Letter Home from Buenos Aires, Argentina

A Letter Home from students on the IHP Health and Community: Globalization, Culture, and Care Spring Track 1 program:

Hola from Argentina!  Wow, has it been a whirlwind for our group.  Between getting settled in new homestays, taking classes at the scholarly, elegant School of Architecture, and diving into the cuisine, culture, tango, and nightlife, we’ve been going non-stop.  Many of us found that Buenos Aires (BA) really does resemble the “Paris of Latin America” both when we learned about its rich history and walked down the streets.  Here are some of the highlights we’re excited to share with you:

Homestays in Argentina allowed us to develop relationships with families, couples, or individual parents, and to understand the world of Buenos Aires from a totally new perspective.  We changed partners from our Delhi homestay families, so each of us lived with either one or two other students who we hadn’t been with before, in apartments across Buenos Aires.  Each homestay carried new dynamics and opportunities to explore—oftentimes in an entirely new language! Some students used their homestay experience to delve into Argentinean history and politics; some practiced (or tried for the first time) conversing in Spanish; others learned to dance the tango.  Noam Yossefy commented that her madre was either “studying at a university, or teaching, or taking dance lessons. She never stops – she’s awesome!”  That sense of activity and involvedness pervaded the Argentinean homestay experience and the city of BA in general.  Whether in suggesting weekend destinations, taking us to milongas (Argentinean tango halls), or cooking and exploring Buenos Aires, homestay parents across the board gave students a chance to explore and engage with the city with honesty and familiarity.  Homestays also interacted with and reinforced the ideas introduced in academic sessions, providing a means of exploring many of the difficult topics of the military dictatorship, political detainments, and murders during the 1970s and 80s.  With an established personal comfort and mutual understanding, many homestay families filled in the details and colors that professors and guest lecturers couldn’t provide.  In terms of both studies and culture, our local families enriched and enlivened our experience in Argentina, and many of us will carry these relationships forward long into the future.

Now for a little more on our guest lectures and site visits.  Argentina is a country consisting of the descendants of European immigrants and individuals from many of its neighboring Southern American countries.  After a long period of Spanish colonization, Argentina declared independence in 1816.  While the first century was marked by waves of immigration and a sharp rise in wealth and development prosperity, the majority of the 20th century had a great deal of political and economic upheaval consisting of numerous changes in power and military dictatorships.  The constant fluctuation of Argentina’s history and resulting activism, which has been readily present in day-to-day life, is important to be aware of in order to understand the existing structural forces and concept of universal health care.

Argentina’s universal health care is divided into three subsystems consisting of a public government sponsored system, a system called Obras Sociales in which workers’ unions provide health care by contracting out private providers, and a private health care system.  Within the public sector, health care institutions are separated between provincial and municipal levels.  During our first week, we broke up into three groups and visited different primary health care centers around Buenos Aires.  These primary health care centers act as hubs of community health through the provision of health care professionals and support groups.  The doctor we spoke to explained how the physicians working at the centers go into the surrounding neighborhood and conduct research in order to figure out how they can best serve the population they are working for.  We also visited the Fundación Garrahan, which provides housing for children who are being treated in Buenos Aires hospitals and live a long distance from Buenos Aires.

As a key component of our experiential learning, our professors tailor their material so we can discuss large concepts in a regional context through country-specific readings and examples.  We began our education in Argentina discussing how globalization plays out in countries that are in political and economic flux.  Additionally, since Argentina has some of the most progressive policies regarding transgender and same-sex marriage rights, we learned about gender theory and examined the specific policies that are at play.  Moreover, through our readings, classes and guest lectures, we learned about environmental health.  Specifically, we examined the structural forces that influence the communities surrounding the Riachuelo Basin, a contaminated river in the middle of toxin-producing industries and plants. At the end of our third week in Buenos Aires, our professors and country coordination team facilitated a compelling class discussion about health care as a right.  While everyone had varying opinions regarding this complex issue, before we were able to assess who should receive health care or how health care should be distributed, many of us came to the conclusion that we first need to define health before these complicated questions can ever find answers.

