Lessons from Buenos Aires

By Alexandra Nguyen-Phuc ’18, Global Policy Intern at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, on her summer internship at Experiencia Buenos Aires Internacional.

I’m sitting in a bus station in rural Northern Argentina after some weekend traveling to Los Esteros de Iberá, the second largest wetlands in the world. With only days left in Argentina, the word “nostalgia” doesn’t quite capture the rush of emotion. These couple weeks — really the past six months in South America, since I studied abroad in Santiago de Chile last quarter — have been the best of my life. I say with certainty that I’ve grown to know myself better and feel more in touch with global reality (America, you aren’t the only country in the world!). It’s that time for reflection: here are my takeaways from Argentina and its incredible people.

  1. Patience, young one. Yesterday, Kristina (my roommate and fellow EBAI intern) and I rolled down an unpaved dirt road at 10 mph…for four hours. We were going from the small town of Mercedes to the even smaller colony of Carlos Pellegrini, a whopping 40km away. What should take an hour in a four by four was traded for a broken down school bus with weird air freshener. Part of me — that over-efficient gringa part — was reeling. The calmer, more South American part, enjoyed the comical nature of the bus driver trying to pour his own mate while driving. I grew patient waiting anywhere between one and 45 minutes at my bus-stop in Santiago and even more so after stalling in subway trains in Buenos Aires as marchers blocked stations to protest rising fares. Just chill.
  2. Making a difference. My first day, I walked into the Centro de Innovación y Formación Ambiental, skeptical of the efficacy of policy to enact environmental change. I found that three government personalities exist. The Politician: comes in and out of leadership with the new administration; likely was a friend of someone important. The Bureaucrat: goes to work everyday because it’s work, not necessarily with a mission. The Optimist: that social or environmental activist, likely also vegetarian hippy that filters her water from natural ceramic bowls (my boss really has one), that gives me faith in government. I got unbelievably lucky to be assigned to an optimist: she works overtime everyday, runs permaculture workshops on the side and is the best teacher I’ve ever seen. I feel less skeptical; I have more faith that one person really makes a difference.
  3. The power of marketing. In the late 1800s, Argentina had the fifth largest economy in the world. Buenos Aires is publicized as the Paris of South America. To some degree, these statements still ring true. But mostly, I’ve learned about the power of marketing. All over the city, you’ll find posters from the city government in recognizable blue and yellow colors, decorated with illustrated caricature logos. The government has a strong presence and does an incredible job of making the city neat and pretty on the surface — yet everything beneath is kind of broken, or breaking. From delayed transportation to both free health care and free education rapidly running out of funding…everything feels on the brink. Outside the city, it’s a different story completely. For a country that has apparently already developed, it very much appears to be developing. I shared the bus with a woman traveling four hours to deposit money since a bank doesn’t yet exist in her pueblo. Really, I want to hammer down the beauty and danger of good marketing. There is so much more to Argentina than this polished, international version.
  4. Building confidence through language. They say language influences personality, and I’m inclined to agree. Because I felt so nervous early on to exercise my elementary Spanish, every time I withdrew, timid, I’d mentally slap myself in the face and push myself to try harder. Just spit it out. I came off more confident and outgoing than I was. A few months in, I felt myself beginning to own that, embodying a more confident self, sharing more freely than I would in English. It might be something about how Argentineans greet each other with besos or share mate with complete strangers, but they’ve brought out a warmer, more open side of me that I hope isn’t limited to Spanish. If I take one thing from my summer experience, I sincerely hope this is it!

Chau chau Argentina, gracias por una experiencia inolvidable!