La despedida

One final update! My apologies again for being so terribly slow with these last few posts – life gets busy!

I am back home in Massachusetts now and have had some time to reflect back on my final week in Tucumán. If I had to choose one word to describe how I feel about this experience as a whole, my word would be GRATEFUL. I am so thankful for all of the support from my family, friends, professors, the office of Mission & Ministry at PC, and the Smith Fellowship donors for allowing me to embark on this life-changing trip, and for the sisters, who opened their home and hearts to me for six weeks.

A brief summary of and some photos from our last few days in Argentina: Tuesday was Sister Cynthia’s birthday, so we had a nice dinner at home with her family and friends. I LOVE Cynthia’s family – they are all so friendly, talkative and unbelievably intelligent. She has five siblings, and I got to meet four of them, as well as some of her many nieces and nephews. Trini, the youngest of all the nieces, is my age and is an amazing musician. She played guitar and sang for everyone after dinner, and I could tell that Cynthia was absolutely elated. Cynthia’s birthday party was a huge success, and it was an honor to enjoy her special night with her family.

On Wednesday night I ventured out to the Santa Rosa school to meet up with some volunteers from the area at their bi-weekly meetings for faith formation. I attended the meeting with Vicu, Martina and Luniu, three volunteers who I met during my first week in Tucumán. The purpose of this meeting was to discuss the value of friendship and the lessons that we can learn from the Gospels about how to be the best possible friend. We chatted, made posters, had some membrilla cookies, and of course passed around mate to share. As much as I loved this meeting, I was sad when it ended because I knew it would be my last outing with the volunteers who I had grown to love so much!

As sort of a final celebration, we went out to eat that night with Soledad’s nephew, Fede, as well as Vicu, Martina and Luniu. We went to a small pub-like place in the center of the city that I had never noticed before and enjoyed a good meal and conversation. I am so grateful to have met such kind, smart, driven and funny young people in Argentina!

Thursday was our last day of volunteering, so Soledad planned a little “see-you-later ceremony” for us in the primary school patio at Yerba Buena. The kids all lined up outside and sang an adorable song called “De Ellos Aprendí,” which means “I learned from them.” I almost started crying because of how cute and heartfelt the ceremony was. Soledad also presented us with posters that had pictures of Trevor and I working in the classrooms and traditional Tucumán ponchos to take home with us. I was so touched at all of the effort that Soledad and her fellow teachers put in to giving us a send-0ff.

The funniest part of the ceremony was when some of the younger children in primary school swarmed around Trevor and me waving paper and pens and yelling “¿puedes firmar?” (Can you sign?) I thought it was hysterical that the kids wanted autographs from us. I asked them “Saben ustedes que yo no soy famosa, ¿no?” (You guys know that I’m not famous, right?) They didn’t seem to care! Kids crack me up.

In the afternoon Trevor and I met with Vicu and Martina one last time to say goodbye and enjoy a Tello ice cream together. As much as I miss Tello Rocher ice cream, I miss Vicu and Martina so much more! I am so thankful that I can stay in contact with them, though, and they are hoping to someday soon come to Providence so that we can have a reunion.

Thursday night was (sadly) our last dinner with the sisters, so we took a picture to commemorate. Just missing Eugenia, who was on a school trip to Salta and Jujuy, and Gladys, who went back to Buenos Aires for more treatment on her knee.

Left to right: Sister Carolina, Sister Haydee, Sister Maria del Carmen, Trevor, me, Sister Alejandra, and Sister Cynthia.

Saying goodbye to the sisters on Friday afternoon was really hard. They had become like my family over those six weeks, and it was hard to think that I might not get to see them again, at least for a very long time. I am lifted up by memories of shared meals, funny stories and some great photos that I took along the way, though. I am so grateful for the sisters’ welcoming spirits and the way that they made the convent feel like home for me. I miss them all so much, but I am glad that we are staying in touch on WhatsApp and Facebook. Sending all my love to las hermanas – les amo mucho!

We had some mild flight trouble on our way home because of a strike in Buenos Aires, but Bob Pfunder at PC, who is the wizard behind much of the Smith Fellowship, figured everything out for us. We ended up flying through Miami instead of JFK, which I actually preferred. It was a 9.5 hour flight to Miami instead of an 11.5 hour flight to JFK – my legs and back certainly appreciated the slightly shorter flight!

As sad as I was to leave Argentina, I was really excited to be home and to see my family. My mom put a cute sign on the fireplace at home, which made me smile so much! I was so grateful to be back home with my people, and of course with my dog, Spot.

Thanks mom 🙂

Now that I’m back into the swing of regular life – studying for the LSAT and working as a waitress at a country club – I can’t help but notice that everything feels easier compared to life before I went to Tucumán. This is not to say that life in Tucumán was hard on a day-to-day basis. I mean to say that Tucumán challenged me for six weeks, and in that time it made me a stronger, more confident person. I spent so much time out of my comfort zone – in a different universe than my comfort zone, really – that everything here at home feels so within my bounds of capability. I don’t feel like I have to doubt my abilities as much anymore. After all, I rode a horse up a mountain for seven hours, spoke a foreign language for six weeks, and did a million other things that were new and scary but SO worthwhile. I came home with an unexpected sense of confidence that I did not expect to find, which is just one of the reasons that I am so grateful for the Smith Fellowship.

There are so many people to thank, and a quick note on this blog won’t do them justice. Still, I’ll thank some of my favorite people here. First, to my parents for agreeing to send me across the world, for talking with me on the phone all the time, and for being so excited when I came home. To Father Orique for preparing me for this trip, both inside the classroom and out. To Heidi Fraitzl, Lisa Medeiros, Bob Pfunder and Father Cuddy for being the brains behind the operation, making everything go smoothly, and preparing all of the fellows for the trips to their respective locations. To the donors who chose to support the Smith Fellowship – I promise that your gift is invaluable, and I will be sure to share with my professors and fellow students how worthwhile this program is. To my recommenders and my friends, who talked me out of my fears before leaving the U.S. and who welcomed me home when I returned. To the sisters for being my far-away family and home-away-from-home. To Soledad and all of the English teachers for sharing your wisdom and organizational skills with me. To the friends I made in Argentina for making a foreign city feel like home. Thank you all.

I am so blessed to have a big, loving support system in my life. My heart grew a million times bigger in Tucumán from all the love I received, and I can’t wait to share all that love, knowledge and gratitude at PC in the Fall!

Ciao y gracias. Te amo mucho, Tucumán!

Tafi del Valle and Santa Rosa Sugarcane Factory – week 6

Hola! Here’s a quick update about our weekend in Tafi del Valle and our Monday afternoon visit to the Santa Rosa sugarcane factory in Monteros.

After sleeping VERY well in my bed at the convent on Thursday night, Sister Eugenia brought Trevor and me to her family’s vacation house in Tafi del Valle, which is in the mountains about two hours from the city. Her sister Carlota, five-year-old niece Guadalupe and their Shiatsu Frida also joined us for the weekend.

The ride up the mountain is not the easiest on the stomach, especially for people like me who tend to get car-sick. Sister Eugenia preemptively gave me a Dramamine pill, which made me really tired but also kept me from losing my breakfast on the climb up to the house. The same can’t be said for poor Frida, though. She projectile vomited all over the front seat, which was quite tragic.

Along the way we stopped at a cute little blueberry farm and bought some alfajores, which were the best I ever had. Upon arriving at the house, we spent the afternoon enjoying some sunshine, a siesta, and humita, which is a traditional Argentine dish made with choclo (corn) and zapallo (squash). Here are some photos I took!

On Saturday we ventured out into the center of town to do some shopping and visit the historic Jesuit house. Tafi is a bit touristy, so some of the artisan goods were more expensive than they would be in the city. Still, they were very beautiful and fun to look at. We stopped at a cheese and salami shop where I learned that people do indeed eat llamas. Even worse, they eat llamas in the form of salami. A vegetarian’s nightmare!

Although I was repulsed by the salami, the cheese was INCREDIBLE

We took a tour of the Jesuit house, which I absolutely loved – visiting museums is my favorite pastime! The museum included not only artifacts and artwork from the Jesuit mission, but also from the indigenous communities who originally inhabited the valley.

There was a small artesanal store next to the museum that had handmade goods sold by local women. I bought a couple of cute and reasonably-priced gifts for my family.

Our next stop was Las Carreras, which is a cattle ranch, cheese shop, hotel and restaurant on the outskirts of Tafi del Valle. This was my favorite part of the weekend because we got to see so many cute, fluffy animals and share a delicious lunch together.

We returned to San Miguel on Sunday morning, which happened to be the Feast of Corpus Christi. After having lunch with students, parents and the sisters at Yerba Buena, Sister Vicky took Trevor and me to the outdoor mass at la Plaza de Independencia. There were TONS of people there, all waiting to celebrate the feast and enjoy the unseasonably warm day. There were students from each of the schools in Tucuman there holding flags to honor the country, the province and the Vatican. I tried to take a good picture, but there were so many people there that I couldn’t see over the crowd! It was a great way to celebrate Sunday mass and a clear example of the dedication that Tucumanos have to their Catholic faith.

After a couple days of relaxation we went back to work in Monteros on Monday. Since this would be our last trip to Monteros we spent some time visiting classes that we hadn’t met before and chatting with the students in both English and Spanish. We had a discussion period with the sixth-year students about the songs from The Greatest Showman, the movie that we watched with a group a few weeks prior. The students made some great comments, worked on understanding the meanings of different metaphors in the songs, and then talked about how the themes from the songs could provide relevant life lessons. I think this final visit at Monteros was our most productive day there so far because we had the chance to meet so many students and help them not only with their English classes but also with their catequesis lessons.

