The whole gang.
This post goes out to all my Global Development Studies buds and professors, because all I could think about in the days leading up to the trip I’m about to chronicle was just that, G-D-S.
A few weeks ago I signed up for a volunteer service trip, here simply called “un voluntariado,” with the group Caminantes. I heard about the trip via an IFSA email, and a few people I knew were going. The plan was to paint a school and hang out with children, described to us as an opportunity to help people, “do good,” etc. I read the description and immediately thought back to my GDS classes in which we bashed these types of trips. The way I saw it: A bunch of wealthy American students are bused out to a field with a school in terrible conditions, we’re greeted by people from all over the town and hoards of hungry young children. We spend a few days painting a school, “roughing it” in a refugio with no hot water, play with some kids, take pictures with said kids to post on Facebook, and bus back to Buenos Aires, never to return again. Yeah we’d paint a school, but they school would soon be neglected again. Yeah we’d play with some kids, but we’d soon abandon them to never return, crushing their happiness. The kids on this trip were going for self-fulfillment, to “feel good” about themselves, etc. All the wrong reasons, all the wrong things. It was a type of modern-neo-colonialism and it was a bad idea.
THAT was my outlook. Cynical, eh? Or critical? (The cynical/critical question is a big one when it comes to global development, and academics, in general, I guess). Either way, I was very skeptical of this trip.
And yet, I signed-up.
Why? On the one hand, I wanted to go somewhere new and meet new people. But there was also a part of me that wanted to see if my uber-critical view was right, if all these trips were really no-good. This was to be a type of on-ground experience (field work?) to either prove or misprove my theory on white people doing service trips in poverty-stricken, foreign parts of the world.
And BOY AM I GLAD I WENT. I learned A LOT. I climbed-off of my high horse and realized that all of these trips aren’t necessarily that bad. So after that obnoxiously long preamble, here goes a description of where we went, what went down, and what I took away from it:
Our group gathered on a street corner in Caballito at 10 PM last Thursday night in the drizzle, laden with backpacks, sleeping bags, pant brushes and snacks. The first surprise for me of the trip were those who came along, Argentines! I knew that the organization in charge of everything was Argentine (called Caminantes, check them out on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Caminantes-de-Buenos-Aires/325324217482726?fref=ts), but I had no idea that a bunch of Argentines, around our age, were coming on the trip with us. This was a game-changer, especially given my pessimistic outlook. One of the reasons I’d been skeptical of this trip was because I worried there would be no real connection to where we were going. But we were with Argentines, and one of our team members personally knew the principal of the school, hence the connection.
After a 10 hour overnight bus ride in the boring rain, we arrived in Curuzu Cuatia, located in the Corrientes province (borders Paraguay, Uruguay, and Brazil!). Curuzu Cuatia’s not a tourist destination by any means, and neither is the state of Corrientes, for the most part. When I told people in Buenos Aires that I was heading there, most people responded with “why?” followed by some comment on how poor the state is. And they’re right. There’s not much to do there. But that’s ok, because we had our work cut-out for us.
Upon arriving at Escuela No. 36, we got right to work. The next 3 days were spent stripping paint, sanding walls, paining the ceiling, painting the doors, painting the walls. Paint Paint Paint Paint. It was exhausting and tiring. But there was also something therapeutic about the whole experience. For three whole days I had nothing to do, nothing to worry about, other than making this lil’ school look awesome. And it did look awesome.
For anyone who’s ever taken on any sort of improvement project, you’ll know that feeling of satisfaction and pride you get when you rip off that last piece of tape, paint that last piece of wall, step back, and look at what you’ve done. It was just a paint job, but Escuela No. 36 looked pretty darn nice. The afternoon of our last day, the directors of the school and some members of the community threw us a huge asado, comparable to a good ol’ barbecue in the US, but oh-so-better. There was lamb out the wahzoo (José, who works at the school, killed two for us the day before), chorizo, salads and potatoes and postres. Everything was so fresh, so delicious. The way food should be.
Post-the asado, a number of kids who attend the school came for some organized activities. We played some learning games, lots of soccer, just had a good time. It was low-key, relaxing, and really fun.
Before climbing on the bus to head back home, we popped by the Doma going on across the road from the school. What’s a doma, you ask? Very good question because I had no idea, and neither did many of the Porteños on our trip. It’s essentially a rodeo, and it comes from the verb domarse, which means to tame (like dominate, eh?). It as gaucho central, and it was SO cool. I wish we could have stayed longer.
I also want to throw in an anecdote: We were sitting around a campfire one night after dinner, talking a bit before heading to sleep, when in the distant we see three people approaching us. Three boys, none of whom looked older than 13, come out of the field and suddenly stop, observe, and listen. After a few minutes, the eldest one moves forward and goes up to one of the Argentines on the trip, Leandro, and asks what language we were speaking and where we were from. When Leandro told him English, the kid looked shocked. He then explained that him and his friends didn’t go to school, they worked during the day, they didn’t have a TV at home, and they’d only heard English a few times on the radio, so they couldn’t recognize the language. They were fascinated. A few of us went over to talk to them. All three of the boys commented on how tall I was (the average male height in Argentine is about 5 ft 7 and women are much shorter) and asked if there was a way they could guarantee their own height. I smiled and said vegetables, without a doubt. It’s hard to put into words what this interaction was like, but talking to these kids was awe-inspiring. Their lives are so vastly different. This is such an understatement, but it gave me perspective.
And that, my friends, was my community service trip experience. It was eye-opening. It was an opportunity for me to see something that I otherwise never would have. It was a chance to see a different way of life, and do help fix up a school. I didn’t do it for my own benefit, for my own feel-good experience. I guess you can say it was a mitzvah. I went with a critical view. I returned with an optimistic one. Was this global development? I’m not sure. What I do know: trips like these, where you do something feasible, where you have a relationship that makes the connection sustainable, where both sides take something away from the experience, THESE types of trips are worth it.
I want to close with a quote written on one of the walls in the school:
“Sabías que el 99,9% de las personas del mundo no saben que vos existís? Pero acá va un beso y un abrazo del 0,01% que está feliz de que existas!”
In English: Did you know that 99.9% of the world doesn’t know that you exist? But here is a kiss and a huge from the 0.1% that are happy you exist!
That quote, as sappy as it seems, says it all. I, for one, now know that Escuela No. 36 exists. We’re now part of the 0.1% that know about this school, about those kids. Those kids know that WE know. And it matters.
Below are a few photos from the trip! Thanks for reading this novel of an entry 🙂