Hey friends and family!
We’re writing to you from the warmth and joy of our comfy retreat in Buenos Aires, Argentina. After a long and adventurous semester of travelling around the world from Washington D.C., to Hanoi, Vietnam, to Cape Town, South Africa, and to Buenos Aires, we are happily exhausted and beyond ecstatic by our journey. Here are a few of the most memorable moments.
On the way to the launch, it was easy to be deceived into thinking that one was engaging on a personal journey around the world – this could not have been further from the truth. The first thing that one finds out when one arrives at the launch site is that this journey is a journey of an entire community – twenty-eight students to be exact.
The twenty-eight of us first met while standing outside of the launch lobby, crowding under the building canopy to keep dry from the torrential winter downpour. Not all of us were quite prepared for this moment’s weather; quite a few of us recall sitting at the launch with wet feet, grumpy and worried that we’d already messed up and would begin the program with a generous case of pneumonia. Therefore, our time in both D.C. and Wellspring was marked by a revolving door of new rainboots and hiking boots as exchanged for bright white sneakers. All of these pre-departure nerves were compounded by a fear of forgetting one another’s names, anxieties that were quelled by a fair dose of watching Stranger Things and nighttime hikes.
As soon as we survived our first group flight to Hanoi, a journey that involved a nine-hour layover in the glamorous Qatar airport (which has a swimming pool!), we were greeted by the gigantic, full-faced smile of our waving country coordinator, Nguyen. We then went to an enormous and extravagant buffet, before retreating to the hotel for a long night’s rest, and before we knew it, we were beginning our first classes in Vietnam.
In order to begin our school-time routine, however, we would first be confronted by typical road conditions, which consisted of ever-congested influxes of motorcycle traffic, overflooding city streets and, more often than not, speeding down city sidewalks with gusto. In other words, we would have to learn how to cross the street. Over the course of our stay, these bikes would become symbols of our utterly amazing time spent living and studying in Vietnam; we’d live with memories of traffic-related stress, but also traffic-related glee, as in no time, many of us felt that we had truly become traffic-navigating experts.
While Vietnamese motorbike traffic certainly brought us joy, our homestay families were the true roots of what became our incredible experience in Hanoi. On the first day of walking home from school, one homestay pair recalled finding out that, unbeknownst to them, their host dad had left work early and followed them on a bike to make sure that they did not get lost or take a wrong turn. While adorable and perhaps a bit [extra], this funny memory felt indicative of love for a child that is not your own.
After just a couple of weeks in Hanoi, we were whisked away from our homestay and to our rural stay in Lac Village. While it was exciting to live among the rice fields and take a break from the traffic, there was also an unexpected, but striking feeling of missing our homestay. Meeting the homestays seemed so nerve-racking two weeks prior, but now we were feeling homesick and missing our homes away from home.
While in Lac Village, we scaled mountains and rice paddies for hours under the hot, bright sun to arrive to neighboring Thai villages. We were given our instructions only minutes before blindly following our hike guides, a discombobulated sentiment quite similar to the entire program. At times this hike was uncomfortable because of the baking sun and heat, but then there would be moments when a breeze would blow, and we’d feel comfort in knowing that lost in the hills of Vietnam, everything would be okay. The journey of our program has been a lot like that walk – arduous, but absolutely breathtaking, all the same.
Cape Town, South Africa
In no time, we were travelling across the world, this time, to the warm, and sun-kissed city of Cape Town. Beginning with our first glimpses of the city during our drive to the MoJo seaside hotel, we could see immediately that our time in Cape Town would be marked by swimming and playing at the beach, riding bikes and eating ice cream on the Oceanside promenade, and hiking the many mountains scattered about the city, including the marvelous, foggy-topped Table Mountain.
We spent our first weeks in Cape Town in the homes of our homestay families in Salt River, a historically colored and Muslim neighborhood near the campus of the Univeristy of Cape Town and surrounding Observatory. Living in this tight-knit community, in which each homestay pairing lived only a three to five minutes’ walk away from one another, was both heart-warming and extremely intimate. Almost every homestay family routinely said prayer for each of us, and we felt very grateful to see how we were included in our families’ traditions and values
While in Cape Town, we visited a neighboring township called Khayelitsha, where we learned about environmental injustice, housing, Apartheid, modern South African politics, structural violence, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and how each of these concepts and events have played out in the lived experiences of many poor and black South Africans. We then learned about how these South Africans negotiate the terms of their environmental conditions by cultivating a community-based vegetable garden, an initiative that has inspired many IHPers as we continue to apply what we’ve learned in our own home communities in the United States.
We then finished our month in Cape Town with a rural stay in Arniston, a historically colored fishing village situated right on the bright blue sea. In Arniston, we built even more relationships with an extremely close and tight-knit community, and ended our nights looking at the clear sky of stars and looking for the ocean as the nighttime tide receded.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
We had met Carolina, our country coordinator, in Vietnam and were excited to be reunited. Traveling from the airport, we were greeted by the abundant bus system we would use and the beautiful architecture of all the buildings. Some of us who thrive in the city environment felt a sense of familiarity. Others of us were excited to try a month in the urban density of Buenos Aires.
Similar to Hanoi, our homestays in Buenos Aires were spread throughout different neighborhoods, and many of us would engage in the bus and subway system to travel to school. We felt the traffic and the crowded subway cars that the locals experienced, which quickly became routine. For lunch, we would try the spots that our local country team recommended. A highlight for many of us was empanadas. We indulged in their menu of nearly 30 flavors, that comprised of different combinations of cheese, vegetables and other seasonings. On the last day, almost 15 of us lined up early to be at the empanada place when it opened, savoring in the idea of our last empanadas.
Our rural stay was located outside the city of 9 de Julio, at a ranch with too many mosquitoes, but also many welcoming dogs. We visited the towns nearby for our daily activities, which included a talk on food sovereignty. Learning about this movement and the collection of many other experiences over the semester has inspired several of us to make changes to our diet and overall lifestyle upon returning home. Multiple individuals are committing to be vegetarians and others are limiting their meat consumption. We have had many impactful encounters in the numerous places we visited that have pushed us to makes changes to our lives for the betterment of the world.
Looking Back and Moving Forward
As we reflect on our semester and move forward with the next stages of our lives, we realize that the most important components of our journey were our experiences living with our homestay families. We each have realized with each and every new host family that homestays are central to our learning outside of the classroom within the new countries in which we are living. We’ve each had radically different homestay experiences in each new context, and for this reason, we know that our takeaways will be vastly different, and that these lessons, in turn, will shape our ongoing trajectories.
As we move on, we will need to think critically about how we choose to convey our experiences to our homes and families, as well as how we plan to apply what we’ve learned back home. For many of us on IHP, our site visits have provided a wealth of organizations and public health professionals with whom we would like to return and make a difference and enact positive change.
Moreover, we have learned that there is truly no amount of information that could have been enough to prepare us fully for our program; so, it was important that we were open to the myriad experiences and journey that would unfold. It is fair to say that we are all surprised by the human capacity to adapt to change; similarly, there were things on this trip that brought us a lot of joy that we wouldn’t expect, such as watching Stranger Things every night in Washington, D.C. with the group or hiking towards the sky in rural Vietnam. These experiences brought so much joy, and we never thought that this would be study abroad. In other words, the unknown unknowns are where the magic of IHP lies.
You can read more about our program’s adventures on our collective blog!