The past three months that I have spent in Argentina have been my first months of truly travelling alone, without Ellen and my fellow trekkers from Nepal or the loving Daraja volunteers and students. I spent two weeks in Buenos Aires, then ventured south to WWOOF for a month and a half in a tiny town called Cholila after spending days in El Bolson and Bariloche. Most recently, I completed a Wilderness First Responder course through NOLS in Santiago, Chile, and I met up with my family in Buenos Aires for two weeks of vacation with them. The beginning of this stint in Argentina – my time in Buenos Aires, and the first part of my time in Cholila – challenged me more than any other part of my year so far. It hit me that I had truly left my childhood home behind, and that I was the only person worrying about me. At first, I tried to resolve my frustration alone, and appreciate the amazing experience I was having in such a beautiful part of the world. However, I came to realize that the times when I felt most grateful and at peace were the times when I connected with a person or a group of people. The culture of Argentina taught me the importance of sharing the beautiful things in the world with the people around us, be they strangers or be they closest friends.
I began my months of finding connection and community in Argentina with the discovery of my new favorite travelling companion: hostels. My hostel in Bariloche had a cozy common room with flowing, sketched murals on the walls and a patio surrounded by rose bushes that looked out over the lake. Around ten at night, the patio and the common room would fill with travelers eating, talking, and finding buddies for activities they wanted to do the next day. I ended up spending my entire days in Bariloche biking, hiking, and eating with friends from the hostel, and even went on a three-day trek with one American from the hostel who was studying abroad in Chile. I only have stayed in hostels since, and in each place I look forward to settling in to the common room conversations at night and trading stories of adventures with fellow travelers. I met a girl from Indonesia who got deported from the United States (the immigration officers read her diary and discovered that she had been illegally working as a waitress!) and now wants to start a healthy food education program in Santiago, Chile; a Scottish man in a kilt hitchhiking from the southernmost point in Argentina to Alaska; a man who had graduated from UNC Chapel Hill and a couple who grew up in my town; and a man from London who had spontaneously quit his office job and had absolutely no idea where he was going next. These people became my friends, my fuel for travelling ideas, and my inspiration as I travelled through Argentina and Chile.
My grandma grew up in Argentina, and my desire to see where she grew up and to spend time with my Argentinean relatives guided my journey here. I stayed with my aunt Fabiola and my cousin Veronica with her two daughters (my nieces) for my first two weeks in Buenos Aires. Although my family here is much more distant than much of my family in the United States, I connected them much more. My aunts did everything for me while I was here: hosted asados, offered their houses, showed me around the city, and even, in the case of Veronica and Claudia, one of my aunts, took me in to their laboratories to see what sort of work they were doing (not only are there lots of women on this side of my family, but there are lots of women scientists!). Claudia took me to see the room of rats that she used for her breast cancer experiments, and explained her research as we walked between the rows of rat cages. She studies the influence of progesterone in causing breast cancer and researches possible related treatments. Besides science, we all connected about other hereditary traits in our family, such as a tendency towards clumsiness and forgetfulness, a nearly-obsessive love of cats, and an affinity for painting and photography.
Although I left my real family behind in Buenos Aires, I found family in Cholila with the couple that owned the farm. After we finished the work for the day, Laura (the owner of the farm) and I would dive into some cooking venture or craft. Laura taught me how to crochet triangular elf hats, which I adopted as my long-bus-ride activity. We also cooked jellies and jams, delicious dinners, and my favorite: pan casero, or homemade bread. Laura would take down the jars of various seeds and grains from the high wooden shelf in the kitchen, and we would choose which ones we wanted to throw into our bread on that certain day and adjust the amounts of salt and other spices, so that every loaf turned out different. We would find the warmest place in the house for the bread to rise, then the whole house would fill with the smell of baking bread and with the anticipation of the loaves of bread that we would eat within 24 hours of their baking. Laura’s mother-in-law and her other friends also stepped into mother roles for me, teaching me how to cook other things, how to identify Patagonian plants, and how to make creams with plant- or flower-infused oils and beeswax, and making jokes about how I was now ready to be married when I picked up quickly the things the had taught me.
Dario, Laura’s husband, in turn, did what any good Argentinean father would do and taught me how to make a good mate. Mate is a sort of strong green tea that everyone drinks in Argentina, and without knowing what you are doing when you make mate, you can send a whole slew of hidden messages to the people with whom you are taking mate. A “washed” mate – or a mate that has lost its flavor because the server used boiling water – means that you do not care much about the people who you are serving to; serving mate with your left hand, in traditional circles, might mean you are politically inclined to the left; saying that there is no yerba (the tea leaves used to make mate) signifies romantic interest. Argentineans, while serving mate, traditionally fill a hollowed gourd (the mate) with yerba, fill a thermos with not-too-hot water, and fill the gourd with water and pass it to someone in the circle, who drinks the tea through a straw with a filter on the bottom (the bombilla) and passes the mate back to the server en route to the next person in the circle. I participated in mate circles with random guests of the hostel that Dario and Laura owned, some Buenos Aires university students who I met next to the lake in Cholila, and with Dario’s entire family – Argentineans offer mate to whoever happens to be in the area. Perhaps because it implies sharing germs through the bombilla, you seem to be friends instantly with the other people in the mate circle. You might be talking and telling stories, and then as the mate starts getting less and less flavorful you are exchanging emails and inviting each other over for dinner or to stay. The fact that Argentineans make time in their day to sit outside or go to the plaza and share mate with friends or strangers is incredible to me, and it’s a habit I will certainly bring home.
