Final Week

With less than a week left of my study abroad experience (I have to leave my apartment around 3am on Saturday morning to catch my flight!), I have been in a really reflective mood. I am really ready to go home; in fact, the last two weeks I was kind of grumpy because the end was so close but felt so far away and I was just ready to leave immediately. But once I hit the one week mark, I am having much more mixed emotions. I am still ready to go home, and that’s where my mind is now (which is, I think, why I have been grumpy, because instead of living in the moment here, I was impatiently anticipating the future), but this experience has been so incredible and unique that I can’t exactly imagine what it will be like to set foot in my home country again.

I think that a lot of people who study abroad look forward to it as this awesome adventure. For me, the idea of spending so much time in another country was exciting, but also made me really anxious. I actually spent a lot of time in the months leading up to my departure not thinking about what it would be like because it would just make my mind spin into a black hole of worries and doubts. I am so glad that I followed through with the semester, though, (and am so lucky that Dan was there to support me when I got too nervous) because even though it was scary, this is the exact kind of scary that helps you grow and change in an awesome way.

comfort zoneOne personality trait that I have that is not so great is that I can be really inflexible. I like for things to happen in a certain way and I’m the type of person who plans my entire week on Sunday morning. Leaving the safety of an environment where I am able to be so rigid was particularly scary for me; I would be living with strangers in a country with different customs, so obviously I was going to have to learn to settle down and go with the flow. My brother, who studied abroad in Vienna, Austria in college 15 years ago (and then proceeded to NEVER COME HOME) gave me maybe the best advice anyone gave me about studying abroad: don’t judge anything at first and live life like an Argentinian. This was such awesome advice because life is so much easier if you go with the flow instead of fighting against it, and especially because I’m living with a family I needed to be able to adapt to the different customs and thought processes that the people have here. I have made a point to view things that seem annoying or rude at first (oh god why is everyone standing so close to me?) as cultural differences, which makes them interesting instead of offensive.
I am really happy to be able to say that I have loosened up a lot since I’ve been here. More than just navigating the local customs, my lifestyle here is completely different than my lifestyle at home, and over time I have become accustomed to flying by the seat of my pants, doing things spontaneously, and trying things that I assume I won’t enjoy. This is such a huge personal growth for me, and I am so excited with this progress.

Another thing about me is that I don’t like doing things that are really unfamiliar or that I don’t completely understand how to do because I don’t want to look dumb. That whole part of me had to go out the window right away because I was faced with an unfamiliar task every day and was forced to do said task in a language that I am not fluent in. Guess what, sometimes I do look dumb! Sometimes I use the wrong gendered article and call the pope a potato, sometimes I don’t know the word for something so I have to mime it out and I look ridiculous, and you can’t imagine how much time I have spent just having NO IDEA what’s going on. I even fell on my face in a crowded park and made quite a scene. But it never matters! Like, seriously, nothing bad ever happens (okay, it was pretty bad when I fell on my face) and then I learn something and I know more than I did before!

These changes are definitely for the better, and I don’t think that they would have come had I not studied abroad. Being alone in a totally foreign place forces you to face your fears head on and deal with them. When I think about going home now, one of the biggest things that I think about is how easy it will be to do everything there because I’ll be doing it in English. This time in Argentina has made me understand just how powerful being able to communicate exactly what you think, feel or need is, and how much simpler life will be when I can effortlessly do that again! Which is not to say that I’m going to spend the rest of my life in English speaking countries. Not at all! Now that I have not only survived so many months here but come out of it stronger and better, I would love to travel more and continue to experience challenges like this in order to grow.

The past two weeks have consisted of so much sightseeing that I’m really tired of seeing things and taking pictures, as silly as that sounds. I am going to forge on this week though and cross the last few things off my list that I haven’t seen yet here!

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Learning A Language Abroad: Expectation vs. Reality

One of the realities of coming to study in Argentina didn’t hit me until about a week before I left–I would be in a country where my first language wasn’t widely spoken, and I would actually have to use my Spanish. Obviously I knew this all along, and that was the whole point, but I hadn’t given much thought to what that meant until I was about to leave. And I thought, “well, let’s see how much Spanish I know!”

I have been studying Spanish for about four years now. Technically, I started studying in 8th grade, which for me was 15 years ago, and I stuck with it through the first semester of 11th grade, but because of my break between high school and college, I can’t say that I’ve been studying Spanish for 15 years. By the time I started taking Spanish again, I could remember regular conjugations in present tense (o, as, a, amos, aís, an!) and some vocabulary, but not much else. While my ability to use Spanish definitely improved over the past four years, and especially last year when I was no longer studying grammar but content classes in Spanish, I still couldn’t call myself fluent or use the language with a great deal of ease. In order to follow someone speaking to me in Spanish I had to concentrate really hard, reading was painfully slow, I had to double check my verb-tense usage a lot when writing papers, and speaking was really, really hard. So when I really thought about what it might be like to land in Argentina, I was pretty nervous.

And yeah, it was definitely really hard at first. I remember one of my first Saturdays here I woke up late and was starving. I really wanted a sandwich, and although there are tons of bakeries around, the idea of ordering a sandwich in Spanish was just too overwhelming, so I went to the grocery store and got something else. Each time I had to do something new–buy credit for my cellphone or my sube (the public transit card) for example–it was overwhelming because I wasn’t sure how to do it and because I had to communicate in Spanish. There’s also the fact that I simply didn’t understand much of what happens around me. There were so many words I didn’t understand that it was impossible to ask every time what they meant, so there was a lot of laughing nervously going on in my part, just trying to play it cool and be like “oh yeah I totally understand, great story!” The TV is always on in my apartment, but it was really just white noise to me because I couldn’t understand the dialogue. And the Buenos Aires dialect–called Lunfardo–plus the Argentine accent and use of  the”vos” form instead of the “tu” form? Forget it! At first I was like “I AM NOT LEARNING THAT!” because it was already too much.

Why do people keep saying this to me?

