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Traveler's Leap of Faith

<bt>"The driver will meet you at the meeting point. Cheers, Fernando."

I stared blankly at this brief, cryptic e-mail reply from my future employer. Huh? This was all the information I would receive about my imminent arrival at the Buenos Aires Airport?

Whether my confusion stemmed from a language barrier or a cultural chasm of grand proportions, I wasn't sure, but I suddenly felt queasy. I had about a million questions, my pricey plane ticket was already purchased, and I wanted detailed answers. Who was getting me from the airport, where was this "meeting point," and most importantly, where were they taking me?

My head began to spin, filling with a cacophonous montage of echoing voices of skepticism that had counseled me over the past few months. You are going to Argentina, alone, for a job you found on the Internet? So you don't know any Spanish at all? How exactly does this fit into your future career goals? How can you be sure this "Fernando" guy is legit?

Some people thought I was crazy. Did I really know anything about this program I had committed to joining, located an 11-hour flight south of D.C.? They wondered why I would possibly choose to live, yet again, as a temporary nomad, leaving behind family and friends and a comfortable existence overflowing with American opportunities. Why would I exchange all I could have here for an uncertain life on the road, full of unknown languages, hieroglyphic street signs and cultures that I clearly didn't understand?

Yet a few weeks later, bags packed, I relived a familiar bittersweet scene in which my family and I entered the emotion-filled halls of Dulles International Airport.

"Yes, Fernando will be picking me up at Ezeiza Airport," I reassured my parents, secretly hoping I wouldn't come to regret this initial, yet certainly not last, tremendous blind leap of faith as I embarked on my first journey to the South American continent. I put on a brave face as we did a final round of hugs and heart-thumping. Then I disappeared behind the x-ray machines and into the sea of airport chaos.

MY RIDE from the airport turned out not to be a gang of ax-wielding murderers waiting to pounce on a naive 25-year-old American woman. Instead, a mild Argentinean elder, who didn't speak English, chauffeured me to my mystery destination via the orderless raceways of Buenos Aires.

I beamed in the back seat of his weathered, unmarked car, drinking in the new whizzing sights of Argentinean life on a warm November day. Suddenly I didn't need to know exactly where I was going. I felt that somehow it would all be OK. Whatever bumps I might encounter along the way, I decided, would only contribute to this unfolding adventure. It was time to leave behind my American urges for precise timetables and detail-heavy instructions. It was time to adopt the local attitude and to soak up every colorful sight, every body-jolting beat, every animated, curious stranger willing to take me under his wing, to embrace the true South America.

My experience working as a counselor for Fernando's English Immersion program, Colonias de Inmersion al Idioma, proved to be one of those leaps of faith in life that happened to work out. I hesitate with the usage of "working," when our "income" might suggest it more of a volunteer endeavor, but clearly I did not travel to South America to strike it rich.

In an ingenious, albeit currently disorganized fashion, Fernando has created an Anglophone universe to which Argentinean students of the English language can be temporarily transported. For a few days, students of our programs are challenged to speak only in English, to read only English, and if all goes according to plan, to leave thinking in English. They pile into buses, vans and family cars and travel to meet us at a designated estancia (farm house) that is purposefully secluded deep in the land of gauchos (modern-day Argentinean cowboys).

The escalating energy can be felt as the vehicles caravan toward us down endless dirt roads, kicking up mini-cyclones of dust and gently pushing roving cows back out into the vast fields. Upon arrival, the children typically cower in giggling circles, unloading their oversized bags and nervously eyeing us English-speaking counselors. Their excited, rapid-fire Spanish breaks the previous serenity of our surroundings, though the second they cross over into "The Village," it is strictly business.

One by one, they timidly approach our customs table. At check-in, we hand them fake passports, rifle through their bags for any illegal trace of Spanish — any words that have not been covered with tape, even on toiletries, must be confiscated for the duration of the camp — and get them to echo our goofy, yet vital English Only oath. From this point on, their native language is forbidden. It is time to speak, to live, to breathe, the English language.

EACH PROGRAM carries a theme: "Woodstock," "Celts vs. Vikings," "The Night of the Living Dead," to name a few. The days are full of games, talent shows, culture discussions, mock interviews and job assignments. At night we gather around a campfire and fill the still, star-speckled sky with sing-a-longs of "Imagine" and "Wild Rover," accompanied by the soothing strums of the acoustic guitar.

On the final day, a comical court session puts suspected Spanish-speaking violators on trial. The "plaintiffs" are defended by assigned "lawyers" — anything to keep the crowds entertained and, more importantly, anything to keep the English flowing.

At mealtime, the children and their teachers are forced to sample an array of authentic foods. In a departure from their beloved steaks and empanadas, their plates are filled with peanut butter, pancakes, shepherd's pie or sloppy Joes. Whether they like it or not is beside the point; we encourage them to at least step out of their comfort zone and give it a try, to take advantage of this rare opportunity set before them.

The final moments of each session are a whirlwind of group photographs, e-mail exchanges and departure besos (kisses), before the students reluctantly pile back into the buses and head back out into civilization. The ruckus of their English songs and cheers diminish as they fade off into the pastel, cow-splattered horizon, as we counselors collapse with satisfied exhaustion.

In the end, my involvement with Colonias turned out to be so much more than an excuse to purchase a dream flight to South America. I, too, became a student, in observing these drastically different, breathtaking cultures and ways of life. Although I later had incredible experiences in Brazil, Bolivia and Peru, I will always cherish memories of my 3 1/2 months spent in Argentina, the first South American country to welcome me with open arms. In those first impressionable seconds back in November, I knew that I would love Argentina — with the allure of tango, the vivacious Castellano language, the succulent meat, the sophisticated European feel mingled with a spicy Latino twist. Countless reasons exist to return to this sensational country.

ONE OF the most convincing reasons is the people. Through Colonias, I was also given the opportunity to spend time with host families in different regions of Argentina, some with whom I have formed lifelong bonds. In each of my home-stays, I was taken in like one of their own, fed countless bienvenido asados (rowdy and delicious barbecues that capture the essence of Argentina), given a chance to improve my struggling Spanish, embarrassingly showered with gifts (often from those who had so little themselves), and in some cases, raised up on an absurd celebrity-esque pedestal (a position that I found uncomfortable and undeserved).

In minuscule Mattilde, a dusty, toad-filled town of 2,000, I was interviewed by the local news and presented a gift by the mayor on behalf of the entire town. In Pehaujo, a rough and tumble cowboy town where I acted as teacher's assistant in a one-room English Institute attached to the teacher's home, I was asked to star in a surprise videotape that will be presented to the students and their families on a large auditorium screen at the school year's end.

While these warm Argentineans expressed how fortunate and amazed they were to welcome me into their modest, simple hometowns, I doubt they will ever truly grasp how much this 25-year-old American chica took away from her chance encounters with them.

Corinne Whiting, a native of Annandale, is a graduate of W.T. Woodson High School and Georgetown University. She will commence a master's program at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, in September. She spent her junior year of college abroad in Strasbourg, France. She plans to pursue her passion for travel writing and to continue her global adventures.