Two days ago I came back from my trip to Chile and Argentina, and what a marvelous trip it was. There are so many things to tell about the trip, from the nondescript moments walking through each town we visited, to memorable dinners, to trip highlights like cycling through the beautiful wineries of Mendoza. On certain days, I wrote bullet points down in my paper journal, and on a few occasions, I wrote page-long entries. I’ll write about all of these experiences in succeeding posts.
How do I begin to describe the experience of setting foot in a land that you’ve only read about, heard about, and dreamt of? My first real acknowledgement of Argentina as a dream destination came to me in college while studying literature. Part of the curriculum was to take up world literature, and I took plenty of classes in Latin American literature and culture. I was enamored by the works of Jorge Borges, Rosario Ferre, Gabriela Garcia Marquez, among others. I learned about the cultural and political histories of Argentina and Chile, two South American countries that always seem to be jointly discussed in class. When the time came to plan a study abroad trip, I set my sights on Argentina, driven by the desire to decipher the labyrinthine works of Borges while studying in the country in which it was written. I always find it significant to experience art and literature organically, in the place or form in which it was birthed. This explains why I want to read One Hundred Years of Solitude in Spanish — another lifelong goal of mine — it was not enough to read it in English, however complex this literary masterpiece is. The Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote this book in Spanish, and perhaps intended for it to be read in Spanish. As far as I can remember, my deep interest in learning Spanish came out of the desire to read this book in Spanish, a work with which I was acquainted in high school, that then wrought further interest in literary works in Spanish and inspired travel to South America. Funny how great inspiration can come out of a small seed of inclination toward an object, which then blossoms into a force that propels one to another side of the world. This is the power that literature, arts and culture have on me.
The trip became much more than fulfilling my goal of visiting Latin America. It was also a trip with my sister for her birthday, a celebration of blessings, a second post-graduate school trip. I expected to have fun, to take great pictures, to eat Argentine beef and drink Malbec. All of these happened. I also gained so much more: a time for myself, a space to ruminate what I’d like to accomplish in this life, a deeper love for South America, identification with kindred spirits of fellow travelers, and a more secure sense of my place in the world that I realize cannot be shaken no matter where it is in the world I go.
I miss all the people I traveled with on this trip, dearly. I didn’t realize how much I would long for the camaraderie we’ve established. I’m still trying to pinpoint this feeling, to trace this melancholy that is not exactly loneliness – for a majority of my friends and family are in the States – but a string of yearning. Is it possible to miss a 12-day experience with a group of 9 strangers? I didn’t think so, but I realize now it is possible. Perhaps it is the perfection of the situation that I miss: an alignment of strangers from all over the world in a great place enjoying some great food and wine, keeping energy and positivity high at all times, doses of care to go around, and shared moments. We shared most of our time together, and sleep was at a deficit for all of us on this trip, so that our waking moments were plenty and every single second of those were spent side by side. Even we spent lunch time, dinner time, bus time, flying time, walking time, hiking time, biking time and picture time with these people, I still don’t know them all that well. We had plenty of conversations, and day by day as our experiences piled up, we were able to recognize more things in common with one another. At the end of the trip, these people vacillate between being semi-strangers and acquaintances at best, but nonetheless there was something special and meaningful we exchanged, which I will treasure.
There were also many other beautiful things I experienced on this trip: the beauty of nature probably tops the list. South America is not only a culturally rich region, it is also geographically diverse. We explored the cool, misty hills of Aguas de San Ramon near Santiago, witnessing the snow-capped mountains in the Andes in the distance. From there, we passed through lush groves, farms, and arid land on our way to Mendoza. In our trip to Tucuman, Salta, and El Cafayate, we saw lush greens, winding roads, desert-like lands, rock formations, the heat and humidity that comes from inlands and valleys. Then, Buenos Aires gave us a spring climate with a gentle breeze and high sun that kept the city warm and pleasant by the hour. There were so many things I saw with my eyes during our bus rides, that took my breath away. I was mostly quiet and introspective during the time we were on the road, from a combination of sleep deprivation and an inner gesture of humility for all the things that I’ve been given to see. These sights brought me to my knees, figuratively. I was overwhelmed by such natural beauty, that it made me believe all the more in a God. While looking at the beautiful, clay-colored rocks that had these complex designs as if someone had carved a pattern into them, I told myself that these types of things couldn’t just happen. There must be some intelligent design behind it all. Sure, the natural surroundings have physical properties that came out of natural occurrences billions of years ago, but still, there is this quiet order that cannot be ignored. Fractals come to mind. I am also reminded me of the Louise Erdich quote:
There is no such thing as a complete lack of order, only a design so vast it appears unrepetitive up close.
As I was enjoying the scenery, I can’t help but feel such an overwhelming sense of gratitude for all the things I’ve been given in this life. The opportunity to travel is perhaps, the biggest blessing I have, mainly because it means a lot to me, so much so that I give it high priority and I’m planning my life around traveling and exposing myself to cultural activities and sights, to capture it all in stories that I can share with others. I think this is my highest calling. I always come back to this thought when I’m thinking about more serious things about what to do with my life. During these moments of reflection, part of me also know that I can’t just stop at gratitude. While it is something very real and I allow this feeling to wash over me, I know that it can’t stay with me. I need to transform gratitude into something productive. Gratitude is great, and many people should practice it more, but it can’t remain just that, I think. It needs to be shared. It needs to perhaps be transformed into inspiration that can fuel action. It can birth motivation in creating something valuable in this world. Gratitude, in itself, once expressed, becomes selfish. It needs to be let out, to be diffused into the world so gratitude can meet others and touch them too.
