Our last few days have been extremely busy, as we’re (tearfully) preparing for the end of the program, but every day has been wonderful.
Last Wednesday through Saturday, we did our rural stay in the town of 9 de Julio, about five hours away from Buenos Aires by bus. We were told that driving the last 20 kilometers of the trip would be on a dirt road down which our large tour bus wouldn’t be able to fit, so when got to that point, we all traipsed off the bus with our backpacks and looked around for the two smaller buses we would take to the ranch. Turns out, our ride was a huge bus on the other side of the road that was so old, I thought it was a piece of art. It was full of dust, stinkbugs, and curtains you could tie up on the windows. When the driver turned on the ignition, the bus roared to life with a nonstop flow of black smoke coming from the exhaust pipe.
We got to the ranch on Wednesday afternoon, just before it started raining for 36 hours straight. The food they served us every day was amazing and there was always enough for everyone (something we haven’t experienced yet on this trip), but the only food that was literally never-ending was bread. At breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner, there were baskets and baskets of bread that the wonderful women who worked there kept refilling. Especially during the rainstorm, I have no clue how the bread flow never stopped.
We stayed in a few rooms with bunk beds with somewhat questionable-looking sheets, as many of our short-term stays have had throughout this semester. (For anyone traveling: I highly recommend purchasing a sleep sack. I wish I could say I had one on this trip. It’s just a long stretchy sack that you sleep in, just so you have that layer around you if the bed itself is questionable. I will definitely make that investment before traveling internationally again. That investment can also be sewing a sheet together, so I’m definitely spending some time with the sewing machine when I get home.
On Thursday, it poured all day, so we had a really relaxing, cozy day in the ranch, mostly eating, working on assignments, talking, and eating. And eating more bread. There was a really nice porch, a big open room connected to the dining areas, and a fireplace which we meant to light but sadly never did. It was a lot colder there than in Buenos Aires, and we were all prepared this time (for me, prepared with the fleece shirt that I didn’t have in New Orleans and didn’t think to bring to Ha Long Bay, our two coldest places on the trip). It really felt like fall there, which made me even happier to be in ominous weather with endless tea and card games and music and good friends. During dinner, the song Uptown Funk started playing from someone’s playlist, and soon we were all dancing, and even Carolina, our country coordinator, got really into it. We continued to have a huge dance party, including a popular song and dance we learned in South Africa.
It finally stopped raining by Friday morning, so we all headed out to La Niña, the tiny town of 595 people about two kilometers away. We had a site visit to the Centro de Salud (health center), where they focus on prevention, but send patients to the hospital if there’s a serious injury/condition. We also went to the general store in the town, where, naturally, most people bought water (the water at the ranch was very hard/thick), alfajores, and wine (when in Argentina…). In the afternoon, we had a guest lecture about crop production in Argentina. Agustin, the lecturer, talked a little bit about climate change, so I asked if there was any conversation or research in Argentina about it being related to animal agriculture. I don’t think Agustin understood my question at first, but once he, our country coordinator, and the Ricardo (the ranch head) did, they all started getting very defensive (Ricardo even put down his cup of mate to address the question…that’s when you know it’s real). I said that I was curious because animal agriculture is the number one cause of climate change in the United States, and they basically shot that down and asked if I was sure that was true. This was really frustrating, because even though I know people are defensive as food habits are very important to culture and tradition, they shouldn’t be questioning if I know what I’m talking about even if makes them uncomfortable. So, in conclusion, no, it doesn’t seem like there’s any conversation in Argentina about the relationship between animal agriculture and climate change. Although, the other day in Buenos Aires, I did see a big group of young people holding up signs promoting veganism – it DOES exist in a city that consumes so much meat!
After dinner, we all went out to stargaze. I didn’t think anything could compare to the stars in Bushbuckridge, and while the sky didn’t seem as vast here, the stars were so bright. At first, there were just four of us outside, sitting on a bench, discussing the vastness of the universe and how insignificant and ignorant we feel compared to everything out there. Talking about stars and the universe will always make me feel so tiny. Then, the rest of our group came out with Ricardo, who showed us the constellation of the Southern Cross, which is basically the equivalent of the North Star but in the southern hemisphere. From the cross, he pointed out the southern axis of the earth, which is crazy to think about since we were looking up at the bottom point of the earth. Much later, five of us were lying on the ground wrapped in our one small blanket, freezing our butts off, when we saw a huge (and my first!) shooting star. It was an amazing moment, and I’ll never forget this night.
