My goodbye to the (real) South was appropriately surreal, as I found myself speeding down a dirt road totally enveloped by shrubbed desert and towering steppes in a Land Rover driven by my bearded, soft-spoken boss. He handed me a beer without a word, to which I jokingly asked, “What, no open container law here?” He popped open his own, and replied, “This is Patagonia.”
Which, I think, is a pretty apt metaphor for my time down here, now closing in on seven weeks. The rules (or at least the rules that have governed my life up until this point) have been mostly nonexistent on this trip. And I don’t mean this in a self-aggrandizing “I don’t follow any rules” way by any means—I mean that the trajectory of this trip has had no pattern, predictability, or any sense of, well, sense. From Buenos Aires to Paraguay to Patagonia, every location I’ve visited has not only been radically different than any I’ve ever been to, but radically different from the others as well, and adjusting to each new place has been a trip in its own right.
I think probably the number-one rule to successful traveling is just going with the flow and enjoying the absurd. A pretty decent amount of the time, if I were to ask myself, “What the hell am I doing here?” (which I do on a fairly regular basis), a quarter of the time I would be filled with awe, a quarter of the time I would be filled with complete terror, and half the time it would be a healthy combination of the two.
In my last two columns, I’ve talked about living an unscripted life: what it means to finally be deviating from the very traveled path I’ve been on for as long as I can remember. I’ve been thinking about the whole unscripted thing mostly in a macro sense—the fact that we can make these larger decisions that will put us on entirely different tracks, into entirely different worlds than we thought were possible. But I hadn’t really thought about it in a micro sense—not even the day-to-day, but even each particular moment. Just appreciating the absurdity and sheer improbability of the situations I have been finding myself in. Then realizing that I really have no control over them—and more importantly, can’t rationalize them—and accepting that. When I do this, any terror I would feel in a situation is almost always completely replaced by awe and appreciation.
I returned to Buenos Aires a couple days ago and met up with one of the guys who’s going to be in my program. (Side note one: Of my program of 26 people, there are only three guys, which I hear is a pretty common trend in study abroad programs. I’ll keep my thoughts on this to myself. Side note two: My program doesn’t start until Feb. 26. I handed in my last paper on Dec. 19. I’ll keep my thoughts on this to myself as well.)
We went and got a couple pitchers of beer (I’m legal here, for any future employers) at this big plaza packed with outdoor bars, getting acquainted and talking about how unreal it is that study abroad was finally starting and all that. He said something that really struck me, especially since I’ve been thinking a lot about the insane uncertainty and unpredictability of the moment-to-moment down here. It was a Monday night, and he said, “If I were back at college this semester, I know I would be having a ton of fun. But I know exactly what that fun would be. I know exactly what I would be doing. In fact, I probably could guess exactly where I would be at this very second.”
And it struck me because it perfectly summed up how I feel about being abroad thus far—I miss the comfort and predictability of being at school a ton, because I know all that I’m missing out on. But I know exactly what I’m missing out on. And I’d probably be able to guess with about 75 percent accuracy where I’d be at any given moment if I were back at school (at this particular moment, probably staring out my window at the garbage collection on 114th, trying to think of an ending to this column), which I think is the main reason I was starting to feel the need to get out.
The people I’ve met so far who have come here early before the program starts, all say—whether they’ve been here for a week or three or six—that they still haven’t accepted that they’re even here in the first place. Which is how I feel now (a great feeling) and exactly how I used to feel about Columbia. I mean, it’s incredibly improbable that we all ended up there in the first place, and for a while, I treated every single moment in the same sense that I do those here. But then the micro blended into the macro, and I became accustomed to the general uniformity of life. Things became commonplace, and I became complacent.
When I come back from this semester, I’m going to be a senior and entering my last year at Columbia. And I think that’s going to be the main takeaway I’ll bring back from here: appreciating the improbability of every moment. I need to live like it’s freshman year again, to regain that awe and wonderment that I used to feel waking up every morning in Morningside Heights, and start putting myself out of my comfort zone. We create that unpredictability, and although it’s much easier to avoid doing so while at school, we put ourselves in those environments without rules that we’re used to. And it’s in times like that where you begin to appreciate where you are that much more.
Leo Schwartz is a Columbia College junior majoring in political science and Latin American studies. Rationalizing the Irrational runs alternate Fridays.
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