When we weren’t in the classroom, we used free time and weekends to really explore our temporary city.  Buenos Aires has something to offer everyone- the trendy café-goer and the spirited musician alike! The public transportation system made it easy for us to move from one barrio (neighborhood) to the next.  One of our favorite sites was the Recoleta Cemetery.  Inside the gates of the cemetery are rows of massive stone mausoleums and gothic style statues that mark the tombs of famous Argentinean political and social figures.  And on the weekends, a huge market bustles right outside.  Mercados or ferias (also in San Telmo and Palermo) were the place to go for street empanadas and dulce de leche cookies, artisan goods like leather purses, handcrafted jewelry and unique art pieces.  Families and friends gather here to enjoy the sunshine, listen to music, relax, and sip maté.  Needless to say, we typically left Recoleta with full bellies and bags of trinkets to bring home. We’ve also enjoyed some of the spectacular artistic performances in Buenos Aires.  Groups went to see La Bomba del Tiempo, an upbeat improvisational drumming group who performs shows every Monday night for young audiences. The energy of the crowd is almost tangible, as people sway to the beats and clap along. On more relaxed or rainy days, groups visited some of the well-known art museums around the city such as the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Many of us also explored Museo Evita where we got an in-depth look into the life of Evita Peron and learned about her impact on the political and social history of Argentina.

It’s safe to say that one thing everyone in the group enjoyed was food tasting—especially since our diets were predominately vegetarian (and relatively unvaried) in India. Meals in Argentina typically consisted of fresh produce paired with a protein like fish or meat.  Our days began with a light breakfast of toast and dulce de leche (an Argentinean confection made of milk and sugar).  For lunch, many students visited Calabazas, a vegetarian salad bar near the school or ate local cuisine like empanadas (savory pockets) and choripan (chorizo sandwich).  One and two lunches per week were dedicated to “40 Minutes of Fame,” a community building exercise in which one student shares their life stories and experiences with the rest of the group.  A note on 40 mins: we’ve really found them to be hilarious, heart-warming, and bonding.  Lastly, dinner was prepared for us at our home stays and ranged from local dishes like milanesas (breaded chicken/steak) and asados (Argentinean barbecues) to Italian dishes of pasta and gnocchi.  During the weekend, many students visited Palermo, Soho, and Recoleta for brunch or the various mercados for authentic street food.

A unique part of our IHP program is that in every country our group gets the chance to experience an urban setting and a rural setting.  So just as we did in India, we got a break from the city and traveled outside to a more rural area. This time we traveled five hours out of the city by bus to La Catita ranch in 9 de Julio, where we stayed for three days. Surrounded by fields of soy plants, chickens, and other farm animals, the ranch was absolutely breathtaking.  The day we arrived (coincidentally St. Patty’s Day!) was spent learning some background history on the ranch and getting to know our hosts. Ricardo and his family were so warm and welcoming! The next day, we visited the tiny town La Nina and its health care facilities, walked around and talked to members of the community, visited the City Hospital and the Barrio Lujan Health Care Unit, and finally, met with an activist theatre group called Los Cruzavías. A delicious asado dinner at the ranch was the perfect end to an incredible day. Sadly, the following day was already our last one; and after a quick class, we said our goodbyes to Ricardo and ranch and headed on our way back to the bustling city.

During our upcoming vacation period our group has a variety of exciting plans. A number of bus tickets, plane tickets, and hostels have been booked across Argentina! Some are planning to go trekking throughout the Patagonia region to see glaciers and beautiful mountain views. Others have decided the wonderful vineyard life is for them and bicycling through Mendoza was the way to spend the week. One group has decided that it would be nice to kick back and relax on the beaches of Mar del Plata and maybe see a sea lion or two.  The last group has decided that seeing the breathtaking falls of Iguazu were a must do before we depart for South Africa. This coming week will be a wonderful time for us to reflect on our Argentine experience and have a little R&R from our worldly travels before we leave to explore another continent.  Argentina we will miss you dearly, but don’t cry just yet!

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