Laid back is not really my style, which is quite evident to anyone who knows me even the tiniest bit. It’s why, before I started Bonderman, I assumed I would spend most of my time in cities and urban jungles, just like the way I hope to spend my “post-Bonderman life.” But within a few weeks of my fellowship, I realized that, in order to truly connect with individuals, disconnect from Western influence (as much as possible), and immerse myself in the experience, cities were not the way to go.
South America has put that to the test even more. Even in the largest city on the continent, Buenos Aires, I found myself wandering through sleepy, residential streets, on edge because of the incredible, pin-drop silence of this “bustling metropolis.” I was shocked by the way that, even on the major streets, strangers said hello to each other, people stopped for conversations. Meals stretched from one hour to three, as waitstaff took their time getting to the diners who took even more time. Life has seemed to move in slow motion these last few weeks, but it has allowed me to try to slow my mind down, as well, as I enter my final two months abroad.
Another obvious statement: right now is a scary time to call the United States home, and it is even more painful each time I hear it from another person not from the States. Every individual seems to have an opinion on our upcoming election and who the new leader of the not-so-free world should be, which I have no qualms about since they will all, undoubtedly, be impacted by the policies of our next President.
I have had earnest strangers ask me whether I really think Trump can win, what I will do if he is, am I scared? I assure them that I have faith in my fellow Americans, trying to convince myself as much as them, while we ironically drive by the Trump Towers that’s being built in Punta Del Este, Uruguay.
During one of many lazy afternoons, accompanied with maté, lemonade, and snacks, I found myself deep in a conversation on politics, world affairs, and religion. The best way to remember your Spanish? Try explaining a religion most South Americans have never heard of to them, and then answer their innumerable questions. About an hour into the conversation, I realized my tone was different, that their tone was different. This was a conversation I’d had countless times (albeit in English) and yet it all felt…different.
Rather than me feeling that I had to defend, explaining and giving excuses, I was sharing my honest opinions, my deep beliefs and fears, while the people across from me probed honestly, lovingly, with pure curiosity. The beautiful, and sad, difference I’ve found between the North and the South of the Americas? Only in one of them do people truly care about their neighbors, the strangers they’ve just met, their fellow humans. The 2016 elections have only been an even clearer reminder of this ugly truth.
Each time I’m finishing my meal, the waitress or waiter always, always, asks, “algo más?” Do you want anything else? Times when I’ve eaten quickly, in a rush to get to my next destination, it’s generally with a hint of surprise, unsure of why I am trying to leave so quickly. What’s the rush? Only a few weeks into my time here, and I’m constantly reminded of the ways we live our lives on fast forward in the States. Hurrying, scurrying, rushing, running to beat the rat race and be first. Always first.
The longer I’ve traveled, the more distant I’ve felt from home, physically and mentally. I certainly don’t feel that I have all the answers I left to find, but the problems in American culture have become increasingly clear to me as I immerse myself in the cultures of others. The United States was built upon the bones and blood of Indigenous communities and slaves, our engines and motors run on the sweat and tears of the working class and the poor, our skyscrapers look up at the clouds but down upon the slums and ruins of those who have been wronged by our justice system, our government, our people.
Between the trees and buildings, American air whispers to us, beckons to us to continue stepping on the shoulders of our neighbors to grasp at the clouds for ourselves. We continue scurrying in our rat race, never looking up until we reach the end, realizing we forgot to look at the scenery along the way. When I spent my summers in the big cities, the promise of the States, I was constantly told and reminded that my Midwestern manners would get me nowhere. Translation: being nice to my fellow citizens was not something to try. When did we develop this mentality? Why are we letting it run our country, choosing our politicians based on how quickly they can dismiss the validity of another human’s life?
I’m not claiming that South America, nor Latin America, has all the answers. I’m only just starting my journey here, and there is plenty to learn and unlearn. But, the one thing I know for sure is that they still remember that, in order to learn, you must listen. And sadly that seems to be a thing that we, in the good old USA, have forgotten.