After finishing up our volunteering at Monteros we took a tour of the nearby Santa Rosa sugarcane factory (no relation to the Santa Rosa school). Trevor, Sister Carolina and I were accompanied by two teachers from the school in Monteros who were also curious about how the sugar industry operates. Our tour guide was actually the chief engineer at the factory, which was a unique experience considering he usually doesn’t give private tours. We had to wear earplugs during the tour because of how loud the machinery is, so I really couldn’t hear much of his explanations about the process and had trouble understanding a lot of the vocabulary that he used during the few minutes that I could hear. Nevertheless I enjoyed looking around the factory and seeing all of the different machines that handle the sugarcane in different stages of the refining process. The coolest part was the microscope lens that allowed us to look into one of the refining tanks toward the end of the process. We could see the individual grains of sugar beginning to take form in the heating tanks! There were also swarms of bees throughout the factory because of the sugarcane honey produced as a byproduct of the granulated sugar process. The bees are so interested in the honey that they rarely cause problems for the employees.

While bees aren’t a big threat to the employees’ safety, there are tons of other hazards for the laborers in the factory. One of the administrators informed us that injuries and illness are quite frequent at the plant, mostly from heat stroke, dehydration, falls and especially burns. There is a small hospital ward on the property to treat minor injuries, but more severe accidents require emergency room visits and the occasional hospital stay. The sugar industry is a dangerous business! This tour provided me with a much deeper understanding of this vital Tucuman industry and a greater appreciation for the sugar that we consume nearly everyday.

That’s all for now! My next (and final) post will be about my final week in Tucuman, lots of “see you laters” and the trip back to the good ol’ USA.

Ten Things I Learned in Chasquivil

Now that I have had some time to reflect on my experience of six days in Cumbres Calchaquíes, I want to share ten of the lessons I learned from the people in these mountain communities. But first, I think it would be helpful to orient you, reader, to the location of these mountains! I didn’t even know where I was going when we began our early morning excursion, but a quick Google Maps search has solved that problem for me. I am living in San Miguel de Tucuman and our trip took me to the mountains labeled on this map as “Cumbres Calchaquíes.” The red tag on the map marks Chasquivil, the town where we stayed.

Now that it’s clear where I went, I will share some of the things I learned and observed.

#1.) Horses are superhero animals

Because los Cumbres Calchaquíes are so high above sea level and so rocky, the only way to reach the more elevated towns nestled in the valleys is on horseback. Before this excursion I had never ridden a horse before, simply because my life in suburban Massachusetts had never necessitated travel on horseback nor presented the opportunity to try it. Additionally, I had never climbed a mountain. The realization that I would not only have to ride a horse, but also trust it to carry me nearly 2,500 meters (about 8,000 feet) above sea level was a bit jarring for me, to say the least. Nevertheless, I mounted a horse named Moro, put my feet in the stirrups, and grabbed the reins as we began our climb up to Chasquivil.*

*Note: our trip began with a ride in a truck, which could not take us any further because of the slippery conditions. In order to get from the place where the truck left us to where the horses were located, each member of our party had to ride on the back of a motorcycle through the jungle for about 20 minutes. (Sorry, mom and Gram). This was my first – and hopefully last – time on a motorcycle. I preferred the horse.

In order to get the horse to move, I was told by Margarita, our guide and the owner of the horses, that I would have to kick the horse in the ribs. This is the universal horse signal that means “move,” but I physically could not get myself to kick the horse. I already felt so bad for sitting on his back – I didn’t want to also kick the poor thing! I tried asking Moro nicely, in both English and Spanish, to please start walking, but he must speak French or some other language because he did not move at all. Finally, Margarita gave Moro a slap with a branch and he started to walk. I was surprised at how much I moved back and forth as the horse walked along, but I very soon got the hang of it and felt fairly comfortable in the saddle. Moro took me up to Anca Juli, the village where Margarita lives, and then I switched to a larger brown horse with no name (I just referred to him as “Friend”). Friend was a bit faster and more receptive to commands than Moro, so I was happy to have him as my ride for the more arduous sections of the journey.

I learned that horses can swim AND can see in the dark! We had to cross many shallow rivers and streams, but I learned from the sisters that in the rainy season the horses sometimes must swim to get across the water. Horses can also apparently see perfectly fine in the dark, a trait that horses and I surely do not share. Because of the rainy weather and mud, our arrival in Chasquivil did not happen until after the sun had set. I worried about how we would get to the school where we were staying, seeing as we only had a few small flashlights and had a large valley to cross. I was informed, though, that horses basically have night-vision and would have no problem navigating the rocky crags and flowing streams that stood between us and a warm bed. Although I was a bit skeptical, Friend proved to be an excellent night guide. He never tripped or strayed off course, even in the pitch black.

My horse on the way down the mountain, El Oscuro, was equally adept at navigating the path, although he had the good fortune of traveling with my in the broad daylight. I was amazed at how great the horses’ footing was: they step so carefully on the flattest parts of rocky slopes and expertly avoid muddy patches or other unstable areas. I suppose I could go on forever about how pleased I was with the experience on horseback! Here are some photos of my new horse friends.

#2.) Marian devotion is very strong in Chasquivil and the surrounding communities

One of the main reasons for our visit, aside from volunteering in the school, was to dedicate the chapel at Chasquivil and restore patroness of the town, Nuestra Señora del Carmen, to its rightful place. Sister Valeria worked for an entire year to painstakingly restore all of the details on this Marian image, including the tiniest details of the face, hands and feet. Here’s how it turned out:

Even though the weather was definitely less than optimal on Saturday and Sunday, people from a variety of mountain communities participated in the procession that led from Anca Juli to Chasquivil. The purpose of the procession is to carry the image of the virgin to its new home in the chapel. The parade up the mountain (on both horseback and on foot) included drums, accordion and violin, as well as prayer, singing and even fireworks.

The dedication that the residents of these communities have to the Virgin was very eye-opening to me. In the U.S., I have never seen an image of the Virgin like I have seen here in Argentina, and I was not familiar with this type of devotional imagery. The parishioners, including children, reach up to touch the image and then make the sign of the Cross. If there are three images in the room, as there were on Sunday in Chasquivil, the people will touch each one, following each touch with the sign of the Cross. I learned from observing this practice and listening to Fr. Daniel’s homily that the images are a palpable reminder of God’s love and the protection that Mary offers to us. Not only are the images beautiful to look at, but they also bestow an important message: the love and protection offered to us by the Holy Family is palpable and ever-present on earth.

#3.) The children of Chasquivil are absolute bad a**es.

Pardon my French, but that’s the only term I can think of that adequately describes how determined, strong, sturdy, self-sacrificing, and awesome the kids in Chasquivil are. Volunteering at the public school in Chasquivil provided me a glimpse into what life is like for children living in these rural communities. The school where we worked and lived accommodates students from pre-K to age 17, providing not only an education, but also some meals and even beds for students who live especially far.

Attendance at the school is very unpredictable because many of the students struggle to make the often arduous journey from their homes to the valley where the school is located. Some students travel between one and two hours on foot to get to school, and then make the same journey back home at the end of the day. It is important to note that this trek to school is not a flat, paved road with signs pointing you in the right direction: it is hilly wilderness. La senda, or the worn path that one can follow to get from house to house in Chasquivil, is the only guide that provides a direction for which way to go. The path winds over big hills, rocky patches, and through flowing streams. Although the scenery is beautiful, the walk is not peaceful. Travelers must be wary of loose stones, patches of mud, and crooked tree roots that may cause a dangerous fall.

The children who attend the school at Chasquivil make this journey every weekday morning and afternoon so that they have the opportunity for an education. The students who live “close by” walk around 30 minutes to school as well; nobody has an easy commute! I was so impressed on Monday morning, a very cold, damp and dreary day, when students began showing up at the door. As they leaned in to give me a customary kiss on the cheek, I felt how absolutely freezing their poor little faces were! I wanted to bundle them up and sit them in front of the fire, but not a single one of them complained about the temperature, their wet boots, or their long walk. In fact, during the entire three days that I spent with the students, I cannot remember hearing even one complaint about their lifestyle. When discussing the long walks to and from school, the students always told me about their lives in a very matter-of-fact way, not in a way that I perceived as being a complaint or lamentation. I am so impressed by their dedication and strength, as well as that of their parents. Although I did not hear any grievances, I am sure that the parents of these students are well-versed in the art of persuasion, at least for getting the teen-aged students off to school!

Yet, despite all of these challenges, the students and teachers at Chasquivil were some of the most positive people I have ever met. The teachers who were there – Susana, Cecilia, Manuel, Ceci, Tatiana, and Juan – were the epitome of givers. They give their time, energy, love, and wisdom to their students while leaving behind their own families for three weeks at a time each month. Although the parents, teachers, and students bear the self-sacrificial nature of this school system with strength, I pray that something changes for this community so that getting an education does not have to be a burden.

Here I am working on colors with the youngest students, ages 5 to 9.

#5.) God is quite the artist…

I have been fortunate enough to grow up right near the mighty Atlantic Ocean and not too far from the snowy mountain ranges of northern New England. Even though I love these beautiful sights from home, they are nothing compared to the beauty that is Cumbres Calchaquíes. On our way up the mountain on horseback the foggy weather barred us from seeing the landscape. It was impossible to see even 50 meters ahead, never mind the far-away mountain peaks. In hindsight, I think it was for the best that I was not able to see how high up our destination was. I might have lost my nerve a bit if I had known exactly how far we would have to travel to get to Chasquivil and how far Chasquivil would be from the rest of civilization. I suppose sometimes ignorance is bliss!