Honestly I was surprised by how long I continued to struggle with the language. I had naïvely assumed that after a couple of weeks I’d be totally fluent. Ha! Two months in I started to worry that I was just dumb, but when I started asking around, every other international student that I asked was still struggling right along with me. While I noticed big improvements in my comprehension, my ability to speak correctly wasn’t moving along as fast as I had expected.

About three months in I started to see real improvements. Reading in Spanish became much easier, now I’m doing it for pleasure which I never had the patience for before. I understand a lot more, even when there is more than one person speaking Spanish at once, which used to be impossible for me. I especially notice when I’m hanging out with a group of Spanish-speaking friends and I’m able to keep up with the conversation without difficulty, which I wouldn’t have been able to do when I arrived. Speaking is also easier now. I know that I make a lot of mistakes with things like gender agreement and verb conjugations, but I feel like I’m able to communicate well and am comfortable carrying on conversations in Spanish.
I visited Córdoba twice during my time here: my second week in and again last week, about four months later. I am really glad I did it this way because I was able to really see how far my Spanish has come. I feel like I’ve said this before, but it’s so easy to focus on the mistakes and the struggles you make when you’re learning a second language and not notice the progress that you have made. Expecting to become fluent after five months here turns out to not have been reasonable, but I can see how easy it is for me to use the language now compared to when I arrived.

I will leave you with my top five pieces of  advice for maximizing your language learning while studying abroad. Some are things that I did right, others are things that I realize would have helped a lot in retrospect.

Carry a small notebook where you can write down words that you hear that you don’t know (or words in English that you don’t know in Spanish) and study that vocabulary later. I got this advice from a couple of friends who had learned a second language, and it was really awesome advice. I used a flashcard app on my iPod which makes it easy because I usually have it with me to look through. My only regret is that I wasn’t more diligent with this; around the 3 month mark or so I started to experience some fatigue with the language learning so I started slacking off on my vocab practice. In this list I also make note of things that I notice native speakers saying all the time so that I can incorporate them into my speech and sound more natural.

-Also make note of the grammar that you’re struggling with so you remember to look it up later. I started doing this more recently because now that I’m able to use the language with more ease, the things that confuse me really stand out. For example, something I need to study up on are the four different options of how to conjugate “to be” in past tense because I noticed that I never really know which one is appropriate.

-Spend time with people who speak the language you are trying to learn. This sounds like really obvious advice, but in the first days of your study abroad experience it is really easy to gravitate towards people who speak your native language sine things are so overwhelming. It would be totally possible to study abroad and still mostly speak your native language. Also it seems like every college aged person in the world speaks English, so it can be easy to speak English even with people who don’t speak it natively because they want to practice or they might be better at English than you are at the language you are trying to learn.  I noticed a huge leap in my progress when I started spending more time with native Spanish speakers, especially in a group, because we seem to default to the native language of the majority of the group.

-Read in the language you’re learning. I spent the first couple of months reading books in English that I had brought with me, but I have switched to reading books only in Spanish because obviously the more Spanish going in, the more practice I am getting! Even if you can’t read as quickly, it will only get easier if you practice! Also things like magazines and newspapers are often easier than books if you’re really struggling.

-Watch TV in the language you’re learning. I should have been doing more of this. I have a TV in my bedroom, but I never use it. The TV in the living/dining room here is always on, so by the time I head to my room at night, I’m kind of sick of it. I think that understanding TV and Movies in Spanish might be the hardest thing for me, maybe because they aren’t speaking more slowly and with more simple words for your benefit, and if you don’t understand something it’s easy to get lost. The thing is, it is really good practice for seeing how people use the language naturally and just to practice listening. I know that when I go home I am going to watch a lot of things in Spanish to help keep practicing.

 

Feel free to leave a comment with any other bits of advice that I missed!

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Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay

It’s been a long time since I’ve written! I haven’t been doing very many exciting things because I’ve been working towards the end of the semester. This morning I submitted my final two assignments and I am finally done with the semester! I couldn’t be happier!

This weekend I traveled to Uruguay with a friend of mine. Uruguay has a lot of beaches, but I never made it over there when it was warm out. Still, I wanted to go because it’s only an hour away by boat and not very expensive to visit, and duh it’s another country! There are two main companies that go to Uruguay from Buenos Aires, Buquebus and Colonia Express. We used Colonia Express because it’s cheaper–$198ARS round trip plus taxes (which are one peso more than the actual ticket each way. I have no explanation, I stopped asking questions a long time ago).

We arrived in Colonia at 10am and went to the hostel to drop our stuff off. We stayed at Che Lagarto, and I loved it. It was the cheapest hostel in Colonia but it was really nice. There was a kitchen so we were able to bring food to prepare, which made the trip really cheap. I loved the decor, the staff was really friendly, the location was great (although Colonia is tiny so location doesn’t really matter) and the bed was comfy! There was a little kerfuffle with the payment because of the different exchange rates (money can be so confusing when traveling!), but in the end it cost $12US to stay there. I would definitely stay there again!hostel

Once we dropped our stuff off, we headed out for Barrio Histórico, which is the oldest part of the city, founded by the Portuguese in the 17th century, and has a mix of Portuguese, Spanish, and post-colonial architecture. It has cobblestone streets, a lighthouse, and the country’s oldest church. I really liked this part of town, it was very charming.

Barrio Histórico

I’m not sure why, but in Colonia there are tons of old cars and a lot of them have stuff inside. We found two with dinner tables set (one had a stray dog resting inside, something else that there are a lot of both in Argentina and Uruguay), one with a tree growing inside, and one outside the aquarium with a family of fish driving!
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Even though its winter here, we spent a lot of time both Friday and Saturday on the beach! We were lucky that it wasn’t too cold; we were able to take our shoes off, run around on the beach, and put our feet in the water. I didn’t really realize how noisy and crazy Buenos Aires is until I was on the beach in Uruguay and you couldn’t hear anything besides the waves crashing. It was such a nice escape!

