¿Hablás Español?

By: Stephanie Cariker - Also see author's expat blog listing

I do not believe there is an exact recipe for living as a happy expat. I cannot tell you, “two parts positive attitude, 2 parts open heart, 1 part adventuresome soul.” Everyone in the expatriate community ended up far from home for a plethora of reason; therefore, our remedy is likely to change from person to person, place to place and experience to experience. I will not tell how you too can be an expat, but rather, the story of how I become one and how I made it work for me.
I had been living in San Francisco, studying Sociology and Urban Development, volunteering for the Coalition on Homelessness and working as a bartender in swanky upscale restaurant in the Mission District. I rode a bike everywhere, I believed in making the world a better place, one smile at a time, and, of course, I had long ago discarded story book tales of love.

Then, in January 2006, I set off on a 22 day trek through Peru. Borrowed backpack packed and tickets in hand, I embarked upon an adventure that would change my life forever. One could easily argue, that, in some way or another, every adventure brings about change, some just more so than others. But, in my case, everything flipped turned upside down in a matter of just 2 days.

The second day of the hike along the Inca trail to Machu Picchu was for me, the most strenuous. Not because it was long, but because it is hard. Warmiwañusca, Quechua for what would be roughly translated to Dead Woman’s Pass, is at an altitude of 4,200 meters (13,779 feet). That is when I spotted him. We were at a rest stop near 12,500 feet, only 1,279 to go, and my lungs were already pumping overtime, exploding, gasping at the thick air. He, on the other hand, was like the last man standing in a battle field of backpackers turned fallen soldiers, kicking around a beat up plastic bottle, a poor excuse for a ball, with a little indigenous child, who was clearly lost in a state of giggling and amusement each time the bottle/ball went flying in her direction.

From the very moment I saw him I had one light headed thought and one thought only: How can I get him to talk to me?

And just like that, he passed me as we made our decent towards base camp. I said, “Hola.” He said, “Hablas español?” with a sort of surprised look on his face. And so it was. We walked along the path, stumbling on our words rather than the trail, rusty verb tenses slipping and sliding to communicate the things our bodies and minds were already connecting the dots to.

The following day he suggested I go to Rosario, “a beautiful city in Argentina,” as he put it, and I was quick to answer, “Ok, when?”

To make a long story short, we met on January 9th of 2006 and on January 28th he said, “I know it is very soon to be expressing this to you, but I don’t have a single doubt in the world, I am in love with you and I don’t want to you leave Argentina unless it is traveling the world by my side.” I never left.

My first 6 months in Rosario were magical. I was in love. I saw beauty all around me. Sure there were frustrations and, at times, there were lulls to my cloud walking, but for the most part, I was enchanted by everything about this grimy developing city, the raw truthfulness of both need and struggle. I threw myself into every experience, attempting to perfect the language, finding ways to connect socially. I took classes at a private “free” college of thought. I signed up for classic ballet and contemporary dance classes; I began volunteering in a marginalized neighborhood through a local NGO. I kept busy and tried to build relationships with locals. But, as time stretched on, I found that making friends wasn’t coming so easily, and making friends for an outgoing carefree Aquarius like me was always something a kin to cutting butter. But culture is a difficult and strange beast to battle and something so intricately woven, I could quite easily put my finger on the subtle differences and similarities but felt it impossible to infiltrate the social aspect of society. While the Argentinean culture is warm and welcoming in so many ways, it is, in others, quite a closed door.

That is when I began reaching out to connect with other expats. I started a weekly conversation meet up and began spreading the word throughout the expatriate community. Community is the key word here; it was what I was lacking in my choice to live abroad and where there is no path, build one. My plan was to build a community, one expat at a time. And just like that, I began feeling like I had a close group of friends, all of whom seemed to be feeling a variation of the same “out of place” sensation as I. We began celebrating holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, to keep our customs alive and present. We even started a book club so as to be able to read in English. But, as they say, all good things must come to an end. The expatriate community is a community that is always changing, let’s face it, we have itchy feet, I mean, how did we all end up here in the first place?

There seems to be a sort of glamorous mysticism about being an expatriate, and perhaps there is. However, more times than not, I hear expats venting about the city, the ridiculous customs and disorganization, the daily chaos of corruption, the comparison of the city to their homeland, in other words, catharsis. And this, this is my one and only piece of advice – don’t do it! Being an expat is, more times than not, is a choice. Find the good in that choice, find the good in where you are. Enjoy every day for what it is, take fruits in the differences, and more than anything else, be tolerant! “Listen,” not only to yourself but to the society. Listen to their needs, what are they looking for, and then, get creative in finding ways to fit in. If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Not all cultures are so open to integration, but, for me, participating actively as part of the culture is the only healthy way to sustain living abroad. What I am getting at, is, over the course of nearly seven years, I have seen expats come and go, in fact, very few stay for much longer than a few years, but I have found that, those that do, those like myself, they all have one thing in common. They no longer see themselves as expatriates, but rather as emigrants. I don’t mean you should plan to stay forever. What I am talking about is the true sense of acclimation.

