Update Marathon

So another whirlwind of a month has passed. Wow. Well, I will do my best to pick up where I left off, hopefully leaving the interweb with a high-speed overview of my final weeks in Argentina. Ready… Set… Go!

After spending a week in Brazil, half of our 12 person group traveled to Paraguay and half to Uruguay. I was part of the Paraguay group. Our week in the most corrupt country in South America (13th in the world) was breathtaking, mind-blowing, and inspiring. Based in Asunción, we spent our 5 days either siting with professors in roundtable discussions about Paraguayan history, development challenges, social issues, ect., or taking site-specific visits. For me, the most impressionable moments of the tripwere our tour through the Museum of Memory, the Dictatorship and Democracy, our walk through the slum Los Bañados, and our visit to an indigenous community outside Asunción.

The Museum of Memory, the Dictatorship and Democracy has its home in the same compound where the Dirección Nacional de Asuntos Técnicos, better known as ‘la Técnica’, operated a clandestine torture centre starting in 1956, with support from the United States. Along with a detailed historical account of Paraguay’s military dictatorship, the museum displays the instruments used, the names of people disappeared, and a replica jail cell. Next to the torture equipment – tongs, clamps, electrical wires – there was a wall-sized map of Latin America with color coded markers showing every country in which the U.S. has intervened militarily and/or supported a military dictatorship. The map is showed in the movie attached. I don’t think U.S. citizens realize the extent to which our fear of communism translated into the torture, murder and disappearance of hundreds of thousands of innocents south of our border and around the world, not to mention the direct subversion of the democratic ideals our founding fathers enshrined and to which we proudly pledge allegiance.


Our visit to Los Bañados was also incredibly thought-provoking. Located next to a new and upcoming development complex for the wealth, the “neighborhood” gets its water of a small river that flows along side the landfill. Upstream lies an industrial plant that releases toxic waste into their “drinking” water, causing recent and increasing health problems. Most of the residents are migrants from rural farming communities kicked off their land by massive international agricultural companies. The people who live in Los Bañados sneak into the local landfill at night to collect garbage that they then sort and recycle for small change. The city government has gated off the landfill, and threatened to move it. For me, the paradox was striking. The citizens have pressured the government tonot move the landfill, because sorting through the garbage is their only source of income. There are also huge problems with domestic violence and high birth rates. Most families their boast 6-8 children, a result of the culture of machismo that considers the number of kids a representation of the husband’s manliness.


And finally – the indigenous community. The community that we visited is actually one of the groups that have been most successful in retaining and reclaiming their land through the formal pathways of the Paraguayan government. After a tour of their compound (they are currently constructing a new school and health center) we sat down to talk about the challenges and successes that their community has experienced. We needed two translators: one to translate from Spanish to Guarani (an indigenous language that is Paraguay’s second official language) and one to translate from Guarani to the community’s local dialect. As you can see in the attached video, the conversation was held in one circle of us and the male leaders, while outside, the women and children sat and watched. After we asked our questions to them, we asked them if they had any questions for us. After a long silence, one women sitting in the outside ring spoke up.

Translate to Guarani, translate to Spanish: “So now that you have learned about our struggles, what are you going to do for us?”

Silence. None of us knew what to say. Our academic director eventually jumped in to try to cover for us. She valiantly BSed that we were going to learn about their culture and problems and then return to our country and talk about our experience with our friends, creating a network that would be the start of systemic change. Somehow it didn’t feel like enough. Then we passed out the cookies and pop we’d brought to share, and got in our van and drove off. As we were leaving, I glimpsed the indigenous leaders divvying out the extra cookies to the mothers, who used their blouses to carry them back to their homes.


So that was Paraguay.

Back in Buenos Aires, we started working on our ISPs (Independent Study Projects). I researched the recent South American integration organism UNASUR and one of its most active components, the South American Defense Council. Formed in 2008, these two institutions promise to push South America into a new era of coordinated development, if they can overcome obstacles of institutionalization and presidencial instability. Once I get my final comments back, I will post it here, and hopefully translate part of it to English for those who might be interested.

During the month of research, I took two weekend trips – one to Mendoza (wine country), which was beautiful and relaxing, and another to visit one last time the rural family that we stayed with earlier in the program. Both were delightful.

After we finished our ISPs and closed up our semester program, five of us hopped on a plan to Chile and took a week-long celebratory hiking trip through Torres del Paine National Park. The mountains were incredible and the company was lovely. For anyone interested in trompin around in absolutely breathtaking scenery, I highly recommend Torres del Paine.