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The only thing I didn’t like about Colonia was that it is really small and there isn’t THAT much to do. Everything closes really early (it might be different during tourist season in the summer though) and I felt pretty restless at night. There was a bar that we got free passes to, but we spent so much time hanging around the hostel waiting for it to be late enough to go out that I wasn’t up for it and we ended up going to sleep pretty early. Also, I was pretty skeptical that anyone would be there because we couldn’t convince anyone in the hostel to go with us, they were all getting in bed between 9 and 10!

Besides visiting the beach again on Saturday (it was sunny and warmer so we spent a long time hanging out), we took about an hour’s walk to the other side of the city to Plaza del Toros, where bullfights used to take place. Although it is crumbling, it is a really impressive structure. It is fenced off and you are not supposed to enter, but we found a hole in the fence. It was much more impressive from the center of the ring. There were lots of others inside, so if you visit don’t worry about going in!

Plaza del Toros

After the Plaza del Toros, we had to hurry back to catch our ferry on time, so that was the end of our visit to Colonia!

Now I am packing up for a week in Córdoba! When I get back, I will have less than three weeks left in Argentina, which is really hard to believe. I am working on a list of the things I still need to see before I go. Now that I am free from my classes, I am trying to pack as much exploring as I can into the little time that I have left!

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El Calafate, Patagonia

Since I last wrote, my homesickness has thankfully skedaddled and I’m back to loving life in Argentina! Such a relief. The thing that really helped me get over it was to fight my urge to stay in my room moping and just get out there and continue to have new and awesome experiences. If I wasn’t back in love with this country already, I certainly would have been anyway after my weekend trip to El Calafate, Patagonia. Patagonia is the very south part of the country, and like the rest of this country it is a huge area. There are plenty of different things to see down there including whales, penguins and the furthest south city in the world–Ushuaia–but I only had three days including traveling so it was impossible to see much of what Patagonia has to offer. What I did see was incredible though–the Perito Moreno glacier.
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For me, the trip to Patagonia was the one trip I absolutely had to do. It is so different than anything I have ever seen in my life and the idea of being on the bottom of the earth, so close to Antarctica, was so exciting to me. The trip did not disappoint. I spent all of Sunday simply not believing my eyes.

I travelled with a friend, and we took off on Saturday morning. This was my first time flying within Argentina, and I was quite surprised that my passport was not checked once in the airport. Well, actually I guess I wasn’t that surprised because they’re so laid back about everything here. I WAS surprised that the flight left on time, since that almost never happens in the US and everything runs so late here. Way to go Argentina Airlines!
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We arrived in El Calafate, a little town in the southwest part of the province. The town is located in the Andes mountains, though it is basically at sea level. From our hostel we could see mountains on all sides of us, and some very tall snow-capped mountains in the distance behind Lago Agrentino (Argentine Lake). It was really beautiful. Having grown up in Iowa, the flattest place on the face of the earth, I will never not be amazed by mountains. Unfortunately it was the off-season for tourism, so the town was pretty dead. I’m sure it would be a really cute town during the summer when it is full of tourists, but my friend and I were both glad we were only there for a short time! We walked around the town and bought some chocolate (the south is known for having delicious chocolate, and it did not disappoint!). When we were hungry, we went to La Lechuza Pizzas for dinner, which also did not disappoint.

Sunday morning we woke up at 8am to a pitch-black sky. I had expected there to be little sunlight since El Calafate is so far from the equator (and since we’re on the other side of the equator it’s fall here now), but the sun didn’t set much earlier than it does in Buenos Aires, so I was pretty shocked to see what appeared to be the night sky at 8am. In fact, the sun didn’t rise until after 9am! Our day consisted of an excursion to the Perito Moreno glacier with the tour group Always Glaciers. We loaded up into the van for the 50-ish mile drive to the national park. Our tour guide was awesome, and was pointing out sights along the way. We pulled over twice so that we could get out and take in the scenery because it was absolutely beautiful. The first time we saw some condors sunning themselves on the side of a mountain, and the second time we saw some adult and baby eagles. We also saw llamas out the window. And a rainbow!!
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Perito Moreno glacier is located in Lago Argentino, which is huge. The first order of business when we got near the glacier was a boat ride that got us up close and personal with it.
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This was absolutely awesome. We were able to get so close and really take in the height of the glacier. It was E.NOR.MOUS. and there was twice as much ice under the water, but apparently it’s a small one as far as glaciers go, which simply does not compute in my mind.
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After the boat returned to shore, we continued on to the Glaciers National Park, where we were able to walk around on walkways and view the glacier from different angles and get pretty close to it. From above the glacier looked even bigger and it was so beautiful.
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I have never seen anything like that in my life, so it was a really exciting experience. We spent the next several hours walking along the paths taking in the scenery and listening to the ice breaking off the glacier. Unfortunately large chunks of ice don’t really fall much in the fall/winter because it’s so cold, and most of the ice was falling inside the glacier so I never actually saw a chunk fall off (I did see two splashes though!) but the sound was unlike anything else. You can trek on the glacier (!!!) but unfortunately we missed it by TWO DAYS because it’s too dangerous in the winter (snow covers crevasses and there’s a risk of falling in one). Someday I will come back and walk on top of this guy!

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Eventually the day had to end and we headed back to our hostel. After warming up and resting up, we went back into town to find dinner. We went to a restaurant called La Cocina, where I ate lamb because that is the specialty of Patagonia. It was a little dry but very tasty.

And with that, our time was over. It was a really short trip and I wish I had had more time to visit more sights in Patagonia, like El Chaltén, Ushuaia, or the Valdés Peninsula, but I am really glad I went and got to see the glacier. In the airport on the way home, there was a map of the world showing El Calafate in relation to the rest of the world, and I couldn’t believe how far south I was! So cool!

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Homesickness (Alternative Title: Phase 2: The Honeymoon Is Over)

This week marks 12 weeks spent in Argentina. It took awhile to show up, but I’m finally feeling homesick. I was actually starting to feel pretty sure that it wouldn’t happen to me because so much time went by where I didn’t feel homesick, but I was wrong! Time is flying by, sure, but five months is a long time to be so far from home, family and friends. A reeeeally long time when you’re smack-dab in the middle of it. I think this is just a tough place to be because I’ve been here for a long time already and I still have a long stretch to go.