Upon beginning our descent from Chasquivil, though, there was barely a cloud in the sky. We were so fortunate to travel on a day with such bright sun and a clear horizon because it permitted us to see God’s wonderful handiwork! The pictures fail to capture how truly unbelievable the views were.

#6.) …and zookeeper!

Something that I loved witnessing in the mountains was the way that the people both live alongside and live from their animals. Every home has animals that provide the family many of the things that they need to survive. Horses are basically a requirement for living in this environment because of their utility in transport. Some families raise sheep or goats, obtaining milk, meat and wool from their flocks. Others raise chickens, pigs, ducks and cattle, while pretty much everyone has a couple of dogs and cats, if not more.

During my last day of teaching primary school in Chasquivil I worked on the names of animals in English with the students. We went though a list of nine animals – cow, horse, chicken, duck, cat, dog, sheep, goat, pig – and discussed what noises the animals make and if any of the students had these animals at home. I was amazed that many of the students had all nine animals at home! If I had been teaching this same lesson in the city (or in most places in the US, for that matter), I am sure the students would have had much less contact with these types of animals. The previous knowledge and interest that the students had about these animals made the lesson more engaging and useful for them. I loved listening to them pronounce “sheep” with a little bit of an accent!

I also noticed in the mountains that the animals were very well cared-for. I didn’t notice as many painfully skinny dogs as there were in places like Benjamin Paz, La Soledad or in the streets of San Miguel. The horses were all robust and strong looking, and there were many protective fence and well-trained dogs to keep the flocks of sheep, cattle, and goats safe from predators (like the puma, which does indeed live in these mountains!). I mentioned to Sister Eugenia that I noticed a difference in the relationship between humans and animals in the mountains as compared to in other locations, and that the animals in Chasquivil and Anca Juli seemed, in general, healthier and more comfortable around humans. Eugenia informed me that the people not only care for their animals so much because they often depend on them for earning money or eating, but also because there is still a strong belief in Pachamama, who is kind of like Mother Nature, who, according to the indigenous traditions, would send bad luck or curses on the people who did not care for their animals. It was quite heart-warming to see so much love between humans and their pets and vice versa.

Here are just a few of the many photos I took of furry (and feathery) friends.

#7.) Indigenous culture is still very much alive in Chasquivil

Some members of the communities in the mountains, including residents of Chasquivil, identify themselves with the indigenous communities who inhabited the area during the time of the Conquest. In fact, the name of the mountains, Cumbres Calchaquíes, refers to the general name for the different groups of indigenous people who inhabit/inhabited the area.

In the school, the students had a large display of information and artifacts from indigenous communities, which I found very informative about the way of life of the native peoples in the area. In a few of the houses that we visited the houses still had rocks that were used centuries ago for grinding corn. In one house, the family still uses this stone, which has a dip in the middle from years of grinding, to process their corn into meal. In la senda, Pancho also pointed out areas where the stones were arranged in circles. Without his pointing out these landmarks, I never would have noticed them. But, on further inspection, the large stones almost perfectly formed circles on the ground. Pancho explained that those stones were the foundation of indigenous houses from thousands of years ago, which were made of stones, sticks and clay. It was incredible to have the chance to walk among such tangible history!

Those who identify as members of the indigenous community have a council who get together to organize events and resolve conflicts. I had the pleasure of meeting el cacique, or leader of the group, who is a 40-year-old from Anca Juli. He was a great public speaker, and I could tell that his fellow residents placed a great deal of trust in his abilities as a leader.

During the flag ceremony that preceded the dedication of the chapel, the members of the communities raised the indigenous flag just below the Argentine flag, signifying the still-existing indigenous presence. It was a very cool way to see that the members of the community are able to identify themselves with both their cultural roots from long ago and the contemporary patriotism of their country.

This colorful flag represents the indigenous community

#8.) Life in the mountains is about helping your neighbor

Although I learned that there are some conflicts among members of the communities in the mountains, I generally observed that the residents are willing to help each other out, even when a two-hour walk separates them from their “neighbor.” The best example of this that I saw was the preparations for dedicating the new chapel. People came from every mountain community to help with the decorations, prepare lunch, and fix the windows to keep the wind out of the church. Even though it was cold and rainy and there was lots of work to be done, people of all ages came to help out with the preparation of their new house of worship. A few young girls blew up hundreds of balloons while others swept the floor or hung up banners. I played the small role of preparing the music sheets for the mass and hanging up paper lanterns on the ceiling of the chapel. When all of the preparations were complete, I could see how proud all of the volunteers were of their own efforts and the efforts of their neighbors.

Another example of neighbors helping neighbors is the relationship between the teachers at the school, Cecilia and Susana, and other residents of Chasquivil. When Cynthia brought Trevor and me to visit an elderly woman in her home about 30 minutes from the school, Cecilia asked us to bring a dozen eggs to give to the family. The next day, unsolicited, the granddaughter of that elderly woman visited the school and brought a huge box of freshly backed roquetes, which are like giant donuts covered in a sweet merengue. She used part of the eggs that Cecilia had given her to give back to the school in the form of a delicious snack. I thought this exchange was a great example of how the residents of Chasquivil give and receive from one another.

Some of the parents of young children who attend school also take turns making the long walk to and from school with children from neighboring homes. Sharing this responsibility gives the parents more free time to take care of things at home instead of trekking to the school and back everyday and provides them peace of mind knowing their children have a chaperone.

One more example that I really liked: in the mornings at the school a man from the community (I can’t remember his name) would come over and start the fire in the kitchen fireplace and in one of the classrooms. In exchange, he would have a quick breakfast in the school, and then go on with the rest of the day. Thanks to him, there was always a strong fire going in the school, and thanks to the teachers at the school, he always had a good breakfast. It’s the little acts of caring and cooperating like this that made me fall in love with the people in the mountains.

#9.) Fire and mate make the world go ’round

During our six days in the mountains we spent hours and hours in front of small kitchen fireplaces, chatting and sipping mate with our new friends. The kitchen truly is the heart of these homes because it is usually the only place with warmth! Especially on such cold days like we experienced during our stay, everyone wants to be in the kitchen to enjoy el fueguito and warm up with a beverage calentito. My first experience in one of these kitchens was at the house of a woman named Isabel, who graciously accepted eight muddy travelers into her home when our trucks could travel any further through el barro during the ascent. The kitchen is usually a smaller separate structure from the other parts of the house, and most of the kitchens that I visited had floors made of dirt, walls of sticks and mud, and roofs of either tin sheets or bundled branches. Isabel’s humble kitchen was cozy and welcoming, and she greeted us, a group of strangers, as if we were long-lost friends of hers. We sat around as we waited to finalize the changes in our travel plans, enjoying the heat from the fire and the mate, talking about Isabel’s many animals, and admiring her intricate woolen mats that she weaves by hand for a living. Not only the humans in Isabel’s house congregated in the kitchen, though. Her cats and dogs, too, wanted to huddle up with us in the warmest area of the house, which I found to be adorable. Here are just SOME of Isabel’s cats (and one puppy) who made themselves comfortable in the kitchen.

I had the chance to experience many other kitchen fireplaces and shared mates during this trip as well, especially in the school kitchen. We relied on the fire to cook, to make warm drinks, to dry our shoes and hats, and to heat up water to bathe. This lifestyle brings everyone closer together because nobody wants to be in the cold, dark rooms of the house. Everyone can be found in the same place, enjoying the same snacks, which fosters relationships of sharing, caring, and definitely laughing together.

Some of the ladies working hard in the kitchen to make lunch for ALL of the people who attended the dedication mass. That big bowl on the left is the filling for empanadas.

When the weather was nicer, we walked a little more than an hour to the house of Raquel and Amadeo, the parents of one of my students, Fabricio. The young couple are in the process of building their own house, so Sister Cynthia brought us along when she went to bless the new construction. Since it was finally a sunny day, we sat outside instead of in the kitchen, but we still enjoyed a mate together (which was particularly delicious). Here we are with Raquel and Amadeo.

A cool fact that I learned about the kitchens is that the people make really low chairs to sit in so that they can stay out of the thickest smoke, which rises to the roof. I loved sitting in those tiny little chairs! They were often lined with a bit of fleece for comfort, too.

Here we are accepting a mate from Teresa in her kitchen. You can see I was struggling a bit with the smoke, but I was very grateful for the chance to warm up.

#10.) Goats can hold a lot of water

I learned this lesson the hard way! On our way down the mountain to Anca Juli, Pancho asked us to stop at the house of his mother-in-law (Margarita’s mom), Daniela, to pick up a chivito, or baby goat, who needed a new home. The goat was an orphan and Pancho’s family offered to raise it, which was especially exciting for their youngest son, Sebastian, age eight. Someone needed to carry the poor little goat from Chasquivil down to Anca Juli, roughly a four-hour trek on horseback. Obviously, I offered to hold the goat while I rode my horse.

About ten minutes into our ride, my new little friend peed a full bladder alllllll over my body. Shirt, pants, legs – everywhere. I had a lot of layers on, so I was fine for the time being. After all, I love animals, especially goats, and I wasn’t going to let a little pee bother me in the slightest.

