Letter Home from Buenos Aires

A letter home from Fall 2014’s IHP Cities in the 21st Century Track 2 Program:

Hola from Argentina!

These past four weeks have truly been an adventure for the group.  Between joining our new homestays and learning about the rich culture through dance and food, we’ve found that Buenos Aires is more than just the “Paris of Latin America”.

While in Buenos Aires, we took full advantage of our free time to explore what the city and country had to offer. As a group, we danced the night away, screamed GOAL at futbol matches and saw an amazing drum concert called La Bomba del Tiempo. We also got to witness the international phenomenon that is Fuerza Bruta. Our group also split up into smaller cohorts and explored what Argentina had to offer beyond the Buenos Aires city limits. We ventured to the Iguazu Waterfulls, the Mendoza wine region and even trekked out to Patagonia to see firsthand the beauties of glacial ice. However, we found that as a collective, one of our favorite past times was finding cozy cafes and open-air parks to relax and reflect on all that we had learned.

The first week of our time in Argentina, we learned about the socioeconomic and sociopolitical landscape of Argentina, and how its history has shaped the present. Nearly a century of corrupt governments and military dictatorships has led the country into several defaults and a still struggling economy. We were even able to visit ex-ESMA, a detention center for political prisoners under the military dictatorship in 1976. We learned about the “disappeared”, people who were unlawfully detained and eventually killed without being accounted for… to this day. Today, mothers and grandmothers of the deceased still congregate to protest in May Square each Thursday, as a continuous act of solidarity.

As a response to the 2001 financial crisis in Argentina, a group of people took entrepreneurial initiative and created their own solutions to combat wider economic problems. We met some of these people at a cooperative in La Matanza. They are a group of people who have chosen to work together to bring change to their neighborhoods through micro-entrepreneurial ventures.

Furthermore, we had the opportunity to visit visited Villa 31, an informal housing settlement close to the center of Buenos Aires. There, we met a kind man who served us lunch at his soup kitchen, and proceeded to learn about the history of the villa, and the people who live there.

Ultimately, guest lecturers gave us insightful classes on housing, environmental pollution and waste, and transportation. These were also the topics of our case studies, of which everything we had learned culminated in. It’s still shocking to think about all that we were able to learn in the short time that we were in the country.

Our homestay placements also offered us a new layer of learning. Though most of us were met with a language barrier we each found a way to break down that wall. It’s easy to think that communication happens only when we speak or write to each other but in the short month we were in Argentina, we learned that drawing, gesturing and laughing were all meaningful ways to talk without actually talking. Our homestay moms always took their time in understanding us and consistently worked to make us feel like we were home. Their love was palpable. One student’s mom even made a different meal for dinner every night… And who needs a restaurant when you have a chef at home?

We would begin our days with a light breakfast of café con leche (coffee with milk) and tea with bread and jam or dulce de leche (caramel spread). Dulce de leche is also somewhat of an Argentine specialty, and we found it everywhere-spread on bread, mixed into coffee and inside of alfajores (delicious chocolate covered cookies often served with coffee). Coffee also became a staple. We needed something to help us keep up with our busy schedule of lectures and site visits, and we grew to love Havana and Cafe Martinez (the Starbucks-like chains of Argentina, found on almost every street corner). For lunch, students often frequented an empanada shop near our classroom and ate their fill of the hot pockets of bread filled with meat, ham and cheese, or spinach. We then went home and oftentimes enjoyed a steak dinner or “milanesa” which is a breaded meat with a creamy sauce.

With Buenos Aires as our classroom, we were able to explore the city way beyond our expectations but what will always stick with us are the people we met on these outings. They were professors, storeowners, workers, entrepreneurs, and students who stopped, even if it was for a moment, to speak with us. They gave us an insight into the spaces and places we yearned to learn so much about.

There is a quote that is said that we believe can describe our experience as a group in Buenos Aires. It goes along the lines of, “when you meet incredible people who share themselves, the best you can do is share yourself as well”. The city and people of Buenos Aires shared so much about its culture, history, politics, and environment. We are ready to see all of that and more in Dakar. And now, we’re more ready to share ourselves too.  Dakar, here we come.

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