I used buses as my main way of travelling around the continent. My roommate and I once took a tiny bus out of Santiago, in Chile, over the Andes to the Argentinean city of Mendoza. The roads were narrow. I could look out the window and see a drop for thousands of feet. The bus climbed up a road with hairpin turns, past trucks hugging the side of the mountain to let us pass. I was nervous, but I had to trust the driver knew what he was doing.
The bus broke down just after leaving the Andes. It was the middle of winter and it was freezing. We waited over an hour and talked to the people on the bus while the driver worked on the problem. Finally, another tiny bus drove by and rescued us. We crammed ourselves in. My bus driver noticed my shivering – when I’d packed for my trip to South America, I hadn’t packed a warm jacket. He took off his own and offered it to me. I refused, but he insisted and finally I took it.
I spent five months in Argentina through St. Thomas University’s student exchange program. I thought I’d be improving my Spanish and learning about Argentinean culture – and I did – but I also learned to think on my feet and trust things will work out in the end. I learned to truly appreciate the people around me.
I didn’t have many friends in Argentina, but I wouldn’t have lasted without two very important people – my Mexican roommate, Andrea, and my Argentinean friend, Patricia. Andrea was another exchange student at the same university as me. She could have just been someone to split the rent with, but she wasn’t.
A month into my exchange, I got strep throat. I was feverish and weak and my throat was so sore I didn’t want to eat or drink anything. Andrea came with me to the hospital. I didn’t know how to explain how I was feeling in Spanish, so she told the doctor everything. After, she came to the pharmacy with me to get my prescription.
Patricia was in two of the same classes as me. I had originally gone to Argentina for a special program for foreigners, but after arriving I was told it was cancelled. I had no choice but to take the regular classes. After the first class, I wanted to cry. I hardly understood anything the professor said and the other students were very cliquey. Patricia noticed me sitting by myself, and sat down next to me. She didn’t speak a word of English, but was patient with me as I spoke to her, hesitantly at first, then with more confidence as my Spanish improved.
One night, Andrea and I had some friends over. We were planning to go out to a nearby bar. Most of my friends, including my roommate, were Mexican. They didn’t want to walk the five blocks to the bar because it was “too cold.” My Spanish friend Alejandro and I decided to walk and meet them there.
Alejandro and I were just about to cross the street when a car drove up out of nowhere. A man got out of the car and grabbed my bag. It was so sudden, I couldn’t think clearly, so I grabbed it back. He grabbed it again. I grabbed it back and Alejandro tried to pull me away. Before I could do anything, the man got a knife out, grabbed my hand, and cut my wrist. Then he cut my purse off me, ran with it to the car, and drove away.
My mind was blank. I couldn’t think. Alejandro got me back to my apartment, where our Mexican friends were just getting into a cab. Alejandro explained what had happened and they got me into the cab to go to the hospital, despite my protests. I was in shock, so I couldn’t feel the cut, and I just wanted to go home.
When we got to the hospital, people in the waiting room looked at my hand covered in blood and pointed us in the direction of emergency. A doctor saw me within 20 minutes and cleaned and bandaged me, without ever asking for payment or identification.
Thankfully, I didn’t lose anything important. My passport and bank cards were safe in my apartment. I have a scar on my wrist now that I don’t think will ever disappear. I am so thankful I had friends with me that night, who stuck around afterwards to comfort me.
Culture was everywhere. I drank maté, a typical Argentinean tea, with Patricia. She would add copious amounts of sugar so I could tolerate the bitterness of it. Down by the beach, people danced to cumbia, a popular type of music. Children dressed in sky blue and white (the national colours) played soccer in the street. The people were laid back. Things are often chaotic, but they go about their business, trusting that in the end, everything will work out.