Saturday, February 28, 2009

Priceless Patagonian Experience

Extending our stay at the Centro de Educación Integral (CEI) San Ignacio (part of the Fundación Cruzada Patagonica organization) in Junín de los Andes proved to be the best decision we could have made. Even after the end of our extra week, we were just beginning to get to know the students and understand the overall functions of the school. Naturally all volunteer projects differ, but it seems that two weeks is a minimum amount of time needed to get the feel for a place, figure out what is needed and how to be of help, and make a meaningful connection with the people. During our time at the school, we were able to accomplish a number of tasks that were mainly focused around outdoor manual labor such as pulling weeds, cleaning and organizing areas around the school, and building a shed for their recycling center. The latter will certainly be our lasting legacy to the school. Even though it is not the finest, sturdiest building, nor an exercise in precision, we were proud to be of help in its creation. We would like to send out a big "Gracias" to our mentor Don Segundo. Even though we couldn't understand what you were saying to us, your assistance, patience, and amusing chuckles made the process quite enjoyable.

One of our tasks consisted of sorting through a room full of loose papers and books to salvage the good books and trash the rest.

With the help of some of the other volunteers, we completely cleared the room and salvaged this pile of books along with about three boxes.

One of our more regular tasks included pulling weeds or 'yuyos'.

While some of the weeds look quite beautiful up close...

...they all seemed to have spines that easily penetrated gloves.

Speaking of gloves, thanks MaB for my Christmas gloves! They got so much use during our two weeks at CEI that they were reduced to bedraggled rags.

The majority of our time was spent working on the recyling shed. We had to improvise quite a bit, which meant using our head. I took it literally.

We finally got the roof on our creation on the last day at the school. PJ and I were quite satisfied and relieved to have finished before we had to leave...

...though a bit sick of each other's company, haha. I'll miss you buddy!

It may not look like much, but it will serve its purpose - mainly covering all the trash that is sitting out in front.

Our man Don Segundo. Thanks so much jefe!

Aside from our manual labor tasks, we also had the opportunity to work with the students during study hour from 8:00 to 9:00 PM on weekdays. Exams happened to coincide with our visit, so hopefully our assistance with English studies helped ace some tests. It was a nice mixture of elements to have outdoor tasks, some even related to farm work, as well as opportunities to help out with academics at the same location.

Apart from the work that we did, just living on campus is a unique experience that I really enjoyed. Volunteers get the chance to explore the local area at times as well. Weekends are pretty relaxed, and volunteers can head into downtown Junín de los Andes, hit up nearby San Martín de los Andes for some hiking or camping, or just relax by the Chimehuin River that runs just behind the campus. The volunteer house is comfortable and has a kitchen, refridgerator, hot showers, and an incredible view from the backyard.

The view from our room included our little backyard, some cow pasture, and volcano Lanín in the distance.

I took this picture after wandering out into the cow pasture behind our house in sandals...I wouldn't recommend doing that unless you have to get a picture with a volcano and two eagles perched atop opposing trees.

All in all, our time with CEI San Ignacio turned out to be a very positive experience. My biggest lesson has been in regards to how much time I spend with volunteer projects. I spent a week or less at the first three volunteer projects I worked with in Argentina and didn't have enough time to really have an impact or understand the organizations. I leave Argentina tomorrow for Uruguay, and my challenge is going to be how to implement this new knowledge. Knowing I need to spend more time with the organizations that I choose while still keeping to some kind of schedule adds a degree of difficulty in logistics. It wouldn't be an adventure if it were easy.

There are a lot more pictures from my time in Junín de los Andes with Cruzada Patagonica and the school here:
Pictures from a trip to a Mapuche community where Cruzada Patagonica works.
More Pictures from CEI San Ignacio

I also have pictures up from the other organizations that I worked with while in Argentina:
Plan Techos (Buenos Aires)
Voluntario Global (Buenos Aires)
CILSA (Santa Fe - I didn't take many pictures...)

I hope to be able to write a more thorough account of my experience with these three organizations soon, but for now I'm on the move - three-hour ferry across the river delta to Uruguay early tomorrow morning for my first border crossing.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Less Is More

My buddy PJ and I arrived in a small Patagonian town called Junín de los Andes last Sunday with the intention of working with an organization called Fundación Cruzada Patagónica for five days. They run a number of programs including rural development and a school called Centro de Educación Integral (CEI) San Ignacio where students receive secondary education free of charge. The school provides an education a well as food and shelter for nearly 200 students at a time. Beyond basic courses such as mathematics, history, language, and science, the school is also an Agro-Technical Secondary School that sits on a large plot of land where pigs, sheep, llamas, etc are raised and many vegetables are grown. Students graduate as "Professional Technicians in Agricultural Production". In other words, CEI is as much a farm as it is a school.

After two days of volunteering at CEI, PJ and I reevaluated our original plan for traveling through Patagonia. After our five days at the school we had planned to head south and hit a number of spots of interest on our way to "El Fin del Mundo" - "The End of the Earth" - a town called Ushuaia that sits at the very bottom of the contitent. Not only is it very difficult to get to, but it costs more money and time than we were willing to surrender. If we were to take a bus directly from Ushuaia back to Buenos Aires, which very likely would have happened due to our time constraints, the ride would last three entire days!

As we sorted out the details of the journey south, we saw Ushuaia and our chance to cross the Magellan Strait (PJ´s namesake) begin to slip through our fingers. We decided that spending another week at the school would be a more meaningful experience (not to mention exponentially less costly) than passing through five guidebook-suggested destinations on the way to Ushuaia. Two weeks of volunteering allows us to better get into the flow of life at the school and figure out how we can be of help. This is something that I have come to realize in the last month and a half of traveling and finding organizations to work with here in South America. I originally envisioned working with as many organizations as possible to share a very wide range of experiences and get the word of these organizations out to other people. It is impossible, however, to acquire even a topical understanding of the issues these organizations address in a matter of days - even two weeks only begins to scratch the surface. It seems the most important lesson I´ve learned so far is that seeing less means doing more.

I have lots of pictures and some video from the last few weeks that I want to get up, but the only access I have to Internet is through locutorios (Internet shops) here in the center of town (which is 7 km away from the school). Bear with me and I should be able to get a lot of material onto the website after the end of our stay here.

P.S. Happy Valentine´s Day (they don´t seem to celebrate it here)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Welcomed Rainy Day - Not Just For Me

To a traveler, rainy days can often be a nuisance preventing sightseeing or ruining outdoor excursions. The last few days in Santa Fe brought almost daily showers and an impressive electrical storm on Friday night that kept me indoors. It was actually a nice break to stay in and spend time with my new friends in Santa Fe while enjoying some home-cooked food and popular Latin American music (I still have a cheesy but very catchy Reggaeton song stuck in my head - "Te amo" by Macano).

Besides my enjoyment of a few relaxing days and a break from the heat, the real reason that the recent rain is a blessing is the drought (la sequía) that has seriously affected the country. Every day the newspapers here print another story discussing the effects of the drought or what government officials or the farmers association are doing in response to the crisis. Livestock and crops are dying leaving few options for farmers throughout the country, and what is worse is that the drought is affecting most of the country rather than a localized region.

Below are a few recent articles about the crisis:

Argentina declares drought crisis, BBC News Article January 27, 2009
Argentine president declares farm emergency, International Herald Tribune Article January 27, 2009
Cow skulls and dust: Drought grips Argentina, International Herald Tribune Article January 23, 2009

Where I Am and Where I've Been