For me, the homesickness isn’t really manifesting itself in annoyance with or desire to leave Argentina. I just really miss the people at home. Dan and I skype for at least a little while most nights, but it’s not the same as being together. It’s especially hard when one of us is having a bad day; two weeks ago Dan was having a hard few days and it was so hard not to be able to be right there with him to try to cheer him up and give him a hug. I’m used to not seeing my family often since we live so far apart, but I was looking at pictures of Graciela’s nephew and his family, including three kids around my nephews’ ages, at Disney World the other night and it made me really miss the crap out of my nephews, and of course the rest of my family. And it’s been so long since I’ve seen my friends, I would give anything for a girls’ night with them right about now!

I am not very motivated to spend time with the hosties right now, which I think is part of my homesickness. I usually try to spend a couple of hours with them each night to get some Spanish practice, but lately I’ve been hiding in my room until dinner time. With the weather turning cold (well, relatively cold) and my having a cold for the past few days, there has been a lot of unsolicited advice thrown my way and it’s really been wearing on my nerves. I think things might be turning around though (fingers crossed!) because I spent a long time with them last night and it was really pleasant. We just chatted about all kinds of things, which I really enjoy doing because it honestly still amazes me that I can do that in a second language.

Thankfully I am still finding other things that could easily be annoying (and would have, without a doubt, annoyed me had they happened in the U.S. pre-study abroad) amusing here, like a trip to the international post office. I’ve gone twice in the past two weeks, once for a box for myself and once with a friend to pick up her boxes because I am an old pro. In order to receive a package, you have to wait four separate times, which seems pretty par for the course around here. Things definitely do not move efficiently, and I will always remember my time here when I’m waiting in line at the DMV to remind myself that things could be worse ;). Or if I make the mistake of going to Carrefour, the closest grocery store to my apartment, and end up waiting for 30 minutes in the “express” line. Oh, I have another good anecdote: The other day I was on the 111 on my way to class, and the driver pulled over at a stop, threw the bus in park and left to buy a snack at a fruit stand. The rest of the passengers and I exchanged bewildered looks and watched him pick himself out a nice apple before hopping back on the bus and continuing on as if nothing happened. I am learning patience, which is awesome because that is definitely not one of my strong suits, and I’m able to laugh at things that would have frustrated me in the past.

I’m trying really hard to beat this homesickness because I certainly don’t want to spend the next 10 weeks waiting to go home. I am making a list of things I still want to do/see here before I go because now that I’ve been here for awhile I’m not having nearly as many new experiences as I was at first, and I think that keeping busy and having new experiences will help distract me from missing my family. Here’s my list so far:

-Jardín Japonés (I went once but didn’t have time to look around because I ate sushi instead)
-The zoo that’s less than 10 minutes from my house. Although it might be kind of boring since I won’t be allowed to pet the lions 🙂
-San Isidro–Graciela says this barrio is really pretty
-Museums, museums, museums!
-Uruguay! I haven’t been yet, how crazy is that? It’s a boat ride away and requires no visa!
-Ecological preserve
-Casa Rosada–you can go in on the weekends, I want to do this
-Planetarium
-Parque Centenario
-Café Tortoni-the oldest coffee shop in the country
-El Ateneo–an old theater turned into a bookstore

I’m sure my list will grow the more I think about it!

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Luján Zoo

The Luján Zoo is located about 45 miles outside of Buenos Aires. To say that it is a unique zoo is putting it mildly. At this zoo, you are able to enter the cages of some of the world’s deadliest animals to pet them and pose for pictures. Opened in 1994, the zoo has never had an incident. They say that the way they facilitate this tameness in the animals is that they raise them from the time they are babies constantly interacting with humans, they raise them with dogs to model behavior and help them learn to regulate the strength of their bite and how they use their claws since dogs were once wild animals and have evolved into pets, and they keep them very well fed so that they don’t have the instinct to hunt the humans they’re interacting with. Other people claim that they are drugged. After visiting the zoo, I honestly don’t know. Based on the behavior of the tigers and grizzly bears, I really don’t think the animals are sedated but obviously I’m not animal expert.

The cost of the zoo is 150 pesos, which right now with the exchange rate I’m getting is around $18. You don’t have to sign a waiver or anything, which was not really surprising because they seem to be much less worried about safety here than in the US. Maybe it’s just a less litigious country overall. The first thing we did when we got there was got in line to pet the lion. This was the longest line we had to wait in all day; despite the weather being absolutely gorgeous and it being Saturday afternoon, there weren’t a ton of people at the zoo so we were able to interact with most of the animals without waiting. Thankfully there was a llama hanging around the line scavenging for food and startling people, so that was entertaining. His head was human height, and several times he casually walked up beside someone and just stood there, and when they turned to look they jumped a mile when it was a llama instead of a human standing next to them.

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Surprise!

There were two lions in the cage, one who was laying down eating meat while people posed with it, and another one walking around. I didn’t really feel nervous until we were the next in line and the lion who was walking around started roaring. I was like, please don’t do that right before I hop in a cage with you!! Thankfully he stopped his roaring before it was our turn. When we entered the cage, we were able to sit next to the lion and pet him while he chowed down on some meat. The handlers took pictures of my friend and I together with the lion and then each of us sitting with him alone. His mane was surprisingly scratchy and I had never noticed that a lion’s mane covers not only its head but half its body; it goes down the front legs.
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Next we wandered over to the bird/reptile section, where we saw an enormous iguana, some parrots and a toucan among other animals. For some reason we were not allowed to take pictures in this section. Afterwards, we stumbled upon a camel and we got to ride him:

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Next up was a pair of elephants, which were my second favorite animal to see besides the lions. We were each given a piece of squash and told to stand in front of the elephants with our backs to them and hold the squash up in the air. The handlers took our pictures while the elephants took the squash from our hands with their trunks to eat, which was really funny! We asked if we could touch them, and at first the handler said they don’t like to be touched much, but then after some discussion amongst each other they decided that it would be okay. They moved one elephant away (I guess he was the grumpy one) and let us pet the trunk of the other one. That was really awesome. The handlers told us to look at them so they could take some photos, but I really just wanted to look at the amazing elephant I was touching!

