The first semester of my senior year of high school was spent as an exchange student in Viedma, Argentina. Living with a host family in a far away land was an experience which has humbled, matured, and enlightened me in many ways I could never have imagined. It was an experience from which I learned not only about a foreign culture and another language, but also equally, if not more, about my own culture and about myself. About once a month I composed an e-mail to send out to friends and relatives to inform everyone how my new life was going down in the Southern hemisphere. This is the first of six letters that I wrote. As a postscript, it should be known that letters I wrote after a couple months experiences conveyed a much more positive, enthusiastic tone and dealt more with insightful observations and epic adventures. Letter number one, however, deals with the confusion, headaches, and homesickness that any successful exchange student experiences and overcomes.
September 15, 2002
Hola a todos—
Every time I tilt my head up toward the sky there is a neatly shaped V of birds tugging in the summer; they’re going South to Patagonia. I am jealous of these birds as they migrate down to the end of the world, to where I very much wanted to stay for my time here as an exchange student. Perhaps they are Arctic Terns, which migrate eleven thousand miles each year from Patagonia to Alaska. Perhaps these same birds have flown over my home back in Wasilla. I wish I knew more about ornithology.
I chose Argentina for my host country because it was a Spanish-speaking country with a wide swath of mountains running up and down its Western edge that I had always dreamed of seeing, but apparently AFS (American Field Service, the exchange oraganization I’m with) has done their best to send me as far as possible from those dramatic horizons, here to Viedma, across the continent from the nearest hill.
So I confess for the first week or so after I arrived I could not have invented a single comment about this place that was remotely positive. In my plans I had envisioned something like a six-month vacation somewhere further South, someplace where everything would be distinct beyond recognition from back home, and ideally I wouldn’t have to go school because it would be my job to stay home and tend the family’s herd of llamas.
However, do not let me give you the impression that I am totally distraught. Although I am not exactly in the exotic picture of South America I imagined, I am learning how to make the best of it, aprovecho (I make best use of it). There is beauty everywhere, in anything. There is art waiting to be realized in the piles of trash and heaps of pruned branches that people dump at the edge of town. There is a romance to the wheat fields freshly ploughed for spring and the ranches that fold forever into the flat and featureless horizon. There is an aura of timelessness that hangs above the river winding lazily through town like fog on a cool morning. Additionally, there are many convenient aspects of living closer to a city that I am learning to make use of. I enjoy riding a bike to school, a badass “Beach Commander 2000” that looks like a 1970s concept of a mountain bike. And if I had hoped for a more spectacular landscape here, perhaps my host family had hoped for a more exciting person than myself. I swear I’m doing my best to be a lot more social than I am normally. It sounds like my friends from school here are even going to make me go to El Boliche, the dance club. Though you know I would rather spend the evening sealed inside a cardboard box with a heap of glass shards and fish entrails than in a dance club, I am going to try it. Another thing I am looking forward to is trying out a kayak. Kayaking is a popular sport here since no one is ever more than a five- or ten-minute walk from the riverside. Apparently Viedma, in all Argentina, has the most kayaks per capita.
Try to imagine this, my first impression of where I shall live for the next half-year. I arrived in a zombie trance after a twelve-hour bus ride in the dark from Buenos Aires to Viedma. I awoke just as the bus was pulling in to the station. Through blurry eyes, I spotted waiting at the platform outside my window two very hopeful looking people whom I had seen before in a picture that my host family had sent to me—they were my new parents. The striking, trim woman with high leather thin-heeled boots and a smart dress was Bella, my host mother, and the tall man with dark hair in khaki slacks and a T-shirt and thick glasses was Tony, my host father. They took me to my new home where I immediately fell asleep.
When I awoke, I didn’t know whether I had slept for an hour or three days. I had no idea where I was, why, how, &c. After lying in bed racking my brain for the next minute or so, I remembered all the traveling I had done during the last few days. With a sickening wrench of my stomach, I for the first time truly wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into and how I had ended up here.
Downstairs my six new family members were all having lunch. My new family members include my parents Bella and Tony, my two younger sisters Pilar and Belen, and two younger brothers Jose and Roberto. Two days later, though, we took the eldest son, Jose, to the airport to leave for the U.S. to be an exchange student as well. I guess I’m his replacement.