For a more formal gathering than a mate circle, Argentineans opt for an asado, or a grill of meats and vegetables over a fire outdoors. An asado starts around nine at night, when all the men invited create a fire, throw a complete bag of charcoal over it, and wait until the the flames die down to put the grill over the embers. Then the slow process of cooking the meat begins, with chorizos, lamb, and beef laid out over the parrilla. I always sneak on a couple of rounds of squash, red peppers stuffed with egg and cheese, and eggplants to fuel my vegetarian diet. Everyone sits around drinking and chatting or preparing salads until the meat is ready, which could be around midnight. Then, instead of using dishes, forks circulate around and people take turns stabbing things off the grill or taking bites of the salads out of the bowls. Again, the communal germ exchange seems to form some bond between the guests of the asado, and everyone talks, plays music, and grazes on whatever food is leftover until the early hours of the morning. Even when people get too tired to talk, they are content to just sit around watching the fire, the meat, or the stars until the wine and the meat finally sends everyone to their beds or sleeping bags.
Often, the guests of an asado do not even know each other. The asado host tends to invite anyone they happen to think of or see in the days leading up to the asado, so it turns into a big, random group that somehow gets along wonderfully. One day while rock climbing in Cholila, I met Gabriela, another girl a little bit older than me, and within an hour of meeting her, she invited me to her birthday asado in a town two hours north of Cholila. I stayed at her house for the weekend, and helped prepare the asado. In turn, I invited her to go rock climbing in Cholila a different weekend, and on my way back north, she came to say goodbye to me as I stopped over in El Bolson. Although we met completely randomly, we will stay in touch and probably see each other again in the future.
On our second Cholila rock climbing excursion, we went to a place called Leleque, some rocks in the desert about 45 minutes out of the town. Similar to an asado, Dario and Laura invited all of their friends within a two-hour radius that liked to climb to spend the weekend in Cholila. Our motley group contained nine-year-old girls, people from Chile and myself from the United States, experienced climbers, and people who had never climbed before. Each time I climbed, some portion of this group served as my team of cheerleaders yelling up encouragement and advice from below. When at one point I got stuck and wanted to come down, about five people from below yelled up, “Va bién! Va bién!” and I finished the climb. We climbed from 8:30 in the morning until 9 at night, and then all went home to eat an asado – again, forming some unprecedented bond within such a random group. The beautiful place and the climbing community made the day at Leleque one of my favorite days of my gap year so far.
I left the community I found in Cholila of climbers, musicians, and random friends, and found a new community in Chile in my Wilderness First Responder course. The other students were tourism guides, ski patrol, park rangers, and other people who just loved being in the wilderness like me, although everyone else was Chilean. We had class from eight in the morning until six at night, and as soon as we finished eating, we started studying together in the dome where we had classes until often past midnight. We invented ailments and injuries and practiced scenarios, practiced CPR on the dolls, and perused our notes. When we were not in classes, we told first aid stories during almost every meal. Even when we had an asado on our one free day during the course, we made jokes about chorizos with second-degree burns (due to the blisters) and the onions that fell through the grates and had experienced the necessary Mechanism Of Injury to have injured their spinal column. Everyone’s willingness to spend every moment focused on wilderness medicine allowed us to both learn much more material more fully and to bond as a group as well.
In the United States, we tend to put a lot of emphasis on self-reliance and on individual identity. Thus, when I felt frustrated at the beginning of the year, I looked for a solution within myself, only to frustrate myself more. However, here I have seen that being self-reliant and living or travelling alone depends entirely upon the relationships you have in the world. Paradoxically, there is no such thing as pure independence, because independence comes from knowing you have strong enough relationships to be strong by yourself. The only thing that allows me to be as independent as I am this year – and in my greater life, too – is the fact that I have family and friends and even random traveling friends who love me, and I know that I am not really alone. I am privileged to have shared stories, homemade bread, mate, asados, desert rock climbing sites, and a wilderness medicine course with the people I have, because none of those experiences would mean much without the people. Furthermore, in Argentina, those people do not have to be close friends or family; the most random group of people can get together for an asado or an excursion and find a way to have fun. We miss out in the United States by living in a bubble and letting in only ourselves and our close friends. We often do not take the chance to talk to strangers on buses or to invite people over who we only have met once. So, when I bring back the culture of mate and of asados to the United States, I will bring back the culture of community that comes along with it.