2013-10-18

Volunteering in Buenos Aires: Expectations vs. Reality

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 Article by Charlotte Amey

Everyone has big hopes for a trip volunteering abroad, and sometimes it doesn’t work out quite the way you imagined. Here are some potential disappointments you may encounter and my advice, as a current volunteer, for dealing with them.

  1. Buenos Aires

Expectation Anyone who is keen to travel in South America has a sense of adventure and a desire to push their limits. For those who haven’t ever travelled abroad for an extended period, South America may seem a daunting place to start. However, for those heading to Buenos Aires, some may be relieved to hear of the city’s reputation as the most ‘European’ city in South America, revered for its beauty and exciting nightlife.

Reality For some people, Buenos Aires may not present enough of a challenge and you may find yourself getting bored of a city that is too similar to home. All the Spanish you were expecting to speak goes out the window as the easiest people to get to know are your international room-mates, who all speak perfect English, drink in Irish pubs and go out to clubs like you would anywhere else in the world. For others, there will be enough differences to make you start appreciating life at home more, such as being able to flush your paper down the toilet rather than put it in a bin, or well organised bus timetables. Seeing poverty and shanty towns from your trip from the airport may be a shock and both tourists and locals will tell you horror stories of violent street crime and the machismo of the Latino men, and tell you never to go out in certain areas, let alone at night.

My advice Buenos Aires is a city that grew on me more slowly than I expected. The sights to visit are more limited than large European capitals and there is no beach to enjoy like in other Latin American capitals. The best way to get to know this city is through the locals, or people who have lived there long enough to know its more hidden spots and events. Language exchange nights and couchsurfing.com are great ways to meet people interested in showing you around, and are also a way to speak more Spanish and to feel more integrated into the local community. Crime and machismoare an unfortunate reality. You will talk to people who have been mugged to varying degrees of violence. Women will be stared at and commented on whatever you’re wearing. But you will also talk to many people who have never had any problems with crime at all, and you might notice that the comments men make are mostly harmless and complimentary, unlike in some European countries, where I for one have been aggressively insulted for wearing a skirt above the knee. Use common sense at all times but don’t let being scared ruin your time here. Everyone has a different comfort zone, but don’t forget to walk and take the bus rather than take a taxi everywhere and miss out on the adventure of finding your way around.

  1. Volunteering

Expectation Most volunteers want to help and get to know the local community from the inside, as well as to have enough spare time for sightseeing, whilst not getting bored with staying in one place for however many months. You expect to arrive at your project and immediately be given training on exactly what to do, given tasks that are emotionally or creatively rewarding, and be constantly aware of how useful you are and how much you are making a difference to these people’s lives.

Reality Instead, on arrival at your community project, you might be greeted with what seems like indifference from the locals and given petty tasks that anyone could do, and you start to question why exactly you are there.

My adviceIt´s easy to be naïve about how involved you can be as a volunteer, especially if you are only there for a short amount of time. Don´t expect to be given huge amounts of responsibility straight away. Your bosses will have seen hundreds of volunteers pass through their organisation – some lazy, some irresponsible, some totally uninterested. It is up to you to prove that you can be helpful and don’t need to be babysat, so be proactive, remember the information you have been told and be friendly and talkative to everyone you meet. Eventually, you will gain people’s respect, and once that is won, you will find your experience a whole lot more gratifying. Of course, the longer you stay and the more effort you make with the language, the more likely you are to really ‘make a difference’. When I visited the soup kitchen, all the locals I met there talked about one of the volunteer girls that had left a month ago, laughing together about their memories of teaching her Spanish, proving that if you take a real interest, locals here will respond and you will leave a lasting memory.

  1. The Future

Expectation You expect to become a ‘better person’ for having volunteered, more knowledgeable about the country and its customs, having learnt another language and made new friends for life. You´ll have something to add to your CV and experienced things that you can use when you´re asked to ‘talk about a time you overcame a difficult situation’ in a job interview, giving you more chance of having a successful career.  

Reality All this can be true. Volunteering will have changed you for the better, even if you feel unsatisfied with how involved you were in your project. Just by getting to know a different culture and adapting to another country, your perspective on the world will have widened. If you have learnt another language and made lifelong friends, all the better. It can indeed be very helpful when it comes to (re-)entering the job market, improving your sense of initiative, your communication skills and your confidence.

My advice Volunteering is what you make it. Making a difference isn’t achieved just by paying the donation to be a volunteer and turning up on the day. It is an active process that, if done right, will give you memories for life, a new set of skills and a real sense of achievement. Just don’t expect it all to fall into your lap. Follow me on twitter: @Charlotte_Amey

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