Understanding a Culture and Becoming Part of It

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In August 2016 I decided to try Voluntario Global’s Teach English Project in Buenos Aires for 3 weeks. I have always wanted to do volunteer work overseas and as I already had a basic level of Spanish I thought this would be a great place to start.

Upon arrival I was greeted with a stunning city full of life with European-style architecture, a vast avenue with a view as the eye can see, vibrant restaurants and nightlife, tango shows that break out in front of you, packed subways, breathtaking nature reserves and busy street markets. This then, would be the perfect backdrop for my volunteer project.

As you arrive at Voluntario Global, you are initiated into the program by signing your local flag on a mural on the volunteer house walls filled with the messages and names of hundreds of other volunteers, past and present. The next day my project took me over an hour out of the city to a lovely little ‘barrio’ called Ciudadela. It’s small and out of the way but I found the town quite charming and it felt like a genuine suburb away from the glitz and glamour of a capital city. There I was introduced to the team at the English school that operates after normal school hours for students of all ages.

I had 4 main classes aged from about 6 to 18. As this school was a new partner of Voluntario Global, I was lucky to have the honour of being the first Australian that many of the children had met. We began each class with a session of questions from the students about Australia and myself. I answered most questions which included from food, sport, leisure, entertainment, technology, slang, politics, geography animals, and more. I then asked each question back at the students and in no time at all, the students and I had a fair understanding of what life was like in each other’s country.

In one class we even had local snacks and drinks from Argentina and the older students and I shared a ‘mate’ in the garden under the stars as the teacher and students explained the significance of this important drink.

After the introduction lessons I set about helping the students learn, either by assisting the teacher with pronunciation and examples or by actually teaching the lesson myself. In some cases I was marking papers or homework or answering any questions about the classwork for the students.

I found myself being challenged and pushed to find ways to explain things with my limited Spanish knowledge but having that basic foundation in Spanish allowed me to explain how rules in one language were similar or different to the other, especially with the younger kids.

 I realised quickly that to teach is to learn. I found my Spanish improving with every class that I taught and the skilled staff actually helped me learn more about the English I use every day.

On my days off I was able to explore the city and try local cuisine such as Asado, choripan or the Argentinian style pizza. I went out to some night clubs, bike tours, kayaking, tango shows and explored the iconic areas like the wealthy Palermo, the Recoleta Cemetery, the Abasto Shopping mall with it’s indoor theme park, the colourful Italian barrio La Boca and more. I even took a day trip to on the fast ferry to Colonia del Sacremento in Uruguay. Even after 3 weeks I can honestly say I haven’t seen all of this city.

After some of my classes as I travelled back to the city I would stop and have a ‘pancho’ (hotdog) and a beer at Sarmiento station with all the locals, watching a futbol game on the TV and grabbing a bite on their way home from a busy day at work. I found that basic Spanish (or ‘castellano’ as is the local dialect) is almost a necessity in Buenos Aires as most locals do not speak any English. Indeed, the students at my school spoke more English than some of the residents of the volunteer house.

Back at class the students were genuinely interested in what I had seen and done in Argentina. In asking me, the students also told me more about what they like to do. I also got great tips on where to go, what to avoid and different ways to integrate myself into the local lifestyle. As a guy who has travelled to about 80 cities across 13 countries I am no stranger to new faces and new places. I still love travelling, but as I visit new countries, some of that initial element of surprise and wonder at seeing new beaches, clubs, buildings landscapes and statues has been lost on me. Little did I know that I would get that wonder and surprise back in Buenos Aires.

I realised over my 3 weeks as I did the daily commute on the packed trains, ate street food with the locals, taught lessons, saw the street art and graffiti, listened to the staff and students explain their interests and discuss all their national issues and culture that you can’t truly understand another culture until you become a part of it. By getting amongst the people in non-tourist areas and trying to understand how other people learn whilst teaching your own language, you find that you connect with people and understand the culture so much better than just seeing the typical “most important landmarks in the city” This latter has been the norm for me in past travels and I prefer this new experience much better.

To teach is to learn in Buenos Aires. With Voluntario Global you give your time, money, knowledge and experience to complete strangers and what you get in return in the most in depth experience of a foreign culture you will ever get, plus new friends, great memories, better language skills and a motivation to do more with your life and help people. The people of Argentina are proud, strong people who go out of their way to help you and have no limit to their compassion and kindness. I will certainly be back in South America and I can’t wait to try another experience with Voluntario Global someday. I fully recommend this project to anyone who wants a challenging but rewarding experience.

 

 

 

 

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