Why I Decided to Study Abroad in South America…Twice
It must have been the fresh, foggy air in the rural highlands of Ecuador that really drew me into my love for South America.
Or maybe it was the friendliness of all the people I met in Quito, who were patient with my broken Spanish and welcomed me into their homes as not only a guest but as a member of their families. It also could have been the amazing adventures I had in Banos, Mindo, and Montanita, as well as the longing for all the places I wasn’t able to fit into my two month trip and the promise to return someday. Whatever it was, it was enough to turn that undetermined “someday” into a full semester study abroad session in Buenos Aires, Argentina, only a few months later.
I went to Ecuador to finish up my remaining foreign language credits that I needed for my gen-ed requirements, but I returned to this amazing continent almost unquestioningly; I could have chosen anywhere in the world but nowhere else felt right. Aside from the fact that every class I am taking here counts towards my education (I’m a Global Studies major with a focus in Latin America, and a Spanish minor, both of which I declared immediately after I returned from Ecuador), there are so many reasons I chose to come back.
Now the end of my program is nearing and I am planning for a month of travel through Bolivia and Peru before returning to the U.S., and if I could I would extend my trip to last the entire summer. It would take a lifetime to understand everything about South America, but in the past year I have learned so much. Most importantly, I’ve realized that I have not “come back”, but have come to an entirely different place instead.
To learn a language
I firmly believe that the opportunity to learn a new language is the luxury that so many Americans take for granted. Too often I have heard the phrase “This is America, we speak English”, when actually we live in a country without an official language and with a growing population of over 60 million people who speak another language, according to the 2011 US Census Bureau. The United States wants to be the center of global commerce and affairs, but that can never be possible without the type of language learning that is seen in so many other countries, such as Israel and Germany. I’ve met countless people on the road who speak three or four different tongues and with far more proficiency than I could ever dream to achieve in my chosen second language of Spanish.
In many other places, learning a second or third language is either a necessity or a privilege, but for American students it comes off as a chore. I realized this especially after I completed the final Spanish class I needed for graduation and knew that if I didn’t actively make the effort to continue, this would be the end of the road for practicing my skills en espanol. Spanish is such a useful language–having it under my belt would open so many doors for me travel and career-wise, as it is the third most spoken language in the world, and I could visit almost anywhere in Latin America without ever having to worry about the language barrier. I didn’t want to end just as I was beginning to understand so much, and I decided to continue by going abroad and immersing myself once again.
To save money Spain was out of the question, as my bank account surely couldn’t handle those hefty European prices, so my search turned back to my beloved South America (as well as affordable programs that my university offered). I reminisced on the $4 bus ride from Quito to Banos, the $0.30 avocados from the fruteria around the corner from my school, and the amazingly soft $15 alpaca sweater that I bought in Otavalo and clung to all throughout the cool Minnesota fall. There was no doubt that a few months in a South American country was something I could afford with my hourly bookstore salary, and I eagerly applied for the Buenos Aires program through the University of Minnesota’s Learning Abroad Center.
Once again I would live with a host family and reap the benefits of free meals and a comfortable place to stay, and on the weekends I would be able to travel and see other parts of the country affordably. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of assuming that Argentina would be the same as Ecuador, and arrived to find out that the $4 bus ride in Ecuador would be about the equivalent of $40 for the same distance here. The craft markets in Buenos Aires are not the lovely Quechua women of the Andes selling jewelry for a dollar and ponchos for $5, but expensive artisans whose prices turned me away from bringing home an entire extra duffle bag of souvenirs for family and friends (which I had to do after Ecuador).
The Argentine cuisine, while not as pricey as in the United States, has definitely put a dent in my pocket after realizing that I will never find a full meal for $2.50 or a glass of jugo de mora, blueberry juice, unless I search long and hard. Argentina is significantly cheaper in day-to-day costs than many other places I could have studied, and I have been lucky enough to be able to afford trips to amazing places such as Mendoza, Mar del Plata, Patagonia, and Montevideo, but be warned that by Latin American standards it is not cheap. When I say I came to “save money,” it is more along the lines of coming to “be able to afford travel and not go broke,” whereas if I were in a European country, that probably would have happened after the first month.
However, I did make the cultural mistake of lumping together all of South America based on my only perception and experience traveling on the continent, and that emphasizes my next point even more.
