I recently learned that a group from Nashville participating in Rotary's Group Study Exchange program will be heading to Argentina soon. This made me think about my own GSE experience to Argentina 11 years ago , and I pulled out my journal that I haven't looked at since my trip to relive my wonderful experience.
As a travel hound and budget traveler, Rotary's Group Study Exchange (GSE) was just my thing. The program offers a month in a foreign country with all expenses paid. Can't beat that deal! During the month, team members generally stay in private homes of Rotary members in the host country, and attend Rotary meetings, which fits in with Rotary's mission of building goodwill and better friendships. The idea is that building one on one friendships around the world can only lead to good things.
I found out about the program through an article in the local paper and that the trip that year for our Rotary district was to Patagonia, Argentina in mid-March. I showed up at the interview location along with the other candidates. We were told to expect the interview to last the greater part of the day.
Shortly after arriving in the lobby of the hotel where the interviews were to occur, Emily, David, Patrick, and I congregated in the middle of the room and began talking. We were the only ones really interacting with any of the others--we were laughing, talking, and already bonding. Later, after the four of us were selected as the team, we asked some of the committee members if they had noticed that--that we had already formed our group--and they said no, that it was just a coincidence. But maybe they saw the same qualities in us that we saw in each other--friendliness, a sense of humor, an outgoingness--that served us well on our extended trip.
Part of the deal with the GSE is that you also get free language lessons. Very cool! We met every Saturday for a while to study their version of Spanish, what they call castellano. Reading and writing a foreign language is easier for me than speaking or aurally comprehending it, so I was struggling quite a bit with the lessons. We each had to prepare about a 5-7 minute presentation about our lives and occupations, complete with slides, which we would have to present in castellano at the various Rotary club meetings we would attend. For these meetings, we were to wear uniforms of blue blazer and khaki pants.
We were also supposed to get a gift for each of our host families, and we came up with some creative ideas. Since we are from Music City, I thought I would approach some record companies to see if they would donate some CDs for me to take. One of the record companies was very interested in me distributing some CDs of a little known group at that time--the Dixie Chicks--that they wanted to promote in South America. None of us at the time knew who they were, but of course later they became a household name.
Last but not least, each of us had to make our individual plans to be gone for a whole month. There is a lot to think about: We had to get work caught up a whole month ahead, or plan for someone else to do it, pay bills in advance, arrange for pet or child care, etc. I had so much to attend to I didn't have time to get excited about the trip until right before we left.
Day OneThe four of us and our team leader, Sonny, met at the Nashville Airport and flew to Dallas, then to Miami to catch the plane to Buenos Aires. However, a delay on one of the legs caused us to miss the flight in Miami, and American Airlines instead flew us to Santiago, Chile. We arrived the next morning in Chile and then caught a flight to Buenos Aires, rather than going as originally planned to Ushuaia at the very southern tip of the country.
The airlines put us up in a hotel for the night in Buenos Aires, which turned out to be a lucky break actually, because we got a chance to rest and clean up before starting on the rest of our journey. We took a walk around the city, and Sonny found the apartment he had lived in 30 years earlier when he worked in Buenos Aires. The next day, a member of one of the Buenos Aires Rotary Clubs came by the hotel to tell us that we were in store for a wonderful time and some beautiful scenery on our trip. He wondered how we could be in Rotary however, since we were not Italians???? That struck us as humorous and is a testament to how many Argentines are of Italian descent.
My favorite part of the trip was probably the very beginning: Ushuaia. Known as "the end of the world," Ushuaia appealed to my sense of fancy. We knew that Ushuaia is not that far from Antartica, so we packed our warmest clothes. How surprised we were to find it was fairly warm there and we didn't even need our coats.
Rather than staying in homes, we stayed in a hotel owned by one of the Rotary members. Ushuaia is a quaint city with some nice shops, and it immediately struck me as a very pleasant place. We went to a park, where you could look out at the water, and to the "end of the earth." They told us that many times rainbows would appear and people would make wishes. Sure enough, on cue, a rainbow appeared, and I made several wishes, some of which actually came true.
