Letter Home from Buenos Aires, Argentina

A Letter Home from students on the IHP Cities in 21st Century Spring 2014 program:

As we first stepped foot off the plane into Buenos Aires, a combination of giddiness and exhaustion overcame most of the crew. It was our final globetrot as a group of 37; a somewhat relieving, yet sad realization. The 24-hour schlep from Dakar, through the Canary Islands and then Madrid (Starbucks sighting), and finally arriving in Buenos Aires was highlighted by long conversations, Saving Mr. Banks, and, for most, sleep. We were greeted in Buenos Aires by Carolina, our own personal Energizer Bunny and country coordinator, and herded to the Hotel Bauen for our first night in Buenos Aires. If there is anything we have realized about IHP it’s the intentionality of the planning that goes into it. A prime example was the choice of this hotel. After the 2001 economic collapse in Argentina, workers at the Hotel Bauen, when faced with losing their jobs as the owner abandoned the property, instead took control of the hotel and have kept it open and proftitable ever since. Carolina provided empanadas and while most crew members immediately hit the beds and an adventurous and an arguably crazy few went out to see what Portenos chose to do on a Saturday night.

That was just day one. The next day we were placed with the third and final family of the adventure.

The first week in Buenos Aires was a whirlwind. As we gathered at SICAP for our first day of class we each shared our favorite things about this new life, unknown to us just 48 hours before. Some members of the group living in the trendy Palermo Soho neighborhood were happy campers. “I think this is the hippest place I have ever been” and “I think I need to move here” were just a couple of the phrases being tossed around. We were finally in a place that felt “normal” again. We were salivating at the bars, coffee shops, art galleries and museums that awaited us. We could drink water from taps, flush the toilet, communicate via “THE WORLD WIDE WEB” consistently, and take a stroll on a sidewalk regulated by traffic lights.

It took us sometime to understand that this was our collective reverse culture shock, a reentry of sorts. A lot has changed since that first ‘honeymoon’ day as in true IHP fashion we came to terms with the complexities of life in Buenos Aires.

In our first week we were joined by Carla Horton, a professor from the University of Buenos Aires. She shared with us the story of the city’s prosperous, but also brutal past. She detailed the overarching, all-encompassing nature of Peronismo – the Argentine political ideology emerging in the 1950s under Juan Peron that continues to empower workers and secure the strength of the labor unions. She discussed the “deseparecidos”- the estimated 30,000 people who were “disappeared” by the military junta from 1976-1983. Moving to the 90s, we learned about the economic turmoil rooted in neoliberal reforms that defined the Menem presidency. In 2001, there were riots from the economic instability which led to political turmoil as five different Presidents were sworn in a matter of days. Horton set us a historical base that really allowed us to “read the city” and understand that there are a lot of underlying historical factors at work in everyday life. While we were enthralled by the city’s European feel, the romanticism that initially took over the group slowly seeped away as we learned more.

In each country, case studies made up a large section of academic learning. They were moments for everyone to go out into the city, get out of their comfort zones and become experts of sorts in a certain area. The topics in Buenos Aires included Mobility, Sustainability, Waterfront Development, Housing Access and Waste Management. For three days, during the third week of Buenos Aires we trekked around the city in our groups, some even got to ride bikes, which was a blast. After these three days we presented our case studies to the class. While the topics varied, a definite theme emerged from our fieldwork. Almost every group argued that it is clear that there is a lack of collaboration and coordinatation among the actors working in improving these different sectors. For example, the mobility group highlighted shortcomings of the transportation system, exemplified in the fact that there is no available map of the bus (“Collectivo”) system. They interviewed Portenos who could not get from A to B without complex routes that were created by poor planning by a number of groups who never set foot in the same room together as collectivos are privately operated and the Subway system has barely been expanded over the last half century. Unlike the other case studies, this time we were asked to come up with some opportunities or solutions for the problems we observed on our case studies. For many, this was a refreshing task.

In Ahmedabad and Dakar many of us felt as though we were part of a family. For the most part, we ate with family members every night. We told our families about our days, what we were learning about, played with kids and met extended family. When we left the house they wanted to know where we were going, when we would be home and who we were going with. Safe to say, that was way less of a thing in Buenos Aires, which some folks missed and others did not. In many Buenos Aires homestays there was only one Golden Rule: Be home before the sun comes up. Fair. The general hands off nature of the Argentina families opened up time for everyone, but the lack of warm and fuzzy familiness was lessened. There was a good bit of fun had by everyone, but deep down, many students also missed the familial atmospheres in India and Senegal. Whether this was disappointing or freeing, the experience reminded us of the wide range of ways people integrate others into their homes. This tension was an important step for many of us.

So now it’s over. We are coming home to family, friends and other loved ones. What’s going to make this a challenge is that many of us students have found a family here within IHP. We have met friends for life, people who we really care about and we have shared a lot of exciting and terrifying moments together. Figuring out what to say when someone asks, “So how was study abroad?” will be a stressful process because that answer deserves justice, not an “It was awesome,” because it was more than that and a lot more complicated that “awesome.” Parts were awesome, other parts were really sad, weird, thought provoking. How do we talk about a little boy living in 3 feet of standing water in the Lake Chandola slum in Ahmedabad? How do we describe the desaparecidos affect on our host families, let alone describe the differences between the folks who welcomed us into their homes. It will surely be a process, but an exciting one. This has been an amazing journey that has left the group inspired, confused and grateful. Not a lot of people get to go on a journey like this and as we head home, we begin to think about the ways in which we fit into our own cities in impactful ways.

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