On Saturday morning, we took a short trip to a nearby lagoon. We rode on the back of a tractor, like a hay ride without the hay, and even the ranch dog, Pedro, came with us. The lagoon was really big and really shallow (although I think it’s so big because of all of the rain on Thursday, which turned nearby fields into lakes).
I mentioned in my first post in Argentina that I was getting tired of traveling and getting more excited for home, which still is true, but the rural visit lessened that. I’m too sad to think about leaving our group next week. Living all together for the first time since Johannesburg, in such a relaxed, cozy environment, made me appreciate the beauty of our group and our dynamic so much. It’s not that I haven’t until now, but it made me realize just how much I’ll miss everyone. After seeing the same 33 people almost every day for almost four months, being without all of them will be so strange. But since I still have time left, I won’t write any type of sentimental post now. (Jk the sentimental post comes in a few paragraphs.)
Speaking of being sentimental, Sunday was our last free day in Buenos Aires. With Lebanese take-out in tow, Sophie, Mariam, Steph and I went to Plaza Francia, a park with a big outdoor craft market every weekend, and sat down on the beautiful lawn for the afternoon. At this point, I’d been there about five or six times, which has been somewhat unintentional. But we realized that in every country, there has been one place that we enjoy so much that we visit multiple times, and Plaza Francia is that place for us in Argentina. The four of us started off this trip together on the roof of a café the first weekend in Vietnam, when we bonded and have been really close ever since. We always like to explore together, but usually run into other people too. We ended up seeing about ten of our friends at the market, who all joined us and we just hung out there for a few hours. We’d all planned on drinking mate there for the first time by ourselves, so when there were only four of us left (Sophie, Mariam, Emily and I), we fetched some yerba mate (the dry leaves) at a nearby kiosco and prepared it as best as we could in the mate cup that my host mom gave me. Last weekend, someone showed us exactly how to set it up (it’s more complicated than you would think), and I think we succeeded. Sophie had her host dog there, and he’s lived in Argentina a while now, and I think we got his approval. Mate is pretty bitter, but the longer it steeps, the better it gets. We talked about all sorts of things throughout the afternoon, about going home, the program, our experiences, and all sorts of things we’ve done this semester that gave me alllll the feels.
On Monday night, I went to an incredible percussion concert called La Bomba del Tiempo. It was a group of sixteen musicians on an outdoor stage, playing all sorts of different percussion instruments. The conductor changed every few songs, but it wasn’t a separate conductor, it was one of the musicians, so they’d all swap out. The musicians also moved around the stage and switched instruments throughout the 2-hour performance – it was AMAZING! What was even more incredible was that the entire concert was improvisation. The musicians looked like they were having a blast the entire show, which is definitely what made it so much fun for my friends and me in the front row! We had a great time, and afterward wandered through the streets to the “fiesta after” (great Spanglish, Argentina), but people were dancing and drumming all through the streets in that neighborhood.
On Tuesday afternoon, our program director arrived in Argentina from the U.S. and attended our last intellectual synthesis, which we do at the end of every country. It’s a session in which we come up with relevant topics to discuss that we’ve encountered in that country and throughout the semester, and a student leads each one in an informal discussion. We had five time slots with three sessions in each, and you choose whichever one you want to attend and discuss for 20 minutes. Here are the names/topics of a few of them: Reverse Culture Shock, Different Perceptions of Beauty, Collectivism, Full Immersion, Food, Political Violence, Rural vs. Urban, What Health Means, and Rupture and Recovery. So as you can see, they’re all very different but very relevant. The session about reverse culture shock is definitely what I’ve been thinking about a lot – I know it will be strange coming home after being in so many different environments over the past 4 months, but the good thing is, Argentina has been easing me back into a society that is similar to my own. If the program ended in South Africa or Vietnam, it would be a much more extreme shift coming home from there. It definitely will be weird to hear and read English words all the time, to not get stared at, and many other things, but what I’m most nervous about is not having 33 other people with whom to share my experiences whenever I want/need to. While I’m so excited to go home and be with my family and friends and cats and spend time in my backyard, I’m extremely sad to leave this group. We’ve all been through so many different experiences together, and I honestly think the hardest thing to get used to back in the U.S. will be seeing/hearing/experiencing something that reminds me of my time abroad and not having someone right next to me who can relate to it.
