Remembering My First Love- South America

When I remember my 2009 semester in Buenos Aires, too many “nevers” come to mind. I will never be 19 again. I will never drink so much malbec that I jump into a pool fully clothed. I’ll never eat choripán with chimichurri on the street with friends, laughing like crazy. And a small but deeply cynical part of me believes I’ll never see South America again, a continent that shaped me in my teenage years and has more of an emotional hold on me than any other.

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South America first ensnared me when I was 15. I flew to Ecuador on a group trip, hoping to learn a little Spanish and embark on my first international trip without parents. Honestly, a month in Ecuador was more than I had bargained for: glacially cold showers in the countryside, men staring at me unabashedly and a level of grime and squalor that I had never seen growing up in suburban Michigan. I went completely broke halfway through the trip and could barely afford breakfast.

But then there was the black, syrupy coffee, the morning haze over the Andes, the smiling locals encouraging me to practice my broken high school Spanish.

Four years later, I returned to South America to study abroad for a semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was a semester full of new love, empanadas and 6 a.m. cab rides.

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For the next few years, I returned to South America as often as possible to visit the Chilean who now had my heart. We spent happy weeks exploring both Argentina and Chile, experiencing everything from combing Valparaíso’s hills for street art to white-water rafting in Puerto Varas.

And then for reasons too complicated to explain here, I ended our super long-distance relationship and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The person who was my best friend, my  safety net, my future, was suddenly gone. So I tried to forget- and in order to forget him I had to forget South America too- my memories of both were just too entwined with one another.

But how could I forget standing in the mists of Iguazú, hearing the waterfalls crash below me?

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And strolling through Recoleta Cemetery, the city of the dead, during a rainstorm on Halloween?

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And taking a sunny, Soda Stereo-filled cruise across the Río de la Plata to Uruguay?

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How could I forget a continent that held my hand and robbed me and whispered Spanish lullabies into my ear? A continent where I hiked so high in the Andes that I couldn’t remember how to pronounce oregano? A continent where I made promises that were supposed to last a lifetime, where earthquakes shook me, where I carved my name into agave leaves and rode horses down Pacific beaches?

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South America

I said goodbye to him, but I also said goodbye to South America. And almost two years later, this is what I have taken away from my first heart break- you don’t really stop loving that person, you just try to stop thinking about him. And eventually the love you had becomes a fond but distant memory, and you regard the silly, younger, lovesick version of yourself as someone else entirely.

For months after the break-up I couldn’t bring myself to speak Spanish because he had taught me almost every word- when I spoke it was like I could hear his voice. And out of nowhere certain triggers would leave me sobbing on the bathroom floor: the scent of burning wood and bus exhaust, the taste of lemon, the thump-thump-thump of reggaeton. Because for a flash I would believe that nothing had changed, that both he and South America were still a part of my life.

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But slowly, ever so slowly, my heart healed. I stopped feeling so angry at him and at myself and at the world for keeping us apart. And my Spanish came back, a language I love more than any other, one that has become as much a part of me as the blood in my veins.

But I’ll be honest- it still hurts sometimes. My heart aches when I see a travel blog post about Argentina or Chile, or my beloved, wild and perfect Patagonia. But my stomach really drops when I see posts about Santiago. Or when I’m at the airport and I read “SCL” on the list of departures, my breath catches- because I won’t be getting on that flight.

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I’ve never shared anything so personal and raw in this space- and I’m not sure if it’s the right choice. But somehow it feels right- my life is so much more than French chateaus and pains au chocolat, and you deserve to know that.

I can’t go back to everything, but I can go back. And someday I truly, truly hope that I will.

