Lessons outside the classroom!
My last post discussed my experience studying in Argentine universities, but without a doubt, I am learning plenty outside of class!
For Semana Santa (Easter Weekend) last week, 5 of the other IFSA students and I took a rather uncommon trip. Rather than going somewhere more normal for study abroad long weekends like Chile, Iguazu Falls, Cordoba or Buenos Aires, we went to Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) for a long weekend in the middle of the desert and far from civilization. When we planned the trip, we were excited for Ischigualasto Provincial Park with its unique sites and history. Little did we know going there meant driving far into the desert where tiny towns were few and far between. Our hospedaje ended up being in a town of only about 20 residents! What a huge contrast from our first days in Buenos Aires! This actually speaks to the incredible diversity you will see in Argentina; though I was in Mendoza that morning, a few hours on a bus brought me to towns with much less people, a much drier climate and a completely different way of life with different traditions, housing and beliefs. Driving the same distance or a little further in other directions could bring me to colder and wetter climates, more urbanized cities, more natural surroundings, a whole different array of plant and wildlife and pretty different versions of Argentine cultural staples.
For our ride from Valle Fertil (one of the last tiny towns on our way to the hospedaje), we were lucky enough to have a very knowledgeable music teacher as our driver. On this ride, we learned and saw cool wildlife like grey wolves (the ones there are as small as a cat!), learned about the education system, rural life, how tourism is affecting this area but how it is protected against many of tourism’s negative impacts and why UNESCO has named it a World Heritage Site. Living together in a cabin and exploring around it was an adventure in itself. We lived without internet access and many of the typical comforts our life affords us (such as the ability to run to the store to pick up something you forgot). Walking around, we saw how nature shaped the land over centuries, with mountains that existed before the first human on every side. Rocks on our walks gave clues to what existed before humans, what this land had seen and what once existed and was there no more. Our tour of Ischigualasto Provincial Park, with its incredible rock and canyon formations and history as a center for archaeology, of course was a major extension to that experience. Once again, we were introduced to the workings of Earth that shaped the land around us and even learned about the types of dinosaur fossils that have been found at this important dig site. In fact, some of the oldest fossils ever found were unearthed there. Plus, just seeing Valle de la Luna was incredible in itself. It literally did feel like we were on another plant…or moon! I’ve seen quite a few beach sunsets, but surprisingly the breathtaking sunset over the canyon as we drove out of the park ended up being one of the prettiest, most vibrant sunsets I have ever seen. Gradient purple layers of mountains lined the bottom of the deep pink and orange sky. On our way back to Mendoza, we decided to spend some extra time in Valle Fertil and suddenly the name choice was quite clear; Though we were in a desert, Valle Fertil, with its lake and river, truly seems like an oasis. Not only is it a little more urban (in relative terms) and was fertile in services the middle of the desert lacked, the area surrounding the lake was the most incredible, pure shades of green. Tall trees and plants that thrived only with adequate supplies of water flourished around the lake with cacti seen along the hills. The area was so much greener, cooler and wetter and contrasted greatly to all of our dry, sandy surroundings of the past few days. It was the perfect closing to our trip and yet another reminder of the incredible diversity of landscapes in Argentina.
Valle de la Luna and my time in the desert (click for next photo)
Valle Fertil (click for next photo)
Of course, there’s plenty of learning I have been doing in Mendoza as well. Aside from the museums and wealth of knowledge you can get from talking to people (especially dinner conversations with my host mom in my case!), there are many other unexpected places to get to know different parts of Argentine culture and society while practicing your Spanish skills. Many theaters in Mendoza offer movies at at low prices or free and there are cultural events which rarely cost much happening all the time. In fact, with the food bank I am working for here, some popular events accept one 800g carton of milk powder in place of two concert tickets. So you’re getting into concerts without spending much and you’re helping people in need in the community with your donation. Speaking with the community while exchanging tickets for milk cartons was quite the challenge for me since they don’t instantly know you’re not fluent and when they realize it, they may not have time or the patience to slow down and explain things to you. It kind of reminded me of my job as a cashier back home, but language and cultural differences just added extra layers to the confusion and challenge! I like it though! Additionally, I may not be in Buenos Aires, but lucky for me, I have been able to see many free and low cost dancing performances which truly amaze me every time!
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Yesterday I explored a very different part of life in Argentina, the life of local artisans and craftsmen. Plaza de Independencia at the center of Mendoza has an actual line of vendors who set up their booths and sell their works everyday, particularly at night and on the weekends. Another line of artisanal booths can be found just outside city center. I was able to visit both yesterday and spent hours talking to the artisans about their work and art. Unexpectedly, I ended up buy a lot of presents for family and friends back home too! They told me the different South and Central American countries different gemstones and precious minerals could be found. I learned that alpaca is not just the animal but also a type of metal! Also, Rhodochrosite is the national gem of Argentina and can only be found here. I was particularly impressed by the special style of filigree jewelry made here. Personally, I really like delicate, intricate designs so I was continually impressed by the painstakingly-made works of wire. Some of the artisans explained their techniques were passed down in their families, others explained how this specific techique has originated and changed throughout South America and some even showed me how it is done. Such techniques are both solely done by hand and without any specific form to them so that every piece comes our unique. They also had many questions for me so it was a fun cultural exchange which I really enjoyed. Hopefully the hard work, expertise and kindness of the artisans I talked to is reflected in each of the presents I chose for my friends and family. I don’t normally wear jewelry, but I ended up buying some for myself that embodied the techniques and types of gems I learned about and know I will always cherish them as memories of a wonderful day.
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