree- I decorated a little cactus and a papaya tree. Instead of making snow angels and playing broom ball, I made a sand angel and went swimming in possibly piranha infested waters. And instead of curling up tight at Grandma Beske's with my cousins at midnight Christmas Eve, I danced with Vito and stood out on my Argentinian Grandma's balcony with my head on Graciela's shoulder watching the sky above Formosa light up with fireworks. It was a Christmas unlike any other, and a Christmas I will never forget. 

Besides, with my good friend Skype again- I was able to carry on at least a few of the annual traditions:

Erin Tollefson and I carried on our annual Christmas arts n' crafts over skype- bringing snowflakes to Argentina for the first time ever.

I was able to sit down at the dinner table with my family for our annual Christmas dinner fondue. (I had stir fry and pasta, with a side plate full of mango, pineapple, and papaya).

My first Christmas as a Catholic girl- going to mass with my host mom. It was a beautiful service, and completely different from Hector's back home... that is until they turned off the lights, passed around candles, and started singing Noche de Paz (Silent Night). I would be lying if I said I made it through that one with dry eyes- but it was absolutely perfect.

Me, Graciela, and Alicia (our housekeeper), baking up a storm in the kitchen. We blasted my x-mas tunes and the AC and got to work- ending up making roughly fifteen loaves of budin and twenty five loaves of pan dulce- the two staple snacks of the holiday season- in one afternoon.

 New family, New home, New Years
Christmas Day ended up being very bittersweet for me. Here in Argentina- the real celebration comes right before and after midnight (of course)- and the actual Christmas Day is very relaxed. I spent it laying out in the sun, eating an asado with my family, and unfortunately- packing my bags. The next day was moving day. Vito and Graciela, my first host parents here in Formosa, were absolutely incredible. They not only welcomed me with open arms and made me feel at home- they really truly do feel like family. I will never be able to show my appreciation for all they did enough, and 'gracias' will never cut it. Saying goodbye was far from easy. 
Fortunately, my incredible luck with my Rotary exchange just kept continuing and I found myself at the house of Laly Gomez and Rosarito Rivero. Instantly I felt like family with them. My sister, Rosarito, is so bubbly and fun, and has become one of my very very best friends here in Argentina. Even on nights when we went out late and came back tired, we would stay up for hours talking and laughing. My host mom, Laly, told me right away that I was her hija and to call her mamá... and that is exactly what she has been ever since. She is a strong-willed and spunky, and runs her own business, takes care of her house, and still manages to balance a social life with ease. 

This picture above is of  Midnight on New Years Eve! On my right in the white is my host mom. On my left in the blue is my oldest host sister, Mavi, her husband, Matias, is poking his head out from behind, and their 7 month old son Gino is still awake somewhere in the room soaking in his first new year. To the right of my host mom is a family friend and, in the purple, the sweet lady who works at the corner store across the street, Venny. Family members not pictured are: Rosarito, host brother Dani, oldest host brother Mario, Mario's wife Gisella, and their son Tiago (5). 

Then, for an entire month after New Years, I had the incredible opportunity to get to know the country and culture of Argentina's neighbor, Brazil. As a group, we represented 23 different countries, roughly 10 distinct languages, four Minnesotans and TWO NORTHFIELDERS! Aletha Duchene, who is living in Mato Grosso, Brazil, was also on the trip! It was soooo fun to be able to meet halfway through our exchange, catch up, compare experiences, and spend the most amazing January ever together. In 30-some days, we covered over 13,000 km and made stops at several of Brazil's most impressive cities and beaches, including; Brasilia (the capital), Fortaleza, Natal, Recife, Salvador, Porto Seguro and Rio! 
 In Brasilia with the group on our first day of the trip. From here, we traveled to the Northeast ...
where we spent the rest of the month hopping from peninsulas of turquoise waters and white sand beaches,
to islands of turquoise waters and white sand beaches,
through colorful little villages,
and bustling urban centers,
... and to some more white sand beaches. 

Every place we stopped seemed even more amazing than the last, and our last destination of the trip, Rio de Janeiro (what I assumed would be an over rated, crowded city) became a personal favorite. 
We got to see that Christ the Redeemer is even bigger in person than it appears in photos
(so big that in order to get a picture you have to literally lay on the ground)
we walked the most famous street in the world for Carnival,
enjoyed the view of Rio from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain
and soaked up rays on Copacabana Beach.

It really was an absolutely incredible trip, and the memories and friendships made along the way were unbelievable. I still can't believe how lucky I am- to have seen so much of not my own country, but of Brazil as well. 
I learned quite a few things about myself along the way, too. While I had prepared myself for language to be difficult in my first weeks/months of my exchange, I had also been told that January is usually the time when exchange students hit that "waterfall" of fluency when everything comes together. Having had a background in Spanish before Argentina, my transition in August was fairly smooth.. yet at the point I had imagined being able to speak nearly perfectly- I was suddenly trying to maneuver in Portuguese. I wasn't prepared for how difficult and frustrating it would be at times, and I have to give even more credit to all the exchange students learning a new language from start. 
I also realized how much I missed Argentina while gone- the culture between Brazil and Argentina was surprisingly different, and there were certain things that I really began to miss while away. Formosa really feels like "home" to me, my families really feel like family, and Argentina really feels like where I belong. It began to sink in that if I was homesick for Argentina after just a few weeks- while in just the neighboring country- and while enjoying Brazil's best beaches and cities with 100 friends... leaving in June is going to be even harder than I imagined. 
Time is absolutely FLYING by, and now that I have my return date set (leave here June 11th at 2:50pm), it is all feeling even more real. As excited as I am to see all of my friends and family back home, I know the 3 1/2 months until then are going to sneak up on me. I will just continue making the absolute best of my time and situations and soaking up as much Argentina-spirit as possible. I said it in July, and it still holds true today: I have no idea what the rest of this year will bring. I don't know what my challenges will be, nor can I imagine what memories I will return home with. All I know is that I am ready to speak some Spanish, dance a little tango, and try to take on whatever Argentina decides to throw my way.