Brazilian Bucket List

A distant view of Iguazu Falls from the Argentina side

In our advance planning for our year abroad we never spent much time thinking about how we’d return to the US from Argentina. We intentionally left this minor detail open as long as we could because we didn’t want a return date or route to influence our desire to approach our life down south with a total open mind. We left entirely unsure when we’d return other than our initial one-year budget. With no small sense of pride and wonder, my budget came miraculously close to the mark, so back we go to begin earning a living again, and to start the kids in school in September. Deciding on an exit through Brazil came about after prioritizing our bucket list destinations. It’s a big world and a short life. We decided to go home with a bang as long as we were so far south, not knowing when and if we’d ever make it back to Brazil.

Side view of the Argentine Falls

Side view of the Argentine Falls

We spent 2 weeks traveling from Córdoba to Seattle by way of Brazil. It’s a whopper of a route, but could not have been organized, priced or planned better by the travel magician, Brad La Nasa. We can’t recommend Brad and his company Pangaea Travel highly enough. His expertise on travel logistics, airlines and all things Argentina for expats was invaluable. Brad, his wife Lisa, and their two girls served as our inspiration and an Argentine reference library of sorts. We could not have done it without them. Their own blog details their amazing adventures.

Spectacular and wet catwalk on the Brazilian side

Spectacular and wet catwalk on the Brazilian side

We started our trip home by flying to Puerto Iguazu to see Iguazu Falls. As one of the 7 wonders of the world, Las Cataratas certainly didn’t’ disappoint. Some of the viewpoints and catwalks on the Argentine side of the Falls remain closed after extreme flooding earlier this year. We glimpsed battered remains of some catwalks hundreds of feet below on the riverbank. From a planning and pricing perspective, it only made sense to spend a day touring the Brazil side of the Falls as we traveled northwards.

Brazilian views of Iguassu are more panoramic while Argentine tend to be more up close

Brazilian views of Iguassu are more panoramic while Argentine tend to be more up close

After so long spent in Argentina, it was fascinating to cross into Brazil and immediately notice some differences. Food was spicier and available in greater variety. The kids celebrated after finding Goldfish Crackers in a grocery store. It’s the little things sometimes. Although our time in Brazil was brief, we found Brazilians to be less patient with children as compared to the endless reservoir of patience we witnessed in Argentina. Dinner comes earlier in Brazil and siestas seemed rare. The ever-present Argentine greeting, besos, seemed to sadly disappear as soon as we crossed the border. Brazil is significantly more expensive than Argentina. We could afford no longer than 2 weeks in the country, especially considering our trips and lodging. We also felt less safe in Brazil. The resort we stayed for a week south of Rio had armed guards patrolling the grounds night and day. Hiking outside of the grounds wasn’t allowed without a guide. In our final night in Manaus, as we exited a restaurant, to be told by the armed guard outside to wait inside while he called a cab. We watched inside as he checked the cab credentials before he signaled us that it was safe to enter the car. Incredibly, most Brazilian bathing suits are actually smaller than those of Argentines! Brazilians possess an incredible well of self-confidence, as demonstrated by their beach apparel. We all found the transition to Portuguese from Spanish difficult. The languages can be both similar and incredibly different, but we all found ourselves starting with Spanish over English, despite the fact that many people we encountered didn’t speak Spanish.

Rio das Pedras south of Rio de Janeiro

Rio das Pedras south of Rio de Janeiro

After a wonderfully relaxing week at on the beach south of Rio where the kids made some great new friends, we continued north to the Amazonian city of Manaus. We spent 3 amazing days touring the Rio Negro and Parque Nacional de Anavilhanas on the Lo Peix with the owner, Jordi.  Seeing the Amazon wrapped up our bucket list trip (for now) and was a surreal way to end our travels.  We kayaked and swam in the Rio Negro, fished and ate piranha, caught baby crocodiles by hand, fed monkeys, and walked in the Amazonian jungle!

The Rio Negro at dawn

Acidity, temperature, mineral content and water speed create the Econtro das Aquas, where the Amazon and the Rio Negro converge

Acidity, temperature, mineral content and water speed create the Econtro das Aquas, where the Amazon and the Rio Negro converge

We landed in Seattle today, by way of Miami and Dallas. We’ve spent 2 weeks hauling 9 huge bags plus carry-ons on 7 flight legs, countless van and cab rides over 8,777 miles. We’re all exhausted and more than a little shell-shocked to be in the Pacific NW just one day removed from a boat on the Amazon River.