Part of our obligation as team members was to meet with people in each town who worked in our same professions. We had to improvise some, as not every profession was represented. For example, I was an editor of an alumni publication at a university, but universities in Argentina do not have such publications. So instead, I met with people from the local newspapers. In fact, I had earlier worked at a newspaper myself.
In Ushuaia, we were first introduced to mate, the national drink of Argentina. Drinking mate is a ritual there, and some of our guests had elaborate bong-like apparati they would use to drink it. To me, it tasted and looked like green tea, but they would get upset if you said this. Ushuaia was a very good beginning to our journey.
We left Ushuaia by bus for Rio Grande and started on our journey back north towards Buenos Aires, which would be our final destination at the end of the month before heading back to Nashville. During the bus ride, we had our first taste of the expansiveness of Argentina. The scenery reminds me of areas in the western U.S. During our bus ride, we started to really bond as a group. We discovered we had all brought John Grisham novels to read!
Rotary members met us on arrival, as they did in each of the locations, and showed us where we were going and gave us the lay of the land for the next few days. In Rio Grande, we once again stayed in a hotel rather than private homes.
We spent the next day at a school where one of our hosts worked as an information officer. The school served as an elementary school by day and a technical school by night. We were treated to a barbecue at that same man's home that evening. Our schedule included a stop at the newspaper, where we were interviewed and photographed. It reminded me of when I worked at a newspaper and interviewed the GSE team from another part of the world that came to tour Tennessee.
We left for Rio Gallegos a couple of days later in a little commuter plane we weren't sure was going to make it. But it did, and we were grateful! For the first time, we stayed in private homes, and Emily and I stayed with a doctor and his wife. They did not speak English, and our castellano was not good enough to communicate with them, which made it difficult. The doctor had a son who did speak English, and other people dropped by who did as well, so we very able to communicate then.
We were beginning to feel our fatique as we had stayed up late every night since the beginning of our trip to socialize with our hosts or attend Rotary meetings, and events were always planned again for early in the mornings. We all had good stamina but were starting to feel the need to rest a bit. Rest time was not included in the schedule, however, so that had to wait.
We took a city tour and saw a home that had been brought over from the British Isles. Not only are there a lot of people of Italian descent in Argentina, but of English and Irish descent as well. There are little hot spots in Argentina where people talk with Irish accents, but they have lived their whole lives in Argentina! Very interesting.
Here, we visited a kindergarten school that Rotary sponsors. The kindergarten was celebrating its third anniversary, and we took part in the celebration. We also got a chance to visit an estancia, the largest sheep shearing farm in the world. It reminded me of Drogeda from The Thorn Birds.
We took a side trip to El Calafate, which has amazing blue glaciers, and is a neat resort town. The glaciers there seemed to be larger than the ones I had just seen in Alaska the year before. This was definitely a highlight of our trip. As we rode to a lake near there called Lago Roca, we saw a gaucho on a horse. We are really in Argentina.
That night at the Rotary meeting, rather than giving our individual presentations, we sat around at tables and talked with whomever wanted to meet with us. Unfortunately, the club was confused about what I did for a living and thought I worked in book publishing rather than in magazine editing. Members of a local writing group came to the meeting and were asking me questions about how to publish a book, and I answered them the best I could but explained that I was not in that business. Interestingly enough, we also got a lot of questions about Bill and Hillary Clinton and of all things, the U.S. jury system. I was able to answer the questions about the jury system pretty well, because at that time I was the editor of a law publication, and I had just published a pretty in-depth article about our jury system. During our stay here, we also got a private ecology lecture on ecosystem paradigm shifts from a professor Jerry Franklin. See http://www.endgame.org/trillium.html
Another highlight of this part of the trip was a climb to the top of a lighthouse and then going on a mission to find penguins. I was so excited--I had always wanted to see penguins. These penguins were shy, however, and stayed in pairs under bushes and did not come out and waddle around as they do in other locations. Up close, I was surprised to see how "birdy" the penguins looked. I expected them to seem a little more like mammals for some reason. If we did happen to see one up and walking, they would dart away before we got too close.
