According to Plan

Train Graveyard, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Buenos Aires, Argentina

“Hi, this is María, from the Consulate General of Argentina in Chicago.”

For months, I had been waiting to obtain an Argentina work-residency visa.   After nearly a year of “volunteering,” my employer was finally able to secure all of the necessary paperwork.   The final step required me to return to the States, gather personal documents, mail my application to the Consulate in Chicago, and wait for them to schedule an interview. 

Having recently started a master’s program in Buenos Aires, I was nervous about being gone too long.  So, I prepared as much as possible before leaving for the States – a friend of my mother’s translated documents into Spanish, and a friend of my father’s, a county sheriff, wrote me a letter verifying that I had no criminal record.  Over a week later, I received the call from María. 

“There’s a problem with your application.” My heart stopped.  “The envelope containing your application arrived open, and all of the contents are now invalid.  It looks like it was sliced open with a razor blade.  Do you have any idea what might have happened?’

A gang attacked the FedEx delivery guy and took a straight edge to my visa application?  My real guess – someone at the Consulate had accidentally opened the envelope before they were supposed to and then blamed it on the mail.  Whatever the reason, the outcome was the same – two more weeks in the States sorting everything out.  I was devastated. But in the end, I got the visa.

I don’t know why I was so surprised.  In Argentina, nothing goes according to plan.

You want to do laundry?  You can’t.  The bank won’t have coins until the end of the month.

You want to pay bills?  Come back between the hours of 11am-1pm.  Better yet, come back tomorrow. Pago Facil, the payment system, is currently out of service.

You want to make your flight?  Leave plenty of time to get to the airport, just in case a group of protesters sets fire to the highway.

These things happen. Sometimes for a reason – during those extra two weeks at home I discovered that I no longer wanted to be in graduate school.  But mostly, they just happen. 

I used to find such incidents frustrating, if not downright demoralizing.  While at times justified, this reaction was often the product of inflexibility and my own sense of fear and failure. When I first moved abroad, everything felt out of my control. In order to get a grasp on life, I made a schedule for myself with small goals and milestones.  It looked something like:

Week 1: Find an apartment. Week 2: Make friends and start dating someone. Week 3: Speak Spanish fluently.  Week 4: Find a job.  When life didn’t live up to my unrealistic expectations, I was disappointed and, even worse, began to wonder if accidentally sending all of my clothes, including socks and underwear, to be dry cleaned meant that I just wasn’t cut out for living abroad.

With time, I’ve learned that successful living abroad doesn’t mean that everything happens how and when you planned.  It means accepting things for how they are, and not getting upset when they’re not how you thought or want them to be.  It means adjusting your standards to local limitations and being open to different, and possibly better, ways of doing things.  It means learning to laugh when you take a bus in the wrong direction and arrive 45 minutes late to your first day of work.  It means seeing life as a comedy, rather than a tragedy (or at the very least, a tragicomedy).

Every city and every thing, from meeting people, to learning a language, to figuring out the subway system, has a natural rhythm and timing. (The formula I now use to calculate how long it will take to do something here is 2x + 1, where x = the time it took to accomplish the same task at home.)  The best thing you can do is fall into step, be patient, and trust that things will work out.

Recently, I traveled to Guatemala with a friend and fellow expat.  We took a guided group tour of a natural park and at the end of the day, everyone was exhausted and ready to return to the hotel.  About 15 minutes into the two-hour trip, the van turned around – the driver had forgotten to pick up two additional tourists.

As we observed the indignation of the other Anglo-Saxons, my friend and I turned to each other, exchanged a knowing glance, shrugged our shoulders, and uttered a complacent “eh.”

“Wow”, I remarked, “Argentina really beat it out of us.”


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