Category Archives: Argentina

Connections

I am awake early this morning. Sadness woke me from a grieving dream about a friend who is moving away.

So I made some tea and opened a book of poems from the library. Poems by Ursula le Guin. I read her introduction and then a couple of random poems. Poetry touches me like music, going straight to my heart in a way that bypasses all my filters and protections. I was touched by her words — words that describe similar experiences and familiar feelings — we have shared common ground, the Poet and the Reader.

And then I found her poem called “Dos Poesias Para Mi Diana.” There, inside this poem, was an electrical connection!  Without knowing anything about the personal life of this writer, her words alone, without explanation or history, let me know that we have walked the same pathways, shared two far-distant places on this planet. I am thrilled, touched, overwhelmed momentarily by the synchronicity of this magical connection. And it’s like the voice of a friend from far away gently reminding me that distance, and time, are irrelevant. Our connections, our friendships, transcend time and space.

Good morning, my friends!

These Attacks of the Past

“I have them, these attacks of the past…”
~ The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

This week I have been listening to The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, and the line above really struck home with me. I have them, too, these attacks of the past. And I’ve been having them a lot recently because this is a significant year for me. It has been 50 years since my year as an exchange student to Argentina, a year that had a profound effect on the rest of my life. And since my father kept every letter I wrote home during that year, I have words from my younger self, as well as many memories, to help me revisit that experience. I hope to share some of that with you, if I may.

before-cell-phones-1967

Before cell phones!

50 years ago today, my hurried preparations were complete for spending a year abroad. In the 3 week period between receiving my acceptance letter and my departure, I got my passport and required shots, was tutored by the Spanish teacher at my high school (since I’d had five years of French, but no Spanish training), put together a wardrobe that I hoped would work for the year, and was almost finished packing it all into one large suitcase. I said goodbye to my school friends who would graduate before I returned. I had just turned eighteen years old and the longest I had ever been away from home was two weeks at Girl Scout camp. But I was over the moon with excitement and ready to take on the world!

DEPARTURE:

I wrote these words about my departure for Argentina in a post I published here in 2008.

In early 1967, I was chosen to be an exchange student with the American Field Service (now known as AFS Intercultural Programs). Looking back, I realize that the year I spent in Argentina was a “pivot point” in my life — that point where I stood still, poised to move in one direction or another. A photograph of me, at age 18, was snapped at the moment I hesitated at the top of the stairs while boarding the airplane to Argentina, looked back over my shoulder, and then began the forward motion of my life.

to-argentina

50 Years Ago: A Dream

my-destination

Destination: Argentina!

It started as a young girl’s dream: I wanted to be an exchange student!  50 years ago today, my dream came true. On January 25, 1967, at age 17, I received my acceptance letter from the American Field Service, (known today as American Intercultural Programs) and I began a journey that shaped my life in so many ways.

In 1963, I was inspired by our charismatic young president, John F. Kennedy, speaking to a group of American Field Service exchange students visiting the White House. (See the video link below of that speech.) His call for international understanding and his hope for our younger generation bringing peace to the world, touched my heart and set in motion my dream. 54 years later, his words still move and inspire me.

letter-from-afs-1967I can look back 50 years now to that January day and realize the full impact that letter of acceptance was to have on my life and thinking. That year shaped the young me into the adult I am today. That experience of living for a year in another country, completely immersed in another culture and language, shaped my view of the world and broadened my understanding of humanity. We all live similar lives and share similar hopes!

That year also shaped my beliefs about my responsibilities as both an American citizen and a citizen of the world. My experience as an exchange student is why I am so deeply concerned about the direction my country is taking under this new president with his hate-filled rhetoric and his closing of so many doors. But I realize that my experience of 50 years ago is also what gives me HOPE and direction.  I know firsthand that there are many good, kind, caring people in the world, from all different cultures, that are committed to and working diligently for peace and understanding among nations and for human rights everywhere. That is what I will continue doing, as well.

“Everyone who comes here to live and study — every American who goes abroad to live and study — forges one more link of world understanding and sympathy.” ~ John F. Kennedy

The Whispering Land, 2

While I was living in Argentina as an exchange student 40 years ago, my Argentine family took me on a wonderful road trip to the northern parts of the country.  So as I read The Whispering Land, by Gerald Durrell, I particularly enjoyed his chapter called “Jujuy,” (which is fun to pronounce: Who-Who-ee) and about his visit to what is now Calilegua National Park. His descriptions sparked memories!