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Tigers and bears were last on the list of things to see. On the way to find those guys, we got to pet a little tiger cub, which was so cute.

The tiger cage was different than the other cages, and was actually the only place I felt anxious. As we waited for our turn inside, I noticed that there were a lot of tigers prowling around inside, and they were very rambunctious. They were playing with each other by clawing at each other and jumping on one anothers’ backs. When our turn came up, we went inside with the couple behind us, and we had our picture taken with a tiger taking a nap on a table while the other tigers swarmed around us, but we were up on a block of wood so we were a little bit separated from the rest of them. When our turn was over, we had to wait inside the cage while the other couple had their picture taken. My friend described the atmosphere inside the cage as a shark tank, and that is how I felt too. I stood close to the photographer because I was nervous, and the next thing I knew a tiger was walking straight for me. I stood still as it brushed past my side, but then it was just behind me and I didn’t really like that since I had seen them clawing and jumping, and I didn’t want him to mistake me for a tiger friend or accidentally jump on me or claw me whilst playing with an actual tiger friend. Suddenly one of the tigers bumped into my back hard enough to knock the wind out of me and send me flying into the photographer (granted, I had been inching closer to him every minute). The tiger wasn’t trying to attack me or anything (obviously because I’m not dead); I think he was just playing with another one and bumped into me accidentally. Two handlers came right over and shooed him away from me, but I was really happy to get the heck out of that cage! My nervousness may or may not had something to do with the fact that I just saw the movie “Life of Pi” a few months ago :).
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The tiger that body checked me

The tiger that body checked me

The last thing we saw was the grizzly bears. There are two bears at the zoo right now, Gordo and Gorda (which are the masculine and feminine words for fat in Spanish). The handler explained that it takes 7 years to fully train the bears so that they can interact with people and the bears are only 4 right now, so they aren’t fully ready to be hugged by the public. We were able to stand face to face with Gorda with just a waist high fence between us, and I got to feed her some treats! She sat like a puppy and patiently opened her mouth, waiting for me to drop the treats onto her tongue.

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Meanwhile, Gordo was doing this to a trainer:

gordo

I was pretty bummed that I didn’t get a  bear hug from a grizzly bear!!

For those of you here who haven’t gone to the zoo yet, you definitely should! It was such an awesome experience. You can get to there from Plaza Italia or Plaza Once–take the 57. There are a million different 57s, so watch for the one that says Lujan. It takes 2 hours to get there by bus (I read one hour on the internet but that must have been by car). You can pay with your sube, just know that it costs around 16 pesos each way so you probably want to recargar that guy before you go since there is nowhere to do it once you’re at the zoo. Also be warned that the bus doesn’t come very frequently to pick you up; we waited two hours at the bus stop for the 57 that was going to Plaza Italia, so don’t worry that you’ll have to go sleep in the lion cage if you’ve been waiting a long time, the bus will come eventually. Just maybe clear your schedule for that night. We had planned to get home around 7 (isn’t it cute how I haven’t lost my optimism after 2.5 months in BsAs?) but didn’t get home until 9:45. Still it was totally worth it!

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Living With A Host Family

Wow, this weekend marks the official halfway point of him time here in Buenos Aires. It is unbelievable! I still have 2.5 months left, but I know it will fly by.

One thing I was very nervous about was the fact that my university requires that I live in a homestay. I moved out of my parents house 10 years ago, so the thought of living with surrogate parents was something that left me quite skeptical. Plus, for me moving into a stranger’s home was nerve-wracking. It turns out that it’s a really awesome situation, though, because my host parents have helped me so much since I’ve been here, and since they don’t speak English they are a huge source of practice for my Spanish.

My university uses a company here in Buenos Aires called Visiting Buenos Aires. Before my host family was chosen, I filled out some information about myself, basically asking what type of family I’d be comfortable with (smokers, pets, children), what kind of foods I eat, etc. In January I found out that I’d be living with a couple, Graciela and José. I began emailing back and forth with Graciela, and even though I didn’t feel like I knew her very well, she seemed nice and it was definitely nice knowing that on the day I arrived there was going to be someone there who I’d been talking to.

From the moment I arrived at my building, Graciela was really friendly and super helpful. To be honest, that first day was overwhelming, since I hadn’t slept much on my flight and I suddenly found myself thrust into ALL SPANISH ALL THE TIME!! I hadn’t spoken Spanish for two months at that point, so it was definitely an adjustment. Right away I was given a tour of the apartment, a sube (the card used to ride the public transportation), pesos for my dollars, and a cell phone that a previous student had left behind for me to use while I’m here. I was also immediately given dulce de leche and mate, which was a nice greeting. Soon after, Graciela and I rode the bus to my campus so that I would be able to find my way there for orientation the next day, which was so nice. She gave great directions during the bus ride, pointing out easy to spot landmarks to help me keep track of where I was during the ride.

In my first weeks here, the advice and help I got from Graciela and José was seriously invaluable. Every time I was going somewhere new, like a bar to meet up with other international students, Graciela would show me on my map where it was and explain how to get there, and although I now know how to navigate the city on my own it’s great to know that I have people here to help if I ever can’t figure out where something is. They are great for checking to see if it’s safe for me to walk somewhere at night. They are also good for figuring out confusing things, like, hey, why do I feel like when people say ‘Chino’ they’re talking about a grocery store? Oh, because that’s what they call bodegas here.