Feasting on piranha caught in Parque Nacional de Anavilhanas

Feasting on piranha caught in Parque Nacional de Anavilhanas

The Lo Peix on the Rio Negro, Manaus, Brazil

Soon we’ll return to Portland where I’ll get the job hunt going in earnest. We’ll move back into our same house, put the boys back in the same neighborhood school, and try to resume our lives following a life changing experience. I think there’s a few more blog posts to be had out of our experiences reintegrating in life and work as we move ahead. More to come.

The adventure continues

Reflections on a Year in Argentina

Now that we’ve left Argentina and are spending a surreal week at a resort in Brazil, it’s a good time for Erica and I to finally reflect on the impact this year has had on the two of us.  It’s hard to imagine that in less than a week we return to the US after a year away.  We’re already going through some stages of grief as this stage in life ends before the next begins.  This year seems to have passed so quickly that we haven’t spent a lot time analyzing what it all means yet until now.

What did we learn?

As one of my Spanish teachers graciously pointed out as I was struggling, not only were we learning a new language, but also an entirely new city, community and way of life.  It was a lot to process initially.  We learned how to navigate a foreign city without a car.  We learned a new neighborhood, where to buy whatever we needed, how to get money and how to rent a house.  No small things.  We learned more about each child than we could have imagined and witnessed the incredible adaptability of children.  We gained a new sense of patience and confidence as we navigated Argentina and achieved an audacious goal.  We managed to see a lot of Argentina in our travels, while also learning about its history, people and culture.  I learned how to blog, how to plan complex travel logistics and how to budget for a complicated international adventure.  I learned the art of making an asado and hope to carry this tradition home with us.  Erica learned a huge amount about teaching English and building lessons plans for non-native speakers.  As we transition now, I’m learning an incredible amount about a job search and interview preparation.  This year pushed us all in many ways and provided the education of a lifetime.

This is Erica, and I’m going to write in italics so that Rob and I can each post on the same blog, but so it’s also easier to see who is writing what.  For me, I don’t think I’m going to “see” all that I’ve learned in one unique moment or time.  I feel like this is something that will be revealed to me in pieces and sections. In a lot of ways, I don’t feel like I have enough distance from this experience to really answer this question.  My typical response (which drives Rob NUTS), is “I don’t know.  Ask me later.” But that’s not really fair to Rob because he’s been so dedicated to making sure that we post on the blog, and he has been much better than I have about sharing our experiences via the blog. I guess I would say that mostly I learned that my kids are way more adaptable that I ever gave them credit for being.  Throw them into an unfamiliar situation, and with a little encouragement, they are pretty good at just “going with it.” I have also learned that I am a decent actress.  An air of confidence in a foreign country can go far.  It would be impossible to count the number of times we’ve been in a situation (looking for a specific location in a new city, driving around in circles in a taxi, listening to directions in a foreign language) when I have survived merely by appearing to understand and know what is going on.  I don’t doubt for one second, though, that we have missed out on some awesome stuff for this exact same reason.  Maybe they were giving out free ponies that day at preschool when I had no idea what the teachers were telling me.  Poor Molly!  She would be so disappointed if she knew, but really, what would I do with a horse? And then, of course, I cannot for one minute fail to mention that I learned to simply sit and enjoy someone else’s company.  I thought before we lived in Argentina that I knew how to enjoy time spent with friends, but I never truly appreciated it. To just spend time with someone sharing a lunch, a dinner, a drink, a warm fire is a fine art, and one that I think many Americans (myself included) have not mastered.  As Americans, I think we are often thinking about “What’s next?”  “What do I have to do when I get home?  What do I have to do this week?  When should I leave?  What are we going to have for dinner?  I need to send that e-mail when I get home, and start some laundry.  When is that project for Kid X due?”  How fantastic is it to just spend time with friends and have no agenda beyond enjoying each other’s company.

How did this experience change us?

We believe that the great thing about extensive travel is that it always changes you somehow.  This is a hard one though, since I don’t think we’ll really know for sure how it’s changed us until we return to our post-sabbatical lives.  I like to think it will give us a sense of peace and confidence as the rest of our lives unfold.  Time will tell.

I’m not in a big hurry to answer this question.  I don’t know.  Ask me later!  I hope it has made me more open, and willing to open my life and family to others who might not share the same language or culture.  Maybe our friends and family will be better at answering this question than we will.

What was difficult?

