Journaling Abroad: Volunteer in Argentina, Michelle’s Story

May 30, 2018

This post comes to us from volunteer abroad, Michelle Stepan in Argentina. Michelle is a Dietetics and Spanish major from North Dakota State University. She’s added 5 weeks of volunteering to her summer semester in Buenos Aires. Her current placement is volunteering with an organization that strives to cover basic needs of housing, food, clothing and emotional care to mothers and children living a social situation of risk.You can learn more about our volunteer abroad program options here.

Friday May 11th, 2018 

I left home today. Typical me, I stayed up until 5am packing and then showering before I went to bed. My 6:45am alarm was possibly the worst sound I’ve ever heard in my life. Regardless, I dragged myself out of bed and quickly made my host mother’s gift, a wooden cutout of Argentina. I hear that she likes to paint, so I figured she would enjoy being able to paint it. Mom, dad ,and I left for the airport shortly afterwards. My anxiety prevented breakfast from being an option, and it only worsened throughout the car ride. Everyone holds such high expectations for my study abroad,  and this is what gives me the most anxiety, because even after all my work and careful program planning, I’m dreading leaving. What if the summer doesn’t turn out anything like I hoped? I don’t know what to expect, but I really hope this summer will be the summer of my life.   

I cried as the plane took off. I don’t know why it hit me all at once, but I don’t know the last time I was so upset. The rest of the flight went smoothly, and I was able to fall asleep for 45 minutes or so. We landed in Toronto, where I spent the next 6 hours listening to music and stressing about the next day.

Saturday May 12th, 2018  

The flight landed in Buenos Aires at 7:47am. Fortunately, it was one of the best I’ve ever had in my life. I was able to sleep laying down because no one was seated in my row. I estimated I slept around 6ish hours of the 12 hour flight. Immediately getting off the plane, the rush of Spanish hit me…as if I didn’t realize I would be traveling to a completely Spanish speaking country. Perhaps it was an overconfidence in my Spanish abilities, but I’m secretly hoping it was nerves; the customs officer had to repeat a few of her questions in English—I couldn’t even understand her when she asked which flight I came in on. Customs passed easily and thankfully both of my bags arrived together and intact. After customs and grabbing my bags I followed the stream of people until I spotted a man holding a sign with my name on it. Magically it was spelled correctly; ironic that American’s never get it right but the Argentinians can. Sergio and I chatted throughout the hour car ride to my new summer (winter) home. He was very friendly but wow was I rusty both in speaking and listening. I think Profe spoiled me quite a bit with the general language and terms he uses in the classroom.  

The apartment is in a busy part of town, kind of cute, but also very crowded. The elevator requires manual shutting of both “doors” aka iron gates. I met Mercedes as soon as the elevator door opened. She was immediately surprised by my Spanish skills which was quite a shock to me since I had barely spoken and wasn’t even sure if I greeted correctly. She showed me around the apartment. It is incredibly small, my room being hardly bigger than a closet, but very cute nonetheless. Paintings covered the walls of the living room and there is a small terrace with lots of plants. My room is facing inward of the building but actually has a decent sized window towards an internal courtyard. Mercedes and I chatted a little bit, and she explained her rules and customs of the house. Initially the biggest shock was that dinner is served/consumed around 9 or 10pm, that was until I saw the bathroom. Never in my life have I seen a bidet anywhere besides a picture. I had no clue how to use it so I just stuck with the normal toilet and toilet paper. After unpacking and chatting with Mercedes, Carmen came to take me to lunch. Mercedes went ahead of me (I’m always late for everything), but forgot her phone. I brought it to her, hoping she hadn’t intentionally left it, and her face lit up as she explained “It’s like she knows me already!”. A small gesture, but it made me smile. 

Carmen and her husband took me to lunch and we chatted in Spanglish for 2 hours. Argentinians really are not in a rush, not ever it seems. Afterwards Carmen and I went to the API center for part of my orientation and I was able to return home shortly. For dinner, Doris, one of Mercedes’ many many friends came over. We had empanadas, aka I had empanadas while they watched. I think I ate four, each a different flavor. They were super tasty. We spoke politics, to which I discovered Mercedes and I share the same political stance (at least that’s how I understood it). Doris and Mercedes were very nit-picky with my concordancia to which I am thankful, if not a little annoyed about haha. EL programa, LA serie, LA capital (of a city/country), EL capital (currency), EL clima, LA miel, y más y más. The night ended shortly after Doris left. 

Sunday May 13

Today I finished orientation around 11:30am with Carmen and headed off to La ferra francesa which was a huge gathering of French themed booths in La Plaza Francia. I ate a grilled cheese and crème brûlée, chatted with a local for 15 seconds, answered a question incorrectly, and got stared-down by a 2 year old who wanted my food. Today I realized how beautiful the Argentinian people are; I’m not saying this as if the “culture” and country are beautiful and therefore the people are too, but that quite literally the people are gorgeous. Men, women, couples, children. I walked along the open market of souvenirs and artisan gifts before heading home. I felt lonely today. Everyone here has a partner, a family, or a dog por lo menos. It’s difficult and I think it makes me cling to home more. It’s hard not having friends.