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Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is an American travel blogger and freelance writer who moved to Paris at 21 and has been traveling the world ever since. She's usually in pursuit of yoga, languages and perfectly ripe cheese and her writing has been featured in National Geographic, Viator and Jetstar Australia.
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46 Comments

  1. Wow, what a wonderful story of life!
    I’m Argentinian, I live in the south of the province of Buenos Aires. I loved reading your adventures and the fun you had (plus the sorrow) around here. It’s always the other way around, us southamericans admiring the beauty of the north…
    Glad to have read you, and that you are finally moving on :)
    now, gimme some pains au chocolat, lady! ;)

    Have a great week!
    Vix
    victoria recently posted..Inspiración de favoritasMy Profile

    Reply
    • Vi tus fotos en tu blog, son magnificas! Sigues aqui en Paris o ya estas de vuelta en Argentina? Y gracias, de verdad Sudamerica es un lugar muy muy especial para mi, y tengo ganas para volver tan pronto como posible :)

    • Hola!
      No, yo no estuve en Paris, unfortunately. Esas fotos que viste son capturas de pantalla tomadas de la película “Midnight in Paris”! Son fotos de… Woody Allen ;) (es que me encanta la película y estoy obsesionada con Paris!)
      Nunca estuve en Europa aun, ojala algun dia.
      Saludos!
      victoria recently posted..Les croissants!My Profile

    • As far as both men and places are concerned, I guess the old adage, “It is better to have loved than to have never loved at all” definitely applies.

  2. Hi Ashley,

    Hope you don’t mind a comment from someone I think old enough to be your mom (I have a 27 year-old)! Just wanted to say I loved your post and sharing of your love for South America.

    I think there’s something special and lifelong with respect to a passion that begins and grows in childhood / teenage years / young adult years. For what it’s worth … I love reading your and other bloggers/tweeters from Paris, regardless of age, perhaps because I wish I’d done what you’re doing when I was your age (if that makes sense). I have a feeling you *will* not only return to South America, but do something meaningful with your love for it in your life, as your journey continues.

    For me the love was for Paris … also FWIW, I more or less did other things, though with regular ‘return trips’ to get my fix — from my 20’s thru age 45, when in a very long story (was living in Sydney at the time), bought my own little place here, where I’m writing this comment now. Age 45 must seem ancient to you but it’s already in the past for me now … just wanted to encourage you (not that you need encouraging) to know you will return to South America and it will always be *that* special place in your heart. Other places, too, but something about *that place* — wherever it may be.

    Wishing you well on your journey — cheers (from a Michigan grad – love your home state :)).

    Reply
    • Hi Carolyn, thank you so much for your heartfelt and thoughtful comment. And it sounds like you’ve had some pretty incredible adventures of your own- I would love to go to Australia some day! And yes, I do want to go to South America but I know the experience will be so different- before I had a guide who knew the countries so well, and if I went back now I would just be a gringa wandering around by herself. Anyway, thanks for stopping by, and let me know if you’d ever like to grab coffee in Paris!

  3. A heartbreaking love story…..
    Isn’t it amazing what depth and good
    writing can come from the heart?
    I was very touched, my beautiful grand daughter.

    Love, Gamma

    Reply
    • Dear Ashley,

      Reading your very poignant love story brought tears to my eyes…tears of joy for the picture you paint with words..tears of sadness for the love left behind…and tears of understanding the loss of love.

      Thank you.

      Maeve (Your Grandma June’s friend.)

    • Hi Maeve, thank you so much for taking the time to read this and write a comment- it means so much that a fellow poet and writer enjoyed what I had to say. Best wishes for you! Ashley

    • Thank you, Gamma, it means so much to me that you liked the post. And you’re the one who taught me everything I know about writing, beauty and depth of character, so really you should credit yourself. Love, Ashley

  4. Oh, sweetheart. There’s nothing quite like your first love, huh? Especially after the fact. I know it, too. Although I can’t say he is tied to a country or a language or a continent, I think about him (sometimes) more often than I’d like. But, as time passes, fewer things remind me of him. That’s the important part, I think. It’s because of this that I was able to move forward and explore new parts of myself and the world. And now, as I find myself falling for someone else half-way across the world from where I first fell in love and was forced to fall out of it, I’ve realized that my heart never was quite broken. Hurt, yes, but it’s still able to love again and more.
    Danielle recently posted..me, global intern 2013?My Profile

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    • Thank you Danielle for sharing your story- it honestly makes me feel better that I’m not the only one who reflects on the sadnesses in my past and let it cross my mind almost two years later. I think your first love is difficult to recover from because you’ve never had to do it before, so you don’t know how you’re supposed to process it, deal with it. And I think that like you my heart was hurt but not broken- good luck with your new beau by the way!