Easily the most difficult part about Argentina was access to money.  As we’ve elaborated in previous posts, part of the Argentine-experience is learning the various workarounds that Argentines and expats devise in order to keep pace with inflation, devaluation and a controversial government.  While we learned a tremendous amount about living within our means using cash alone this year, we’re very happy to return to a country where access to money and paying for items becomes simple and straightforward. We had plenty of concerns about security, but in the end we passed the year without incident.  We leave missing just a video camera and a GPS.  Petty theft was certainly an issue, exacerbated by the wealth disparity in the country, but we heard very little about violent crime in comparison to the US.  We found many Argentines to be exceptionally cautious and vigilant in personal safety, far more so than Americans.  This was certainly disquieting for us coming from lil’ old Portland, Oregon. Homeschooling the boys was much harder than we expected.  We also felt helpless at times in our inability to understand and help Elliott with his school assignments.  We can’t help but still wonder at the long-term impact this year might have on his education and learning. Living for a year without a car was both liberating and difficult.  We owe our combined weight loss this year to the tremendous amount of walking we did despite helado and asado intake.   Sin auto, we saw less of the city and surrounding region than we could have had we had a car. Given a variety of tax and import difficulties, Argentina tends to lack a lot of creature comforts that we all came to crave and appreciate.  Cooking according to our tastes tended to require careful examination of ingredients to determine what spice of key component could be found in Argentina.  We relied on family visitors to lug in peanut butter, salsa and maple syrup in large quantities.

I didn’t realize how much the kids and I would miss living in a neighborhood where kids don’t really run from house to house playing.  We were/are spoiled in our Portland neighborhood.  Even if the kid playing outside isn’t your first choice for playmate, at least SOMEONE is out there.  For security reasons (real or imagined), kids in Argentina who don’t live in “closed” or “private” neighborhoods don’t play outside freely with their friends.  There are plenty of arranged playdates, but without a car (as we were for this year), that takes a lot more arranging.  The kids enjoyed a lot of time having friends over, and going to other kids’ houses, but it’s not the same as zipping across the street by yourself to see who is home. The language barrier was definitely hard.  Needless to say, I’m much funnier in English—unless I’m making a mistake with my Spanish, like when I asked our first neighborhood guard if he had a dress, when I meant to ask him if he had a uniform.  He laughed and told me that he most definitely did NOT have a dress that he wore to work.  But even that became less of an issue.  I haven’t laughed as hard as I did recently while spending an afternoon with our friends Manolo (pictured above with the boys), and his wonderful wife, Silvina, and that afternoon was primarily in Spanish.  To be fair, they were telling the jokes, and I was just enjoying them. But we’ve spent many evenings and afternoons like that, and let me tell you that Argentines are some funny people.  Maybe it was just the wine, but they have some good stories to share.

What did we enjoy the most?

Easily the best part of our year abroad has been the relationships we formed and the people we met.  We hoped to get invited to an asado on occasion, but we never dreamed we’d integrate into the community and be so accepted.  The quality time spent with friends around food, wine and mate was a wonderful part of the experience. I loved planning our trips, large and small, during our year in Argentina.  I enjoyed logistics behind making a travel plan work and of course the actual trips themselves.  We love to travel and we certainly got our fill over the past year. I spent more time meal planning and cooking for my family than ever before.  I became a much better cook this year and loved the feeling of putting together a meal for my family each night. While spending such an intense amount of time together as a family was stressful at times, it was also one of the most memorable parts.  I loved having the opportunity to change roles with Erica, if only for a year, and stay home full-time with the kids and get to know them so much better.

Without a doubt the thing I enjoyed most about our year was, like Rob said, forming the relationships that we formed.  Meeting the families and friends, that, despite the language barrier, were willing to give us their precious time and open their lives to us.  Through tears (so I can only imagine how it came out in Spanish), I recently told our friends that it meant so very much to us that they would make the effort to include us, and welcome us into their circle.  Families everywhere are busy.  We have houses, jobs, kids, families, and lives that keep us occupied.  The fact that these friends would make space in their busy lives to include a new family who was only going to be in town for a year, and a family in which the adults didn’t even really SPEAK SPANISH for gosh sakes still blows me away.

What regrets do we have?