And, on finishing our hiking trip, I jetted back to Minneapolis for Christmas!!! The city was frosted and full of snow. My 11-day stint in the U.S. of A. was a whirlwind of friend-hugs and family dinners. Packed in there was a 4-day road trip to Iowa to see my Grandma and then on to Colorado for a quick 2.5-day ski in Breckenridge. Then back to the Mini-apple for New Years weekend.

On Monday, Jan. 3, I hopped on a plane to Quito, Ecuador, where I am currently writing this blog post. On Saturday, I will take a bus, a pick up truck, and then a mule to a natural reserve outpost where I will volunteer for a month doing natury stuff. Then I will bus to Buenos Aires, hopefully passing through Peru and Bolivia before arriving in B.A. for orientation at my school (la Universidad Torcuato Di Tella) on March 4th.

BAM!!!! All caught up. The nature reserve outpost won’t have interwebservice, so I will be incommunicado for the next month or so. Therefore, to anyone who reads this, live well and in peace.


So it’s been way to long since I posted an entry, but as soon as I got back from our two-week trip to Brazil and Paraguay we were thrown immediately into finals, and then into our independent study projects. I just recently found the time to finish editing the videos I took of Brazil and compile them into something presentable. Hope you enjoy!

Villa 31

Last week we visited one of the oldest villas miserias (slums) in Buenos Aires, Villa 31. Home to an estimated 26,400 people, the number of people living in Villa 31  has doubled since 2001. The visit was, for lack of a better word, intense. To minimize safety concerns we were accompanied by a man who works in slum development for the government and who was well known in this particular slum. However, even then we couldn’t take photos unless we were inside a building for fear of getting mugged.

Taxis don’t drive to Villa 31, so we had to ask our driver to drop us off at a grocery store nearby and then walk. I can’t imagine what the inhabitants must of been thinking as they watched our group of tall blond foreigners walk blindly into one of the most dangerous parts of Buenos Aires. Silly North Americans.

The first place we visited in the villa was a Roperia, a non-profit that collects donated clothes and gives them to mothers. Before visiting, I had this conception that the people living in the villas were always in need of and looking for a hand out, always taking clothes from the Roperia instead of donating them. Not true. Instead of collecting clothes from wealthy people in other parts of the city, the Roperia only gathers and redistributes clothes donated by the residents of the slum. After a earthquake hit Salta (a region in northern Argentina), the Roperia in Villa 31 received so much clothes from the residents that they filled a coach bus. Lesson learned: generosity comes from the most destitute of places.

After finishing our visit at the Roperia, we darted through the rain to a daycare center down the “street” to talk with the teachers about the lives of kids in the slum. We also got to visit a library, where students visit in shifts to get help studying after their secondary school ends for the day. The library wasn’t really a library, just a room with some tables and a very, very dedicated tutor.

All in all, our afternoon in Villa 31 was eye-opening and breath-taking. A few things stuck with me. First, I found the governments response to Villa 31 very interesting. The slum is located on prime real estate, so past governments have pursued many methods to eliminate it, including using bulldozers to destroy the residents’ shacks. While the current government has begun to recognize the residents’ right to their property, it still is hesitant to take any action to increase the slums permanence. For example, instead of installing a permanent water system in the slum, the government sends a truck to fill up water buckets outside the houses every day. The cost of this truck for one year equals the cost of installing the permanent water system, but the government would rather pay the extra money than formalize the residents right to their property.

Another thing I found fascinating was that even though the residents live without a water system (not to mention infrastructural security, paved roads, etc. etc.), everyone has Direct T.V. Everyone. My host mom explained how this phenomenon makes it difficult for her and other people in the middle/upper class to support government assistance programs that target people in the villas. For me, the site of satellite dishes installed on the sides of scrap metal shacks was somewhat incomprehensible. All I saw was globalization irony at its best.

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The Future of NGO Accountability

Earlier this summer I submitted an essay I wrote for my Global Poverty class last fall to The Dialectics an academic journal at Penn State. They accepted it, and the issue just came out. If you feel like reading my article and/or other interesting interesting articles about politics, society, and global issues, check it out! My essay is titled “The Future of NGO Accountability: Problems and Solutions, and it’s on page 30. Here is the pdf, Dialectics-Issue_4.


