We’ve landed. My heart is pounding. The more anxious the passengers immediately stand up and begin to put their belongings away and open the overhead compartments. I slowly gather my things and wait for the passengers in front of me exit the plane. Most of them are Argentinians, few tourists are headed to Argentina in February. I am glad to stand up again after our 8 hour flight from Miami. I was lucky enough to be seated next to the two girls who had also had their flights cancelled due to the blizzard that blanketed most of the Midwest and East coast the day before Valentine’s Day, our scheduled departure date.
One of my new companions was from Vermont and the other Connecticut, both used to blizzards but all of us were nervous about missing the in-country orientation in Buenos Aires. At the beginning of each abroad program all the new exchange students fly into the same location, Buenos Aires in our case, and spend 2-3 days getting to know each other and learning about the host country. The three of us were arriving two days late, completely missing the orientation. Once we landed we were to take a taxi from the international airport to the domestic one to meet the other students before departing for our different cities. At first the cancelled flight seemed like a blessing, a few more days at home with friends, but we soon realized the disadvantage it placed upon us, newcomers in a group of newcomers. New groups of people always form their cliques quickly and are reluctant to give up that exclusivity initially. Everyone rushing to make good impressions and get with the “in crowd”. Being late to this game is like being the new kid at school – initially it is a disadvantage and you have to prove yourself in ways the established group does not.
Our turn arrives and we file out of the plane thanking the flight attendants on our way I try to muster a quick “gracias” and grin at myself as I almost butcher even the most basic words in Spanish. Once out of the plane and walking up the tunnel to the terminal I begin to feel bombarded with Spanish. Words flying around me. Words I don’t recognize. Normally in places where I don’t speak the language I am almost at ease by not knowing the language I feel complete and utter ignorance and no pressure to understand. Not here, I immediately feel small and terrified. I am acutely aware of how little I know. I begin to feel a sense of dread creeping up my body. The same type of dread you get before you walk on stage, ask a question in class or try something for the first time. As I am walking, overwhelmed by my surroundings and feeling completely ill prepared I think to myself, “Kumar, what the fuck where you thinking when you made this decision?”
As we reach the end of the tunnel the airport terminal opens up and I see a stocky gentleman in a blue vest. He has short dark brown hair, smooth light skin, strong cheek bones and is wearing slacks and a white shirt under his vest. He is scanning the group of passengers flooding out of our gate. Our eyes lock, he raises his eyebrows at me and then cuts through the crowd towards me.
“Hola,” I manage to get out as he nears me. His mouth opens and words come flying out. They are fluid, confident and fast as hell. I can’t even make out where one word stops and another starts. I am at a total loss. As he is talking he leans in kisses me once on each cheek before I realize what is happening. He swiftly moves on to the girls as they catch up to me. Afterwards I wonder whether or not I was supposed to kiss him back. Had his lips actually touched me cheek? Did guys and girls alike kiss each other on each others’ cheeks? I had heard Argentina, as a predominately Roman Catholic country, was very homophobic. Amidst my reflection whether or not my response was considered rude or not he motions for us to follow him as he continues to talk to us, all of us looking just as shell shocked as the others.
Eventually, out kind yet totally incomprehensible welcomer, leads us outside to the curb where he flags each of us a cab, hands each cab driver some cash, shouts something at the driver, kisses me again on the cheeks before I even have time to think about whether or not I should kiss him back, slams the door and sends me on my way.
These first hours, really the first full day, in Argentina ended up quite smoothly but shocked me into realizing how difficult that year would actually be for me.