I will admit that even though Graciela and José are totally laid back and friendly, this is a weird relationship/living situation and I found it a little difficult to navigate at first. Not even because of them at all, just because of my own personal awkwardness. I wasn’t sure how much time I should spend with them, especially because I’m an introvert I didn’t want to seem anti-social or unfriendly. Especially my first few weeks here, I was totally exhausted by the constant Spanish and learning to navigate such a new situation, so I spent less time with them because I needed a break from the Spanish! After some time I stopped feeling overwhelmed and started feeling more comfortable, and have found a balance of spending time with them (I think, although I still feel anti-social sometimes when I come home in the afternoon and they’re here and I hightail it to my room for a siesta). We eat dinner around 9pm every night, so if I’m home I generally spend time in my room in the evening doing homework, chatting with friends on facebook, or reading, and then at 8pm I head out to the living room to hang out and watch TV. That usually give me 2-2.5 hours a day with them which is becoming increasingly valuable as my Spanish improves and we’re able to talk more and more.

The hosties are definitely parent-y on some levels, they are always looking out for me and fussing over me. They remind me to wear sunscreen, ask me every night at dinner if I’m too cold with the sliding door open, and try to get me to eat more food every single night. José has this idea that my feet get cold at night when I’m going to sleep (maybe his feet have been cold at night?) so he has asked me several times if they are, and even though I keep saying no, when he saw the hot water bottle I bought for my black eye he was like “I knew it! That’s to keep your feet warm, right?” If I ever casually mention anything that turns out to be something they could help me with, they go nuts until they have helped me or the thing has passed. For example, I was looking for a rain jacket when I got here and ended up ordering one on Amazon and having Dan bring it, but there was a good three weeks where they kept talking about rain jackets (even after I explained that one was on the way). I think this is a cultural thing, because Argentines in general seem to like to go out of their way to help people. That being said, they don’t try to control me or anything like that. There’s no curfew and there aren’t many rules except for things like I can’t have people over without making sure it’s okay first. I’m very independent (maybe stubborn is a better word) in general, but their desire to help me isn’t bothersome, it’s very sweet.

As part of my home-stay, breakfast is provided and dinner is cooked for me every night except for Saturdays. This is really nice, especially on Tuesday and Thursday when I don’t get home from class until around 10pm, although I have to admit I miss cooking and that’s one thing I’m really looking forward to when I go back home. Graciela is a great cook and I always like what she makes, so I really lucked out! I’m also really spoiled because they don’t let me help with the housework (once in awhile I sneak in and help set the table) so I’m probably going to forget how to do all of that by the time I get back.

Another nice thing about this homestay company is that the owners are really nice and they are another source of support for me here. I haven’t spent too much time with them, but I called them when I had my accident and they told me what to do, and they also came to the hospital with me the second time I went which was so nice. They make themselves available to me any time I need them; they told me that I can even call if I’m buying something in the store and want to know if it’s a good price or not. I feel really lucky to have this network of people here in the city to help me out (plus my family friends in Córdoba!), especially because a lot of students came with no place to live and stayed in hostels for the first part of their time here while they looked for housing. Even though that was obviously doable and everyone found housing, I was overwhelmed enough with people helping me at every turn, I can’t imagine how stressful that would have been!

All in all, I am really happy with my living situation. It’s very different than what I’m used to after living on my own for 10 years, and if I had been able to choose I would have chosen to have my own apartment here, but now that I’m living with my hosties I’m so glad that I am. The language practice, help and company are such positive aspects of my time here.

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U.S. Embassy Visit

This happened forever ago and I keep forgetting to write about it, so here I go! On March 22, I, along with the other Benjamin A. Gilman Scholars in Argentina this semester, was invited to the US Embassy here in Buenos Aires to meet the ambassador, Vilma Martinez, along with employees of the embassy, representatives from the Fulbright foundation, and an education organization here. We also got to tour the home of Ms. Martinez, Bosch Palace. It was a really awesome experience and I was so excited to be invited.

First I should talk a little bit about the Gilman scholarship. Here’s the description from the website (http://www.iie.org/en/Programs/Gilman-Scholarship-Program):

The Gilman Scholarship Program offers awards for undergraduate study abroad and was established by the International Academic Opportunity Act of 2000. This scholarship provides awards for U.S. undergraduate students who are receiving Federal Pell Grant funding at a two-year or four-year college or university to participate in study abroad programs worldwide.

Basically it’s a scholarship for students who demonstrate financial need in order to make studying abroad more accessible to more people. As the description says, you have to be eligible for a Pell Grant in order to qualify, and you are more likely to receive the scholarship if you are traveling to an under-represented country (i.e. not Western Europe) and if you are a minority or non-traditional student. The scholarship is funded by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State, which is why we were able to meet with the ambassador.

Ms. Martinez was very friendly but very busy, so we only got to meet with her briefly, but she welcomed questions. I wasn’t really prepared for this, because I thought she was going to give a speech and I would have more time to think of something to ask, so I had nothin’. We did get to pose for a picture with her:
Ambassador

After she left, we went to a room where we heard presentation from Alexis Ludwig, a diplomat, Amy Molden who was there on behalf of Education USA which is a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and encourages exchanges between students in the U.S. and Argentina (www.educationusa.state.gov), and Melina Ginszparg who was there on behalf of Fulbright.
LudwigGilman 001

The visit was even more awesome than I expected because it opened my eyes to employment opportunities and scholarships that I hadn’t ever considered before. I had never considered working for the foreign service, but after hearing about it it is definitely something I am going to look into once I graduate. I am also excited that I will be joining Amy at the end of May for a presentation at a local high school to try to spark interest in studying in the United States.
Bosch Palace was unbelievable. It was super fancy and ornate, and I could never imagine living there. I didn’t bring my camera because I didn’t realize we could take pictures, and my iPod did not take nice pics in the low light so I have nothing to show from the palace, but it was incredible. All in all, it was an awesome day!

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Eye Update!

My injuries definitely got worse before they started to get better. On Thursday I went back to the doctor because my head was still killing me, and I read online that an X-ray really doesn’t tell a doctor anything about brain injuries. I was kind of worried that my brain had been bleeding the entire time. I had a CT scan, which is the only way you can tell if the brain is okay or not, and thankfully my results came back normal. My black eyes are fading really quickly now. Saturday was the first day I woke up and saw a huge improvement, and each day since they’ve gotten better. Underneath my left eye, which is the side that struck the ground, the remaining bruise is pretty dark so I can’t really cover it completely with makeup, but it is much less noticeable, and at this point I’m just used to seeing it so I’ve been taking my sunglasses off indoors and I’m not really getting any stares or questions. My head still hurts on the left side where it slammed against the ground, and my nose still hurts too, but the pain is lessening each day. I think by the weekend I’ll be 99% better. Here’s the progress:

black eye

Today is kind of a cheat, I’m wearing makeup, but you almost can’t see it! Hooray!