Rosario and Oktoberfest

Last week we traveled to Pujato, a small town outside of Rosario, Argentina, where we stayed with host families and learned about the rural lifestyle. Tim and I stayed together with the Biagola’s, a wonderful family with three boys about the same ages as Nate, Joe and I, along with one girl. The father own a farm of 50 acres, and plants mainly soy (there’s big ongoing debate over the “soyination” of Argentina – whether it’s good, bad, etc). The mother is a high school gym teacher.

During our stay we had to interview our family on a topic of our choice. Tim and I chose to analyze the political sentiments of the family and how they differ from urban Argentines. While the family was definitely more conservative (supportive of free trade, anti-government intervention), they clearly supported elements of the welfare state, and like all Argentines, fully backed their public education system. The most interesting thing I learned was that the government currently taxes all agricultural exports, so in the end the family only pockets about 20% of their gross profit per harvest. No wonder they don’t like government intervention!

After saying goodbye to our family in Rosario, we took a twelve hour bus ride to Villa General Belgrano, home to the third largest Oktoberfest in the world (I heard that somewhere, but I’m too lazy to find a citation). Here is a video of some Oktoberfest dancers, along with some other photos taken at la Festival de Cerveza. Fun fact I learned that weekend: Duff beer from the Simpsons T.V. show can not be sold in the U.S. due to copyright restrictions. However, in other countries it’s fair game!! For the festival, they had a strawberry beer available (called “strawbeer”) that was actually quite tasty.

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La Baskonia: Una Fabrica Recuperada

Two weeks ago I visited la Cooperativa La Baskonia, a iron molding plant that was taken over by it’s workers after the owners went bankrupt in 2001. Today it is one of more than 180 worker-run enterprises that employ more than 10,000 people in Argentina. These factories work just as, if not more, efficiently that the other executive-led factories in the country. If you would like more information about this movement and the workers who started it, I highly recommend checking out The Take, a documentary on another cooperative factory in Argentina. The website also has links to articles and other literature on the subject.

Weekend in Review

Update time. On Friday we toured el Palacio San Martin, an old palace that has been converted into Government Foreign Affairs office.  Our tour guide explained how Buenos Aires has been copying, or trying to copy, European style since its birth, and the result is visible in the city’s buildings. I don’t know anything about architecture, but supposedly the el Palacio San Martin is very similar to Parisian palaces. I’m just taking the tour guide’s word on that one.

On Friday night, a bunch of people in our group went dancing at the boliche (dance club) Crobar. The funny part about nightlife in Buenos Aires is that none of the dance clubs open up until around 2 am, and most of them close around 8 in the morning. It’s really throwing me off my sleep schedule.

On Saturday, Rob, Luke and I took the bus out to some University of Buenos Aires soccer fields to try to find a pick-up ultimate frisbee game that we had heard about. We couldn’t find the ultimate game, but some students did invite us to partake in a friendly game of soccer. I haven’t kicked a soccer ball for about 5 years, well now it’s been about 24 hours, but before then, about 5 years. So the Porteño (Buenos Airesian) bros had fun watching me struggle. They were actually really nice and invited us back to play next weekend.

After another long night at the Boliches, some new friends and I stopped at Burger King for an 8 am snack. By snack I mean a Whopper and fries. While I was expecting the burger to be sub-par, I had no idea so many people had the same idea! The Burger King was more packed than any fast-food restaurant I’ve ever seen. Yes, including In-N-Out. I guess los Porteños like to get their fast-food on after gettin their dance on.

Then, on Sunday, Rob, Baxter and I wandered around Ricoleta (a really old neighborhood). Every weekend they hold a little fair where people sell handicrafts and people play music and everyone has a jolly time. I sure did. We also got to see Eva Peron’s grave, which is located in one of the most incredible cemeteries I’ve ever seen. However I did find it funny that right next the this cemetery stands a massive Grey’s Anatomy billboard. Yay U.S. television!

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Plaza de Mayo

Today after our Spanish class we walked over to the Plaza de Mayo. Plaza de Mayo has been a critical location of protest, outcry, and public demonstration throughout Argentinian history. During the slew of military governments that ran the country during the 1970s and 1980s, mothers who lost their children to “disappearances” began to gather at the plaza in protest. Los Madres de Plaza de Mayo are still an active human rights group in Argentina today. In front of the Casa Rosada (the “Pink House,” which is kinda like the U.S.’s White House), supporters used to watch Juan or Evita Peron step out on the balcony and address the crowd. Here are some pictures of the Plaza and the buildings around it. After sufficiently embarrassing ourselves as tourists, we went to a famous cafe and grabbed some coffee.