After a lot of confused, albeit amicable, conversation with my new family over lunch, what appeared to be an unhappy marriage between an ancient Volkswagen bug and a small truck, full of excited people, pulled up to the house, the horn honking emphatically and the ill-sounding engine gunning. I followed Jose as he shuffled out of the house and we piled into this little creature with five other friends of his to go cruise town. We went to go dar vueltas—literally, to go in circles. Everyone except myself had dark hair, dark skin, and dark eyes and was dressed head to toe in distressed denim. They wore jeans with pre-faded material and pre-ripped holes from years of use they never had; cigarettes hung casually out of their mouths and they spoke rapidly in a tongue that to me was muddled and incomprehensible.
The main road here runs adjacent to the Rio Negro through the middle of town. It’s a half-mile strip of pavement which we drove up and down no fewer than twenty times, accelerating over speed bumps as if they were jumps and slowing down occasionally to whistle and yell at girls. Everyone kept chanting something about Chupe. (The verb chupar means “to suck.” Later I learned that Chupe was Jose’s nickname that had evolved from Jose to Giseuppe to Chupe; that changed my idea about what I had imagined them to be talking about in the car.) The little city sped by over and over as they all asked me if I like to drink, do I have a girlfriend, do I like to party—and if not they told me we’d get busy with all that right this weekend.
We live in a big brick house in the city. Here the houses are constructed so that usually two houses share the a central wall. If I walk outside and look down the street I can see about fifteen neighboring homes. Quite a change from the seven acres of woods surrounding my home back in Alaska. The Rio Negro is maybe four hundred meters from our house. It is an enormous body of water, maybe four hundred meters from shore to shore. I greatly enjoy its presence. Just to have a large body of water near the house is a thrill if you’re not accustomed to it. They tell me in the summer everyone goes to the shoreline to spend the day—to swim, nap in the shade, have a picnic.
If I were to sum up my first three weeks here so far in a word I would choose confusion. It feels as if I’m never completely sure what’s going on or what I’m supposed to do. From what I have seen so far it is pretty much the exact opposite of Alaska, but all the people here have been incredibly kind to me. My family here are all wonderful people, I have a lot less responsibility, and school only goes until noon. As far as the language, it still feels like everyone has collaborated to play a clever trick on me. It is as if every time someone speaks, their words pass through some devious, invisible filter that scrambles them in to a string of incomprehensible gibberish. I had imagined that the four years of Spanish I studied in high school would help out a lot with my efforts in mastering the language, but I have found that I still have miles to go before I sleep and can actually understand what in the world all these people are talking about all the time. I have found that the easiest people to talk with are my youngest siblings, who have smaller vocabularies and usually speak more slowly. It is already hard for me to write this in English so I suppose I am going to learn the language whether I want to or not.
I have been spending a great deal of time running, though it is tough to be so self-motivated. I miss cross-country. Some days it feels like everything sneaks up on me all at once and all I want to do is go home. There are days when I would give anything just to see one pathetic little mountain, to have some thick woods where I could go for a quiet walk, to have all my hammers and saws back in my callused hands and to have some dirt back under my my fingernails, so these are the times when I go for a run. I search for someplace I have not been yet, usually as far away from the city as I can go. Running clears my head; it makes everything seem more tolerable. I’m ready to give anything another chance after I have run far enough. I run down lonesome dirt roads out in the country and the cows look at me funny across the barbed wire as I run by, their gazes follow me as I pass as if I were holding a string attached to each of their snouts. I stir up flocks of prismatic parrots nesting in the scrub brush and they swarm above me by the hundreds, screeching angrily at my presence. The animals are all surprised to see something that passes on foot rather than wheels. Some days when the clouds look just right I can pretend they are mountains, the tall white pillars in the distance something solid and tangible rather than just suspended ice particles. The sky grows pink then red and finally purple like a swelling bruise, like a fistfull of melted Crayola, then ultimately healing into blackness. The stars appear and fill the sky in a completely different pattern from back in Alaska. Everything is better.
I don’t want to hog the computer anymore. I think Pilar (fourteen-year-old sister) has friends to chat with. Hope to hear from