July 6, 2006 – Buenos Aires, Argentina. The day my life changed for good. I had been traveling quite a bit in Europe before, both accompanied and by myself, but never had I crossed the Atlantic Ocean. With all my 19 years of wisdom, today I was moving to South America!
This is a story about how it all began. The birth of my travel madness. After arriving in Buenos Aires as a 19-year old exchange student back in 2006, and at first being frightened by nearly everything and everyone, I soon came to the conclusion that I never wanted to leave.
At the airport
After traveling an odd 24-hours, I get off the plane, and walk into the arrival hall of Ezeiza airport in my white and light blue soccer t-shirt of the Argentinian national team. Wherever I went, people were enthusiastically shouting, smiling, and waving at me. I, of course, did not have the slightest idea what was going on. What do all these people want from me?!
[Turns out, the world was captured by the 2006 Soccer World Cup madness, and not only had I been so ‘clever’ to wear Argentina’s national jersey, I was also flying in from Frankfurt, Germany. Argentina’s soccer fans (a.k.a. absolutely everyone) must have thought I had just come back from supporting their national heroes in this insanely popular sporting event. These guys were cheering me on! ]
Pleasantly surprised by Argentina’s extreme hospitality, yet completely oblivious to the events described above, I needed to focus my attention on trying to find the man that was supposed to pick me up from the airport. And pronto.
You can imagine my relief when, after stepping through the characteristic glass sliding doors, I look straight into the eyes of a man holding up a sign that says: “Bienvenida, Marly”.
Communication in Spanish
Happy to have immediately found my personal taxi driver (“remisero”), I try to tell him in my best Spanish how my flight has been. I must have forgotten for a moment that to have a conversation with someone, you must actually be able to understand the person you’re talking with. I mean, until that point, I truly believed that my Spanish was OK. After all, I was the best in my university class, so that should account for something, right?
Wrong. To think that scoring an A+ in Spanish class means you can hold a conversation with a Spanish native, is a BIG mistake. Let alone an über talkative indigenous Latin American taxi driver. Boy, this man could TALK!!
All I could do was nod and smile. Luckily, he was also really good at maintaining a one-sided conversation, so with the occasional acknowledgement and ever so rare question from my side, the hour-and-a-half drive to my new residence had gone by in no time.
First impressions of the city
I distinctly remember rushing and twirling through 5 lane highways without any lane indications (what?! we are going to die!), to then start wobbling over cobble-stone streets (this old piece of junk they call a car is going to fall apart!), to finally calm down as I admired the marvelously manicured parks and beautiful purple flowers of the Jacaranda trees in my new neighborhood of Villa Ortúzar.
This lovely man named Atilio dropped me off right at my doorstep. And then he helped me haul my massive suitcase inside.
Miraculously, I had survived rush-hour traffic and made it to my new ‘home’ in one piece. Phew.
Welcome to Buenos Aires, Marly!
My first days in Buenos Aires
I might not have been (fully) aware of my non-activity at the time. Neither did I realize that this in fact immensely improved my Spanish.
Maybe I had subconsciously stopped myself from stepping outside my literal comfort zone in an attempt to avoid having to face traffic conditions so outrageous that I could only describe its participants as positively suicidal.
He told me he would show me where my new university was located, and how and where to take the right buses to get there.
Hold up! I had to take several buses to get to school from now on? In my email conversations with my host family, they had told me they lived very close to the university!
For a city like Buenos Aires, 30-45 minutes of travel time each way, is less than peanuts.
Universidad Torcuato di Tella
I might have forgotten to mention or elaborate on this before, but the reason I went to Argentina in the first place was the fact that I had somehow gotten into this prestigious private university.
In a similar fashion to my ignorance about the country (am I really this far South?), its population (these people are white and skinny! Aren’t Latinos supposed to be tanned and voluptuous?), and its language (err… are you sure you are speaking Spanish?), I of course had no idea that I was about to attend one of the most expensive and highly ranked educational institutes in Buenos Aires.
[*Don’t judge a book by its cover: Never have I attended more interactive, interesting, and challenging small-scale classes in which students actually paid attention, answered questions, ánd made notes. Absolutely mind-blowing coming from the so-called and unfortunate “sixes culture” in the Netherlands.]
Tilburg University & my personal choice for a study abroad program
Well… I was in my third year of an International Business Degree at Tilburg University, and frankly way too busy to have any time to prepare for my upcoming migration to Argentina. I had God knows how many exams to pass before even being allowed to spend a semester abroad, and on top of that I was juggling 2 or 3 part-time jobs to save up some money for whatever was lying ahead on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.Luckily, and thus even more so in hindsight (!), I would only be paying my own university in the Netherlands.
When the opportunity came around to apply for a semester abroad, I remember I wanted to go as ‘far away as possible’. Unfortunately, all ties with universities in Australia had just been canceled that year, so I could forget about acquiring a spot at the University of Western Australia.
The next continent on my mind was South America. I had been taking Spanish classes, and absolutely loved the idea of living in a culture that would be so very different from my own. Lo and behold, the BEST university for Economics was located right there in Bogotá!
However, at this point, my daddy dearest felt the need to step in and reassure me I could do whatever the h*** I wanted, but that there was no way on Earth he was going to let me go to Colombia. “OK, fine!” [Imagine me sighing, while rolling my eyes pretending I did not know exactly why my dad wasn’t very fond of the idea of sending his only daughter to one of the most notorious countries for drug trafficking in South America. 😉 ]
For reasons I can’t quite remember, I then quickly made up my mind I wanted to go to DiTella. Little did I know that Argentina had become such a popular destination among Dutch students. As it turns out, no less than 35 fellow students applied for a single spot in DiTella’s exchange program!
We waited several weeks for a reaction on our applications forms, CV, academic record, and motivation letter. As faces around me started to light up or fall into despair, I knew the results were in. And there she was, Miss I-won’t-mention-her-name, shining like a lit-up Christmas tree. Oh no! She had applied to Torcuato di Tella! What am I going to do?!
While my mind is doing overtime trying to find the reason of me being summoned here, wondering what options I would still have or be presented with at this point, and shaking like a leaf, the exchange program manager tells me (without any emotion on her face or in her voice) that UTDT is making a unique exception this year. The university will be accepting two instead of only one student into their exchange program.
Huh? What?! Really? Does that mean I am in?
I’m in! I’m still in! I will be going to Buenos Aires after all!! 😀
[For the sake of completeness, an FYI if you will, in 2007 UTDT expanded a beautiful and modern new location elsewhere in the neighborhood of Belgrano: the Alcorta Campus.]
Have you ever studied abroad? Where did you go?
Would you say the experience has changed your life?
This can anything from a slight shift in thinking patterns to a groundbreaking earthquake and landslide type of epiphany.
Please share your adventures!