…Then we sped round a couple of corners, down a hill and into the valley of Calilegua, and the vegetation changed, so suddenly that it was almost painful to the eye. Here were the vivid greens of the tropics, so many shades and some of such viridescence that they make the green of the English landscape look grey in comparison.  Then, as if to assure me that I was back in the tropics, a small flock of parakeets swooped across the road, wheezing and chittering.

I’ve always loved reading about animals, and Mr. Durrell’s stories about the animals he found in Jujuy were fun to read. His love for animals is reflected warmly in those stories.  Here are a few of the animals he wrote about:

The Whispering Land

Whispering_Land

During the last few weeks of school, needing distraction from tests and report cards but not having much time to read, I picked up a book that’s been on my shelf for a long time:  The Whispering Land, by Gerald Durrell.  I knew nothing about Mr. Durrell (although I recognized the name of his author brother, Lawrence Durrell), but this little book was about his travels to Argentina, and that caught my attention.  It turned out to be the perfect book to read during intense times!

From Penguin Books:

Durrell_statueGerald Durrell (1925-1995) was born in India, spent his youth on the idyllic Greek island of Corfu, and traveled the world, keenly observing the people and animals he eventually wrote about — the characters that make his readers laugh out loud. His works include a novel and several books based on his myriad worldwide collecting expeditions, including: My Family and Other Animals; Birds, Beasts, and Relatives; A Zoo in My Luggage; The Whispering Land; and Menagerie Manor.

Mr. Durrell was a wonderful storyteller, and the experiences he wrote about were fun and fascinating. I loved his descriptions of Argentina, and loved his stories of the animals and the people he encountered on that trip.

On every side of us the scrubland stretched away, dark and flat, so that you got the impression of being in the centre of a gigantic plate.  The sky had become suffused with green as the sun sank, and then, unexpectedly, turned to a very pale powder-blue. A tattered mass of clouds on the western horizon suddenly turned black, edged delicately with flame-red, and resembled a great armada of Spanish galleons waging a fierce sea-battle across the sky, drifting towards each other, turned into black silhouette by the fierce glare from their cannons.

Calilegua2

I’m quite fascinated now with Gerald Durrell after reading this book and learning a little bit about him, and I’d like to read more of his books!  Mr. Durrell was a naturalist dedicated to saving species from extinction. The zoo he and his wife started is still a charitable organization dedicated to that goal. This year, on July 12th, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust is celebrating “Durrell Day,” their 50th anniversary.  It is located on Jersey in the Channel Islands, and wouldn’t it be terrific to go there for that celebration?

Two years ago on Masterpiece Theater, there was a very nice film based on his book, My Family and Other Animals. My husband and I ordered it from Netflix and watched it the other evening. It was fun to learn a little more about his family and Durrell’s early passion for animals.

Sir David Attenborough said of Gerald Durrell:

“He was responsible for changing people’s attitudes to zoology and changing their agenda. He showed them that small animals could be as interesting as apes and elephants. His work with endangered species was incredible in that he could persuade them to breed in captivity. He then returned them to the wild. He was a pioneer with a marvelous sense of humour.” –Sir David Attenborough

Gerald_Durrell2

Leavin’ on a Jet Plane

Tomorrow I’m leavin’ on a jet plane to visit my mother. As I was packing and preparing for the flight tomorrow, that old song running through my mind, I was reminded of another flight I took 41 ago…

In early 1967, I was chosen to be an exchange student with the American Field Service (now known as AFS Intercultural Programs). Looking back, I realize that the year I spent in Argentina was a “pivot point” in my life — that point where I stood still, poised to move in one direction or another. A photograph of me, at age 17, was snapped at the moment I hesitated at the top of the stairs while boarding the airplane to Argentina, looked back over my shoulder, and then began the forward motion of my life.

Ombu Trees


Far Away and Long Ago, by W. H. Hudson, is the second book I read for Melissa’s Expanding Horizons challenge. I really enjoyed the book, and look forward to reading some of his other works, which includes the novel Green Mansions. I vaguely remember watching that movie ages ago, starring a very young and beautiful Audrey Hepburn.

Yesterday I posted about Far Away and Long Ago, his memoirs of his childhood in Argentina, and mentioned that Hudson’s birthplace was an estancia in Argentina named “Los Veinte-cinco Ombues,” which means “The Twenty-five Ombu Trees.” I had never heard of an ombu tree until I read this book, and I loved his description of them, so I went searching for photographs. What amazing trees!

