The Comfort of La Plata

6 07 2010

I’m currently looking for a place to volunteer, particularly in the villas outside of La Plata. I’ve been feeling a strong urge to expose myself to new and uncomfortable situations, to confront head-on the challenges that accompany poverty and to meet new people. Thankfully, I am fortunate enough to be in a position to choose to deliberately expose myself to these things. I am lucky enough to get to put myself in these situations temporarily, use them as a learning tool, and then return to the luxury of an apartment in the city center when I’m done. And, hopefully—hopefully— I’m able to apply what I’ve learned to make a positive difference in the lives of the people and community where I decide to volunteer.

I was recently asked what surprised me most about coming to La Plata. At first, I couldn’t think of anything that had genuinely surprised me, but then it hit me. I was really struck by how comfortable, easy and, well, developed La Plata was. Having done FSD in Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua, where there were two “paved” roads in the whole city and frequent water and electricity outages, I was constantly being thrown outside of my comfort zone, continually being reminded that I was in a world different from the one I had grown up in. Comparatively, La Plata seems like paradise, a walk in the park. With luxury home improvement stores, gyms and storefronts filled with the latest fashion on nearly every block, it doesn’t immediately seem like putting food on the table is a difficult thing for most people in the city. I just got a degree in international development, and THIS is where I’m working, I remember asking myself in disbelief when I arrived. While the overall standard of living here is certainly lower than in many places in the United States, most people seem to live in well-built houses with access to water, electricity, public transportation, medicine and education. There’s almost no homelessness and very little visible inequality.

Before we moved, I was clearly aware that the general level of development in Argentina was much higher than in Nicaragua, and than in many of the other places where we had applied for jobs. But there’s always a need, right? Even in the richest countries in the world, there are communities in desperate need of resources, training and hope. Of course this is true. It’s true in the US, and it’s true here. The communities where FSD Argentina works, often located in the outskirts of La Plata, are generally immigrant communities, where the residents don’t have access to the benefits offered by the government. Bolivians, Paraguayans and Peruvians work long hours for low wages in neighborhoods where they’re rejected and resented because they’re outsiders. And the Argentines we work with generally do receive the huge (and never-ending) welfare packages from the government; however, the strong history of clientelism here has lead to a culture where people lack the knowledge and the incentive to capitalize on their own skills, strengths and interests to improve their lives and grow their opportunities. So there is clearly a need, and I feel strongly that FSD’s partner organizations, with the technical assistance provided by international volunteers, are doing their best to address these needs.

The thing I struggle with is that I rarely make it to these communities. I rarely get to see firsthand the needs—and assets— found in the outskirts of the city where FSD volunteers work. I spend my days in the office, located in the city center, staring at a computer screen. I also spend a lot of time talking with the interns about the challenges they face as they implement their projects (which I love!), but I rarely find myself in their organizations or communities. And, unfortunately, that is just the nature of this position. It’s a project support position, which is primarily office-based. I knew that coming in, and I’m really happy that I’m doing it. I’m gaining valuable skills and meeting some great people, but it doesn’t allow me the direct connection to Argentine people that I’d like.

That is why it is time for me to find a way to plug in above and beyond FSD. I have this nagging voice in the back of my head, pleading to be “more in the field.” Begging me to make myself a little more uncomfortable, to expose myself to new situations that push my personal limits, and to meet those people who can’t afford the luxuries of the cappuccinos sold at Café Havanna or the leather boots on Calle 12. There are needs in and around La Plata, and providing support the interns is one way of helping to address those needs, but I’m ready to get my hands dirty and to get more directly involved.

Katie

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