El Ascenso: Adventure & Discovery in South America

By Melissa Brij-Raj, Dialogue of Civilizations

When people hear the word “Patagonia,” they will often immediately think of the winter outerwear clothing brand. The beautiful scenic region between Argentina and Chile that I had the chance to experience may not immediately come to mind, and certainly didn’t for me until I traveled to South America for the first time.

Two summers ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Argentina and Uruguay as part of the “Spanish Language & Argentinean and Uruguayan Culture,” dialogue. The dialogue gave me the chance to be immersed in a completely different language and culture. I have taken Spanish language classes since preschool, but I never considered myself fluent, especially before the Dialogue program. In part because of the language barrier, I was extremely nervous about living in another country for the first time and being out of my usual comfort zone. The main reason I chose to attend Northeastern was to push myself and to take advantage of all the opportunities presented to me, and this was one of them.

My parents immigrated to the United States around 30 years ago from Guyana, a small former British colony in South America. Unsurprisingly, I always had a longing to visit the continent, even though I was born and raised in New York. Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America, and is culturally distinct from many Latin American nations. However, as I love meeting new people and enjoy learning all about their heritage and cultural backgrounds, I lept at the opportunity to experience other South American countries.

The trip ended up being an unforgettable five-week experience of a lifetime. I spent the first three weeks of the program living with host a family in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with an elderly woman, and two other girls from Northeastern. Each morning, we’d attend Spanish classes at a language school in the city, named Bridge Argentina. Then we filled our afternoons with cultural activities such as visiting historical sites and exploring the beautiful and interesting city of Buenos Aires. The first few days were definitely rough living in a cold, foreign city. Argentina was freezing, none of us had packed appropriately, and we all had somehow forgotten that July is the middle of winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Communicating with the locals also proved to be harder than anticipated. Argentinians have a very distinct accent that is much harder to decipher than other Spanish speakers and very few speak English. This made it challenging to navigate Buenos Aires. Eventually, however, we got used to the weather, became more familiar with the Argentine accent, and Buenos Aires turned into a city as familiar as Boston.

After three weeks, we packed our bags and climbed aboard the ferry to Montevideo, Uruguay. The difference between Montevideo and Buenos Aires was vast. Buenos Aires is a lively, densely populated urban area, whereas Montevideo is a sparse small town filled with history and an unhurried people. The people of Buenos Aires never slept and were always moving, and Uruguayans were more laid-back and took their time. While both groups were welcoming to foreigners, Argentinians took great pride in their culture, yet Uruguayans seemed more eager to both share and learn from foreigners. However, the people of the two countries were both proud to be Latin Americans. They both took great pride in their music, dances, sports, as well as their red meat and wines, all of which Latin America is renown for. After only a brief weekend in Uruguay, we boarded a plane and headed to Patagonia, my favorite portion of the Dialogue.

I had never realized that Patagonia was a place that existed beyond the clothing brand, and I was immediately amazed at the beauty of the region. Patagonia, a region shared by both Argentina and Chile, is comprised of the southern section of the Andes Mountains in South America, and includes deserts, pampas, and grasslands. Patagonia is also a tourist destination for nature lovers, offering beautiful lakes, scenic hikes, and surreal glaciers. Our Dialogue group was lucky enough to have the opportunity to climb the most famous glacier in Patagonia, Perito Moreno Glacier, located in Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina. Although I am not an athletic person at all, I was determined to take the climb.

After a bus ride, ferry, and 40 minute hike, our tour guide finally lead us across the glacier  for the most unbelievable and unreal hike of my life. I can still distinctly remember standing on top of the ice, looking around, and thinking, “This looks like a scene from “Frozen.”

Overall, my trip to Latin America was truly memorable. I met incredibly interesting people, learned about the cultures of Latin American cities, sharpened my Spanish skills, and got to check off quite a few items on my bucket list. By pushing my personal comfort zone and completing my first international experience, I decided to continue traveling, and immediately signed up for another Dialogue in Geneva, Switzerland the following summer. I can’t wait to see where my next adventure will take me.