To broaden my perspective
One of the most important lessons I learned in my first semester as a Global Studies major is to avoid “the danger of a single story.” That is how Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a prominent female writer from Nigeria, explained the phenomenon of maintaining only one perception, idea, or understanding of a culture in her 2009 Ted Talk. I know that many people have a few different preconceived perceptions or stereotypes of South America already in their minds, such as the immense poverty seen in the villas of Rio de Janeiro, or the thick expanse of the Amazon rainforest that spans through parts of 9 countries and whose destruction due to big business is no secret.
When people think of the whole continent they think of military authoritarian dictatorships, the coffee industry, drug trade, and as it was recently joked about on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, how no one seems to know the difference between Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay. These “single story” ideas of South America’s cultures, geography, and economy are dangerous as it is such a diverse region with millions of faces, and to perpetuate stereotypes is to silence the voice of so many people and places. Therefore to eliminate the single stories I had of South America in my own life, I had to see more of it for myself.
Ecuador is a small Nevada-sized country on the Pacific coast, and although it has some of the greatest biodiversity in the world and countless small indigenous cultures all throughout the country, it was only one little piece of the puzzle. I learned so much there and shattered stereotypes that I had, but to better understand what encompasses Latin America I needed to travel to a geographically and culturally opposite place. So far Argentina has surprised me in so many different ways, both in similarities and differences. I constantly find myself saying “When I was in Ecuador…” and comparing the two places, while also being able to paint a bigger picture of everything. I have had the opportunity to travel to southern Chile and parts of Uruguay, and the more places I visit the more I feel I understand the interactions between cultures and borders. My perspective is constantly shifting to accommodate the amazing new places I see and people I meet.
To experience places before it is too late
Traveling to new regions of South America has also opened up my eyes to an entirely new realm of geography–many of the countries in this region experience such variance in climate and biodiversity that traveling from one end of a country to the other brings you to a whole new world. South America is not all rainforests, in fact I haven’t even made it to one yet. It is an incredible geographically and biologically diverse continent, abundant with mountains, deserts, pampas, and incredible beaches. But due to a lot of unfortunate factors, those amazing places, fauna, and flora are in serious in danger. Whether the cause is big businesses shredding the rainforests, water pollution due to overpopulation, or the onslaught of global warming, South America is seeing serious changes in climate and the effects are omnipresent.
I will never forget standing in front of the vastness that is Perito Moreno Glacier in El Calafate, Argentina. Over three hundred feet tall, its gigantic size dwarfed me and any ideas I’d had about it. Silently and calmly, I watched and waited for pieces to crack, slip, and fall off, lost to the lake forever. This slow process is natural but is a clear erosion by climate change. Photos on display along the path showed how much the glacier has diminished year by year, and it is truly astounding how quickly such a large mass of ice can become vulnerable and begin to wither away. I have a horrible, pessimistic yet valid feeling that if I ever were to have grandchildren, it might be something they will never be able to see.
There are countless other natural phenomena in South America that are dying at the hands of globalization and climate change, and the clock is ticking. Unfortunately for most places, the combination of local, government, and NGO efforts just isn’t enough to save them before it’s too late, and I don’t want to have that nagging feeling of wishing I would have visited somewhere beautiful before it was gone.
Europe will always be there, and the exquisite buildings rich with history will be well-preserved for years to come. I will go to Europe when I’m old and have plenty of money to spend there. For the moment, I am traveling so that when I am eighty I can say that I took advantage of everything before it was too late, just in case it is. I suppose I could have gone anywhere in the world to fulfill similar goals to the ones I’ve outlined, but I believe that slow travel is the best kind of travel, and that hurrying from place to place doesn’t grant you anything but an Instagram-worthy photo.
Leaving Ecuador, I felt as though I had left off on the the first page of a chapter right after the cliffhanger drops–I wasn’t done with South America, and I wouldn’t have felt as though I’d completed my journey until I experienced more here. It’s been an incredible combination of months spent, and even now I feel like I am deeper into this grand story than when I began; but this time I will more easily be able to leave South America behind and pursue other travels before returning.
This is where I learned how to travel, and just like the book On the Road by Jack Kerouac, I never really want to reach the end because the read is just so good. I’m leaving places unvisited and rocks unturned so that I have excuses to come back, but in the mean time I’m planning my upcoming trip to Bolivia and Peru with the open-minded excitement of a girl who has learned a lot, but has learned most importantly that she knows nothing. I’ve really only just opened up this book.