Confession: I’ve been avoiding writing this post for a while now. It’s intimidating, you know, that question… how are you? It’s the question everyone asks, sometimes out of compassion, sometimes just because it’s what you’re supposed to do. I know when I go back to college, it’ll be this same question that all of my friends will ask. How are you? How was your summer? And I can predict like clock work the answers I’ll get. “I’m good—and my summer was AWESOME. I had so many adventures. I grew so much.” It’ll all inevitably be positive. And I too will respond likewise. It is after all what we all do. But these trips around the world, my little-big journey to Buenos Aires… it wasn’t just awesome, and here’s another dirty little secret… it wasn’t ALL awesome either.
I’m writing this post because there’s an elephant in the room here that I just can’t stand. Everyday on this blog, we write posts and share stories in an effort to make this a happy place. We want this to be a pick-me-up, a little lifesaver, a little hakuna matata in your day-to-day. But when it comes down to it, Ishani and I also really want this blog to be an honest place. Not just for you, but for us as well. So here goes…
This whole traveling the world thing? IT’S TOUGH. Exotic, but TOUGH. I look back on my posts from Buenos Aires about cute little towns in Colonia, Uruguay and horse riding in the pampas and epic journeys of getting lost that I will undoubtedly recount to my friends for years to come. Journeys that I can laugh at now. But what I didn’t tell you then is that sometimes those journeys really did just make me SCARED. When we traveled the world this time, we weren’t just tourists. We lived in the cities we blogged about, and worked in them. And you know what? Hailing a bus in a bustling city is not always easy. Living with a homestay family can be awkward. Being constantly paranoid about someone pick-pocketing you is just plain awful. And watching a homeless family scraping food from the trash outside your apartment building…that’s indescribably hard.
I consider myself a talker, but the truth is for a long time I lost my voice in Buenos Aires. At the beginning, I would sit down at the lunch table with my coworkers each day and feel SO intimidated. As they would exchange their daily (and passionate, as all things Argentine often are) run down of life, kids, and things to do, I would sit feeling helpless and dejected as Spanish I failed to understand ricocheted all around me. Not to mention those days when I would eat early and think foolishly that I could avoid all their office talk which for me was a) too fast and b) too hard to understand. In short I thought I could skirt around the awkwardness that is sitting at a table just trying to hold on to the words people are throwing like time bombs that you are trying to unpack before they explode. But that—the whole avoiding the awkwardness phase—was a mistake.
I still don’t quite know how you escape that out-of-place feeling you get when you’re thrust out of your comfort zone into a place that is not your own. All I do know is what I did: I learned how to make coffee all over again. I fessed up when I didn’t understand my supervisor and I laughed at myself when I misinterpreted an email. I hailed that struggle bus to work each day and I did all I could just to show up. And when I did—finally show up that is—I realized that sometimes it’s ok to feel a little lost.
Most days in Buenos Aires I didn’t know where the heck I was going. And some days that little fact just about drove me mad. But after a month in—and after realizing that I was probably never going to figure the entire city out—I gave in to the people around me. I let them take care of me. From buses to “subte” lines, along city streets and in little cafés, I assure you I was right there marching up to perfect strangers, saying hello, and asking for a helping hand. I threw the map out the window, literally and figuratively. After all, I had already just about worn myself out trying to figure everything out. I let the people of Buenos Aires take care of me. And they did. Because they could—because as humans, that’s what we can do for each other. And along the way I met people whose stories shaped my own, who took me from Macedonia to Senegal, back to the days of the Holocaust and when San Martín liberated Argentina. I argued, I debated, I opined and misspoke and tried to deconstruct the funny allusive thing that is perception. And I grew.
In the front pocket of my black North Face I still have a little caramelo, a gift from a passerby that I happened to meet on the way to the gardens. I didn’t quite know how to get there so I stopped her and asked. She was a shy young woman but sweet nonetheless. She told me that she was so glad I stopped her because she herself was working on becoming less of a “closed” person. She asked me where I came from and what I wanted from life. Seeing my reaction she laughed and said, “I’m sorry, I know this is a lot to think about on a Sunday morning.” But she didn’t let me off the hook; she wanted an answer. Feeling uncomfortable and awkward, I told her the first thing that came to my mind: I want to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, I want to live outside my comfort zone but be able to find my way back there. I think she knew where I was coming from. She gave me a little pink caramelo and said thank you, you’ve made my morning. Simple words, a strange encounter. Five years ago I would have thought the whole episode was just weird… but now… let’s just say I keep that caramelo in my North Face as a reminder of what a young woman on the streets of Buenos Aires taught me. Because it’s conversations like these that are crazy and awkward, strange and heartwarming. And they’re all that all at the same time. But more than anything, it’s these conversations that have taught me that if we want to take care of the world, sometimes we have to let it teach us a thing or two first.
P.S. Here’s just a few life travel lessons I picked up in BA that I thought I’d share with you…
- On anchors. When you travel, everything is pretty new—so it’s ok to hold on tight to a few things from home. For me that was skyping with my mom every night and one of my friends every week… and yes, stopping by a Starbucks every once in a while :)
- On fessing up. We live in a world where we are being bombarded by our friends’ pictures from Paris and Tanzania, Brussels and India. I was a country away and I’ll admit I still sometimes found myself a little jealous of all my friends’ worldly adventures. But nothing is ever as it seems. Talk about your journeys. When it’s hard, admit it. Let yourself be vulnerable to your friends and you’ll be amazed by how your friendships grow.
- On a tourist’s obligations. You’re going to Argentina? Oh wow… then you should visit Iguazu Falls. And Recoleta Cemetery. And this little musical show that everyone goes to. Anywhere you venture, there’s bound to be a list a mile long of where you’re “supposed” to go. Iguazu Falls and that tiny little town on the edge of Urguay… are they amazing? Yes. But you know what I’ll remember more than anything? My trip to the Japanese garden. Peace and a book for 14 pesos. Eating ice cream with an amazing young woman from Senegal, literally feeling our worlds meld together, an understanding I felt so instantly. Swinging. Outside the American Embassy in the middle of a city that I didn’t quite know at the time. Dinner conversations with my family. Mini history lessons that told me where they had come from. Failing EPICALLY to open the door to my apartment EVERY SINGLE DAY and feeling rather stupid when I didn’t get that darn Spanish joke. Those moments… they’re the ones you’ll find yourself collecting.
- On conversation. Talk and talk often. Even if it’s as simple as asking, So, how are you? :)