Solo Adventures Abroad — experiencing ultimate independence

IMG_3234Considering the price and time investment, in order to get to a country a whole hemisphere away I thought it to be prudent to stay longer, in-country past the completion of the program.  Not only did I want a fuller experience in Buenos Aires (where my program was based) but I also wanted to venture into the more rugged areas of Patagonia in the south.  With this in mind, I had to take on the challenges of navigating foreign public transit, figuring out directions, taking into account local customs and practices, language barriers, and the logistical and psychological factors of solo travel. 

The first leg of my solo journey consisted of the simple task of waving down a cab to get from my program housing to the airport in order to reach my connection from Buenos Aires to San Carlos de Bariloche (Patagonia).  Given my limited Spanish speaking ability I wanted to ensure that I had a clear-cut, agreed upon price for my fare prior to getting into the cab.  Though the currency exchange rate in Argentina is highly beneficial to the U.S. dollar it’s no excuse to get ripped off.  All things considered, I’m still a college student on a budget.  Luckily after some negotiation with the mischievous, old cab driver I was able to get an agreed upon price. 

Upon arriving at the airport, I grew slightly more anxious at the prospect of leaving behind my fellow Towson classmates, English speakers… semblances of familiarity.  I truly was embarking on an adventure, a challenge… away from all linguistic and cultural norms that I had been accustomed to living in the United States.  Prior to this I had never been completely on my own without support, without something familiar around to comfort me.  This was the form of excitement and adventure that I had been seeking for the longest time.  Though honestly, I felt anxious, slightly uncomfortable even.  The thought of not being able to communicate my needs and wants became troubling to me but that gave me the motivation to try and try again until I could get my point across in Spanish. 

Getting my ticket, checking my luggage, all of that went quite smoothly.  Next it came time to go through security.  In the U.S. it’s customary to remove all metal objects, thick clothing, shoes, belts, and your sense of dignity before going through airport security.  Expecting a similar encounter, I followed the same protocols.  The closer and closer that I got to the metal detectors I became more and more bewildered.  Every passenger had set of the detector and every passenger was waved through after a brief visual head-to-toe by security.  When it came by turn I was virtually the first one out of 100 to not set it off.  Even stranger, security gave me some weird looks for not setting it off.  I was so confused by that event but I still admittedly appreciate the smoothness of the transition. 

Skipping ahead to my arrival in Bariloche, I was greeted by an unexpected snow storm.  I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised given the airport was set between mountains but it still defied all forecasts that I’d seen.  My next task was to find a way to get from the tiny, regional airport to the Hostel that I had reservations at in town.  Cab drivers were offering crazy prices of $130 AR.  In reality this equated to only $10 USD at the time but I was trying hard to be frugal.  Fortunately the alternative that I found only cost $35 AR; also known as a remise.  A remise is essentially a group taxi where multiple people headed in the same direction get into a vehicle and they get dropped off one at a time at their respective locations.  At least that’s how ours worked.  It was actually a pretty frightening experience, the man driving had little control of the van as we careened down the snow covered mountain into town.  We nearly were thrown off of the road a few times.  The road was nearly impassible but yet we pressed on.  It’s really situations like that where you wish you had spent the extra few dollars for a more experienced taxi driver.  Nevertheless, I managed to reach my hostel all safe and sound.

The next morning, I went downstairs to catch up with the owner who I had briefly met the night before.  He was this incredibly nice man, complete with dreadlocks and a tie-die beanie.  He helped me settle into town, introduced me to the local bus transportation system, and told me where the local dives were.  I can’t recommend hostels enough… you meet incredibly helpful people.  Typically you run into a plethora of interesting people.  In Bariloche I met two Australians en route to the World Cup in Brazil, an Irish couple, and father-daughter from California celebrating a break from graduate school, as well as a bunch of others.  It’s such a fun experience to get such an awesome variety of world perspectives over a cup of coffee or a bowl of cereal.  During the school year I long for those Hostel experiences.  The most fascinating types of people roll through those places. 

Something that truly hits home when you travel solo is your desire to communicate with people.  No man is an island.  If you don’t happen to be traveling with friends you tend to find yourself conversing with the locals a lot more.  There was one restaurant that I went to in Bariloche that I truly enjoyed… not because of the amazing food but because of the server I had.  She quickly spotted out that I hadn’t been in Argentina long because I had been eating my empanadas with a fork and knife.  In fact, she actually giggled at me a little and explained that my behavior was a little odd.  After that we began to have a lengthy conversation about where I was from, why I was there, her desire to learn English, my Spanish skills, and much more.  Laughing and talking with someone who grew up a hemisphere away makes the world feel like a smaller place.  It makes the world feel so much more connected.  Upon arriving back in Buenos Aires, I grew to love the city and the familiarity that it presented.  I felt as though the Porteños (the name for a native from Buenos Aires!) and I became one in the same.  I started riding the city buses like a pro, correctly navigating between the over 200 bus routes in the city (it takes a while to get accustomed to it!) and loving the underground. 

Over the course of my stay in Bariloche I had many thrilling adventures on my own.  From exploring town to hiking in the countryside, I had an exciting experience, including this one occasion where I took the bus 25 km outside of town to go hiking and I managed to miscalculate my bus fare.  Upon my return, I realized that I actually had nothing left on my bus card with no way of replenishing it.  Whilst I came to this realization the skies began to dump snow and rain.  It was a tense moment as I stepped on the bus only to realize that I had no way of paying for my ride back to town.  Luckily the bus driver took pity on me and allowed me to ride for free.  It’s moments like these where you truly value the kindness of strangers.  Traveling solo forces you to rely upon yourself, but sometimes you can get lucky and people will step up to help you. 

Eventually, I had to say goodbye to what is now my favorite city.  I still miss it and I’ve made a promise to myself to return one day.  My experience in Argentina was eye opening.  In closing, I’ll leave you with a few words about studying abroad.  Think of living in one place, one culture for a lifetime.  You grow within the confines of what you perceive to be achievable, possible, and normal.  I liken the concept to being a potted plant…you can only grow and flourish if you’re given that space to extend yourself into bigger territory; the proverbial wild.  Otherwise you’re just a potted plant…incapable of growing further, flourishing, reaching your fullest potential.  Let your curiosity for what’s over that border fuel you and light a fire in your heart.  Let the world be your garden, your wilderness.  Allow yourself to grow, flourish, adapt, and find a new perspective.  Studying abroad, traveling abroad is the most effective way to expand your horizons.  It changed my life, it certainly will change yours. 

This post was written by Bradford Drewniak, a Psychology major and Study Abroad Peer Advisor in the Towson Abroad Office!