Everything was fine until my goat friend peed on me AGAIN, which made all of my clothes soaked down to my skin. Not a good feeling. I actually started getting cold because of how wet my clothes were! We had to stop for a moment while I took out a change of clothes from my saddle bag and changed into something dry. We still had two hours of riding to go and I didn’t have any more dry clothes in case the goat had yet another accident, so Pancho offered to carry him the rest of the way. I really wanted to keep holding my goat friend, but it was for the best that I stayed dry the rest of the way. Pancho, too, became victim of the goat’s hyperactive bladder: he got peed on twice as well!

Probably the cutest animal I have ever seen

Those are just ten of the many things that I learned from this great experience! Sorry I am so behind on my posts – I have a lot to say! Next I will share an update about our trip with Sister Eugenia to Tafi del Valle and to the sugarcane factory in Monteros with Sister Carolina.

Hasta pronto!

La Soledad + Studying

Hello again! I finally have a moment to post an update about recent events.

Last Tuesday Trevor and I accompanied the sixth-year students from Colegio Santa Rosa on their service trip to La Soledad, which is an impoverished rural community about 90 minutes away from the city. Since the beginning of my trip, I had heard from so many other volunteers that visiting La Soledad is a beautiful experience, so I was eager to see for myself.

Based on what I had read in previous fellows’ blogs and the stories I had heard from volunteers here, I had some idea about what to expect upon reaching our destination that morning. Our previous trip had been cancelled because of heavy rains that had made the dirt roads that lead to the community virtually impassable. This description alone gave me a good idea of how isolated La Soledad would be. I can hardly imagine the rain stopping any passage to or from my town, preventing me from getting to school or going to the doctor if needed. It also seemed strange to me that a location just over an hour outside of the city would be so isolated. I was curious to see the roads we would take and the scenery we would pass on the bus ride to the location, so I spent the entire commute looking out the window and taking in the sites.

After leaving the outskirts of the city, the scenery immediately begins to take on a more rural appearance. There are more fields and small houses, and the side roads tend to be made of dirt instead of asphalt. As we continued toward La Soledad, the space between houses became greater, and I noticed fewer and fewer businesses lining the roads. On one particularly wooded stretch of road, I unfortunately saw many dead dogs who had been struck and killed by vehicles, likely at night when there is barely any light for drivers to see the animals in the street. My heart broke for all of those animals, likely strays, who met such unfortunate ends.

As we came nearer to our destination, the bus turned into what seemed to be a giant field with a narrow road carved down the middle. The road almost seemed like it was walled in by dirt because of how high the grass and earth were next to the bus. As the bus bumped along the dirt road, I began to get a bit antsy and wonder when we would finally reach the town. It wasn’t until two turns later, both down equally narrow, dusty roads, that we reached the chapel and mission in La Soledad.

After a quick breakfast and prayer with the sixth-year girls (all ages 16 and 17), we broke into groups to do service. Trevor and I could pick if we wanted to do home visits or help out in the school. We both thought that home visits might provide us with a more in-depth understanding of the residents’ lives, so we joined separate groups and began to walk to our assigned houses for visits.

I was assigned to houses in “Zone 1,” which is the section of town farthest away from the chapel. Although we had a long way to walk, the journey wasn’t so bad because it was sunny and not overly hot. The first house that I visited with my group was located at the entrance of the town, right in the middle of a huge field. The house was quite modest with a long driveway and many dogs roaming in the front yard. As we approached the house, we were greeted by a young woman holding a small child. The woman introduced herself as Frances and the child as Luz and invited us to have a seat to chat with her. She revealed that she was 20-years-old and that Luz was her two-year-old daughter. She lived in that house with her mother, father, and seven younger siblings. Her parents were in the city buying supplies and her younger siblings were all at school, so Frances was at home doing some chores and had a spare moment to chat with us. I couldn’t help but feel incredibly sad as I listened to Frances, not because she was telling us a sad story or complaining about her life, but because her situation seemed so stagnant and her opportunities so limited. She is younger than I am, already a single mother, entrusted partially with the upbringing of her seven siblings in a small, ramshackle house. Her financial prospects are limited, as are her opportunities for higher education. It seems so unfair that at almost the same age as Frances I have a comfortable home, access to a great education, and a whole world of opportunities ahead of me, while the story of her life seems to already be written for her, and for so many other women in her community. Although I feel sad when I look at Frances’ situation, that sadness should not be confused with pity. I do not pity Frances because I could tell how strong and determined she is. I could tell how much she cares for her daughter and the rest of her family based on the work that she was putting into her home. She didn’t speak as if she was looking for sympathy and didn’t complain about the path on which life had taken her. She only explained to us her situation with a smile, and repeatedly said “todo bien” – “all is good.” I was so inspired by Frances example of faith and strength. I hope that if I am ever faced with a situation even half as challenging as hers I will be able to approach it with her same degree of fortitude.

We visited three more houses on our walk back to the chapel, at each one greeted with the same welcoming spirit and friendly kiss on the cheek. At one home I met a young mother with four children, an eight-year-old, a six-year-old and twin three-year-olds. The twins were barefoot and very dirty and there was a litter of very skinny, sickly looking puppies in the yard. Visiting this home was a great exercise in understanding poverty for me. My first instinct was to be angry at the mother for letting her children walk around barefoot in an area with so much broken glass and sharp rocks and for allowing the puppies to be so malnourished. Yet, when I step back and look at the big picture, I don’t see a mother neglecting her children or ignoring the needs of her animals. I see a woman doing her best with what life has handed her. I see her prioritizing putting a meal on the table over buying new sandals for her rapidly growing toddlers. I see her giving whatever leftover scraps of food she has left from her family dinner to the unanticipated litter of puppies in her front yard. I see a person doing what she can to provide for her family, even if all that she can provide is not much. As an American, I know that I come from a place of great privilege with very high standards of living. The opportunities I have been afforded – education, a stable home, healthcare, etc. – have allowed me to set my own standards for the life I want to live. In contrast, poverty sets the standards for the residents of La Soledad and of other similar communities. Poverty and the systems that perpetuate it determine standard of living for that young mother and her children. She does not get to decide if shoes are a necessity of life for her twins. Poverty tells her that shoes are a luxury, that a piece of bread is a meal, and that struggling is a way of life. This is not to say that I believe that those who live in poverty lack freedom of choice, but rather that the opportunities provided for them are often so narrow that any and all choices offered to them are less than optimal. To me, this feeling of limitation, of being unable to choose one’s own path and priorities, is the greatest injustice of poverty. I pray that something changes for these residents to bring them new, exciting, promising opportunities, and that through it all, they keep the faith that is so visible in their smiles and their tenacity.

During the hours that I am not doing service or giving classes in the schools, I have been working on my history thesis. Thanks to Sister Cynthia, I had the chance to meet with a local historian named Lucia who specializes in 20th century Argentine nationalism. Lucia read over my abstract, made some adjustments to my translation, and provided me with a list of additional sources that might be useful for my ongoing research. She also directed me to the archives at UNSTA, the university just down the street from the school where I volunteer, because this particular library holds the entire collection of a magazine I have been desperately trying to find. This magazine, called Criterio, was run by a radical nationalist priest named Gustavo Franceschi in the 1930s (the time period that I am studying). This publication is an essential primary source for my research, so I was so happy to hear that I would be able to access it.

Sister Cynthia contacted one of the librarians at UNSTA, who then invited me to stop by during my break from school. He pointed me to three shelves full of ALL the editions of Criterio, starting with 1928. I only had an hour to look over the magazines, but I started taking scans of important pages on my phone to look at later. I also took some photos of interesting pages:

I ended up going back to the archives that same day after I finished giving evening classes at Santa Rosa. I stayed until the library closed at 9 and managed to take scans of relevant articles from about two and a half years worth of magazines. Now I just have 11 more years to go! I am hoping to make it back to the archives again before I have to head back to the States – I can’t find Criterio back home, so I need to take advantage of my spare time here to advance my understanding of my research topic.

Last Friday was my last day in my fourth and first grade classes at Santa Rosa. I taught in those classes with Lola, one of the English teachers, for two weeks. I took some photos of the kids on our last day together. Fourth grade was learning about modes of transportation and first grade was working on cards for Dia del Padre.

I also received this lovely decorated leaf as a parting gift from one of the first graders.

Thank you, Francesca

My next post will be about our trip to Alta Montaña, which was Saturday, June 15 to Thursday, June 20. I have a lot to say about that trip (and a lot of pictures to share), so please excuse the delay. More soon!

Delighting in history, politics and conversation

Hola queridos! We have arrived at the beginning of week 4 of this trip – more than halfway through our stay! Here are a few updates:

I have really been enjoying the English classes at Santa Rosa sede central over the past week. The English teachers that I have been assigned to work with – Mariela, Lorena, Dolores and Elena – are organized, caring, patient and hilarious. In the mornings I visit all-girls classes of secondary students, with two classes of 13/14-year-olds and one class of 17-year-olds. Although some of the girls are not particularly enthusiastic about English class, they are always respectful and welcoming toward me. One class of 13-year-olds was fascinated by the concept of prom, which they learned about from watching American films. They wanted to know if prom is actually like what they see in the movies, so I showed them some photos from my junior and senior prom. They were SO excited to hear about the experience and see the dresses that my friends and I wore. The girls also informed me that although their schools do not have prom, they do have a dinner ceremony called cena (dinner) during which the sixth-year girls wear long white dresses and enjoy a meal and dancing. It seems that prom and cena are truly not so different! This small exchange of cultural experiences was a good reminder for me and the girls in the class that life as a high school student is really not so different between our two cultures. It was also a good moment to remind the girls that American movies are just dramatized depictions of real life. We Americans – at least in my experiences – are not as extravagant or dramatic as we seem on the big screen!