Today, Wednesday, was our last day of school for the semester! We had our last case study presentations most of the day, so those were a relief to finish. My group (Environment & Health) continued our topic of community spaces, specifically the polluted river, green spaces, and bike rental programs/lanes in Argentina, and we related it to overall quality of life. This was also a comparative presentation, so we connected the common findings and themes from each country to draw some conclusions about what we’ve learned. We concluded that while the government does address certain environmental problems by creating more green spaces and lakes, putting in bike lanes, paving new roads, etc., they cannot be relied upon to guarantee quality of life of Argentina residents because of various factors, particularly that the government often doesn’t address human rights needs first. For example, in South Africa, the government spent a lot of money paving new roads in Bushbuckridge and chose not to focus their efforts on making sure that people have access to clean water (which they still don’t). In Argentina, the government has spent resources making the green spaces in downtown Buenos Aires look nice and pretty, but they don’t maintain the spaces in the poorer areas, and furthermore, the people living in “villas” (basically human settlements outside the city) don’t even have access to clean water or reliable electricity. So the government shouldn’t waste their time or resources starting to maintain the green spaces in the poorer areas and act like they’re doing something great if there are people who don’t even have access to basic human necessities. All in all, I really enjoyed my case study experience this semester, and I think having a different specific topic in each country actually helped me draw more parallels among them all.
Last bit about case study: during one of our site visits, we visited a government organization called Centro de Información y Formación Ambiental (Center of Information and Environmental Training/Research) that focuses on the Riachuelo, the really polluted river about which I talked in one of my last posts. During our visit, a photographer took pictures of us attending a presentation, visiting the the research labs, and walking along the river itself. This is something that has happened continually throughout the semester…wherever we are, there are cameras documenting our visit. Anyway, they put a whole page about us on their website, so check it out if you want to see the photoshoot for which we were unknowingly models.
After school today, a few of us went to the MALBA (Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires), an art museum with a new exhibit called “Experiencia Infinativa” (Infinite Experience), which was mind-blowing. I haven’t been to an art museum in a long time, probably because I’m always so overwhelmed by how much there is to see, but the MALBA only had two floors, just enough to stay for a few hours and see everything, but not too much to be very overwhelmed. The first floor wasn’t the temporary exhibit, but I really enjoyed it because it had so many different types of art: abstract, landscape, portrait, print, and more. But the Infinite Experience exhibit…wow. I’ve never been to anything like it, probably because it was a LIVE ACTION exhibit. The first room had buckets of paint in the middle and had two men painting the walls, so I first thought that I was in the wrong room that was under construction. Nope – turns out those two guys WERE the live installation and part of the exhibit. They were painting the walls white over and over again. The second room was dim with a projector shining on the wall, and new words would come up every 30 seconds or so (in Spanish). This was when I noticed there was a woman typing at a computer in the corner. Turns out, the sentences were about US in the room watching the screen!
I was with a few other friends in the room. The screen said:
“My finger points at what you should look at, says a girl tall and blonde.” My friend Emily, extremely tall and blonde, was standing there telling us to watch the screen because she’s been to the exhibit before. We all started smiling and laughing once we realized it was about us, and the screen said, “They smile. They are like a big family of women.” It was hilarious.
There were six different rooms/live action pieces in this exhibit, but I won’t go into them all now to save you reading time. But I will say that it was probably the coolest art exhibit I’ve ever seen. And I got into the museum for free because it’s free for students on Wednesdays…and I only have thirteen pesos left in my wallet, which can barely buy me anything in this city, much less a museum entrance.
Tonight is my last night in Buenos Aires, and I just ate my last dinner with Marta, the host mom of the century. I’m definitely going to cry tomorrow morning when we leave for the last time. No doubt about that, but I’m going to get her Skype information at breakfast so we can stay in touch. Marta is so popular and is on the phone/skype literally all the time, so I feel like whenever I sign on to skype (which is rare and only if I have a meeting), she’s going to request to videochat me because she’s always online to begin with. I think there will be some funny skypes in the future for us. While I loved my other homestays, I definitely feel most connected to Marta. She also makes delicious food, which has been a huge plus.
Tomorrow (Thursday), we leave for our retreat until Sunday, when we’ll drive straight back to the airport to head home. We’ll be staying about 2 hours outside of Buenos Aires in a church or seminary or something (throwback to the seminary in Johannesburg – we’re used to living in religious buildings at this point), and there are going to be a lotttt of tears. They already started last weekend at our rural stay and have made appearances throughout the week, so I’m sure this weekend will be very emotional. The next time I post, I’ll either be home or on my way there, having just completed the most challenging, exciting, and amazing experience of my life. All that comes before then is a lot of smiles, tears, and memories.
P.S. Wanna know what living in Vietnam for a month was like? My homestay partner there, Mariam, has been making a video of every country (which I’m also doing on my own), and she finally was able to upload her amazing Vietnam video to youtube – check it out! ¡Hasta pronto!