We have very few regrets this year other than not seeing more.  While we managed to travel extensively throughout Argentina, we never visited Chile.  We would have loved to see other parts of South America as well.  I had faint hopes of climbing a peak in the Andes which never materialized.  We both wish that we’d been able to become fluent in Spanish rather than just scraping by, in my case.  Erica’s Spanish is amazing by the way.  Amazingly enough, we never saw a tango show!  It would have been great to be able to visit Bariloche or Mendoza in the winter and ski in the Andes. Travel can be an obsessive pursuit sometimes with the endless destinations and possibilities


I agree 100% with what Rob said above (expect for the part about my Spanish and him climbing a peak).  It seems crazy to say that I wish we’d traveled more, but I do.  I would have loved to see Peru and Chile, but somehow, the year got away from us.  Next trip, I guess.  Like Rob said, “travel is an obsessive pursuit.”

Would we do it again?

In a heartbeat.


Chau Córdoba

Our final days in Córdoba were incredibly emotional for all. Although one of our primary factors in moving to Córdoba in the first place was the people, we leave amazed at the depth of the friendships we formed in just a year. Leaving such tremendous families who opened their entire lives to us for the year has been terribly difficult. I can’t imagine how strange our appearance must have seemed initially. An American family pops up in the barrio with no jobs and speaking little Spanish. We’ve had plenty of practice trying to describe the concept of a sabbatical. But this hasn’t truly been a sabbatical because there is no promise of a job upon our return, as there would be in a traditional sabbatical. There is nothing we can do to repay the generosity and kindness shown to us. In a very difficult world, our experience provides a lesson in how wonderful people can be.

Ben's going away party

We set out on this journey to learn and grow together as a family. We hoped to experience another culture, travel, learn a language and become a part of a totally different community. Erica and I could not have dreamed of a more complete and fulfilling experience. It has been all we hoped for, and it is all due to the Córdobese. Tenemos mucho suerte.

Manolo y yo

During this year we have had many teachers along the way who have taught us many things, large and small. In upcoming posts we plan to share what we’ve each learned this year from our friends and one another. Today we arrived in Puerto Iguazu and begin the final phase of our family adventure as we begin to wind our way home through Brazil. As we approach our final few days in Argentina, we are saddened to leave a terrific life we carved out for ourselves in short order, but also excited by our next challenge and adventures waiting for us.

Vamos Argentina!!!

So in case anyone’s missed it, Argentina just qualified for the World Cup final versus Germany.  Our incredible experience in Argentina continues as the country has reached a fever pitch just before we leave for Brazil.  In case there wasn’t enough intrigue already, the last time Argentina won the World Cup was in 1986 vs West Germany.  Argentina was knocked out of the last World Cup four years ago by Germany.  We’ve watched more futbol in the last month than in our entire lives as El Mundial has completely dominated life here.  We have had pretty typical American interests in soccer (meaning null) until now, but one can’t help but catch the craze and begin to comprehend just how important the World Cup is until witnessing it in Argentina. Although soccer seems to be certainly gaining steam in the US, we really have no equivalent to the stature of the World Cup.  The Olympics are perhaps the closest event that generates a fraction of the national, patriotic emotion in the US that we see here now.  The Super Bowl pales in comparison.  We’ve been lucky to watch a number of matches with Argentines and I promise there’s no sporting event like this.  Imagine the Super Bowl and March Madness wrapped up into one, except that everyone roots as one.  The country comes to a standstill when Argentina plays.

Flash mob In Cordoba after the win over Holland

Flash mob In Cordoba after the win over Holland

Having had a persistent issue with my chest after a bad cough, Erica convinced me to visit the ER during a game thinking I’d have a shorter wait time.  The consensus from our friends later was that the giant shot I got in my ass that rendered me immobile was likely retribution from the nurse since he was missing the game on my account.  On the occasions we’ve stepped outside during matches, the streets are absolutely deserted.  Of course schools and businesses close down during the game.  We made the mistake of sending the boys to school last week on a game day.  Elliott had 5 kids in his class and they watched the game on TV. The boys have been wrapped up in El Mundial since the beginning as the geniuses at FIFA market a sticker album of players that kids buy, collect and trade.  Conveniently the Album de Figuritas has been a great carrot and stick for Erica and I as we strive for well-behaved boys.

After the dramatic win last night over Holland, we jumped in the cars with our friends Gaby and Tom and headed to a nearby square to witness the celebrations.  Fireworks, horns blaring, people hanging out of cars and trucks screaming, flags waving.  We’ve never seen anything like it before.  The video above hopefully provides a sense of the excitement, but imagine thousands of such parties across the country.   Sunday is the final against Germany.  We feel so fortunate to be invited to share this historic and hallowed day with our wonderful friends again.  I can’t imagine what will follow should Argentina pull off the upset against mighty Germany.  Vamos Argentina!!