The funny thing is that this injury has actually made me realize how much I love it here. I would have thought that something so traumatic happening to me would make me want to hightail it out of here ASAP, but that didn’t happen. Sure, it was hard to deal with probably the worst injury I’ve ever gotten in a foreign country where the people helping me didn’t speak English, and I would have liked to have my family around to take care of me the first couple of days, but it didn’t trigger a real homesickness. I am coming up on the halfway mark of my time here and I have yet to really miss home. On the contrary, I was thinking about going back home over the weekend and I don’t even know how I’m going to do that! I miss my family and friend, of course, and I can’t wait to see them (especially Dan!!), but the thought of going back to the U.S. after living here seems crazy. I am totally in love with Argentina, and if I wasn’t married and didn’t have so few credits to finish (8!) before graduating next semester I would definitely try to stay a second semester. Dear family and friends: wouldn’t it be fun if you all moved down here? The people are awesome, the weather is awesome, the food is awesome; what more could you ask for?

For the time being, I’m pushing the thought of going home out of my mind. I have to just enjoy every moment I have here!

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Rescue 911!

For my update this week, I’ve been working on a post about Dan’s trip here and a sample itinerary for one week in Buenos Aires, but Saturday I was lucky enough (hah) to see how hospitals work in Argentina! Saturday was absolutely beautiful, and I went rollerblading in the park with a friend. You can rent rollerblades here by the hour and I’ve been meaning to do it for weeks, and finally got around to it today. I used to rollerblade a lot when I was a kid, and haven’t for probably 15 years, but I have roller skated more recently.

Everything was going great, my friend and I had circled the park twice when all of a sudden my feet flew out from under me and I fell, hard. I don’t have any idea what happened, I wasn’t going very fast or anything, I just lost my balance. Unfortunately, I landed on my face. My hands are barely scratched up, although my leg is pretty banged up (scraped up on the bottom and a huge bruise on the side of my thigh) the brunt of my injuries are to my face. I had a bloody nose (first of my life) and scrapes above my eye and on my chin. People immediately hopped into action and helped me, it was really incredible. Someone washed my scrapes with their bottled water, and then someone appeared with a first-aid kit containing gauze, cleanser and iodine and got to work cleaning my scrapes and putting iodine on them to keep them clean. Someone called an ambulance and the police, and a crowd of people stayed around making sure I was okay, while countless others stopped to check on me, even once the police were there with me. A few people recognized me as an English speaker just by looking at me (damn it, I just want to blend in already!!) and asked if I could speak Spanish or if I needed their help to translate. One guy told me his Grandma’s secret of putting sugar on cuts to stop them from scarring, showing me his flawless arms and legs as evidence. When I translated for the cop (the man had been speaking to me in English), he confirmed that this is a tried and true passed-down-from-your-grandmother remedy for scars.

The man who rented me roller blades came running over when he saw what was going on to see if I was okay, and came back with some water for me to drink a little later. All in all, I was really overwhelmed and amazed with the kindness of Argentines. Ever since I arrived I’ve been shocked at how friendly everyone is, and this just cemented it in my mind–people here are awesome, and I am going to try to be more like them. If I saw someone injured but police or even just other people were there, I would never stop to see if I could still help, but I will rethink that in the future for sure because it was so nice (albeit embarrassing–I created quite a scene) how many people who were just passing by offered to help me any way they could.

The main problem was that the ambulance never came. We waited for a long time, and the police showed up pretty fast and hung out with me after taking down my info, but eventually I gave up on the ambulance and walked through the park, holding a bag of ice wrapped in a sock up to my head, to the nearest street where my friend flagged a cab that we took to the hospital. The cops suggested that I not do that just because I had hit my head and they were worried, but I got sick of waiting (and was glad it wasn’t a real emergency, and quite frankly am now really hoping nothing worse happens to me while I’m here).

Once at the hospital, things were pretty weird. I had to wait for quite awhile before I could get checked in, despite the fact that I was standing there with a clear head injury. I then had to ask for ice or something cold for my head injury since the ice I had been using was melted, and the nurse looked at me like I was a crazy person before going to find me some (which she eventually did). The doctor that saw me didn’t really check me out too much, mainly just asked me questions and sent me to find the x-ray room on my own. Once I got to the x-ray area, I accidentally gave my Rx for the x-ray to the person doing sonograms because, you know, Spanish isn’t my native language and I had pretty much no idea what was going on. Once I figured out what had happened and told the actual x-ray people, they were like, “well wait until she comes back out and get it back.” Thanks, ladies!!

I then got x-rays of my head and was instructed to wait outside the x-ray room, and after awhile I was handed my x-rays and sent away. I assumed I was to go back to the main waiting room, but there was no way to be sure. Eventually the doctor came back for me, took a look at my x-ray, and deemed me perfectly fine and fracture-less. She warned me that my developing black eye was going to get worse over the next few days but that I should just keep ice on it and everything would be okay. Then I was set free, and allowed to keep my x-rays! Souvenir!!

My host mom was amazed at what a nicely shaped skull I have.

We’re all just skeletons inside! 

My black eye has since been getting blacker and blacker and bigger and bigger. Yesterday morning I woke up with it nearly totally swollen shut, but as the bruise spread throughout the day the swelling went down. Today it is very black and the bruise has also appeared on my other eye, thankfully not nearly as dramatically, and my bad eye is opening up a lot more:

Evolution of my black eye

Evolution of my black eye. Gross. 

Now I feel very stiff and sore and my head hurts, and I am hiding out until my black eyes go down (I’ve been out of the apartment twice–once yesterday for groceries at the bodega across the street, and once today for arnica oil from the health food store down the block, which my mother in law suggested for bruising. Fingers crossed! I wore sunglasses both times, which hid most of the horror :)).

