From the moment my feet landed back in Idaho, I’ve been asked variations of a question I should have anticipated,
“What were your favorite experiences?”
“What were the top things you learned?”
“What are the moments that you won’t forget?”
The answers are tougher to communicate that I would have thought.
Friends who have previously travel on Rotary Group Study Exchanges had warned me that while this was truly a trip/experience of a lifetime, ‘re-entry’ would be difficult. Friends and family and colleagues would never be able to truly grasp what we have been doing for 4-6 weeks in seven communities across two provinces of Argentina.
Here goes my attempt:
An experience like we’ve had truly changes the fiber of your being.
It makes you rethink preconceived notions not only about the country and communities you are visiting, but the country and community that you call home. It forces you to confront social, economic and political issues and questions that have no clean answers. It makes you appreciate what you have, and recognize that the most important things in life aren’t the material possessions you have, but the moments you share – both good and bad.
As one of my new Argentine friends expressed, “That’s the way we learn, by our mistakes. So that is why I’m telling you about the good and the bad in Argentina. Telling the truth is the way we learn.”
If only that sentiment was honored more often.
As an American, it is eye-opening to hear first-hand what those in other countries think of us. And frustrating to learn that entertainment media severely colors the opinions others have of us. (I’m talking about you Real Housewives!)
Prior to our trip, the reality of truly being an ambassador for our country and our state hadn’t really sunk in. For many of the hundreds of Argentines we interacted with, we were the first Americans they had talked with at length and gotten to know. After four weeks living with families across Argentina, the best moment of the whole month was when a new friend said, “Everything that I have ever thought about Americans has changed as a result of having met you and your GSE team. Thanks for coming.”
In less that 10 seconds, months of trip preparation and weeks of travel were all worth it. To be able to speak face to face with people about real issues, dispel mistruths, clarify preconceived notions and share in a very transparent way is an amazing feeling. You learn so much about a foreign country – and you also learn a lot about your own. It forces you to confront questions of patriotism, national pride and those things you wish you could impact and change. Travel after this will always pale in comparison to what it is like to learn about a country by living with the those who call it home.
To answer the question about ‘favorite moments’
- Bonding with my Idaho GSE team – a bond forged by shared anxiety, excitement and an unforgettable experience
- Breaking bread Argentine-style; which means two-three hours at a table with friends &/or family and multiple courses all enhanced by lively conversation
- Learning the instinctual nature of dancing the tango
- Seeing miles upon miles of endless beauty across the pampa
- Experiencing the gaucho culture at a traditional rodeo
- Visting an historic, yet still operational, pulperia in the campo
- Meeting journalists from across Argentina, dedicated to practicing their craft in the face of immense changes.
- Talking past 3am over Fernet & Coke and Quilmes about America and Argentina and all points in between
- Exploring the vibrant graffiti art scene around Buenos Aires, born from the desire to express political thoughts and positivity post-2001
- Asado in the backyard of dear friends
- Asado in the campo with Rotarians
- Answering tough questions from students in English classes – What were we doing on 9/11? How do we feel about Obama’s stance on gay marriage? What are the biggest issues facing America? What do we think about the war in Iraq/Afghanistan? What do we think about Argentina’s future?
- Being serenaded by Argentine folklore music on bandoneons
- Experiencing the passion Argentines have for futbol
- Being in-country for May 25 – celebrating the start of Argentina’s fight for independence from Spain. And all of the moments before and after where Argentines showed their pride in their country’s history and perseverance through turmoil, adversity and uncertainty.
And finally, forging friendships that will last a lifetime despite language barriers, borders and thousands of miles.