The house where I was born, on the South American pampas, was quaintly named Los Veinte-cinco Ombues, which means “The Twenty-five Ombu Trees,” there being just twenty-five of these indigenous trees–gigantic in size, and standing wide apart in a row about 400 yards long. The ombu is a very singular tree indeed, and being the only representative of tree-vegetation, natural to the soil, on those great level plains, and having also many curious superstitions connected with it, it is a romance in itself. It belongs to the rare Phytolacca family, and has an immense girth — forty or fifty feet in some cases; at the same time the wood is so soft and spongy that it can be cut into with a knife, and is utterly unfit for firewood, for when cut up it refuses to dry, but simply rots away like a ripe water-melon. It also grows slowly, and its leaves, which are large, glossy and deep green, like laurel leaves, are poisonous; and because of its uselessness it will probably become extinct. Like the graceful pampas grass in the same region. In this exceedingly practical age men quickly lay the axe at the root of things which, in their view, only cumber the ground; but before other trees had been planted the antiquated and grand-looking ombu had its uses; it served as a gigantic landmark to the traveller on the great monotonous plains, and also afforded refreshing shade to man and horse in summer… 

Far Away and Long Ago

Allá Lejos y Hace Tiempo 

W. H. Hudson was born in Argentina in 1841 to American parents. He spent his early childhood on an estancia called “Los Veinte-cinco Ombues” (the Twenty-five Ombu Trees”) outside of Buenos Aires, and it was there he began to develop a passion for the flora and fauna of the Argentine pampas. And it was those early experiences with the natural world that shaped the boy into the much respected naturalist, ornithologist, “defender of nature” and gifted writer. When he was 77 years old, he wrote a memoir of his childhood, Far Away and Long Ago. That memoir, which I just read for Melissa’s Expanding Horizons book challenge, has touched my heart.

I know that I am partial to all things Argentine because of the year I spent there as an exchange student. But this book is so beautifully written, I would have loved it anyway. It is written with a grace and sensitivity that his colleague, Joseph Conrad, envied.

In this book, his memories become stories that carry you along as he paints vivid pictures in your mind of the landscapes, the wildlife, the people and the experiences of a young boy discovering his world — the boy on his horse, completely free to explore the beauty of the pampas from early morning until dusk. He spent hours observing the birds, and although his brothers would sometimes tease him, they respected his unique abilities at such a young age.

He was also a great observer of the humans around him and included tales about the neighbors, the gauchos that worked the estancias, the schoolmasters that came and went. There are stories of his escapades with his brothers, including one that told of a mock knife fight they had when his older brother wanted to practice the self-defense lessons given him by a local gaucho. Hudson was wounded during that “fight,” but won the respect of his older brother by not telling on him.

His boyhood ended suddenly, he explains, at age 15, when he became ill with Typhus, followed shortly afterwards by a serious bout with Rheumatic Fever which damaged his heart. The doctors told him he would not live very long, and facing the loss of everything he loved sent him into a period of dark despair. In the chapter “A Darkened Life,” he describes poignantly this crisis and his painful transition from the joyous innocence of his boyhood into manhood. When he recovered, and was able to finally assess maturely what he had lost and gained from those traumatic changes to his health, and also realized that he could live 20, 30, 40 more years, he rejoiced:

…That was the life I desired–the life the heart can conceive–the earth life. When I hear people say they have not found the world and life so agreeable or interesting as to be in love with it, or that they look with equanimity to its end, I am apt to think they have never been properly alive, nor seen with clear vision the world they think so meanly of, or anything in it–not a blade of grass. Only I know that mine is an exceptional case, that the visible world is to me more beautiful and interesting than to most persons, that the delight I experienced in my communings with nature did not pass away, leaving nothing but a recollection of vanished happiness to intensify a present plan. The happiness was never lost, but, owing to that faculty I have spoken of, had a cumulative effect on the mind and was mine again, so that in my worst times, when I was compelled to exist shut out from nature in London for long periods, sick and poor and friendless, I could yet always feel that it was infinitely better to be than not to be. 

Today, the Argentine home where Hudson was born has become a museum and a beautiful ecological park. One of my favorite passages from the books gives you a strong sense of that time and place, and a lovingly tender memory of his mother:

All that I remember of my early life at this place comes between the ages of three or four and five; a period which, to the eye of memory, appears like a wide plain blurred over with a low-lying mist, with here and there a group of trees, a house, a hill, or other large object, standing out in the clear air with marvelous distinctness. The picture that most often presents itself is of the cattle coming home in the evening; the green quiet plain extending away from the gate to the horizon; the western sky flushed with sunset hues, and the herd of four or five hundred cattle trotting homewards with loud lowings and bellowings, raising a great cloud of dust with their hoofs, while behind gallop the herdsmen urging them on with wild cries. Another picture is of my mother at the close of the day, when we children, after our supper of bread and milk, join in a last grand frolic on the green before the house. I see her sitting out of doors watching our sport with a smile, her book lying in her lap, and the last rays of the setting sun shining on her face. 

