Argentina was better and worse than I expected, but it was undeniably memorable. Travelling with a group of 30 to a Latin American country where few people speak English created many learning opportunities and an appreciation for all the students and chaperones who stepped up to participate in this experience.
The open culture and the afternoon sun in Buenos Aires greeted us and made us feel human again, after flying 28 hours with stopovers in three cities.
We stayed in a quaint hotel in the San Isidro neighbourhood and got the chance to enjoy both public transportation and the comfortable bus we booked in advance to get around. The weather was perfect and the people were welcoming.
We started our volunteer work the next day at the Centro Conviven, a community centre that is a safe haven for the residents in the impoverished slums of the city. Most of the SMUS students anticipated that we would be playing sports with kids and teaching them English, however our volunteer work consisted mostly of washing and sanding the walls of the centre’s tiny auditorium.
I coordinated and designed a mural with a sunset, some tropical greenery, an ocean view, a fiery cityscape and mountains with hand-print flowers. The mural stretched out along the entire entrance of the centre and covered both sides of the tiny corridor. We spent a long time first preparing the walls to make sure that our work will be preserved. Painting such a large project was tricky because you’re never quite sure how it will turn out and how long it will take.
The mural didn’t turn out the way I had originally planned because of time constraints and it being a fluid project as we went along, but I learned that it’s healthy and productive to be open-minded to change. Even though we only had a few days to plan and complete the painting projects at the Centro Conviven, our team became closer, and everyone’s leadership abilities improved when all of our stress and sweat were poured into a common purpose. Seeing the residents in the slums passing by and watching us paint strengthened our mutual understanding of why we were doing service work in Argentina.
Being pulled in all directions by four kids and giving piggyback rides to the children tired us out physically, but not emotionally. The kids were happy; they were all so happy to see us and play with us. The children don’t come from rich families, but they seemed a lot happier and more giving than people in developed countries that have a lot to give. Seeing how they live was the worst part of the trip, and some of the living conditions in Buenos Aires were worse than I expected.
But thinking about the inviting smiles and the unending energy of the kids there brought each of us further focus and more motivation to work on our goals for beautifying and cleaning their community centre. Even though we only spent two afternoons together and very few people spoke the same language, the friendship and appreciation built between us and the children in the community was tremendous.
Working at the Centro Conviven and spending time with the children changed all of our ideas and our perceptions of this trip for the better.
The cultural aspects of the trip were greatly rewarding, as we all got to experience some of the pastimes of Argentina. There was no lack of horse riding with cowboys and classic barbecue lunches of local specialties, including blood sausages and slabs of dripping pork. We got to be part of the cheering, red and blue jersey-clad crowds at a local soccer game, and going on day trips to a horse ranch and a polo club increased our interest in and our understanding of the Argentinian culture.
Our two weeks of fun and service in Buenos Aires went by too quickly, as the warmth of the people and their easygoing attitude grew on us. Hopefully in a few years, I’ll be able to return to Argentina, spend more time with the children at the Centro Conviven and see how things have changed. I’ll definitely miss the Latin American culture and getting to know the kids from the community centre, but until such time that I return, I have a bottle of dulce de leche to remember this trip by.
(photos by Leanne Hart, Tony He and Kitty Liang)