Another cultural questions that fascinates many of the students I have encountered is the idea of college fraternities. Nearly every day a student asks me, “Are fraternities really like the ones we see in the movies?” This question is both funny and thought-provoking for me. I don’t really know what fraternities are like because they don’t exist at PC, so I suppose that my conception of what “frats” are like is based on TV and film too. It is also intriguing to me that one of the most pressing questions that young Argentines have about life in the United States has to do with crazy frat parties! I have found through conversing with secondary school students that nightclubs or boliches are a huge part of the youth culture here, so I suppose it makes sense that the teenagers would want to hear about the American “night life” in comparison to their own parties. Young people here don’t even leave their houses to go to a boliche until 1 a.m., and often do not return home until 6 or 7 the next morning after having breakfast with friends! I am amazed at their energy, considering I am in bed no later than 12:30 on most weekends and cannot imagine staying awake until the sun comes up. The students here find it hilarious that college students in the United States typically call it a night by 2 a.m., the hour when their parties are just getting started. My sleep schedule and energy levels are certainly not cut out for the Argentine party lifestyle!

Another point of fascination among the secondary students is of course American politics, especially Donald Trump. I mentioned in a previous post that the students were curious to hear my thoughts about hot-button issues like the Wall and climate change. Since my first week here, I have engaged in even more discussions with students and teachers about the political problems in the United States and listened to the perspectives of non-Americans who observe my country from the outside. I always try to keep my responses to opinion-based questions as neutral as possible. Seeing as I am likely the only American that they encounter, I feel that there is a risk that the students might take my perspectives as “authority” on political matters when, in reality, I only know as much as any regular person who reads the newspapers. I have also found that people tend to share their true opinions when they do not know the perspective of their audience, so keeping my thoughts about the President as vague as possible lets me hear what the students really think about American politics. I have been surprised to hear that some students actually admire Donald Trump, even though the majority find him to be unappealing. Two students in particular did not understand why the Wall is such a contested idea. These two girls explained to me that they are confused about why Americans wouldn’t want to secure the borders when so many people are entering without documentation. They compared the American situation to that of northern Argentina, where many Bolivian and Peruvian immigrants come in search of education and work. Naturally, their comments started a bit of a debate among other students in the class. One student provided the counterargument that the Wall is “rude,” as it symbolizes to the outside world, especially Mexico and Central America, that their people are not welcome in the United States. I found great value in listening to the girls debate the issue from both sides (even though the discussion ended up reverting to Spanish in an English class). Having these difficult conversations about world issues is, to me, one of the most important aspects of cultural exchange. It is an honor to me to have the chance to engage in these conversations with the students because these encounters get them thinking about big, universal issues. The students that I work with each day are the future, the people who will someday work to solve these social issues. Getting them engaged in these debates and exchanges of ideas is the first step in finding solutions for the future.

While Argentines are interested in American politics, I am mildly obsessed with the political situation in Argentina. Sunday, June 9th was election day here in Tucuman, so almost everything was closed for at least part of the day. (Many businesses are closed on Sundays anyway). Voting is mandatory for citizens age 18 to 70, which is very strange to me. I value the right to vote just as must as the right to not vote, which we enjoy in the United States. Although I think all who can exercise their right to vote should do so, it strikes me as restrictive that all Argentines are required to go to the polls on voting day, or else face a fine. Even though voting is compulsory, I have yet to talk to anyone here who has felt a strong sense of confidence in a particular candidate. In many of the political conversations that I have had here, people have told me that they cast their vote for the “least bad” option because there are no candidates that they feel they can trust. At dinner on Monday night, I asked one of the sisters if she thought the election was arreglada – “fixed” – and she emphatically replied “por supuesto!” – “of course!” After so many decades of corrupt politics, the voters here have little confidence in the honesty of their public servants. The sitting governor, Juan Manzur, was reelected to serve another term in this election, having received just over 50% of the vote. To me, 50% didn’t seem to be that shocking of a number, but based on the opinions of the people I have spoken with, there seems to be a general consensus that Manzur, unfortunately, rigged the system to his own advantage.

Despite such little popular confidence in the government, Argentines are still a deeply patriotic people. They participate in a flag ceremony in schools every morning and evening and seem to regard quite highly their founding fathers and revolutionaries. On Thursday, Sister Eugenia brought Trevor and me to La Casa de Independencia, which is only about 14 blocks from the convent. This colonial house was the sight of the signing of the Argentine Declaration of Independence on July 9, 1816. The house has now been converted into a museum with a variety of artifacts, informational posters, portraits of revolutionary heroes, and tons of iron plaques from historic buildings. Naturally, my inner history nerd was elated with this experience. Here are some photos from our trip to the museum!

After taking in so much history, we took a quick rest at UNSTA, la Universidad Norte de Santo Tomas de Aquino, then had the BEST ice cream I’ve ever tried.

Speaking of good food, I have been loving the cafe lifestyle here! There are so many quaint cafes lining the streets that it’s hard to choose which one to visit. Reading the menus and speaking to the waiters is also a great exercise in Spanish vocabulary and conversational skills. Trevor and I finally tried one cafe that we had been ogling at since we first got here, which is called Momma and specializes in waffles. The waffles were such a nice treat for merienda!

When we’re not at school, Trevor and I have had some time to hang out with other people our age here. On Sunday we visited a park nearby with some friends, including Sister Cynthia’s neice, Trini. We sat and chatted, drank mate, ate tortillas, and even did a little bit of yoga!

Left to right: Mili, Lourdes, Merce, Trevor, Trini, me, Josefina and Flor! (I can’t figure out how to turn the photo horizontally lol)

In addition to service and experiencing local culture, I have been working a ton on my history thesis project. My topic of study has to do with an Argentine political/intellectual movement in the 1930s, and since my topic is so specific, I have struggled to find sources in the United States that are relevant to my research. Here in Tucuman, though, I can walk into a regular bookstore and find plenty of scholarly works that deal with various themes surrounding my topic! I purchased one book so far that has helped me IMMENSELY in my work – so much so that I even started writing my historiographical paper, which is a requirement before writing my actual thesis. Sister Cynthia also lent me six books from her own library that have to do with my topic. All of the books are in Spanish, of course, so it takes me a bit of time to read and annotate, but I feel that I am making great progress. Working on my thesis during the hours that I am not doing service has really helped me to make the most out of my time here.

This week, I will be meeting with a historian and friend of Cynthia’s to discuss my bibliography and some primary sources that I have yet to obtain. More info coming soon on that meeting, our trip to La Soledad, and anecdotes from the classroom!

Hasta pronto!

Week 2: Lots of kids, lots of nature and lots of coffee

Hello again! After a busy second week, I am ready to share some more stories about living in Tucumán – including a trip to Monteros, a retreat in San Pedro, new friends, and an afternoon in El Cadillal.

On Monday, Sister Carolina brought Trevor and me to Colegio Santísimo Rosario in the small city of Monteros, which is located to the south of San Miguel de Tucumán. We woke up early to catch the bus to Monteros, arriving at the school before the sun even rose. Once we arrived, we were warmly welcomed by the teachers and students, and we had the opportunity to visit a variety of primary and secondary English classes throughout the day. Sister Carolina also took us for a walk around the city and pointed out some important sites, including a church that houses a Marian image that (so the legend says) cried real tears 300 years ago. Before heading home for the evening, we had the privilege of watching the Monteros students perform their commemoration of El 25 de Mayo. The ceremony was lively, entertaining and clearly well-rehearsed! The students were dressed up in a variety of costumes and performed synchronized dances with props. They even handed out empanadillas (like an empanada, but filled with sweet potato) and hot chocolate at the end of the performance. I have really enjoyed learning about Argentina’s patriotism through the eyes of the children in the colegios!

After our Monday visit to Monteros, we resumed our usual morning schedule in Yerba Buena. During a break I had the chance to sit outside and appreciate the school’s beauty and open structure.

On Tuesday afternoon we deviated again from our normal volunteer schedule to attend a two-night retreat to the mountain town of San Pedro with the girls of 6B at the Santa Rosa sede central. I learned when we arrived at the retreat center that the 24 girls in this group (all of whom were 17 years old) had been attending retreats at this very location each year that they have attended Santa Rosa. This retreat was to be their final one as a whole group, which meant that the girls were quite nostalgic about their times at this site. As someone who attended public schools growing up, I never went on a retreat before. Seeing how excited and emotional the girls were about their final stay at San Pedro made me even more interested in what the retreat would entail.

The teachers who led the retreat – Julia, Angie, María Luz and Rosita – were all amazingly patient, well-organized, and well-spoken. I loved how each teacher played her own special role in the facilitation of discussions about faith and vocation. They made the experience interactive yet personal, relaxing yet inspirational, and informative yet enjoyable.

The first night we watched an American movie called Con Honores (With Honors), and the teachers used the themes of this movie to guide discussions about vocation and the values that truly matter in life. Rosita commented to Trevor and I that she really appreciated our presence on the retreat because of the different perspectives we could offer to the discussions, especially about the film. Rosita’s kind words made me feel so useful during this retreat, especially because I struggled to figure out if my presence was actually valuable or not. I had never done a retreat before or led deep discussions about faith, so I worried that my accompanying the girls on their retreat might not be helpful for their experience at all. Rosita’s encouragement helped me recognize that in discussions of faith and vocation, it is always better to have more voices and more hearts joined together in conversation.