These were the questions that kept coming to me throughout the trip: what can I do in my life to be in service of others, to make the world a better place? How can I transform gratitude that it may create something of value, something that can improve lives, even in a small way? I’m still pondering the answers, but also, a part of me wants to instill some discipline into all this thinking. I need to have more bias toward doing in this case. Maybe I can start by doing something that I know how to do and love: write. This will be a start, a way to take a stab at an answer. Then I will usher it into the form that it takes – it could even transform into something as big as creating an organization.
A short note to myself about writing: this will be painful. Writing is one of the things I love most in the world, and it hurts to stray away from it. But I’ve also learned that I cannot just settle on wanting to write all the time. I need to get a lucrative position to fund writing, reading, traveling, and all the other things I want in this life. So, as a defense mechanism if you will, I’ve trained myself to tame the visceral need to write. And I was quite successful in training it – I don’t get tempted anymore to give up everything in order to say, write a book. Graduate school helped me curb this as well; I focused so much on numbers and statistics that these became my new obsession. All I want to do now is run regression models and play with data at work. But I just recently graduated and these succeeding months are being spent on picking up pieces of my life that I’ve put on hold while focusing on graduate school. All of us go back to our passions at some point, don’t we? There’s a quote that sums this up:
If you want to know where your heart lies, look where your mind wanders.
So, I’ve been reading books and magazines again for leisure, and I’ve been writing bits and pieces here and there. I’m crawling towards my passion, brushing off the dust that life piled on it in these last few years, like an archaeologist would unravel something from the depths of a rubble.
Other things I learned while traveling included the following:
– Patience: Being in a different country is a test of patience. The conveniences we’re used to at home may not be present in the place we travel, and people have different customs and approach to living that may be very different from how we lived at home. I learned not to impose my Americanness (the quality that makes us Americans think we can get whatever want, which in the States is a positive trait). I am reminded that I am not always right, that I don’t always have the right of way (literally, the road rules are kind of cryptic).
– Openness and humility: I learned how to put myself out there, to start conversations with strangers especially when I’m not sure how they’re like. I have no problems making friends in the States, but when placed in a different country, with people from other parts of the world, it can be intimidating. I learned how easy it is to make friends with people back home, even when at times it may feel nerve-wracking – it is still easier than making friends right away abroad (though I find it easy to make deeper connections with people abroad once the ice barrier is broken, than with average Americans back home…)
– Relax: I also learned to relax. During our walks, we kept reminding ourselves to stop and smell the flowers. There are times when we got antsy, impatient and anxious. Our group leader would always remind us to relax. To take a breath, to marvel at the world around us, to enjoy the moment that we have in South America. When we relax we’re more pleasant to be with, we are more approachable, we think better, and we’re more productive. I also realized how much I don’t relax when I’m not at home – like say, when I’m at work. We all play a role at work according to our positions, and we must fulfill it, but I also learned on this trip that we can be humans at the same time. We are probably better coworkers when we show our more human side – and in my experience at work, people relate much more to me when I tell them human stories during breakfast or happy hour, than if I just communicate with them purely about work.
– Carpe diem. In this trip, I am reminded that there is one life to live and we have to make the most of it. I saw this not only in my tour group that included people from their mid-twenties to almost 80s. I was able to take on the perspective of an 80-year-old Irishman from my conversations with him and the elderly wisdom he imparted on all of us. I was able to feed off the sense of adventure our three Canadian companions seemed never to run out of, from trekking Machu Picchu to our Chile/Argentina trip, to their next trip to Brazil. I was able to learn about another region from a Welshman. I was also reminded the uniqueness that we all have as individuals even if we’re from the same country, through the American sisters we met.
– Travel is an equalizer. All of us on the trip came from different ages and backgrounds, ethnically, places of origin, socioeconomic and politically. Yet, all of us on the trip viewed each other as equals. No one was better or worse than the other. No one was richer or poorer than the other. No one was too old or too young. When you treat people as equals, barriers are removed. People begin to open up, free of judgment. There are more things shared at the end because you start off at the same point.
– Don’t waste time and resources. One of the greatest things I learned during this trip is how people consume less resources abroad, mainly because it is scarce and expensive. We didn’t always have the best water pressure in our hotels. The waterworks system abroad is not as developed as in the States where you can throw toilet paper in the toilet. Many times, we encountered a lack of electric outlets and lighting fixtures in our rooms. These are the types of things we don’t think much of when we’re in a country like the States, and we end up taking for granted what we have. I learned that it is inexcusable to waste resources such as power, water, etc. even if they are easy and cheap to come by. Lastly, I saw how opportunity is not as easy to get abroad, and fate is a lucky draw. Those who are born in developing countries don’t have same opportunities, so I am inspired to make the most of my opportunities because I could. I’ve always known this, and I always tell myself in bad times that I shouldn’t be discouraged by the barriers that I think exist, for they are only in the mind, and other people have overcome greater barriers to become successful, so there should be no excuses for me, and I should always maximize my opportunities.