Monday May 14th 

Today was the official start of my study abroad. I slept in and stayed in my room until about 10am.  Soon after I went to Starbucks to study. It was only when I got there that I realized I couldn’t charge my computer  because I didn’t have the converter. I ended up using my phone to look up and review Spanish grammar. I took notes on stem changing in the present tense, vos conjugation (which I am still fuzzy about), and direct and indirect pronouns. All of which need work. Living in a country in which I must rely solely on my Spanish speaking ability has made me very self-reflective of my knowledge. There are many things I cannot say and so many more things I do not understand. I have a long way to go.

Carmen took me for a mini tour around the capital of the city’s capital. We took the subway to visit the pink house, or la casa rosada, (which is like the white house of Argentina), el congresso, y el cathedral. I love touring churches and religious buildings, but only as an observer and never a believer. I told Mercedes I “don’t belong to a religion” and fortunately, I don’t think it mattered much to her. On the tour, Carmen confronted me about my initial request to change families. She explained that I would need to know within the next few days so that a new family could be secured. Carmen also mentioned that most of their families here are small, one or two people, and that even when families do have kids, the kids themselves are very busy most of the time. I’ve been here 3 days and it already breaks my heart at the thought of leaving Mercedes. I don’t think I can.

From the capital, Carmen and I took a bus to my volunteer location where I met Daniela (the supervisor), the mothers, and the chiquititos. I didn’t feel lonely today. All of the mothers are incredibly kind and interested in the things I had to say, regardless of how proper my Spanish was. Sometimes I forget how much I love children. Eliseo, un gordito bebe fell asleep in my arms, head slumped against my chest, eyelids fluttering. I didn’t want to put him down. A few of the mom’s requested that I begin teaching English, so tomorrow English it is. I rode the bus home alone, kind of scary yet empowering at the same time.

Tuesday May 15th, 2018 

Today I went on a tour of the world famous cemetery of Recoleta today and got to meet another API class from Virgina. All of these students go to the same university, Washington & Lee University and came to take a Spanish class with their professor. Although they all speak Spanish, the students mostly speak English to each other. This is the most English I’ve spoken since my arrival, and although it was comforting, I’m glad I don’t have that opportunity to speak full English that often. The cemetery was spooky yet intriguing, it seems as though every famous Argentinian has been buried here. The tour lasted 3 hours and I left immediately afterwards to volunteer. Taking the bus alone has been scary but empowering. I love being able to see more beauty of the city through the window of a bus.

Wed May 17
th, 2018  

I went to Havana today after printing a few sheets in the bookstore. A few pages printed wrong, a result of mac/pc incompatibility I believe. Regardless, I just paid for them and left because I did not want to deal with trying to fix that in English let alone Spanish. At Havana, I ordered a dulce de leche flavored coffee. The young waitress asked me if I wanted an Alfajor with my coffee. Initially I assumed this was some sort of “up-sale” to the customer, but when I said no and my coffee came with a different cookie, I’m now thinking that Alfajors are customary and complimentary. I must have confused the heck out of the waitress. 

Thursday May 18
th, 2018  

Today adventure was to Coto, a two-story supermarket. Shopping takes so much longer when you don’t know what half of the foods are but overall I learned 2 things. One, that nutrition labels here don’t distinguish between carbs and sugar and two, they don’t sell peanut butter (cue silent tears). Even the idea of peanut butter is kind of unknown. The mothers at la casa weren’t sure about my explanation of peanut butter. Here it’s called manteca de maní instead of crema de cacahuate o mantequilla de maní, yet it’s still not popular or widely known. Being two stories, Coto has an escalator belt for people and carts to get the second story. Not only are the carts 360 turns, but they also have strong magnetic wheels that allow them to attatch to the belt and prevent sliding. Checking out at the end of the trip was quite different than the US. If you pay with credit card you have to present an ID to prove it is your card, and then on the receipt you must sign, print, and write your ID number. Everything was so odd about this incredibly common experience.  

After dinner around 11:00pm I met up with the API students from Washington & Lee University and had the best night of my life. We met at the API center and from there took a bus to Palermo.  I had a blast dancing with the other students and really just watching everything around me. Abby, Caroline, and I left around 4am. Although we had no money left, with the help of a Columbian man, we were able to catch a specific bus back to Recoleta. People on the bus were kind to us and the bus driver helped us figure out where to get off. I finally got home and in bed just before 5am. What a night it was.

Friday May 18th, 2018 

I slept in until 12:30pm today. Usually I get severe anxiety when I sleep too much because I feel like I’m wasting my life away, but here I don’t; I woke up and was calm as can be, a rarity for me. For volunteering today I spent time with the mothers and Eliseo in the kitchen. Soledad invited me to her cosmetology school outing on Tuesday at the Hilton Hotel. She wants me to dress elegantly…whatever that means haha. Throughout the night, Sol, Antonella, and I discussed cuss words and when to/not to use them. This is the cultural experience I wanted haha. It began to pour right as I left and Sol borrowed me her “piloto” or raincoat. I thought it was the sweetest thing. The people here really take care of one another. I have to figure out how I can do to thank all of the mothers for all they have done for me. It has only been a week but they treat me like family. Gosh I love it here. 



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