Reflections on My 15th Anniversary with South America and How One Decision Changed My Entire Life

Scenes from Washington, DC!
American Flags in Washington, DC, Photo from September 2014

Independence Day weekend is always an important one for me, but not just because it’s a fun summer weekend when I usually travel to visit friends or family.

Instead, I often jokingly refer to July 4th as my “Independence from America” day. On July 4, 2001, I arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina to spend a year studying abroad in the top universities in that amazing, vibrant city. I remember my plane taking off from Chicago, seeing the fireworks happening below us, and feeling a bit terrified of what I was getting myself into, even though I was more than ready for an adventure.

Considering the majority of my blog focuses on my experiences volunteering and traveling throughout South America, you’d think that I was always adventurous, but that is absolutely not the case. The person I am now started developing 15 years ago, and the transformation certainly continues.

That 19-year-old college student flying to Buenos Aires was an extremely cautious person who had never been outside of North America before. As a kid, I’d been lucky enough to travel around the United States and parts of Canada with my family, and I’d been on a cruise to the Bahamas. Even though I was from small-town NH and grew up in a fairly homogenous area, I’d fallen in love with the idea of speaking Spanish and always thought I’d study in Madrid to become fluent in the language and experience what life was like in a big, cosmopolitan city.

When I’d gone in for my required study abroad consultation with one of our deans, she’d heard my reasons for choosing Madrid and suggested that I look into Buenos Aires or Santiago de Chile instead so that I would be less likely to speak English with the hoards of Americans studying in Spain. For some reason, Buenos Aires captured my attention, even though, admittedly, I did very little research on the country before my arrival.

Despite my excellent grades in Spanish over the years — I even received the award for Spanish at my high school graduation! — I arrived unable to actually speak the language whatsoever. On my first or second night in Buenos Aires, I went out to dinner with a group of fellow students and couldn’t even order a salad. I was shy and embarrassed and scared and all of those uncomfortable but important emotions you experience when trying to navigate an unfamiliar city in another language.

Cruz, Tafí del Valle
Tafí de Valle, Tucumán, Photo from July 2001

Thankfully, the study abroad program was prepared for that and took us out of Buenos Aires and to Tafí de Valle, Tucumán, where we would get a chance to take intensive Spanish classes and acclimate to our environment. Now that I’ve run a similar program, I see what a good call that was! They suggested only speaking Spanish for those two weeks, and I did my best to follow through with that. I fell in with the more nerdy, less party-oriented exchange students who also opted to speak only Spanish and within two weeks I was able to speak with much more confidence, my words finally flowing together.

Buenos Aires, Argentina: Reencuentro en Cumaná
Friends from Argentina, Reunited in June 2015

This year was transformative on so many levels – I became fluent in Spanish, learned a lot about living in another culture, fell in love with the highly intellectual, artsy city lifestyle, and made some amazing friendships which continue till this day. But I would say the most lasting effect this year had on me was that it opened my eyes to travel and how fulfilling it can be to explore a new location with curiosity and an open mind.

At the moment, I’m wearing a hummingbird pendant that I picked up a month ago on my trip to Nasca, Peru. I’ve always loved hummingbirds, but this has special meaning to me because it reminds me of a lovely talk given by Elizabeth Gilbert, where she encourages us all to explore our curiosity instead of looking for the one guiding passion that we’re often told is important for success. And I’ve really started to embrace the curious style of living, of having goals but not plans, of releasing expectations, of realizing that I truly have no idea where one decision can take me.

Cataratas del Iguazú
Iguazú Falls (Cataratas de Iguazú), Argentina/Brazil, Photo from November 2001

When I arrived in Argentina, I had no idea what travel really was or could be, because I’d only ever gone on vacations with my family and they’d always been in charge of the itinerary. I had already started to love travel photography, but I didn’t really get that the world is so, so big and that there are so many places that can fill you with wonder. With friends, I took my first trips to Córdoba, Iguazu Falls and Patagonia, and seeing these vastly different, gorgeous landscapes got me completely hooked on travel. In February 2002, I took my first solo trip to Mendoza, where I grew to understand the appeal of solo backpacking, and my life hasn’t been the same since.

Glaciar Perito Moreno
Glaciar Perito Moreno, Argentina, Photo from December 2001

By the time I returned to the US for my senior year of college back, I’d traveled to almost every province in Argentina and become fluent in Spanish. And all I knew is that I wanted to keep on traveling and that I would certainly be back someday.

In the end, it took me five years to return to South America. Looking back, the reason it took so long is that I felt I had to do things by the book, on the schedule I’d grown up thinking was normal. I got a job in New York City and worked in corporate America for three years, taking advantage of NYC’s awesome opportunities to take classes in all kinds of things and see independent film and eat really amazing food.

