Victoria, outbound to Argentina

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Since my last journal entry (which was published an embarrassingly long time ago), two absolutely unforgettable months have passed. Four occurrences are etched in my memory forever. Two are trips I took that offered stunning vistas, exotic animals, unique people, and historic structures. These are pleasant memories that I will cherish. The two other occurrences are what I would describe as painful, and intense. I have, however; been able to hold on to hope the whole time. More on that later.

I shall start with the happy memories. The first is my trip to Patagonia. Patagonia is a dream location for any vacationer in search of towering snow-capped mountains, seemingly bottomless lakes, and majestic glaciers. I was fortunate enough to visit all of the prime locations in the vast Southern expanse, along with 39 other exchange students from all over the world. My trip started at one of the last terminals in the small and almost empty Formosa bus station. My host family along with my best friends from school came to say goodbye. I remember how my host family all gave me the customary two kisses before I left. My host mom kept me a little longer than the rest. Sometimes you only realize how much you love someone when you say goodbye. We all clambered into the double-decker bus, and found seats in the top front row. But no matter how comfortable bus seats are, they will never stay that way with over 100 hours of driving with 39 other teenagers, as I was to find out. After an ete rnity of sailing south through the short shrub and grass terrain called Las Pampas, we arrived in Puerto Madryn. This is a rather isolated city settled on the Atlantic Coast. After visiting the beach, and admiring the boardwalk, we traveled a little ways outside the city to settle down and do what we had really come for, whale watching. The day was exceptionally hot, and everyone was sweating in their oversize life-jackets, as the boat slipped into the calm, clear waters of the bay. No one complained, however, when we were rewarded by the sight of two obscure humps in the water that we were told were whales. Cameras whipped out and ready, the noisy crew of students settled down to capture the special moment. When the whales breached, a gasp of air would shoot out of the blowhole. After about thirty minutes, we let the giants slip out of sight, and we returned to shore.

The next important stop we made was dedicated to a small animal that I have only ever known in story books and movies - the penguin. I always assumed that penguins resided on ice, however the penguins we visited lived on the beach and the surrounding sandy hills. As we walked along the designated path, we discovered penguins sleeping in holes under the shrubs, some with babies. The penguin population lives in harmony with another animal called the oanaco. The oanaco is much like a llama, but with burnt-orange color fur.

The next leg of the journey took through mountains. Although it was summer, there was still snow on the peaks in the distance. Our destination was a small tourist town called Calafate, situated on the banks of a deep, turquoise lake. One of the many memorable excursions in Calafate is the glacier trek. It's not every day that you take a boat ride across a river dotted with ice chunks to get to a glacier that is the world's third largest fresh water reserve. To top it all, I climbed on the glacier using crampons, the attachable shoe-spikes that you only usually hear about in accounts of Mount Everest treks.

Next, we crossed the Straight of Magellan in ferry to get to Ushuaia, the supposed "southernmost city in the world". It had the feel of a fisherman's town that has been battered by years of brutal winters, with towering mountains in the background.

After exploring the cafes and shops in Ushuaia, the rowdy bus of students turned North to the party town of Bariloche. For me, the best part of Bariloche was the breathtaking scenery. The woods consisted of giant trees, and kilometers of purple and yellow flowers. Lakes with a backdrop of mountains completed the picture. I honestly would have been happy if someone dropped me off on the side of the road and said, "Explore." It's seems as though the others had a different idea of fun. They spent their energy drinking, dancing, and carrying on late into the night. Bariloche was the last destination of the tour. Then we turned our sites to home.

I am blessed beyond measure to have seen the famed Patagonia, but I was surprised when I was offered a trip to Buenos Aires. After Christmas, my host sister asked if I wanted to stay with her in the house of her aunt and uncle in Buenos Aires and I said of course! I only had five days to explore, so my time was jam-packed. The aunt and uncle have one daughter who was kind enough to be my tour guide. I visited most of the famed ancient sites of Buenos Aires. One of these sites was a huge cemetery called Recoleta. Instead of gravestones, large stone boxes are used. They are taller than me and have windows and a door. The grave "boxes" are elaborately carved with statues and crosses. I strolled with my host sister in front of the Casa Rosada, which is the homestead of the president. I stood in front of the Obelisk, which is a tower in the center of the city that resembles the Washington Monument. I walked on the widest avenue in the world, July 9th Avenue. I visited the Boca n eighborhood, a colorful maze of houses and the heart of the Tango. All of these memories I will treasure.

Now for the rough part. I know that life throws us curveballs sometimes and I never expected the one that was so suddenly thrown at me. The memory of Patagonia will always be accompanied by the stinging memory of an urgent message from my parents in the USA saying my host mom was in the hospital having suffered from a stroke. I was nearing the end of my trip, and asked the coordinators if I could go home early. It wasn't safe to travel alone on a bus for two days, and I would be going home soon anyways. So I stayed with the group. I was on the road, and did not have wifi until I arrived at the hotel that night. At soon as I had settled into my hotel room I received a call from my parents. My host mom had passed away that day. I've never wept so much in my life. The next morning my host sister called me and told me the same. The bus ride home was long and I was nervous about meeting my family when I came back. When I arrived at the bus station in Formosa, I gave a hug to each of my family members, and we drove home in relative silence.

Christmas passed, so did the New Year. The extended family gathered and made the holidays a bit easier for my host family, but of course there was someone missing.

That has to be the hardest thing that's ever happened to me as I was very close to my host Mom. The second thing that happened that has been difficult is that I switched families rather abruptly. Although the change was sudden, my new host family is kind and accommodating, and I am thankful for their hospitality!

So why am I OK after losing the ones I love the most? What can I hold on to? What never changes and is always there for me when everything else fades away? Who understands when my heart is hurting? Who hears me when I cry? God does. I am a believer in God and I am a Christian. I know that He sees my life and has a plan for me that is wonderful. I know that he allows difficult things to happen to me to change and refine me as a person. As I read the Bible I learn more about God and how he works in the lives of Christians like me. One verse in the Bible says: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know

that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have it's full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-4 (ESV) For me, God is not an abstract idea, but a close confidant, an advisor, and a friend. My faith has given me the ability to be joyful and get the most out of this year abroad.

I have learned so much these past few months, and I will continue to learn! Spanish is going well, although I would like to expand my vocabulary and knowledge of grammar through some kind of online course. In the lazy days of summer I find the pool an increasingly pleasant place to spend time with my new host sister and her friends.

In a few minutes I shall go on a jog along the river, from which I am now only a block and a half.

Until next time,

Victoria Walter