Each year, when I travel to the U.S to visit my family, I say, “I am going home.” And when I return to Rosario after a long and enjoyable trip, I look forward to “going home.” I have two homes and just as all homes, they are dysfunctional in nearly every sense of the meaning, but, and there is always a but, a wise friend once told me, “paradise is not a place, it is a state of being” and she could never have been more accurate with her words of wisdom.

About the author:

Stephanie Cariker – born and raised in small quasi-hippie slash hillbilly town in southern California, she now resides in Rosario, Argentina after finding her heart on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu.
Blog address: http://expros.blogspot.com.ar/ Twitter: @SpanishRosario
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Contest Comments » There are 20 comments

Kimberly Grubbe-Lancaster wrote 11 years ago:

I have never read before how Stephanie found her way to Rosario so this story is a heart-warming one. I've known her mother since we were about 2 years old and I've known Stephanie herself since the day she came into the world. She is an astonishing young woman who is making a difference in the world with her positive attitude and spirit. I wish you the best of luck always, Love Kim

Carolyne Hawley wrote 11 years ago:

Love your love story Stephanie, I think you should win this contest. Love Grandma Carolyne

Stephanie Cariker wrote 11 years ago:

Thank you so much everyone for your love and continual support! In response to Angelica Amador Benitez, I wanted to follow up on your question regarding the "guy." I married him! And here we are, more than 6 years later. We have started a life together, bought a house together, built a business together and yes, started a family together. It gives true meaning to the notion of "love at first sight," and has both successfully and eternally ruined even the slightest seedling of my ignorant attempt to define love as merely a social construction. It is so much more real than anything I have ever encountered. Real and raw, difficult and easy, ebb and flow...real.

Lali wrote 11 years ago:

Love the story stef. Fell the same aboot home.. Home is where your heart is. Best wishes xx

Sabine Panneau wrote 11 years ago:

I love hearing your story Stephanie!!! You're certainly making Rosario a better place, one smile at a time.

Nick B wrote 11 years ago:

What an amazing story! When ever we travel my wife and I always wonder "how did this American (guy/girl) end up in this little town...?" This story of absolute bravery and following your heart is the answer.

Elizabeth Berg wrote 11 years ago:

This is very honest and open account of the trials and tribulations of being an expat. It is also a touching and beautiful tale of love.

Miss James wrote 11 years ago:

In the 12+ years I've been lucky enough to call Stephanie my friend, I have watched as she has grown and matured into womanhood, partnership, humanitarianism, and motherhood. She has an uncanny ability to make any place feel like home, and is tireless in her efforts to engage with and connect the people around her. Stephanie's story is one of trials and triumphs, of heartache and great joy. Her story is a testament to a life fully-lived. This story never fails to grab at my heart and bring me with her all over again on her beautiful journey.

Angelica Amador Benitez wrote 11 years ago:

Wow, what a touching story and Stephanie now I'm dying to know what happened to that man? Machu Picchu is on my bucket list and now I also definitely want to visit Rosario. What an amazing adventure, to think the stories you will be able to share with your children and grandchildren.

Jill wrote 11 years ago:

Lovely story and lovely people!

Adrianne wrote 11 years ago:

It is impossible to make it work if you do not learn the language and get involved with the natives. And Stephi has definitely done that!

Ben wrote 11 years ago:

you are a really inspirational person.

Marcela Alemandi wrote 11 years ago:

I will only say two things: this is one of the most positives and warm stories I have ever heard of and I feel so lucky I can share my work everyday with Stephanie (and that she shares her friendship with me).

Min wrote 11 years ago:

Love your story steph! I tell my friends your story all the time because I think we all need to believe in true love that makes you travel distances! Cheers to sharing your amazing story with us! :)

Nicole A wrote 11 years ago:

Such a lovely story! You are a beautiful writer and beautiful person!

Meag wrote 11 years ago:

I know I've heard the story before but it's so sweet to see it written out like this and shared with the world. Good luck on your continued adventures!

Ashley Marchesi wrote 11 years ago:

What a light you are, my friend!! Rosario is lucky to have a bright, brilliant, creative soul such as yours to color its streets. And of course, I never tire of hearing the story of how you and Clau fell in love. I adore you for a million reasons, but namely for being the kind of person that follows her instincts courageously, having supreme faith in the world and its people all the while.

Michelle wrote 11 years ago:

Hermosa Historia Stephanie! Q sigas por mucho mas,los mejores deseos y proyectos q se te sean cumplidos y sobretodo la Felicidad y el Amor para vos y tu flia!

Alice wrote 11 years ago:

Thanks for sharing your story and for bringing the American spirit with your "personal touch" to Rosario.

Flora wrote 11 years ago:

Your story is wonderful, Stephanie, I share completely the sensation of being more an emigrant than an expat. Having moved to Rosario only 8 months ago, I'm still learning to find my way here; you have a lot more experience! But it is good to see that it is achievable! Something I'd like to add to your thoughts: I really discovered I had a nationality the day I left my country. Before that, I thought I was only a human being. So yes, I'm sure expat people share something above their culture: The custom of adapting and adapting and adapting whatever it takes, and only thinking positively ahead. Great story and see you soon I hope!

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