Fourteen years ago this March, I deplaned from an all-day flight on Aerolineas Argentina from Miami. I had a black Annie Hall hat on my head, a duffel bag that looked more like a body bag, and I was all by myself.
Sometimes, I can’t believe I had enough gumption to even get onto the plane in the US.
I was lucky enough to go abroad on a Rotary Ambassador scholarship. I’m not exactly sure why they decided to hand over a scholarship to someone with no international experience and middling Spanish, but somehow I bluffed my way through.
The main thing to know about my scholarship was that all they provided was a plane ticket, a phone number for a Rotary member in my host country, and money once I arrived. I’d travel alone, and had to make all arrangements by myself.
My plane ticket was contingent on me having a visa for Argentina. No visa, no go.
Did I mention that I had no international experience? And that my Spanish was kinda poor? And that, even in English, I hate talking on the phone, asking people for help, or calling strange government offices?
Like I said, I’m surprised I got to Argentina at all.
Once I landed the scholarship, I took a deep breath. Then, I did some digging and discovered that to get a student visa for Argentina, I needed to have an acceptance letter from the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), where I hoped to study.
I composed a letter with the help of a Spanish-speaking friend, asking what I could do to gain admittance.
I was delighted when about six weeks later I received a typed response on onionskin paper, saying that (as far as I could decipher), I had to send transcripts to a certain address, and then I would be accepted.
I duly sent the transcripts. And waited. And waited.
I didn’t get a response.
The deadline to have my visa approached. I called UBA, my heart thudding in my chest, hoping to speak with someone about whether or not they had received my transcripts.
When you call Argentina, the dial tone is more like a flat beep than it is here. With every passing beep, my heart thudded more and more loudly.
“Hola?” someone answered.
I stammered out what I needed in very broken Spanish.
The bored voice responded that I needed to speak to Cristina, who was gone that day. She would be back in the office tomorrow at ten AM. At least that’s what I understood.
The next day I called. A different bored voice told me that Cristina was out. She would be back the next day at three.
I did this at least fifteen times. I never spoke to Cristina.
My deadline for my visa was now much closer. And Level One of “Figuring out Argentine government bureaucracy” was not going well. I despaired of passing Level Two. So I made a different call, this time to my Rotary contact.
He answered on the first ring.
And to my immense relief, he spoke perfect English.
He was businesslike, but kind. He told me he knew someone at UBA, and that he would contact them to see what was happening with my application.
A few days later, he called back, and said the school was not going to send me back confirmation of my acceptance. If I took the typed onionskin letter to the Argentine Consulate, that would be enough.
So I finally got the visa at the Consulate (it was kind of a big iridescent sticker in my passport–very elegant).
One by one, I checked off the other items on my list. Plane ticket. Language tests to evaluate my proficiency. Signing up for language classes abroad when my proficiency proved to be, well, not proficient. Arranging a home stay with the language school that would give me an address when I arrived.
And so I ended up on a plane to Argentina, stomach in knots, hat balanced precariously on my lap, my body bag of earthly possessions shifting in the baggage compartment below me. When the plane landed, my bag was so heavy that the other passengers had to help me get it from the luggage carousel to the area where my Rotary contact was waiting for me.
There’s one more part to the story. Remember Cristina, the fabulous disappearing bureaucrat at UBA? Well, as the date for school to start approached, I thought I had better figure out if they were expecting me to register for classes.
I took the subway to the School of Philosophy and Letters where I was going to take classes. It’s in a converted cigarette factory (no joke) in a neighborhood called Caballito. To give you a flavor of the place, it’s advisable to bring your own toilet paper, or, better yet, make sure you do any necessary business at the cafe across the street. Though since the classes meet for roughly four hours at a pop, it’s not always possible.
Once at the school, I wandered through the trash-filled, graffitied hallways until I found the administrative offices.
I approached the door and knocked gingerly. Explained that I was looking for Christina.
“Cristina’s not here,” they told me.
Of course not, I thought.
“But she’ll be back at four.”
I looked at my watch. It was three o’clock. I thanked them, walked across the street to a cafe, and waited.
At four on the dot I made my way back to the offices. A woman was chatting at the doorway of the administration.
“I’m looking for Cristina,” I told her.
“I’m Christina,” she said.
I hesitated. “Well, you see, I’m a foreign exchange student, and I think you accepted me in the school, and I need to figure out how to register, and I sent a letter, and–”
She cut me off. “What’s your name?”
“Heather Hawley,” I answered.
She laughed, a big, cigarette-rasped laugh. “Heather!” she said. “We have been wondering about you. You kept calling and we could never actually talk.”
No kidding, I thought.
“It’s a good thing you came today,” she said. “Today is my last day at this job.”
That’s when I realized that if things are going to go wrong, they will. But also, they might just as easily go right. And when they did, I’d have a whopping good story.