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.