"Was it Amazing?": A Story of Abroad

Authored By:

Natalia Nadal

By Spring Liberal Arts Student, Maggie McCabe

Being asked to reflect on my experience studying abroad, I don’t even know where to begin. I vividly remember boarding my second leg flight in Miami on February 20th, tears welled in my eyes as my ears search for even the softest murmur of English. Not a soul on that plane was speaking English. My mind and my mouth fumbling at the words “agua, por favor,” when the flight attendant brought drinks around. I remember that same overwhelming sense of panic draping itself over my body on July 19th, a full five months later, as not a single soul spoke Spanish on my third and final leg flight from Dallas to Boston. I was going home at last, how terrifying?

I spent the latter 5 months of my Junior year studying in Buenos Aires, Argentina, “the Paris of Latin America,” as it’s commonly and mindlessly referred to. I’m now most frequently asked questions like: what was your favorite part, what was it like, did you love it, and other vague blanket questions of the sort. In truth, I don’t have a favorite part, but rather a favorite aspect. It was like nothing else that I had done before. And, yes, I did love it. As the cliché holds, it was the best experience of my life - or so I tell people. I’m not much one for ranking life experiences; in truth, if five different people asked about the best thing I’ve ever done, I’d come up with five different things. I don’t make sense like that.

In Buenos Aires, I was part of the CIEE Liberal Arts in BA intensive language program. There was a group of 31 students from scattered colleges and universities in the United States. No two of us had travelled together, planning for months of all the wine we’d drink and clubs we’d hit abroad. 31 almost perfect strangers arrived that day in February, with little more connecting us than a CIEE online chat room.

We lived in homestays, strewn across the cities 48 barrios. Some of us in Recoleta, others Caballito, Almagro, Balvanera, Villa Crespo, Congreso, or any one of the 10 sub-districts of Palermo: Soho, Hollywood, Viejo, Chico, the list goes on. We all took classes through CIEE as well as between 1-3 direct enrollment classes at the local universities in Buenos Aires: UBA,  Universidad de Buenos Aires, and local public university; UNA,  Universidad Nacional de Artes de Argentina, the public arts university; UCA, La Universidad Católica de Buenos Aires, a private university. My direct enrollment class was a Tango class taught at UNA. Yes, tango like the dance; every Tuesday night from 6:00 to 10:00 PM.

We learned and lived in Spanish. We all became oddly close, oddly quick. All of us solo abroad goers, deployed in this new city of almost 3 million people.

For the first few weeks, it all felt fake, truman-esk like the Jim Carey movie. I regularly felt that nobody else could see me, as I spent most days not speaking. I was petrified to speak Spanish, sure that I sounded like a “yanqui,” and would over pronounce an “h” or not speak with a proper, and at first bizzare, Argentine accent. A stark contrast to how I speak Spanish now, at times I can even do it without thinking: conjugating in past, present, future; using past participles and gerunds; frequenting my speech with “argentinismos,” Argentine slang; and sounding incredibly “porteña,” my Argentine accent is now the first thing that native speakers notice about me - I love it.

I miss that city. I miss its constant hustle and bustle. I miss the bakeries and kioskos on every corner. I even miss the constant striking, and general transportation shutdowns. It’s an election year, so the people of Argentina and Buenos Aires are more upity than ever. Colored bandanas flooded the streets, tied to secondary school and university students’ bags: green simbolizing pro-choice; light blue for anti-abortion; other colors too, but I forget their significance.

Mostly, I miss my internship. I worked with an organization called Delicias de Alicia, a self-funding non-profit based out of the San Telmo District, the historic district of the city. Delicias offers free cooking and nutrition workshops to children ages 8-12 in the “villas,” short for villas miserias, or slums around the city. Workshops were held every Saturday for 6 weeks; students would learn the “Circulo de Alimentos” or food circle, and the importance of a balanced diet. Every week, we would cook or bake a healthy recipe, and run the kids through various exercises and worksheets to familiarize them with a certain food group. In session 6, the kids would graduate and bring home the recipe booklet that they made throughout the 6 weeks, a diploma, and a more formal recipe booklet to give to their parents.

I am forever grateful to have had the opportunity to experience this side of the city, a side I don’t think that I would have ever seen had I not been able to participate in this internship. I loved the work I did; working directly with these children in these neighborhoods is something I will never forget. I miss the work every day,  and hope that one day I can find a project that is as meaningful and pursue it with all my heart, as my boss, the Delicias founder has done. That internship might well be my favorite part of my abroad experience, but it’s very different from the other extracurriculars that I was doing.

Other than working, taking classes, and tango-ing, I was travelling. Almost every week I was somewhere new; and almost every week I was seeing landscapes like I had never seen before. Every place so vastly unique and memorable. I trekked through all 3 Argentine regions of Patagonia, from the most southern city in the world, Ushuaia, to the remote trekking capital of Argentina, El Chaltén. I saw the fastest advancing glacier in the world at 2 meters per day, Perito Moreno in El Calafate. I licked the Salinas Grandes, massive Salt Flats in the northern province of Jujuy, after spending upwards of 24 hours straight on a bus driving by Easter egg colored hills and El Cerro de Los Siete Colores. I visited Iguazú Falls, on the border of Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil; it was the first sunny day in 8 days, rainbows littered the sky, arching over the dulce de leche colored falls. Water levels were 3 times higher than average due to the recent rains at the time, which also brought an influx of sediment making the water the color of caramel - dulce de leche is essentially caramel, but never tell an argentine that I said that. I took a day trip to Gualeguay in the Entre Ríos province bordering the province of Buenos Aires to teach a workshop. Another day trip, on my 21st birthday, to San Antonio de Areco to have an asado, go horseback riding, and see how the modern day Gaucho lives. I sipped smoothies in the remote beach town on Punta del Diablo, Uruguay, mere miles from the Brazilian border, during Carnaval. And I spent a weekend in Santiago, Chile, visitng other Babson students on a different abroad program. After my program ended, I flew to Peru for two weeks. I spent 8 days by myself at an eco reserve in the Amazon Rainforest, a 2 hour boat ride downriver from the nearest city, Iquitos. Afterwards, I flew to Cusco to meet up with a friend before doing the 5 Day Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. Life was incredible, always moving, always meeting new people, and always happy.

Each trip, each workshop, each class that I took, and each day that I lived, I was learning. I was learning Spanish, I was learning about the most recent military dictatorship in Argentina - something I had never known before, I was learning the struggles of an Argentine through my host Mom, I was learning the ins and outs of a self-funding non-profit - another thing I had never known about, I was traveling the world. I’m still convinced that it was all a dream. But then again, not even my wildest imagination could have drawn up anything that I was so lucky to have experienced in real life in those 5 months. It’s a little like that Dr. Suess quote, “you know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.” It’s kind of like that, that’s what abroad was for me: like a dream, only a million times better.