I went to a public hospital, I’m not sure what a private one would have been like. I will say that if you are here and you have to go to the hospital, be prepared to speak Spanish or find someone who can translate for you because nobody spoke English, not the cops nor any of the hospital staff. Turns out my Spanish is good enough for an emergency situation–even right after I knocked my head I was speaking Spanish to those helping me–even though it was definitely a little uncomfortable to be navigating the ER in a second language, I was able to explain what had happened and understand my care instructions. I guess the language is really starting to sink in! Also don’t expect as much attention as you might be used to from home–I was sent around to find things on my own with little direction, and I saw the following: One guy with a broken foot hopping from place to place (not being pushed in a wheelchair as one might expect), a young woman weeping and clutching her stomach being pushed in a wheelchair by her husband or boyfriend with no accompanying hospital staff, and another young woman being wheeled to the x-ray area on a gurney by her husband or boyfriend. It really seems to be a bring your own nurse situation. Overall it was good to be seen by someone to assure me that I hadn’t cracked my head open or anything, it really put my mind at ease that I didn’t have any serious injuries.

 

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Comida

Comida means food, and my lord I am loving the food here. It is very different from the foods we think of when we think of Latin America, and I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into when I was trying to do research about what exactly they eat here. The only thing that I could find on the internet was beef, beef and more beef. Apparently the best beef in the world is found right here (according to who, I’m not sure, but I’ve heard and read this over and over). I don’t eat a ton of meat and I almost never eat red meat, so I wasn’t sure if I was going to like the food here or not. Meat is delicious, but I don’t feel great when I eat a ton of it.

Thankfully my host family doesn’t serve up a t-bone steak for dinner every night. I should mention that as part of my homestay, my host parents provide dinner for me Sunday-Friday. This is a really awesome situation, because I get to see how locals actually eat and try things that I wouldn’t ever know about. Dinner often centers around meat (chicken or ground beef) or fish, there is almost always bread which my host mother bakes each week in her bread maker and/or potatoes, and there are vegetable sides such as shredded carrot salad, shredded cabbage salad, roasted vegetables, etc. Most of the vegetables have an olive oil based dressing, and frequently there are hard-boiled eggs mixed in.

Hard boiled eggs and olives are super prevalent here. They show up on pizza, in empanadas, and basically in every dish I’ve ever eaten here. I don’t normally like olives, but I’ve actually liked them a lot in every dish I’ve had them in.

A huge portion of the population here is of Italian heritage, and the food really reflects that. There is a lot of pasta (I’ve had something called sorrentinos a few times, which is like a ravioli with diced ham inside) which is eaten just like we eat pasta in the U.S., with tomato sauce or creamy white sauce. There is a ton of pizza, although it is a little different than what I’m used to. The crust is not super thin but it’s really crispy, the sauce is layered on really thinly, and the toppings are different too. Common toppings are tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs and olives (see what I mean with those two things?). The first time my host mother presented me with a pizza covered in eggs and olives I was not sure about it, but it is SO GOOD.

empanadas

Another staple here are empanadas. In fact, they are such a staple that my host mother asked me “how do you make empanadas at home?” and when I said “we don’t” her eyes nearly fell out of her head. They come with all different types of fillings, such as carne (ground beef), chicken, ham & cheese (those three seem to be the most popular), pineapple, ham & cheese, onion & cheese, and on and on. They are very cheap (usually around 7-9 pesos, so $1US or a little more), very tasty, and easy to find if you have an emergency hunger situation.

milanesa

Milanesa is similar to a cutlet or schnitzel. It is usually beef (though you can find chicken milanesa) pounded thin, breaded and fried. I have had it alone to be eaten with a knife and fork (with lemon juice squeezed on top), slapped on a piece of bread alone to be eaten as a sandwich, and as part of a more elaborate sandwich which included milanesa, ham, cheese, lettuce, tomato and onion. It was all very good.

Choripan

Choripán is a sandwich that has a piece of chorizo (sausage) split in half lengthwise, grilled, and thrown on some bread. This is really good, although not my top choice of Argentine food just because I’m not a huge fan of sausage in general.

You can also find ethnic foods here. I’ve only tried Thai and Mexican so far (both were good). I went for Pad Thai because I was craving Asian noodles, and I am most curious to see how the ethnic food here compares to the US, and this dish was exactly the same as what you would be served in the US. The Mexican was just a little bit different. Dan and I ate it for lunch one day when he was here, and we ordered the beef nachos and a chicken burrito to share. Nachos here consist of a basket of chips and a dish of queso, and in this case queso with pieces of beef mixed in. The burrito was served as two smaller wraps, almost like soft tacos, but that might be because the waiter knew we were sharing. In any case, it was all very tasty.

mexican food

On to the sweets:

dulce de leche

Argentina does a good job with the sweets. It would be pointless to go any further without mentioning the sweet staple here: dulce de leche. Dulce de leche is very similar to caramel, but it has a different consistency. It’s smooth rather than chewy or sticky. It’s in absolutely everything here, and I can’t get enough! My host parents keep 1-2 tubs of it in the fridge at all times and eat it on bread for breakfast frequently. I don’t go for the dulce de leche breakfast myself, but I make sure to get an adequate amount in my diet :).

alfajores

My favorite way to consume dulce de leche is in an alfajor. Alfajores are two soft, shortbread like cookies with filling in between (dulce de leche, chocolate, jam) and sometimes dipped in chocolate. They are so good. I greeted Dan with a chocolate dipped alfajor when he arrived and he almost died from happiness. Locals will tell you that Havanna alfajores are the best, and I will agree that they are the best packaged ones, but they can’t beat fresh from the bakery alfajores.

medialunas

A common afternoon snack here is the medialuna. It is a croissant that is brushed with some sort of sweet glaze–honey or something. Nearly every restaurant has a medialuna + cafe con leche (coffee with milk) special.

Great, now I’m hungry!

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