Monday, April 15, 2013

La mitad del camino

The High Andes as seen from Bodega Alta Vista in Maipú, to the south of Mendoza
It is officially my halfway point! Thirteen weeks of a solid six months on this continent down. I feel celebration is in order, as to not getting attacked by a puma or irreversibly lost on a micro in Mendoza (yet)—how so? Chocolate chip cookies, man. Bring ‘em on.
My mom was wonderfully generous and brought me many a wondrous American product—peanut butter and Nutella and Clif bars and green chile and chocolate chips and curry powder and the third Game of Thrones book. I’m saving the peanut butter for when I next go trekking in May but, in a moment of weakness and hunger for hazelnut, I broke down and opened the Nutella a few days ago. It made my day, possibly my week.

Sheer chocolate chip cookie happiness

But now, Katie and I took the plunge of the ultimate American nostalgia trip of baking chocolate chip cookies, making curry, and catching up on Game of Thrones season one and two, plus plans to bite the bullet and buy tickets for our plans for May break. It. Was. Awesome. Our wingin’ it of a curry stir-fry shindig (couldn’t find coconut milk) and our chocolate chip cookies without baking soda, brown sugar, OR vanilla both turned out phenomenally and it was a great night, even if we never actually got around to watching Game of Thrones or buying flights—it was super fun to just hang out, a concept that is one of the most impossible things to pull off here on study abroad. Visiting other host houses is rare at best, so the only time we intercambio students spend together in groups all boils down to being out at bars. Fun, but that gets old fast for a whole lot of reasons, so many of us have started getting creative. It certainly makes you miss the ease of college life and living in a house of twelve of my closest friends.

Food with taste is surprisingly rare down here, apart from way too much oil and salt on everything (Salt on lettuce? This was super weird for me, and I happen to love salt. Still, too far, man. Too far), so Katie and I have both been on a fruitless search for curry since day one. I’ve been trying to attribute my habits to experiencing the food culture, but I definitely haven’t eaten this unhealthily since I can remember. I’m really looking forward to weird things like Greek yogurt and pretzels, but hey, I will certainly continue to enjoy the helado here.

In retrospect from this halfway point, food has been the source of the hardest part for me to grapple with since arriving in Mendoza. I have been off the Wheaton meal plan and cooking for myself for two years now, and love it. I never ate meat in the dining hall my first year as it dependably made me incredibly sick, and since then I’ve cooked meat, apart from seafood, three times in my time at Wheaton and don’t miss it much at all. It’s just too much effort and expense for one person, when I can exist healthily, enjoy a variety of food, and still run marathons while being a pseudo-vegetarian/pescatarian/whatever-you-want-to-call-it-if-you-require-a-label. Thus, I wrote “vegetarian, but would like to eat Argentine meat” on my host questionnaire for study abroad. Little did I know, this was a disaster waiting to happen. My host mom is vegetarian, but I have learned that others’ definitions of “vegetarian” can be outrageously different than my own very educated system that often revolves around running. I’m not strict (Nutella is a staple, not an option) and I won’t get into it, but I am constantly aware of needing protein. My host mom is really more of a vegan in a culture with hardly any raw nuts available, so lentils will appear every few days and garbanzo beans happened once. I’ve learned that I cannot survive off of this with a fast metabolism and still keeping up the running; I was borderline starving for my first month in Mendoza compared to my usual and had no idea what to do about it.
Curry hot date (plus avocado!)

I was hesitant about approaching this—I have already paid for all my meals while here, so eating out or buying my own food was essentially out of the question. More importantly, I had no clue what to do with the cultural implications of my family situation and how to navigate those waters. I was not sure if I should directly ask for specific foods or how bold I should be in eating the house out, and did not dare try to cook for myself. I am living with a single mother and her young son; there is no father involved. Still, the gender and age norms of Latin America were difficult for me to learn, until I finally figured things out. The mother of the house still does absolutely everything, which is why the unspoken lack of encouragement to use the kitchen exists. I have forced myself to quit my hard-earned habit of always doing my dishes, and I only just recently started using the stove to make tea (and still feel guilty doing so).