  5. I think Danielle’s comment was spot on and really sweet. You know my story pretty well, both the heartache and the happy ending, so just know that I’m here for you if you ever need to talk and I know you’ll get back to South America (just like I got back to Ireland). Also, this was BEAUTIFULLY written. Out of all your posts, I love this one most.
    Edna recently posted..Surprise!My Profile

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    • It means so much to me that you enjoyed it, Edna! I respect you so much as both a writer and a friend- and your going back to Ireland gives me hope that someday I’ll be in an okay enough place to return to S.A. too. Here’s hoping for my happy ending too :)

  6. Ashley, this has to resonate with most everyone that reads it. Its difficult to escape at least one painful loss of love. Your writing style is so beautiful and your pain is truly felt. Thank you for sharing, exposing yourself, and helping those who are following you know you deeper. You are going to have so many more life experiences and being able to write about them can be therapeutic. I look forward to reading more. What a gifted writer! much love to you.

    Reply
    • Hi, Marsha! Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to write a comment, it means a lot to know you read my blog :). And I agree, being able to write about my experiences has already been so, so therapeutic.

  7. This was positively beautiful and I think every single person can relate. There will always be that song, that quote, that photo, that brings you right back to that place and time and breaks your heart all over again. But you’ll get back to South America!!!

    To much beauty, to many more perfect memories to make.

    Loved this!
    Ashley Hufford recently posted..The Magic GardensMy Profile

    Reply
    • Thanks for the comment, Ashley. And yes, there are so many places I have loved but none that have hit me harder than Chile/Argentina, and all of SA in a way.

  8. Loved reading this Ashley! While French chateaus may be pretty to look at, I think personal posts are always the best. I think you’ll return to South America someday, when it feels right. Age and time can make such a difference.
    Sarah recently posted..The Time TravelerMy Profile

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    • I agree, I think blogging about personal things is the best way to connect with others. And yes, when I’m ready xx

  9. Such a lovely read!! Oh, I feel for you! xx

    Reply
    • Thank you, Nicki. I never knew how much having your heart broken can be, but I really think I’m better now.

  10. I really enjoyed reading this Ashley. Some things I can totally relate to since Argentina itself first stole my heart, and I also spent time in Ecuador that was an “up and down” kinda time. Though my romances came in the form of strong “flings,” I can understand what you are saying.

    I love South America but sometimes I too feel like I’ll never make it back. Reflecting on those times, and the boys I met, it feels so far away. I hope we both get to return soon :)
    Jessica Wray recently posted..Postcards from the Keralan BackwatersMy Profile

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    • That’s so funny that we’ve had similar experiences there! Ecuador was certainly full of ups and downs for me as well. And yes, que las dos regresemos algun dia :)

  11. Wow. What a brave, beautiful, honest post. We love to see this side of you! I can only imagine giving up both of your true loves was near impossible, but sometimes the best things for us are also the hardest…and sometimes it’s only the best thing for a little while. I hope you return to whichever one your heart desires.

    Reply
    • That’s a great way to put it, both of my true loves. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Jessica.

  12. Such a wonderfully written and heartfelt post, Ashley! I wish there was anything I could say that could offer some sort of advice or consolation, but I can’t even begin to imagine these emotions. I think it’s admirable how you keep on going forward – because when all is said and done, you will be able to say that you lived your life to the fullest, the good parts as well as the bad parts.
    I really hope you will be able to go back on day and make new memories: Memories that won’t conceal the old ones, but memories that will give you a new perspective on your love for South America. Your love is something that no one can ever take away from you :)
    Melanie Fontaine recently posted..Scotland: Skye II – PortreeMy Profile

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    • Hi, Melanie, thanks so much for your words of encouragement- I truly hope that I’ll be able to go back someday and enjoy it just as much as before.

