Sunday, September 15, 2013

Argentina: Community Service and the Great Outdoors

This blog will be my only blog about my experience as a group leader with The Experiment in International Living, so it may end up being ridiculously long, and it also may miss a lot of details. But I really wanted to write a little about my experience so that I have it recorded. So here goes...

For nearly 5 weeks I had the opportunity to lead a group of high school students on an immersive, cross-cultural exchange in Argentina. I led with a co-leader (who was phenomenal) and we had 15 teenagers on the trip.

We met in the airport in Miami and started getting to know one another there. I couldn't fully comprehend what I was getting into with these kids, or how much I would come to love each and every one of them. You know when you start out doing something, college, a sports team, job, whatever it is, you can't fully comprehend the impact it will have on you until it is over? That is exactly what happened on this trip. I started out thinking that I knew what to expect, but I was dead wrong. The experimenters surprised me in every way and I was lucky to be a part of their journey. 

After a red eye flight to Buenos Aires, we hit the ground running with our guide, Martin. We checked into our hotel, which was in the center of the city and on the same street as La Casa Rosada (the Argentine equivalent to the White House). He, and the amazing office staff in Buenos Aires, shared with us some Argentine traditions, including empanadas, alfajores, and our very first cup of mate. I was surprised with how many of the experimenters liked mate, because when I tried it for the first time a few years ago, I was not a fan. But Argentina will change you, and I brought home a mate cup and two bags of yerba to drink in the states. 
Martin was a great tour guide. He took us to all the famous places around Buenos Aires, taught us about the culture, the political situation, the financial crisis that has burdened Argentina for the past years, and many more interesting things. He was seriously like a walking encyclopedia of Argentina knowledge. One of my favorite places we visited was La Recoleta, a cemetery in the city with humungous crypts. Everything was very European and beautiful in the city, but the cemetery was seriously the most striking in beauty. We were able to see the grave of Eva Peron, and many other famous Argentines that are buried there. 
Theo, Chris, Will, & Josie at La Recoleta Cemetery. 
We also took a boat tour around El Tigre, which was not all that beautiful during our time in Buenos Aires. One thing to remember is that even though we were in Argentina in June and July, it is winter there and very, very cold. It is also very dead, so there was not much to see along the river banks. The kids did make good use of there time on the boat singing and dancing. However, not everyone on the boat appreciated their talents, and all the other tourists and Argentines left the top level to the first level. 

The kids in our group were seriously amazing. They were so incredibly smart and funny. Many of them spoke Spanish extremely well, and those who did not at the beginning really learned a lot throughout the trip. I was impressed to see their growth from beginning to end. 

While I was down there, I also happened to run into Casey Housen, my friend from high school, on the streets of Buenos Aires. What a small world! She had gone to Argentina on vacation and happened to be staying at a hostel on the same street as our hotel. I stopped by one night during dinner to say hi and catch up for a little while. What are the odds?
As part of the program, we spent two weeks in Salta living with host families. I had the most incredible family while I was there. I had a sister, two brothers, and a mom that I stayed with. They seriously became my family while I was there. Agustina, Leandro, Pablo, and Maria (my mom). They will forever be a part of my extended family in Argentina. They took me all around Salta, helped me figure out how to use the bus, taught me how to cook Argentine food, and stayed up late with me chatting about life. I seriously love them so much. 

My mom and sister even came to Chicoana after we left Salta, and celebrated my birthday with me. They surprised me with a cake and gifts and the best company I could enjoy! What a blessing! 

While in Salta at our homestay, we got together everyday for an activity or classes of some sort. The name of our program was Community Service and the Great Outdoors. So during our time in Salta we spent time doing community service, and we also went hiking and white water rafting. I feel like this is where our group really became good friends. It was hard going to Buenos Aires for a few days and then being separated suddenly into our homestays. I know I had a really tough time, and some of the kids did as well. But it made us stronger as a group and it taught us as leaders how to trust the group members.
We went on a few cultural excursions as well, and visited museums to learn more about Argentine culture. 

We also went to a Peña while we were in Salta, which is basically like dinner and a show. Jen and I took a picture with one of the devils that were part of the show. I'm not sure exactly what they were a part of, but they let anyone who wanted go and take a picture with them. 

For our community service in Salta, we worked at a facility that helped people with disabilities. They did not receive any government funding and relied on the goodwill of others to help them upkeep the building. We spent a week cleaning and painting the grounds. We were even able to plant a garden in the backyard. This is a mural a few of the kids designed and painted. They also painted a second mural in the backyard. The people at the facility were so gracious for all that the kids did for them. It's amazing what 15 high school students can accomplish in a short time. I don't know if they really understood how much of an impact they had on the workers, but as they spoke with us they had tears in their eyes for all the hard work that had been done. Our outdoor guide Sergio (in orange) and our service leader Carlos (far right front) were crucial during our trip and helped us get everything accomplished. They were some of our favorites we met. 

I was super excited for our trip because of the theme of community service and the great outdoors. I especially LOVED white water rafting! Our group worked really well together, and I loved spending the time together. One of our group, Oluwa, didn't know how to swim, yet was exceptionally brave and even jumped into the water (with a life jacket) after we finished rafting. 

After leaving Salta we spent some time in Chicoana, a small pueblo where we did service and spent time with the locals. We stayed in a hostel right next to a restaurant (where we ate every single meal) and we did community service at an old tobacco plant that they are transforming into a museum. We met a lot of the local people and were very well known in the small town. The group were even pulled up on stage during a parade and gave candy to the local kids and danced with people in costumes. We also were able to watch a gaucho parade, which seemed to go on forever - but was actually a great way to soak up the culture of a small town.

The community service in Chicoana was a lot more labor intensive than the service we did in Salta, even though it was just as much painting. Sometimes I thought that the name of the program should've been Painting Buildings and the Great Outdoors. Seriously, we painted A LOT.

After our time in Chicoana, we went horseback riding for 5 days, and camped 1 night. I had a great experience where my horse flipped over on me, but other than that, we didn't have any real incidents on the horses. I had only ridden a horse once before this, and I didn't feel super confident riding all around the hills of Argentina, but by the end I was loving horseback riding. I think the majority of the group loved it as well. 

We were able to ride to places with amazing views. I also loved that while we were on our horses I could relax a little bit because all of the group was extremely responsible while riding. 

A few other cool things we were able to experience: 

Beautiful rock formations on our way from Chicoana to Cafayate. 

Sand dunes in Cafayate.

Las Ruinas de Quilmes.

Jen, Sergio and Me
Tango lessons.

So... clearly I got tired while writing all of this, but needless to say, I had an amazing experience. All of the kids (Mary Rose, Josie, Diego, Chris, Michael, Julia, Deja, Theo, Lauren, Chelsea, Jack, Oluwa, Ben, Viola, and Will) were amazing. I seriously have such a love for each and every one of them. I learned so much through their examples, and from their outlook on the trip. They helped me continue on through the difficult times and motivated me. I am excited to see where they all go to college and end up in 10 years, because the group was filled with future world leaders. Seriously, I can't say enough good things about this group, and I feel privileged to be their leader. 

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