I’m sitting in silence trying to catch a few words from the whirl of Spanish filling the tiny room at a primary health center in Nueva Pompeya. My chair squeezed in the circle, I realize I am surrounded by a Guatemalan, Mauritian, Israeli, Vietnamese, Argentinean and Bolivian (Olga, director of the center). The one thing bringing us all together? Our pursuit of knowledge about traditional health in Argentina. And the mate gourd getting passed around again and again. It’s case study day number 2 and we have taken public buses to this Bolivian health center that survived the military dictatorship through the 70s. Sidney translates as Olga chomps on coca leaves (to help her diabetes) and opens up about the challenge of founding this health center, of providing plants for the community to rely on as medicine, of using community involvement here and at the nearby educational center to prevent the emergence of bishas, or slums.
Fast forward. It’s 5pm on a Tuesday afternoon. In the past three days, summer has given way to fall…crisp, cool weather, blue skies, and the crunch of leaves under my feet. My favorite season. I’ve escaped to my favorite bookstore/art gallery cafe to journal and have a glass of Malbec before dinner with Maria. Sometimes I feel it’s so easy to fit in here. Other times, like at the health center in Nueva Pompeya, I am reminded that I’ve succeeded in leaving the bubble of Cumberland, Maine. Sometimes I’m embarrassed to say I’m from the United States. Sometimes my frustration in stores when my (very) limited Spanish isn’t understood compels me to just leave. But all in all, I have no reason to complain; when else in my life will I have the opportunity to live in a foreign land sharing an apartment with locals, my greatest worry being school?
Last week after class, Isabella, Arin, Sam and I meandered through the botanical gardens on our way to MALBA: Museo de Arte Latinoamericano. This beautiful museum holds funky 20th century paintings, sculptures, photos, prints and drawings from across Latin America. Even the benches are art…they curve up and intertwine from the floor up the walls of the four-story glass building. We feasted on vegetarian delights at the nearby Tea Connection then spent the rest of the evening at Thelonious Jazz Club where we reserved a table all up close and personal. It was spectacular. One of my favorite nights in Buenos Aires. Isabella’s birthday was more than enough reason to finally indulge in parrilla at the best steakhouse in town, La Cabrera. Bottles of champagne and wine could hardly keep up with the platters of ribeye and tenderloin before us. In Argentina, beef translates to happy free-range cows fattening up on nutritious pampas grass instead of corn and growth hormones. Which translates to high quality stuff. Stuff I’ll gladly fill my stomach with.Last weekend I was under the impression I was meeting a friend and her parents in the neighborhood Collegiales… Naturally, I walked there cause I couldn’t figure out the buses. Over an hour later, lost, confused and mapless with 10 pesos in my pocket, I realized I got the date wrong. And definitely was not in Collegiales. Trying to appear as Latin American and non-touristy as possible, I casually stumbled across the Cementerio de la Chacarita– the biggest cemetery in Argentina! It was built in response to the 1871 yellow fever epidemic when all the cemeteries in the city ran out of space. Clearly, I can’t escape public health even when I take a day off from IHP. I spent the next hour wandering aimlessly through this eerie burial ground soaking it all up. The weekend brought relaxation, sunshine, and sleep. Picnicking in the park with Laura was glorious… a little baguette, cheese, cherry tomatoes, dolce de leche and Gancia is all we need. Shreya, her parents and I embarked on an awesome 3 hour walking street graffiti tour Saturday afternoon. Our group’s guide, Ana, was a journalist with impressive self-taught English and a lotta spunk. The stories, history and politics behind the street art and graffiti made me look at the streets and neighborhoods of Buenos Aires differently.
One of our most powerful lectures last week was on environmental health, particularly the Matanza-Riachuelo river basin in La Boca neighborhood– the dirtiest river in Argentina. Between industrial discharges and release (thank the meat industry, petrochemical plants, tanneries and 50 others industries for the traces of cancer, lead and chromium showing up in children’s blood); open air dumps (no solid waste management, rats transmitting diseases); residential waste and sewage. The community filed a claim against the national government for all the damages and eventually the Supreme Court created a clean up authority for the basin comprised of 6 NGOs. In the afternoon, we headed to La Boca to check out the situation first hand. The center of town is super colorful from the community using paint leftover from ships to paint their homes.
The river was another story. It was the dirtiest, smelliest body of water I’ve seen in my life, and I’m awestruck that it has reached this state. La Boca residents are exemplary victims of structural violence. There are also high-voltage electrical lines running through the petrochemical area close to oil tanks, posing a huge risk of explosion. The water has no oxygen or animal life, yet lush green plants that soak up heavy metals surround certain areas. We drove through shantytowns and colorful, crowded slums whose lives are permeated daily by this river. After lunch in La Boca, we got to meet with one of the 6 NGOs I mentioned responsible for cleaning up the basin. Alfredo, the president of the neighborhood association of La Boca personified a local-level initiative reaching the Supreme Court. He was enraged how the government claimed that health problems were explained by poverty, not the river basin, as they continued distributing dirty water to the community and laying witness to a rapidly decreasing life expectancy. The whole situation was horrifying and more complicated than we could ever understand as non-residents of La Boca.
That night was Niv’s birthday so a bunch of us went to La Bamba del Tiempa—an insanely talented improvisational drum group of 17 musicians that draws a crowd every Monday night, mainly comprised of hippies drinking 1 liter beers. One huge dance party, it was awesome. Other fun adventures include tango at La Catedral, the best middle eastern food in the city at Sarkis, and a french diner breakfast at Oui Oui!