  13. Tearing at my heart strings, friend! I fear knowing that someday this may, ok probably will, be my time in Germany for me. But so good to know eventually you can look back on it fondly witha smile and not a tear.
    Alex @ ifs ands & butts recently posted..travel tuesday: chipotle in paris.My Profile

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    • I really hope you don’t ever have to feel that way about Germany! I’m sure you’ll always be able to go back. But even still, it’s wonderful to have a place mean so much to you.

  14. This is an excellent post Ashley. I really enjoyed it. I’ve never been to South America, but know what that love for a certain place can feel like. I never had an international relationship intertwined with it though, but I can see that it makes it that much more difficult. I’m more than positive that you will return one day and be a better overall person because of the experiences you had.
    Mike recently posted..Why Spain?My Profile

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    • Thanks for the compliment, Mike. I really do hope to return someday as a better person, as you said.

  15. Ashley,
    I totally understand this, and have had my fair share of travel-related heartbreaks. It seems like every place I’ve gone, I’ve fallen in love and there’s a boy and distant memories that crawl back every time I think about it. Even now, Australia will always be that for me. It’s like a series of failed loves and they TOTALLY change the experience! C’est la vie…
    Kristin of Be My Travel Muse recently posted..Photoblog: Melbourne’s Royal Botanic GardensMy Profile

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    • Thanks for sharing your story as well, Kristin- I think many of us share similar tales of heartbreaks being connected to certain places. It can be really hard but it’s better to love than to have never loved at all, right?

  16. I had always wanted to visit South American, until I started hearing more and more horror stories that take place down there. I really couldn’t believe it when I found out that it’s actually the most dangerous continent on the planet by homicide rate! -I had always thought that that had to be Africa or Asia, for some reason. In any event, stories like yours really make me question whether or not I should let statistics (and a fair share of horror stories) scare me away from a vast, seemingly majestic, continent.
    Neil Hilton recently posted..Could Making Money On YouTube Be Your Key To Financial Independence and / or Help You To Be a Digital Nomad?My Profile

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    • Hi, Neil- definitely don’t let people talk you out of it, South America is absolutely majestic as you said! Anywhere can be dangerous, including South America- but I’ve always felt perfectly safe there for the most part so definitely give it a shot. :)

  17. Thank you for sharing this Ashley. I’m sure it will only be another step in the right direction for you in your blogging, as it will only bring your readers closer and fonder of you. Plus we can all relate to a lost love.
    I’ll share with you one of my favorite quotes: “Where there is love there is life” ~ Gandhi

    Reply
    • Thanks for the comment, Stephanie. As always your comments and support mean so much to me, especially when I share something so personal.

  18. Ashley, that was so beautifully written. I was in BA a few years ago and loved it. I’m dying to get down to Patagonia. I see a trip back to South America in your future with a healed heart. You have carved out a beautiful life for yourself.

    Reply
    • Aw, thank you for the sweet comment, Kara. BA was incredible but Patagonia truly stole my heart.

  19. Hola!! recien empece a ver tu blog y me resulto muy lindo y interesante. En este post te abriste mucho a tus lectores y la verdad que es algo maravilloso y a admirar.
    Me gustaria contactarte para poder compartir informacion, mi idea es viajar por todo el mundo pero tengo que ver como logro hacerlo de la manera mas disfrutable. Por favor te agradeceria que te contactaras conmigo por email.

    Saludos desde Uruguay, Montevideo.

    Reply
    • Gracias, Gustavo, fue un poco dificil abrirme en esta manera pero al final valio la pena… pues mandame un mail si necesitas ayuda, y gracias por el comentario!

  20. I am on exchange in Europe currently, and I have already done this same stupid thing – fallen in love. Right now I just try not to think about what it’s going to be like when I have to leave. And your words are breaking my heart.

    Reply
  21. We can all relate to lose love, and at my age, I have many, keep trucking

    Reply

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