The second I activate my new sim card in Ezeiza, my phone buzzes. A friend from Cordoba that I haven’t seen since before the pandemic has sent me 2 messages.
“Bueno anda contándome como te va y q pensas de todo” Well go on and tell me how you’re doing and what you think of everything.
I don't know what to tell her. What do I think of everything? I’ve seen an airport bathroom and a food court. I just got here. My first impression is that you can distinguish Argentinians in the airport from foreigners thanks to their thermoses. The thermoses are full of hot water for mate, a highly caffeinated tea that while not entirely delicious at first, may be both an acquired taste and moderately habit-forming. I unzip my duffel bag and touch my own thermos. I came prepared.
The third message arrives while I’m in the taxi. “Llegás en un momento político y económico bastante tenso.” You’re arriving at a pretty tense time politically and economically. Earlier in the day, there was an attempt on the life of the vice president. Tomorrow, there will be no school, and countless citizens will gather in the city center to march and reaffirm the country’s commitment to democracy. About half an hour from the apartment where I’ll be staying, a concrete wall is covered in spray paint. One sentence reads: “La inflación es violencia.” Inflation is violence.
Of course, I start to get into my own head. The world needs real help; it doesn’t need me. So many of these problems remind me of home. I had just finished working in a supermarket for 6 months and if it weren’t for an employee discount on groceries, I’d have had a tough time with inflation in the United States as well. I heard people come through the checkout line every week wishing the worst of ends upon our representatives and lawmakers. I’m not afraid of adversity. I’m not afraid of being a target. I’m not even afraid that I don’t belong. I know I’m not from here. I know it’s my first time in Argentina. I’m afraid that I belong somewhere else.
You didn’t come to save anything. Before leaving your house for the airport you made sure to throw any shreds of a savior complex in the trash can and secured the lid tight. You came to learn. Voluntario Global provides this opportunity. Want to learn how a grassroots NGO is built? How it functions? How it tangibly improves the lives of the communities it serves? Be a servant of the projects here, and apply what you’ve learned when you get home. Want to learn Spanish or improve your conversational abilities in the language? You’re in the second largest Spanish-speaking city in the world, full of people who want to chat, and Voluntario Global organizes lessons out of the very hostel where many of its volunteers stay. Maybe your university has exchange programs in Argentina. Maybe your university has an ethically ambiguous history of neoliberal development politics in the region. A lot of people in the world just want to learn without contributing to or sustaining underlying systems of oppression. Since arriving, my time spent with the organization and its members has been a source of comfort. I know I made the right decision for me.
I’ve unpacked, taken a nap, and finally opened my ears. What is a colectivo? What are paltas? What do you mean we can’t coger the subway here? Do I even speak Spanish? I’m afraid two seasons of Damian Szifron’s Los Simuladores on Youtube weren’t enough to have me speaking like a porteño. Spanish changes a lot from country to country, province to province, even city to city. If you come already speaking Spanish, you may still need a moment or two to acclimate to Castellano Rioplatense.
All languages change significantly from country to country, province to province, and city to city. Whether or not you make yourself understood depends on how much you like to talk. Can you explain what you meant? Can you browse your head for synonyms? Can you laugh off mistakes? A wave of relief washes over me at the end of my first week when I meet a first year paleontology student from Colombia. “Dios, cuando llegué no entendía nada. Hablan muy rápido y usan muchas palabras diferentes.” God, when I first arrived I didn’t understand anything. They speak so fast and use a bunch of different words. It seems even native speakers of Spanish can struggle with the accent. Get in the habit of giving yourself some grace. Most of the people you meet here are friendly, open, and above all, patient. You’ll find out soon you’re your own harshest critic.