A rock formation in South America

Some Who Wander Are Lost

It’s funny to think about what to do after graduating from college. Like many, the stepping stones to get there were so cleanly laid out for me. Graduation day came and it felt like I had finally summited the mountain but couldn’t quite make out the view. Degree in hand, I was lucky to enter the grown up world with countless possibilities – the tough part was choosing just one. If you went to a small, liberal arts school like I did, there’s a large chance you didn’t have a clue what was next (the engineers were an exception), and that’s okay! I have a serious case of the travel bug, so wandering on down to South America felt like a completely normal place to start. Telling friends and family about this plan made me quickly realize this was in no way typical. But why not?

I studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  I really couldn’t tell you why I chose Buenos Aires (maybe just an attempt at differing myself from my classmates) but I had zero idea what to expect. I had never been to South America and knew absolutely nothing about the country I chose to live in for the next five months (Foolish, right? I wouldn’t recommend that). I didn’t know it was the home of Lionel Messi, Malbec, and tango.  I didn’t know about the horrific military dictatorship that resulted in thousands of “desaparecidos” just 3 decades earlier. I didn’t study up on the value of the peso or the bizarre dialect before boarding the plane. I was underprepared (and that’s putting it generously).

Mate and dulce de leche coconut squares
Mate and dulce de leche coconut squares (an Argentine delicacy). Image: Abby Cook

Before the start of the program, two of my closest friends and I decided to explore Chile for a month. We trekked through Cerro Castillo, the northernmost tip of Chilean Patagonia.  We hitchhiked to the local airport, pitched our tent on a nearby farm and awoke to cows pressing their noses against the nylon.  We visited Pablo Neruda’s home in Valparaíso and walked through ruins in Valdivia.  Our entire month of travel cost us about a thousand bucks.  That’s excluding the $500 I had to dish out to pay off our cab driver for her smashed car door…a story for another time.

The mountains of Cerro Castillo, Patagonia
Endless montañas! This was taken in Cerro Castillo, Patagonia. Image: Abby Cook

So, on to Argentina I went! It was odd to jump from hitchhiking our way around to being hand-held through the streets of Buenos Aires.  I was reverted back to the structured, family travels that I had experienced when I was younger.  One of the perks of the program was the pre-planned traveling we did as a group.  We had “rural” homestays for a week in Casilda, visited the famous “Iguazu Falls,” from both the Argentine and Brazilian sides, and toured the streets of Asunción, Paraguay.  I acquired a palette for mate (a traditional South American drink), learned how to avoid freelance taxi drivers, and threw in Argentine slang like “che” and “ojo” into any and all conversations.  I loved that each interaction, each day seemed to present a new challenge for me. I was hooked.

I returned to the U.S. on a high, and quickly decided that I would head back to South America after graduation. In January of 2014 I took off for Cusco, Perú to take a “Teach English as a Foreign Language” course at a language institute there.  I spent the following six months teaching ESL to adults at the same institute. My $3 an hour salary managed to pay my rent and give me a chance to explore Perú, bus my way down to Bolivia and fly up to Colombia. My schedule was certainly abnormal (as it was built around the work schedule of the students) and I was working 7-10 am and 4-9 pm five days a week.

Abby holding a sloth and a parrot at the zoo.
A local zoo outside of Cusco (this was one of three visits I made there in order to hold my new sloth friend). Image: Abby Cook

I had the opportunity to work with a few of the students month after month.  Over time, I heard their sentences become more complex and their pronunciation more comprehensible. Trying to explain expressions like “quit cold turkey” and “beat around the bush” always proved to be a challenge, but they captured my heart with their desire to understand not only the English language but also my culture. Despite my many attempts to convince them that Boston (go Sox!) is, in fact, the best city in the United States, they repeatedly asked me if I had been to New York City.

I could go on at length about odd mishaps, mistakes, and adventures that made my trips so memorable. You’ve all probably heard the quote “Not all who wander are lost.” Tolkien was certainly a bright guy, but I was most definitely lost. I found that being lost actually allowed me to orient myself. Living abroad, bumpy as it was, taught me a lot about different aspects of my life. It gave me a taste of what I was looking for in in a career, love, friendship and more. Travel (or if you dare, live!) somewhere that pushes you out of your comfort zone. It’s not about a perfect itinerary, or instagram-worthy pictures, though I’m sure you’ll snap a few. Be a little bit unconventional in life. Clean water is overrated.  Wake up to cows one morning!

Looking for my next adventure,

Abby

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