Che

Forty years ago today, when I was living in Argentina as an exchange student, I wrote a letter home about the death of Che Guevara. The news filled the Argentine newspapers and was the talk everywhere I went.

Nobody knows for sure if he’s really dead or not, I wrote. Last Sunday, October 8th, a number of “guerrillas” were killed in one of the many Bolivian battles. This battle took place in the southern part of Bolivia, in the province of Santa Cruz, near a small village named Vallegrande. Among the dead, the Bolivian government presumed, was Che Guevara. 

Growing up in the 60’s, we had all heard of “Che.” But because of the year I spent in Argentina, and being there when he died, I felt a special connection to him, and the story of his life and death is still fascinating to me. I didn’t understand or have enough information at that time to make a judgment about him–whether he was the mass murderer some claimed or an heroic revolutionary according to others. And I don’t know where to find the truth about him even today. Which sources or which versions of his story can I trust? In the last few years government documents have been declassified, many books and articles have been published about Che, and the controversy still rages.

I just know that I have always viewed him as a person rather than as an icon. I have preferred to read his own writings rather than biographies of him written by various people. I read The Motorcycle Diaries a few years ago and was captivated again by his youth and idealism. It transported me back to my own youthful idealism as an exchange student in 1967. I loved reading about his journey and his expanding awareness of the complex world of Latin America. And I felt that he spoke directly to me when he described the impact of his journey through South America:

“The person who wrote these notes passed away the moment his feet touched Argentine soil again. The person who reorganizes and polishes them, me, is no longer, at least I’m not the person I once was. All this wandering around “Our America with a capital A” has changed me more than I thought.” 

Che will be forever 39…”his face captured in eternal youth.” And I will always be fascinated by this charismatic and enigmatic Argentine.

Eight Things About Me Meme

While I’ve been traveling, a new meme has been circulating through the blogs, and this morning I found myself tagged by Brad, at Turning Pages. The meme is to list eight random facts about yourself, and since it’s fun to read those lists on other blogs and get to know many of you much better, I decided to participate. So here are the rules of the meme and some very random facts about me:

Meme rules: 1: Each player starts with 8 random facts/habits about themselves. 2: People who are tagged write a blog post about their own 8 random things and post the rules. 3: At the end of your post you need to tag 8 people and include their names. 4: Don’t forget to leave them a comment and tell them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

1. When I was six years old, I won a coloring contest sponsored by our local newspaper. The prize was an old Brownie camera, and I got my picture in the newspaper. I wasn’t the greatest “colorer” in the world, many (including my older brother) could color much neater and stay in the lines better than I could. But I included all kinds of “extras”…like clouds in the sky and flowers in front of the house.

2. 40 years ago I was chosen to be an American Field Service exchange student to Argentina. I spent a year there, living with an Argentine family, going to school, learning to speak the language fluently, and becoming part-Argentine in my heart. In those days, communication between the countries was much more difficult, and a year after returning home I lost track of my host family and my Argentine sister. Last year, thanks to the miracle of the internet, Silvia and I found each other again, and we’ve resumed our friendship and are slowly catching up on the happenings of the last 40 years!

3. I’ve been teaching for 20 years, which sounds like a lot of time put in until you meet my teammate, who has been teaching for 41 years!

4. Famous people I have met…Jane Goodall came to our school a few years ago and I was asked by my principal to introduce her at the assembly. Why? I’d told my principal my story about reading her book, In the Shadow of Man, when my son was a newborn, and about how that book had really influenced my parenting! He asked me to tell that story as I introduced her. She must have liked it because she kissed my cheek after the introduction. It’s a totally awesome experience to have your cheek kissed by one of your life heroes!

5. I started playing the flute in 5th grade, and stayed with it all through high school. I loved it, but haven’t played in years. My position in the school band was always “second chair flute” because my friend in the “first chair” was a very talented flute player from a family of 5 brothers, all of whom are very talented jazz musicians. He was inspirational, but I could never play the flute as magically as he played it.

6. My great, great grandparents were pioneers (covered wagons, hand carts, etc.)

7. My favorite evening entertainment is a quiet evening with B, watching a movie from Netflix, and maybe having a bowl of sherbet. We love to watch series that we miss when they’re on TV…we just finished watching the Sopranos, and now have to wait until the second half of season 6 comes out on DVD.

8. In August, B and I will have been married for 38 years. Who knows where the time goes?

Since I’ve been off the blogs for a week, I’m not sure who has or has not been tagged yet, so please consider yourself tagged if you haven’t been already!