When I came to Argentina to volunteer, they asked me how I think I would deal with the 'culture shock'. At first I didn't really understand that concept, and the term 'Culture Shock" sounded a bit scary to me, like some kind of disease. Now I understand it a bit better. There really are some cultural differences between Argentina and Europe (where I come from). However I actually didn't find them 'shocking', but rather found them liberating and mind-opening. Its good to see that things can be done diffently. On the other hand I also met volunteers who had some problems with the differences when they came here. I think taking an open perspective, coming with an intention of learning new things and the will to adapt to different circumstances (instead of trying to make things work as you are used to at home) helps a lot in making the best of volunteering. In this article I want to focus on two culture-shock-aspects: uncertainty (changing circumstances) and a different rhythm of working.
One of the things I learned while volunteering in Argentina is being flexible, to "go with the flow", instead of sticking to stone-hard expectations. Things aren't as structured as in Europe, each day might bear a surprise. For some volunteers this is irritating in the beginning, but when you just take it as it comes, this uncertainty is actually a great aspect of volunteering. In fact, when you decide to leave home sweet home and travel to a country far away, a bit of uncertainty is what you want, right?
Last (european) summer I contacted Voluntario Global for volunteering in a NGO for sustainable development. My plan was to work 2 month in an organic garden and 2 month in their Communications Department, but things turned out different. When I met up for the first time with the Boss of the Grassroots-NGO, Chacras, she told me that the Organic Garden in the psychiatric hospital didn't exist anymore, instead they set up a new garden in the outskirts of the city. The NGO did not really have work for me in the communications department (and also my spanish would have been too poor for that task...). Instead I learned that they have a lot more projects, which are in ecological construction and help in a cultural center in the psychatric hospital. I was excited about the eco-construction project instantly. I was also excited about the work in the cultural center, but this excitement was mixed with a bit of nervousness, since I never worked with psychiatric patients ever before but I decided to give it a try, "Vamos a ver!" ("Lets see!").
The eco-construction turned out great, the argentinian co-workers were amazingly friendly and, as the site is located a bit outside of the city, going there 2 days a week was a perfect holiday from noisy Buenos Aires. The work in the cultural center of the psychatric hospital (Hospital Jose T. Borda) turned out even greater, the first time I entered the place I was overwhelmed by the warmhearted welcome the "locos" ('crazy') gave me. Now after three month going there feels like visiting friends (and not like 'work' at all). Also the Center itself is amazing, its filled with great art by patients and international artists. Every 4 weeks they hold a festival with theatre, music and movies. So in the end, giving the new volunteering-opportunities a try, instead of rejecting them, and beeing disappointed about not beeing able to do the exact work I signed up for, was the best choice. I recommend to not come with too fixed expectations, instead try the opportunities that come along!
Another thing you will experience working as a volunteer, which may be irritating at first is a lot of waiting. I met some volunteers who really could not deal with that and got quite nervous. They kept asking; when can we work, what can we do? Instead of recognising the value of the waiting time; the chance to socialise, drink Mate and relax. Of course you don´t want to sit around all day (and you wont!), but as a volunteer you have to learn to take it easy sometimes! "Tranquilo!" ("Slowly") Conversation is a essential part of working here. In 'western' countries we make a rather strict division between work and leisure. We rush to get things done, take a quick lunch break, maybe take 10 minutes more to have a coffee and a cigarette and then rush back to work. Hurry, hurry, hurry! Volunteer-work here is different! Work is supposed to be a social event. When you have lunch you take your time, after lunch you drink Mate with your fellows, talk, tell jokes, drink more Mate. A break usually doesn't take less then one hour. That doesn't mean people are lazy, things get done, they just might take a little bit longer and if you have a good time while working, who cares if it takes a bit longer? Once you understand that (or maybe you already did and came here for that reason) you may find that working that way is a lot more healthy than the 'work-as-hard-as-you-can' way we follow so often in Europe and the US. Moreover this gives you the best opportunity to practice your spanish and learn about the argentinian culture, so you don't have to think of it as 'lost time'.