Two Years in South America: A Thinkpiece

31 Aug

Arriving in Quito, 2 Years Ago

I sprawled out on the single bed, more like a cot, in the large hostel room with bright green walls and red trim around the ceiling. It was unbearably hot, a heat wave in Madrid in June. If the Spanish were complaining about the heat, it had to be really hot, and we didn’t need a guide book to tell us it was time for a siesta. I put the new CD into my superslim Panasonic CD player and rest my head on the pillow, expecting to hear some loud rock music. Just an hour before my sister and I wandered into a music store in the center, where I found a band I remembered my friend Goldberg telling me about, Death Cab for Cutie. I couldn’t remember how it sounded, but figured the disc was cheap enough, and after two weeks backpacking Europe, I needed new tunes.

The first song, “Title Track” off of We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes began slowly, so I figured it was just leading up to something. But the music stayed mellow, and I actually really enjoyed it even though it wasn’t what I expected. The two Australian girls of Indian descent in the beds next to ours who had been traveling for six months and were going home the next day had already fallen asleep. I closed my eyes and listened to the new music, drifting away as I sweat through my clothes and the sounds of Madrid slowly fell. I was mid-way through traveling internationally and independently for the first time, and I was loving it and everything about life. I was also 17.

A few years later now, I’ve covered some more miles (though by this point I refer to kilometers), same backpack trusty as ever, and these old baby blues have seen their fair share of amazing and terrible things. The kinds of things that will never make it down to pen and paper, mostly because they are incommunicable. I’ve just recently past two years of life in South America, and year two was entirely different from year one. In reality, it’s like two different worlds, that is, Ecuador from Argentina. The language in principle is the same, and from time to time things like bureaucracy and corruption remind me of where I am, but otherwise, I forget that I’m living in South America. Buenos Aires isn’t exactly like Europe or the United States or the other countries in Latin America. It’s just Buenos Aires, good and bad.

Baños, Ecuador

I try to think of how I felt back in Madrid when I was 17, just out of high school and getting poisoned with the travel bug. Aside from being sick of my sister after three inseparable weeks, I loved every minute of it. Bouncing around from country and culture, meeting new friends in hostels and seeing the history from my books come alive was part of the reason I got into my “career” of internationalism. I thought it would continue like that, but in South America, I’ve found a different path.

There’s also something important about spending a longer period of time in one specific place. While Cuenca was a small city which a traveler could pass through in two days, living there brought me into a different corner of the city. By the time I left I had a solid group of friends and a semi-ritual, including Saturday afternoon cookouts, which gave me incentive to get through the week. In general, Ecuador was a real challenge, mostly because of how insecure I felt after my night bus was hijacked the first week there. That experience alone unequivocally set the tone for the rest of the year and my life. My outlook on travel and how great the world could be was not exactly crushed, but dented significantly.

Eventually throughout the year in Ecuador I became more comfortable and made the most of my experience, even though I know there could have been more out of the time there as a volunteer. I often had to find ways to keep busy with just a 20 hour work week. Now working full time, I wish I had that luxury again. Going home for three weeks in August was nice, but the reverse culture shock definitely hit hard, enough so that I was excited to get back to South America, where things didn’t make sense, but their lack of reason made more sense than the disappointment I found in the United States, where things were supposed to be right.

Buenos Aires

To clarify, some people accuse me of hating home or my family for being gone for so long. It has nothing to do with that. I’m from Boston and I love it there, as well as my friends and family. But there was something else I was looking for which home could not offer. A challenge unique in and of itself, an adventure which would never present itself again, and the opportunity to grow after a life spent in classrooms. So I don’t regret that decision to leave home, because the point of life isn’t merely to get through it, but to live it as well as possible. Sometimes you don’t have a say in it, and other times you can arrange the pieces as you see fit, then play it out.

On arrival in Buenos Aires I was disappointed after years of holding an image in my head. What would this place be like? Obviously it couldn’t hold up to my dreams because dreams tend to be perfect. Those first few months were extremely difficult for multiple reasons that I’ve discussed before (housing, lack of friends, lack of money, adjusting to a new job, adjusting to Argentina after Ecuador, etc). I knew that by the time a year came up and I was packing my bags I would just be settling it, so I chose to give myself two years–a long enough time to make anyone feel homesick more than once. Yet I’m happy with the decision, because the truth is that just now after one year in Buenos Aires, I feel like I understand it better. I don’t totally get it, but I’m working on it.

There’s no doubt in my mind that things will never be the same once I return to the States. It’s not like living in Jersey for a couple of years. The lifestyle, the struggles, the triumphs, all have done something to me which I won’t really understand until the day I land in Logan International Airport in East Boston. It won’t be bad, it won’t be good. It will just be what it will be. This morning I was flicking through my music and decided to put on Death Cab for Cutie, We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes, “Title Track.” It’s been a while since I’ve listened to them, even though they were once my favorite band. The slow tune of the opening song pulled me back to that boiling hostel room and it made me remember why I travel, why I live abroad. The day started off well.

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2 Responses to “Two Years in South America: A Thinkpiece”

  1. Adam September 1, 2010 at 12:07 am #

    Man, after reading a post like this, I am upset that I didn’t follow this blog sooner. Just keep living, great quote, “because the point of life isn’t merely to get through it, but to live it as well as possible.” That’s some Mark Twain kind of material right there.

    • Jon September 1, 2010 at 7:59 pm #

      Thanks Adam. I don’t know if it’s quite up to Twain standards, but I appreciate the idea. Besides, you can always look back through the archives when you’re bored and catch up, or just stay tuned for new posts from now on.

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