During the second day of the retreat, Rosita asked Trevor and I to discuss with the group a little bit about the path that led each of us to our current fields of study and decision to apply for this service trip. To be honest, this request made me quite frazzled: I had to speak about my personal life/goals/plans (all of which are still very uncertain at this moment!) to a group of people I barely knew in a language that I am still learning. I began to speak before I even knew what I wanted to say. My Spanish was horrible – full of stutters and “um’s” – and I don’t even remember what message I was trying to convey to the group. One of the students later commented to me that she thought I didn’t know Spanish because of how much I struggled (ouch!). I dwelled on that embarrassment for quite some time during the rest of the day, wondering why it was so hard for me to explain why I love history, why I want to study Spanish, and why I decided to apply for this fellowship. Even though I was disappointed in my inability to offer a clear story to the group, I think that my panicking about what I wanted to say provided me a valuable lesson. That lesson is that I don’t know what my vocation is, even though I am 3/4 of the way done with undergrad. I love what I study and I love going to school, but I am still figuring out what these passions might lead me to do in the future. I can already see that this trip and the people I have met so far are little by little guiding my heart to find out exactly what my vocation is.

On the second night of retreat, we took a walk to a shrine that was about 20 minutes from the retreat center. The night was chilly but comfortable, and I really enjoyed spending time chatting with the girls on the walk and praying in silence when we reached the shrine.

Here are some photos from our time at the retreat!

After returning from the retreat on Thursday afternoon, we resumed our usual afternoon schedule at Santa Rosa in the center of the city and returned home for dinner. Thursday’s dinner table was smaller than usual because most of the sisters were traveling or otherwise occupied. Trevor and I expected to only see Sister María del Carmen at the dinner table, but, to our pleasant surprise, Sister Gladys, a member of the community who we had yet to meet, also joined us. Gladys had been in Buenos Aires for the past six weeks recovering from a knee replacement surgery. I had already heard so much about Gladys from the other sisters, so it was great to put a face to the name and to get to know her over dinner.

Friday morning marked our last day at the Buena Yerba campus because, for the next two weeks, we will be volunteering at the central school in both the morning and afternoon. I spent my last morning in Buena Yerba in three primary school classes: first, second and third grade. I received many sweet cards from the students and participated in some of their English vocabulary games. The third graders were learning about fruits and vegetables in English class, so I received many questions like “Do you like potatoes?” and “Do you like bananas?” I got a good laugh out of these questions because I am more accustomed to spending time in secondary classes with older students who prefer to ask about movies, music and university life!

In the afternoon I had my final class period with the students in sixth grade and first grade at the central school. The sixth grade class, which is entirely girls, is such a sweet and welcoming group. Over the past two weeks that I have spent visiting their English class, I have noticed that many of the shier students have become more confident in the speaking abilities. Some of the girls were so nervous about speaking English in front of the class the first few days that I visited, but on Friday they all took turns proposing questions to me in English and even answering some of the questions that I offered to them in English too!

My final class with the six-year-olds of grade 1B was filled with singing, dancing, and English vocabulary about the parts of the body. Even when the kids in this class are a little fresh, it is impossible to get frustrated with them – they’re just so cute!

As cute as the first graders are, though, I know that I am not destined to be an elementary school teacher! I love volunteering in their classes, helping with their coloring assignments and dancing along to educational songs with them, but I know that I would be completely worn out if I were to teach elementary school for a living! Props to all of the elementary school teachers out there: I admire your patience and stamina. Mariela, the teacher I have been working with, has been teaching first grade for 22 years. She always says to me with a laugh, “I am too old for this!” as we jump around to the Pinocchio Song or “Baby Shark.” Even though Mariela jokes about how exhausting teaching can be, I see in the way that she instructs the kids, helps them with their work, and listens to their concerns that teaching is truly her passion. She has been such a great example for me of a person living out her vocation, even though I am pretty sure my vocation will not involve elementary school children. I hope to find a job that brings me joy even on the tiring, patience-trying days.

Sister Cynthia returned from a conference in Rome on Friday afternoon. We finally had the privilege of meeting in person the lady who makes this whole trip possible! Although I felt like I already knew Cynthia from our many emails and FaceTime calls, it was so wonderful to have her here in person. The sisters’ house feels even more like a home now that all of the members of the community are here.

On Saturday we were supposed to accompany some other volunteers on a mission to La Soledad, an impoverished and isolated community outside of the city. Unfortunately, the recent rainfall made the dirt roads leading to La Soledad unsafe for travel, so we had to cancel the mission. It is hard to imagine a community so isolated from the rest of the province that rainfall makes it inaccessible to the outside world, but this is the reality of the town’s residents. When rain makes travel unsafe, the residents cannot access medical care or send their children to school. I am hoping that our mission to La Soledad is rescheduled for another weekend so that I can finally meet the members of this resilient and inspiring community.

Since we had an unexpected free day, Trevor and I decided to walk next door to the Santa Catalina school to visit our friends in Infancia Misionera that we met on our first trip to Benjamín Paz. We chatted with the teachers and kids, then participated in a writing exercise where we had a chance to describe our experience in Benjamín Paz. I love listening to Miguel Yunes, the pastoral director, speak to the girls about the purpose of service. He makes Christ’s example come to life with his encouragement and detailed explanation of the Gospel. I am so thankful to have met Miguel, the other teachers and the students on our first full day in Tucumán. Their positivity and commitment to service continues to inspire and uplift me during this trip.

After resting a bit, we had merienda with one of Cynthia’s nieces, Pauli, and two of her friends. All of the people our age who we have spent time with here have been so outgoing and welcoming. We enjoyed an outdoor merienda and good conversation at a café nearby, chatting about Pauli’s experience as a hostess at a hotel in Aspen, CO and the similarities between university life in Argentina and the US. I had a delicious café con leche and acaí bowl that I have been thinking about ever since (I wish I took a photo because it was as beautiful as it was tasty!). Saturday was a perfect day to recover from the busyness of the week and refuel before our Sunday adventure.

Before our Sunday day-trip, we of course had to fuel up with a good lunch. I finally tried one of the famous empanadas that everyone here raves about (cheese only in mine!). They are certainly worth all of the hype!

10/10 would recommend

After lunch, Sister Cynthia invited Trevor and me to join her and her niece, Trini, for a trip to the picturesque town of El Cadillal, which is about a 30-minute drive from the city. Trini also brought with her a friend that she had met recently named Agathe. Agathe is from France and is staying in Tucumán for four months to work for a company that studies agricultural productivity. It was funny to be in a car with two Americans, two Argentines and one French girl all speaking Spanish with a variety of accents!

At El Cadillal we took a boat ride across the lake, drove around to see some of the mountainside, and sat in the grass for a while chatting and sipping mate. Cynthia is a great photographer and took a ton of photos.

Sunday night dinner was the first time we have seen all of the sisters in the same room! They are such a busy group of women, so it was quite a privilege to have all of them sitting around the same table. Trevor and I took advantage of this “perfect attendance” to give the sisters the gifts that we brought from home. All of our gifts were things that are native to New England: a bag of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, maple syrup, saltwater taffy and a framed postcard from Providence, RI. I think the sisters really liked the gifts, especially the taffy. These regalitos were the least we could offer as a thanks for their opening their home to us for six weeks!

Those are all of the updates that I have for now! More coming soon – ciao!

First Week in Review

Greetings! After a long, fulfilling first full week, I finally have a moment to update my blog with all of the new experiences I have had over the past seven days.

On Monday, Trevor and I began our first day as volunteer teaching assistants in the Santa Rosa Schools at both Yerba Buena and the center of Tucumán. The Dominican Sisters here run both of the schools, which are located about 30 minutes from one another. In the mornings, Trevor and I go to the Buena Yerba campus via car – either with one of the sisters or with our trusted taxi driver, Elvio – and in the afternoons, we walk to the central site, which is only about eleven blocks from la Casa Madre. I have enjoyed getting to know the students and teachers in both schools, as well as taking in the beautiful but vastly different architecture at each school. While Santa Rosa at Yerba Buena is a sprawling, open construction with tons of green space, Santa Rosa in the city center is a 114-year-old building with a huge open area in the center. I love the modernity of the Yerba Buena campus, but I think my inner historian has made me fall even more in love with the antique-y feel of the city central school.

Trevor and I finally got to meet the lady who makes this volunteer experience happen: Soledad Vidal, director of English at both Santa Rosa sites. Soledad is warm, welcoming, and speaks beautiful English. I am so thankful to have someone as organized and energetic as our coordinator for this volunteer position!

Trevor and I have been working in separate classrooms throughout the day and helping out with English lessons. In the mornings at Yerba Buena I help out with two different teachers, Stephanie in primary school and Andres in secondary. I have enjoyed getting to chat with the students about the similarities and differences between the US and Argentina and about their recommendations for what I should do and taste while in Tucumán. Many of the students speak beautiful English and are highly knowledgeable about politics in their own country, as well as in the US. They want to know what I think of Trump’s Wall, the new abortion bill in Alabama, and the climate change situation. I love having these conversations with the students not only because I can help them practice their English pronunciation and sentence structure, but also because I can, in a small way, partake in a cultural exchange between two places that are truly not that different from one another. While it is nice to converse with curious students about the news stories they hear about President Trump, I enjoy hearing them talk about the Argentine political climate and the upcoming elections. The students are so intelligent, polite, friendly and informative, and it is a blessing to be welcomed into their classrooms.