After that, my love for South America that brought me to graduate school to get a degree in Latin American Studies, where I knew I would have an opportunity to travel again in order to do my thesis research. Traveling in Salta, Argentina back in 2002 had gotten me curious about the folklore and culture of the Andes, so I decided to write about music in Peru and Bolivia and headed to Lima with an embarrassingly vague research topic and a similarly vague desire to go on an extended backpacking trip around the region.

Plaza de Armas, Catedral
Catedral de Lima, Peru, Photo from July 2007

On July 2, 2007, I left San Diego for Lima, where I embarked on yet another South American adventure. I had never traveled on my own for such an extended period of time (just under three months), but I soon embraced the freedom and flexibility of backpacking.

Cuzco's Main Plaza
Catedral de Cusco, Peru, Photo from July 2007

I met amazing people in the hostels, went on multi-day hikes, asked lots of random people questions about popular and traditional music, and learned that not every decision had to be planned in advance. I traveled throughout southern Peru and part of Bolivia, and then headed back to northwest Argentina and Buenos Aires, falling hard for the Andes and reconnecting with my first love(s).

And then, somehow, another five years passed – I finished grad school, became an ESL teacher, and left California for New England. At the beginning of 2012, I was ready for a change and a new challenge, and I felt called back to Peru. Once again, on July 1, 2012, I headed back to Peru, this time to volunteer for a year in a nonprofit in Huaycán, a developing community outside Lima.

Posing with Zone S Kids and a Puppy!
Posing with the Kids of Huaycán, Photo from 2013

Even though my previous stints in South America had had a major impact on my life, I feel like the year of volunteering was most transformative, probably because it was the most challenging. There’s no question that I loved the kids I met through our programs fully and unconditionally. That kind of love changes you. (As a related note, I absolutely love this Facebook post by BC Serna – he expresses what I learned so beautifully.)

[Side note: I plan to write more about volunteering in the future, because my feelings about volunteering are complicated and I think serving in two very different year-long programs has given me important insight into the pros and cons of volunteering abroad, privilege and dependency, and the true meaning of service.]

By the time I finished my volunteer year, I was a different person. I had learned to let go of expectations, to learn from challenges, to follow through on commitments, to take the long view, to advocate for my beliefs. But most of all, I had learned to live in the moment – to really feel and express gratitude, to embrace my life as it was.

Laguna Miscanti, San Pedro de Atacama
Laguna Miscanti, Atacama, Chile, July 2013

On July 1, 2013, I took off on yet another backpacking adventure through South America, this time spending five months traveling throughout Chile, Argentina, Peru, and Ecuador. This was the trip I had dreamed of since 2002 – no obligations to research for my Master’s thesis, no real itinerary, just making decisions based on how I felt on a given day and what seemed to be the next best step.

[Honestly, looking back at that statement, it’s a nice reminder of how to live each and every day no matter where you are, but it’s much more freeing when you’re on the road toting all your possessions on your back. :)]

I’ve said time and again that my trip in 2013 was blessed with luck and love. There are so many instances of when things worked out absolutely perfectly just because I trusted that they would. I connected with amazing people who continue to part of my life to this day. I learned so much from others who crossed my paths for just a couple of hours, during which they shared their stories with me, their struggles and triumphs, their philosophies and ways of life, helped me understand their cities and villages, and then continued on their way.

Guanaqueros, Coquimbo, Chile
July 4th Weekend in Guanaqueros, Chile in 2015

Although I started my most recent stint in South America at the end of 2014, I spent last year’s 4th  of July weekend with three amazing people, volunteers-turned-friends, the people who supported me and inspired me and grew with me during our year in the Valle de Elqui. We cheered Chile’s victory in the Copa América 2015 and sang the American national anthem wandering on the beach (even the Canadian!). And we set intentions for how to finish out our volunteer year in the best way possible.

And now here I am, back in the US for an extended visit, focusing on my online business and building a location independent lifestyle. I know I’ll head back to South America at some point, but this time around, I hear Colombia and Brazil whispering to me. I’m also curious about what life would look like in Mexico or Portugal or even Spain.

Whatever happens, I am thankful for my first “Independence from America” Day 15 years ago, and all the experiences that have come about as a result. Living and traveling in South America has left an indelible mark on me, and all I can do is encourage you to try and get there for yourself.

Whatever draws you to South America, whether it’s the amazing natural wonders of the continent, or the incredibly rich ancient cultures that inhabited its lands, or the widely varying lifestyles in the cities, mountains, coast, and jungle, or even the amazing food, music, dance, and artesanía, you will leave with a deeper appreciation for this corner of the world.

And if you’re as lucky as me, your trip might just change your life. 

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