Guest of the Week: Sally G. from Australia

Sally volunteering in Buenos Aires

Back in September, when I first arrived in Buenos Aires, I met a handful of folks, mostly women, who had decided to combine their tourism with a bit of amateur social work: By volunteering for one of the hundreds of non-profits that operate to help the poor in Argentina. I was surprised to find out that there were agencies that charged a fee, sometimes a hefty one, to hook up volunteers with non-profits. (That last link allows interested parties to contact the organizations directly, although travelers are usually expected to pay their own way in terms of room and board.)

Sally was working for an organization called LIFE. (I’d include the link, but right now Google is warning me that it’s an attack site.) So, Sally would get up early in the morning, travel to the provinces or the Villas, the much poorer areas outside of Buenos Aires, help some kids with their schoolwork, come back to Buenos Aires to take a long Spanish lesson, return to Art Factory in the late afternoon to do some Spanish homework, eat, and then go out and party with the rest of us ’til the wee hours. Just like an ordinary tourist or backpacker. I don’t know how she did it, honestly.

No doubt her obviously giving and dedicated nature was the reason so many of us fell for her, so to speak, and why Bryan and I had so much fun serenading her on her last night here. Oh, and she was also a grand beer bud. I know I’m laying it on thick, but I’ve met my share of crass tourists, both here and in Prague, so it’s nice to know there are people around who are willing to give back.

Sally agreed to answer my questions about volunteering here in Buenos Aires but her enthusiasm and thoroughness  caused it to become more like a guest-blog post. For which I’m grateful and psyched.

Rick: Tell me a bit more on the volunteer thing

Sally: The challenge with volunteering is that there are lot of companies wanting to play the middle man and will charge a small fortune for finding you placement and providing you with support and advice. This is all well and good if the people who really need the money reap the benefits; but my more cynical side suspects that a lot of these companies are made up of clever businessman and women who realise the potential of the expanding volunteer-whilst-traveling market.

It depends what sort of traveler you want to be. If you want a 24 hour hot-line to call if things go bad, someone to pick you up from the airport and take you from A to B, then you are probably better off paying for the services of these middleman organisations. However, if you’re a bit more independent and are confident in finding your own placement then there are “free” volunteering opportunities out there.

I say “free” because to be realistic there is usually some sort of fee. Let’s face it, if the place you are volunteering for is in dire need of help, they are not going to be able to pay for your accommodation, food, transport etc. So, yes, you may have to cough up some money, but no where near the amount some middleman organisations charge.

I think the key things to look for in a charity or potential volunteer placement is: How long it’s been established for, its level of organisation, the level of safety and the work you will be required to do and whether this is actually beneficial for the people you will be helping. This takes a little background homework which can have its difficulties given limited sources of information.

Speaking to other volunteers is a good way to gage a potential placement or get ideas for where would be good place to volunteer. The organisation that I volunteered at L.I.F.E Argentina was good in that it was a well-established organisation and you felt safe because you travelled in groups. However, there were some challenges with its organisation, as when its main manager was away, things probably didn’t run quite the way they should have. But this is the sort of information you need to weigh up. No volunteer placement will be perfect. But one thing is for sure, the rewards of such work are well worth the hassle of finding a suitable place to lend a helping hand.

Why did you want to volunteer in Argentina?

I volunteered in Argentina because I have this fascination with South America. From all that I had seen and heard, namely, the dancing , the football, the language. The people and their culture seemed to be teaming with life. I chose Argentina because I was traveling alone and I had never been to South America before. Feeling a little vulnerable, I went to Argentina because I had heard through various sources that Argentina was a relatively safe country in South America

How did it affect your previous views of Argentina and its people, politics, social life?

I confess I didn’t really know what to expect when I arrived in Argentina. I was looking forward to witnessing first hand the immense passion and energy that had drawn me to South America in the first place. I’m glad to say that I was fortunate enough to experience this first hand on a number of occasions.

I remember going to a football match between River Plate and La Boca, two arch rivals. La Boca the poverty-stricken underdogs taking on the wealthier River team in the grand River stadium. I have been to my fair share of sporting events in Australia but nothing compares – nothing even comes close to the atmosphere in that stadium that day. The constant chanting, yelling, the sledging, the streamers – it was such a fanfare of colour and emotion. There was a few times I wanted to say, now, fellas it’s just a game, it’s no big deal, calm down already. But I knew if I were to say this that one, they probably wouldn’t understand what I was saying and two, they’d probably want to give me a good hard whack over the head. “Gringos”, what would they know?

Because that’s the thing I didn’t understand. Football is more than just a sport to these guys, it’s all wrapped up in their identity, their pride of where they come from and who they are. Especially for the people of La Boca. I was amazed when I could hear this group of La Boca fans no more than 100 people all quartered off by at least 20 police officers in a section of the grandstand at the other end of the stadium from me. Over all the chanting and yelling of the chorus of River fans that took up the majority of the stadium, I could still hear these La Boca fanatics bellowing and barracking for their team. That’s the Argentina that I wanted to see.

Having studied and volunteered in Bueno Aires even if only for a little while, I have found the city to be a city of contrasts. Especially in socio-economic terms. In downtown Palermo, you could easily think that you were in any other big, metropolitan, European city. However, take a short cab ride to San Telmo and it’s a different story. That’s why I liked staying in San Telmo: You felt like you got the real view of Argentinean city life. Not just the glossy brochure view that the tourist bureau wants you to see. The San Telmo markets were brilliant: A smorgasbord of antiques, jewelry, local cuisine, music and dance.

Americanisation was something that I didn’t think too much about until I saw a protest ( a common occurrence in Bueno Aires) in Calle Florida. Here I watched a group of around 20 youths spray-painting over signs of American companies such as Burger King and Citibank. There was some police presence but they didn’t seem to intervene, only when the youths looked like entering an American brand restaurant. I suppose I didn’t appreciate the effect that the American economy and international corporations had on these people.

Did it change you as a person?

If anything I just fell more in love with South America. The energy, the intensity, the richness in culture, the language. (Mind you, the locals speak pretty fast so it’s hard to keep up sometimes.) Just the whole vibe of the place makes me want to go back in a heartbeat. Whilst it was difficult to keep up with the local’s lifestyle — party all night and get up at 8am for Spanish class and volunteering was a bit of a challenge — volunteering with kids from the Villas (poverty-stricken districts surrounding Bueno Aires) was such a fulfilling experience. Whilst there were frustrating moments and times when I thought, What am I doing here?, the overwhelming feeling was that it felt right, like a glove that fit so well. This experience has made me even more determined to work with these communities on a long-term basis. A goal that I am still working towards.

Was it strange combining being a hard-swinging tourist (kidding) and doing volunteer work or did you need that balance?

Tell you the truth, I was a little over being a “tourist”.  I had spent the last 4 months being a tourist and as much as I hate to admit it you do become complacent after traveling for a while. Sometimes you just want to stay in one place, just live there, just experience it without racing around to all the major sights.

Why the Art Factory?

I initially choose the Art Factory because the Spanish School that I was studying at (Ibero) had a special deal with Art Factory and my accommodation was charged at a discounted rate. However I think I would have stayed regardless because I made a bit of a home for myself. I had met some good people there and liked staying in San Telmo: It had a more authentic feel to it. Plus it was reasonably close to where I needed to get to.

Rick: Thanks so much, Sally, and good luck in your goal to become a better educator. I hope to see you back in BsAs when you need a break.

You can find Sally on Facebook, like I do from time to time. She also asked me to plug the museum in Wagga Wagga where she’s working, The Museum of the Riverina. Here’s the wikipedia link.

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