Some of Andres’ lovely students at Yerba Buena (who insist upon taking selfies with me!)

In the afternoons I walk to the city central site to help out in Mariela’s classrooms of first graders (ages five and six) and fifth graders (ages nine and ten). The first graders are absolutely hilarious: energetic, constantly moving, constantly talking, and extremely enthusiastic about the “Baby Shark” song on YouTube. The fifth graders are also sweet and friendly. I enjoyed watching their oral presentations about historical figures of their choosing. I will continue in these same classes at Yerba Buena and the central site through next week, and then Soledad plans to switch Trevor and me to new classrooms so that we can meet more students and English teachers.

Aside from volunteering, Trevor and I have been able to spend some free time with some people our age. Vicu, our lovely friend that we met on our first night here, took us to a merienda on Wednesday night with her friend Martu. Trevor and I each had a submarino, which is warm milk with a big piece of chocolate melted into it, and a medialuna. It is so nice to be able to chat with Martu and Vicu about their experiences as college students here in Argentina, and how those experiences are different from life at PC. They also help us a ton with our Spanish and are so patient when I stumble over words or mess up my conjugations!

Wishing we had merienda in the US!

On Thursday we reunited with the Santa Catalina fifth graders who we met last Saturday at Benjamín Paz. The girls were so excited to see Trevor and me again, and even brought us some Argentine candies and handmade cards! Miguel, one of the pastoral directors for both Santa Catalina and Santa Rosa, gave us a tour of the school, introduced us to a bunch of faculty, and gave us each a little box with two pins: one for las Hermanas Dominicans del Santísimo Nombre de Jesus and one for the Santa Catalina school. Here I am (trying to not look tired!) wearing the Dominican order pin!

The pin, featuring my late aunt Maureen’s necklace (thanks for guiding me through this trip, Maureen!)

On Saturday we returned to Benjamín Paz with Sister Vicky and Hortensia, another one of the volunteers. Hortensia is a social worker and discussed with Trevor and me the importance of building self-esteem in the children who visit the sisters’ mission site on Saturday afternoons. We had a quiet lunch with Vicky and Hortensia, then some of the women from Benjamín Paz came to chat and brought their children to play in the library. Hortensia led sort of a facilitated discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of the community and what can be done to promote unity among the residents of BP. It was quite eye-opening to listen to the things that the women thought needed to change. They need the municipal government to recognize the rapid growth that the town has undergone in the past 8 years and provide accordingly for the large number of residents. They need an available doctor at the medical clinic more than just 8-4 on weekdays. They need a cardiologist to visit the town once a week so that residents with chronic heart conditions can access specialized care. Hortensia encouraged the women to work together with other residents of the town to voice their grievances and needs to their local government, emphasizing that the collective voice of the town is more powerful than individual letters spaced out over the course of a few months. Hortensia also related this “revolution” of sorts that the women want to take place in BP to the 25th of May holiday celebration, which happened to fall on this particular Saturday. On the 25th of May in 1810, Argentina began revolted in hopes of establishing its own government, independent from Spain. Of course, as a historian, I loved how Hortensia was able to make a historical event both relevant and inspiring for these women. Their faith, patience, and perseverance truly inspires me, and I am blessed to have been able to listen to their hopes and see their commitment to building a better community for their children.

On Saturday night, Soledad’s niece and nephew, Lulu and Fede, took Trevor and I out to dinner at a brewery place a few blocks from la Casa Madre. We had some great pizza, tried fernet with Coke, and chatted Lulu and Fede about sports, culture and life at university in Argentina. They both spoke perfect English, which was nice because they gave our tired minds a break from speaking so much Spanish! After dinner, I crashed into bed, hoping to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for the big day that we had today!

Vicu, Martu and two of their friends, Lulu and Flor, invited Trevor and me to visit San Javier with them, which is one of the mountain ranges in Tucumán. We got up bright and early to take el colectivo (bus) up the steep mountain roads. Vicu and Flor brought a guitar and ukulele to sing while we hung out at the top of the mountain. We chatted, sang, did some yoga and took photos while taking in the absolutely unbelievable scenery. Of course, I had a big bag of dog food in my backpack, so we had a group of four-legged friends lingering around us the entire time! (Sorry Mom, I pet every single stray that I saw – oops!). I enjoyed taking a moment to breathe deeply, slow down, and see God in every blade of grass, every jagged rock and every breath of air. I can only sum up these views with lyrics from my favorite song, “I Saw God Today” by George Strait: “I know He’s here, but I don’t look near as often as I should. His fingerprints are everywhere, I just slow down to stop and stare. Open my eyes and man I swear, I saw God today.” I have never felt these lyrics ring as true for me as they did today.

After hanging out by the Jesus Bendicente for a bit, we began walking down the mountain to a park to have lunch. Along the way, the sweetest dog decided he wanted to be our friend. He followed us the entire way, wagging his tail and glancing up at us as we walked. We had a great lunch (thanks to Vicu and her friends for packing such great food!) and took in some sights at the lake. After hanging out for a bit, we took the bus back to the city. It was such a heartwarming day full of memories that I will truly treasure!

While a lot has been happening for me here, exciting things are also happening in my family back home too. My sister, Kate, and her boyfriend, Noah, got engaged on Thursday during their trip to New Hampshire. Congrats kids and welcome to the fam, Noah!

Kate’s ring (and really nice nails). We love a guy with good taste 🙂

If you made it this far, thanks for reading! There is so much more I could say about the wonderful people here in Tucumán, but I will save more stories for another post. I am also planning on making a scrapbook of my adventures upon my return home so that I can have something more physical to commemorate this trip. Hoping to share photos of that finished product at some point later in the summer!

Coming up this week: a trip to the Monteros School in the southern part of the province, a two-night retreat to San Pedro from Wednesday to Friday, and a service trip to La Soledad on Saturday. Updates to come!

Peace,

Shannon

¡Benjamín Paz y más!

Hello again!

I want to reflect on the past few days with a grateful heart. I have experienced so much in such a short period of time, so I will condense it all here so that I don’t end up writing a novel!

Our first night here we met some of the sisters’ former students from Colegio Santa Rosa. Vicky, an 18-year-old studying social work at the university nearby, took Trevor and me for a walk around the city. We chatted a ton and compared stories about life in college in the U.S. versus here in Tucumán. Vicky is so welcoming and friendly; I feel very fortunate to have met her.

After Vicky dropped us off back at la Casa Madre (the convent), another former student, Lourdes, came to visit Trevor and me and took us to dinner with two of her friends from high school (colegio). Lourdes, Josefina and Flor were so patient with Trevor and me as we struggled at times to put our thoughts into Spanish after such a long day of traveling. We sat outside (the weather is lovely here) and had a sampling of different appetizers – chicken wings, mozzarella sticks, french fries, etc. Dinner here is served much later than at home, so we didn’t begin eating until about 10:45pm and did not return to the convent until 12:30 or so! Our meal was so enjoyable, especially because of such great company, but Trevor and I were certainly exhausted when we returned home!

Our first full day here was just that: FULL! Trevor and I had the privilege of joining the fifth graders from the all-girls Santa Catalina School on their first Infancia Misionera trip to the community of Benjamín Paz, which is about a 45-minute bus ride (aka colectivo or bondi) from the city. The Santa Catalina students inspired me with the kindness, energy and faith, and I feel so fortunate to have shared this missions trip with them. I especially loved the message that the girls brought to all of the houses in the impoverished community of Benjamín Paz: “Dios siempre estará contigo – durante lo malo y lo bueno,” which means “God will always be with you – in the bad times and the good.”

Here are some photos from our day!

On the bus ride home, some of the girls presented me will the sweetest cartitas, pictured below. I have never encountered such a well-behaved, smart, patient group of nine and ten-year-olds. I hope that I get to spend more time with the girls from Santa Catalina and the community in Benjamín Paz!

One of the cards I received from my new friend Saby!

After such a joyful, busy day, Trevor and I attended mass at the church that is attached to the convent. Interestingly, the sisters celebrate mass on Saturdays instead of Sundays. I enjoyed the evening mass as a great way to complete the day, but Trevor and I realized that we need to brush up on our responses in Spanish. Sister Alejandra printed us out sheets that provide the prayers in Spanish so next time we won’t be so lost!

After mass, we had a nice dinner with the sisters, including some vino rojo, pizza, and of course, sopa de verduras. The sisters eat soup before every meal, usually with some bread for dipping. I love meal times because I get to listen to the sisters speak to one another in their natural pace, rather than slowed down so Trevor and I can understand. It is a challenge to catch on to what they are discussing sometimes, especially because of the distinct Argentine accents, but I feel as though I am understanding more and more each day.

Sunday truly is a day of rest here! I slept in a bit later than usual, spent some time reading, had spinach ravioli with the sisters for lunch, then found a book in the library that I had been searching for for months for my thesis research. The book is called Los judíos y la Dictadura, and it discusses the experiences of the Argentine Jewish population during the 1976-1983 “National Reorganization Process” under the ultra-right military junta led by Jorge Rafael Videla. For my senior history thesis at PC, I have been investigating a period of Argentine history known as la Década Infame (the Infamous Decade), which spanned the years 1930-1943. Although my primary research is about the nacionalismo movement during these years and the movement’s ties to antisemitism, this book that I found about la dictadura will help me immensely in describing how antisemitism progressed from mostly hateful publications in the 30s and 40s to overt acts of paramilitary violence in the 70s and 80s. I couldn’t find this particular book in the United States, so it was a perfect coincidence (or perhaps divine Providence!) that the sisters happened to have it in plain sight on one of their bookshelves.