Shamelessly super pumped about fresh veggies
Furthermore, children live with their parents much longer than is customary in United States households, especially my own.  I’ve known this, but it took me embarrassingly long to figure out that now, here, this applies to me. My host mom isn’t patronizing me on a daily basis, she’s just following the culture norm. After being self-sufficient for a few years, and especially after coming off of being completely alone in Chile and conquering the biggest independent challenge of my life thus far, I was super confused, frustrated, and even offended by the way my host mom treated me at first. I am still figuring things out, but I’ve accepted the family social construct and beat my independence ego down quite a bit. I am still completely not myself here and am timid to a fault. I really dislike this strange person I am here, but let’s face it, I’ve never lived
Wine tasting at Bodega Alta Vista with Shawny and Katie
in a complete stranger’s house for an extended time before. Once I realized that I am just a guest, not an extension of the family, and that my host family is getting a paycheck for my presence, I’ve started faulting myself less for not feeling entirely comfortable. I have only really known of my father and aunt’s host family experiences: my whole family knows Herr Oelerich, Dad’s host dad from college, who we have visited multiple times in Erlangen, Germany, and my aunt just returned to Denmark recently for her host mom’s 80th birthday. Both were life-long friendships, and are completely and utterly different from my experience thus far.

Success even without half the recipe
Why? I’ve been considering this my entire time here, and I attribute a HUGE part of this complete lack of closeness to the ease of international communication and how outstandingly common study abroad is now. Internet is a killer. To keep a long rant brief, communicating with my home world is way too ridiculously easy, but it is what I am accustomed to. I tried to cut myself completely off from internet when I was in Chile, but it was just too difficult on top of my difficulty there in the first place. I spoke to my family and very few friends while I was down there, and that contact helped me tremendously. I needed that, because I am used to constant conversation, especially with my family. When my dad studied abroad in Germany for a year, he got to call his parents once as his Christmas present. I cannot fathom this, considering I have the good fortune that the internet exists. Granted, my internet dies for weeks at a time, but I can still email friends from the study abroad office and if I do have wi-fi, I can Skype to actually speak to people. This is the world we live in now, and I am absolutely aware of how it affects my life, both at home and abroad.

As for study abroad being common, my family just doesn’t care to engage me as much as I hoped, regardless of how I try. I have far more curiosity about learning about this culture than they have for teaching me about it. I think this is a personal case to my specific family, but I am nonetheless trying not to be disappointed. Plus, meeting Argentines has proven infinitely more difficult than meeting Chileans in Magallanes. Native speakers I have spoken to most thus far here in Mendoza have been from Mexico and Puerto Rico, not Argentina. So far, my opinion between my experiences in Chile and Argentina is rather warped and I do not consider it complete or accurate. A huge part may be the fact of the geographical locations, as the small, friendly town of Puerto Natales is no fair comparison to the large city that is Mendoza. Nevertheless, I am finding new ways of meeting people as my few classes thus far are so rare that it makes it difficult to get to know Argentines: I met quite a few friendly folks at the dancing places I’ve gone for salsa and tango, and I’m getting a membership to a yoga place around the corner from my house, plus I’ve started testing out to find people for hiking and climbing.

I’m not a city person in the least and I miss the wonderful friendly faces in Torres del Paine and all of my close friends there every day, but I am trying my best here in Mendoza, slowly but surely. What is living in a completely foreign country for a few months if not difficult? After all, I am only halfway.

Much love,

P.S.- I finished roping together all the little video clips I took while in Torres del Paine and put together a kinda goofy video. It's pretty much just for my memory, but the two friends I've mentioned it to were pretty pumped, so if others are interested, I'd love it if you checked it out! (Watching it in HD is worth the wait, it really makes a huge difference).

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