Before I visit a country for the first time I always try to do a little homework. This time my assignment was Argentina where I had been invited to conduct seminars for numerous church leaders. In addition to researching the Internet, I found Fiona Adams' book Culture Shock! Argentina; A Guide to Customs and Etiquette (2001).

No matter how hard you try, however, nothing really prepares you for an actual first-hand experience. During our one week visit, I began to understand Adams' words, "So take a deep breath because coming to Argentina is like being sucked into the movies with the volume turned up full. Larger-than-life characters frolic through unbelievable scenery, everyone drives at 100 miles an hour and the weekend starts on Wednesday." Yes, Argentina is an amazing country.

The birthday of modern Argentina was July 9, 1816. Under the heroic leadership of General Jose de San Martin, the country acquired independence from the Spanish Crown. The main street intersecting the capitol city of Buenos Aires is the widest street in the world (16 lanes) and is called the "9th of July Avenue" (Avenida Nueve de Julio) to celebrate that day.

During the late 19th century and early 20th century millions of poor immigrants poured in from Europe seeking a better life. To remind the Argentines of their humble beginnings, other Latin Americans are fond of the saying, "The Bolivians and Peruvians come from the Incas; The Guatemalans come from the Mayas; and the Mexicans come from the Aztecs. But the Argentines come from the boats."

This country with 23 provinces is divided into two parts: Buenos Aires (the political, economic and social hub with 11 million) and the Interior (with 17 million) where modern day gauchos and enormous herds exist on the expansive and flat plain called "the pampas." From tropical Paraguay in the north to the glaciers in the south, this 3,000 mile "Interior" is a land of incredible variety.

An Argentine joke they tell on themselves asks, "What's the best bargain in the world?" The answer, "Buy an Argentine for what he's worth and sell him for what he think he's worth."

Here are a few unique social customs you will find in Argentina:

* Since most shops close from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m., the evening does not begin until after 8 p.m. Restaurants are crowded from 8 to 11 p.m.

* Argentines are extremely friendly by giving kisses on both cheeks.

* Someone said that the tango is to Argentina what the hula is to Hawaii. This 'sad thought that is danced' is not the only music and dance of Argentina but it is the most sensational.

* Argentines are especially known for drinking mate (pronounced mat-ay). This tea with mild caffeine comes from the leaves and stems of the yerba mate bush that grows like a weed in the river basins. Drinking mate is a social experience and the mate cup with its metal "straw" is passed round and round in a group. Most Argentines will go nowhere without their mate and a thermos flask for a ready supply of hot water. They love their mate.

One week is never long enough to experience a country like Argentina. Even my journal supplemented by my pictures cannot begin to capture what we did encounter. As that Jordanian guide said years ago, new cultural experiences are "non-transportable."

As Evie and I moved about in this "new world" we were reminded again of a veteran traveler's advice, "When you are in another country, remember you are not in a foreign country; you are a foreigner in a home country. You are the outsider."

This much we learned again - the world is much larger than the United States of America.

Think about it.

Editor's Note: Dr. Meyer is president of Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville. Responses can be mailed to president@vfcc.edu.

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