A photo of the sisters’ beautiful library

After getting in a bit of studying, Sister Alejandra took Trevor and me for a long walk in one of Tucumán’s many parks. We chatted as we walked around the lush green areas of the city, stopping to see la Rosedal, a beautiful garden-like area with columns and rose bushes everywhere. Ale also took us to see a bit of the sugar cane museum in the park as well, which had some interesting information about the importance of the sugar cane industry in Tucumán during the colonial period and beyond.

El Rosedal – not the season for roses, but still lovely!
The sugar cane museum is in this traditional colonial-style house. Notice the furry visitor in the bottom left corner 🙂

Ale took us to a small bar in the middle of the park where we had our first real merienda, which is a small meal in the late afternoon. I had the best medialuna (croissant) ever and a café con leche – something I wouldn’t usually order, but I really liked it.

I enjoyed taking this walk with Ale and Trevor because it gave us time to chat in Spanish about the city, school and life in general. The sisters are such a wealth of information, and I am so thankful that I have the chance to listen to their stories and absorb some of their knowledge.

A final note about this weekend: as an animal-lover and “crazy dog person,” the plight of the animals in Tucumán has been very difficult for me to witness. There is a huge stray dog population in the city and surrounding areas, and many are very skinny and sickly looking. I have to resist the temptation to pet the stray dogs and cats (or even take them home with me). In Benjamín Paz, there were hundreds of dogs roaming the streets. Many of the people in the town own the dogs for protection, but others are simply homeless and must rely on garbage and grass to survive. Understandably, the poverty that the human residents of Benjamín Paz face makes it difficult to feed themselves at times, never mind care for the hundreds of four-legged residents as well. I hope that some positive change can come for the people living in these impoverished communities, and then perhaps that prosperity and improvement will trickle down to also help the stray animals.

Here are just a couple of dogs that I saw on the walk around the city yesterday. Please join me in saying a prayer to St. Francis that these dogs, and all other animals who may be suffering, find a warm place to stay and something good to eat tonight!

All of the pups I have seen make me miss my boy at home, Spot, even more. Happy (American) National Rescue Pet day to my very good boy!

My favorite dude!

More updates to come soon as we begin our first week of teaching at the Santa Rosa schools!

Ciao!

El viaje

Hola desde Tucumán!

Photo creds to my mom 🙂

Trevor and I arrived safely in San Miguel de Tucumán this morning after about 24 hours of total travel time. Needless to say we are a bit sleep-deprived, but we are nevertheless SO excited to finally meet our host community in person.

Before this trip, I had never been on a long plane ride or visited a country that does not consider English its primary language, so the process that brought Trevor and me to Argentina was very new, unfamiliar, and a little stressful for me. Our delayed departure in Boston (and therefore delayed arrival to New York) made catching our connecting flight from JFK to Buenos Aires a bit of a nail-biter. After encountering some less-than-patient TSA employees and asking directions from multiple sources – all of whom gave us a difference answer – we reached our connecting flight. My stress levels were high in JFK not only because of the time crunch and unfamiliarity of the surroundings, but also because when we arrived at our terminal and started preparing to go through security (again) we heard our names being called over the airport’s speaker system. Luckily, Trevor is the more cool, calm and collected half of this duo, and he made sure that we got through security as fast as possible and reached our gate in time for passport check and boarding.

The flight from JFK to Buenos Aires made me realize a few things. First, human beings create some unbelievable machines, especially the Airbus A330 jet, which transported us very smoothly to Argentina over a period of eleven-ish hours. I had never been on a plane this big – eight seats across each row with tons of overhead storage space and little touchscreen TVs on the back of every seat. Another realization that came to me during this leg of the journey is that I must have not looked as confused and out of place as I thought I did because so many people asked me questions in Spanish. At least I looked approachable enough to ask questions. My sleep-deprived white-girl-from-Massachusetts Spanish accent, though, seemed to clue people into the fact that I indeed had no idea what was going on!

With this being my first long flight, this was also my first experience with the much-joked-about “airline food,” which is something I was eager to try. Our meals were surprisingly good! I took some photos (of course) to document my first experience of dining in the sky.

Dinner! Caprese pocket, chicken and roasted potatoes, a dinner roll and a cheesecake square for dessert.
Breakfast – served at 1:30am!
I spent a lot of time tracking our location and marveling at how far of a distance we had covered. (History side note: “Islas Malvinas” is what Argentines call the Falkland Islands. Thanks @FrOrique for cluing me into this difference. I will be sure to refer to these islands as the Malvinas if the topic every comes up in conversation!)

I got a bit of sleep on our flight, and we had a remarkably smooth landing in Buenos Aires. My favorite part of the trip was seeing the city lit up at night. I couldn’t believe how expansive Buenos Aires is and how bright the lights are! I spent the last hour of the flight staring out the window in wonder at how gorgeous everything looked from above.

This photo does not even begin to do it justice!

After making it through customs and security for our third time in 24 hours, we made it to our gate for the final leg of our trip. We had about an hour delay boarding this flight, but I slept almost the entire two-hours to Tucumán, awakening only to try my first alfajor and to admire the patchwork of fields on the ground below.

This was dangerously good…
I love the comparison between the view above Buenos Aires and that above Tucumán. Both are beautiful in their own way and show Argentina’s geographic diversity.

Our new friend, Hermana Eugenia, picked us up at the airport in Tucumán and drove us to la Casa Madre where we will be staying. Eugenia, Maria del Carmen and Haydee – the three out of six sisters that we will be living with – are so sweet, welcoming and caring. The sisters’ home is absolutely gorgeous. It is a bit of a maze to me right now, but I am hoping that I will soon be able to differentiate between the convent’s many gardens and plant-lined hallways.

After a much-needed shower, I joined Trevor and three of the sisters for lunch, prepared by the sisters’ very kind chef, Estela. We had a delicious soup with bread, roasted potatoes and plantains, and chicken Milanese, a dish that the sisters told us is traditional in Argentina. Following this delicious spread, we each had a slice of the best lemon merengue pie I have ever had. Lunch was a wonderful way to get to know the sisters a bit and to begin deciphering the Argentine accent!

I don’t think it has actually sunk in for me that all of my months of planning are finally coming to fruition. Perhaps tomorrow, after sleeping in a bed instead of airplane seat, my head will be clearer and reality will sink in. I think there is a risk that I will begin to feel overwhelmed or anxious from “extroverting” too much (being an introvert in an extrovert’s world can be tiring!), but I am comforted by the knowledge that I will have free time to reflect on my experiences through prayer and journaling.

I want to leave off this post with a BIG thank you to Heidi and Lisa back home at PC. Thank you both for everything you have done to get Trevor and me here!

More to come soon as we start our volunteering on Monday!

A Creature of Faith

Hello readers!

My name is Shannon Moore, and I am a current junior at Providence College studying History and Spanish. I will be using this blog page to share my experiences in Tucumán, Argentina during my six-week service trip that will begin in May.

I first heard about the Fr. Smith Fellowship program last February after teaching a Wednesday night yoga class at PC. Fr. David Orique, O.P., an avid yogi himself, approached me to chat after I finished teaching the class, and somehow, the topic of the Fellowship came up. When Fr. Orique first mentioned the program, I immediately dismissed it in my head as something that “brave” or “adventurous” people do – never something that I could do. I told Fr. Orique that although the program sounded wonderful, I was too fearful about traveling and would never be comfortable being so far away from home, no matter how rewarding the experience might be. He responded with just a few words that have stuck with me and motivated me ever since: “Be a creature of faith, not a creature of fear.”

Looking back on this memory from a little over a year ago, I now realize that this conversation was God’s way of directing me to follow the path that He had planned for me. A few unusual and coincidental circumstances brought about this initial conversation with Fr. Orique. First, I usually would not have been teaching that yoga class. I was covering for another instructor, so my presence in that yoga class was not a typical occurrence. Also, before this moment I had never met Fr. Orique, yet I found myself speaking to him as if I had known him for a long time. It seems out of character for me to confess to someone that I never met that anxiety was holding me back from certain experiences, but there I was, in a dark yoga studio, sharing my doubts with a person who would later become my most important adviser at PC!

The coincidences surrounding the first time I heard about the Smith Fellowship have shown me that God is at work in my life, striving for me to realize that I am called to do something more with my college days than attend classes, write papers, and teach yoga. More steps along the way – including my growing fascination with Argentine Literature in Dr. Javier Mocarquer’s class and Dr. Pat Breen’s casual mention of the Fellowship as the perfect opportunity for me – pointed me in the direction of Tucumán. I am thankful for every person and every moment over the past year that has nudged me towards taking this leap of faith.

Thankfully, I will not be alone on this trip. Trevor will be joining me as well, and I know that having a fellow Friar with me will be the best medicine for assuaging any lingering doubts and fears!

While in Argentina, Trevor and I will be staying with the Dominican Sisters in Tucumán, and we will be volunteering in the English department at the Colegio Santa Rosa, a primary and secondary Catholic school. I am so excited to finally get to meet Soledad, the director of the English department, and Sr. Cynthia, our primary contact at our service site.

There is much preparation to be done before we depart for Argentina on May 16th, but I find myself filled with more excitement than nerves – at least for now. I find solace in trusting that the path I am on is the one that God has planned for me.

Follow my journey as I continue to become a creature of faith.