We had lunch at an estancia that also served as a small hotel. It had some of the most beautiful fireplaces I have ever seen! After lunch, we saw both sheep herding and sheep shearing operations. There was a young woman from the states who was working there temporarily. That would have to rank as one of the best summer jobs ever, I thought.
This stop occurred halfway through our month in Argentina and a couple of shifts occurred here. Argentina is very proud of its red meat and red wine, and we had had more than our share of both up until now. And as I mentioned before, we were also fatigued. Here in Comodoro Rivadavia, we got a little relief. There was a shift here toward lighter eating--more salads and fish and vegetables, and less red meat. Still plenty of wine and that was fine! And things slowed down some, and we got some much needed rest. As a matter of fact, the family I stayed with had a separate apartment across the hall from them, used normally for their inlaws, that they offered me. For a few days, I had my own space for a while that was utter luxury. You can't be that!
While there we visited a petrified forest. We also went to an asado, or Argentinian barbecue, at a ranch and played with a litter of border collie puppies. The only awkward part to this visit was that we were scheduled to go to a slaughterhouse. I had to say no. They were gracious and said that was OK. That was very nice of them. I think that was the right thing to do, because if the tables were turned, I would not want to insist on my guests doing something that made them uncomfortable. Back at my hosts' apartment, I watched the most popular soap opera on TV with them. Even though I could not understand what they were saying, I could tell from the actors' body language what was going on. That was a fun and bonding experience for us.
We traveled to Puerto Madryn in a very nice bus and were delighted to find that we were staying in a condominium on the beach. How nice! We got in a lot of walks on the beach during our stay here. We were treated to a boat ride, during which we saw a submarine, an abandoned Russian ship, and a Korean boat. A lot of cute sea lions were swimming close to our boat and sunning themsevles on nearby rocks. Our tour guide loved the word "excellent" and pointed at everything along the way, calling it "excellent!" We thought that was funny. We ate most of our meals at the Rotary office, and one of our hosts, Juan Carlos, was quite a card.
Next stop on our itinerary was Trelew. While there, we visited a textile manufacturer which delighted Emily since she is a weaver. Around this time, we also visited a museum that has the only dinosaur egg with minerals in it and also went to a national park with some wonderful rock formations. http://www.welcomeargentina.com/paleontologia/museos_i.html
In Trelew, I stayed with a nice family, but again had trouble communicating with them. Luckily, their eldest daughter, who was in law school, had a friend who was very fluent in English, and she basically camped out with us. Like me, she was addicted to the show Melrose Place. However in Argentina, they were a few seasons behind, so I was told not to talk about the next two seasons to not spoil it for her!
Continuting north, we soon came to Bariloche. We stayed in a wonderful home that looked down on this lake. A little bit of heaven. 'Nuff said.
We traveled to Esquel on an all night bus trip. It was hard sleeping on the bus, in no small measure because the bus almost hit a pack of wild horses that ran across the road in front of us, causing the driver to do some tricky manuevering to avoid hitting them.
The End of A Great Thing
My notes in my journal unfortunately end there, even though we still had at least another week of our trip left. Along the way, we joined up with another GSE team from Pennsylvania from a district where some of my relatives used to live. I enjoyed talking about PA with them. We also met the team from Argentina which later came to tour our district in TN. It was nice to get to know them there, and later upon their arrival in Nashville, I took the two women team members out to lunch.
On our last leg in Argentina, we and the other GSE teams arrived at the district conference, where we reunited with Rotary members we had met along the way. Some members in the audience smiled at me when I was onstage giving my presentation in castellano for the last time, silently giving their approval at how much I had improved since the last time they had heard my talk.
Back in Buenos Aires, we had a couple of days free. At that point, we were not doing Rotary activities anymore, and we were free to tour the city as we wished. Even though I caught a 24 hour stomach bug, I did walk around and see the sights, including the presidential palace and pictured Eva Peron there.
It was a wonderful experience, and I would certainly recommend it to anyone who enjoys travel, learning about other cultures, and learning about themselves.