Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Why take the bus in Buenos Aires?

As a volunteer coodinator, I love riding the bus in Buenos Aires. I have spent hours and hours on the bus. But it was not always that way.

When I first arrived in Argentina in 2003, I rode the subway. Buenos Aires has 5 different subway lines that I know of and one is currently being constructed. The subway is not that complicated, it pretty much runs in straight, parallel lines, from south to north and vice versa, designated with the letters A-D and there are colors too.

Riding the subway, though easy to navigate for the non-Spanish speaking foreigner, is like riding to work in a night club, but nobody is dancing. Each person is pressed up against one another, whether they like it or not; there is sweat dripping down the forehead of some over-weight fat guy (no offense to overweight people, I respect their struggles); someone is always checking someone else out or avoiding eye contact; and there is always that annoying person or group-train of people pushing their way through the crowd en route to get another drink at the bar, or in this case, to dis-embark.

In the summertime, riding the subway is worse. Multiple the above night-club metaphor by 30, and you might have a glimpse as to what I am talking about. For these reasons and more, I stopped riding the subway. I found the bus system. It is however important to mention that subway Line A is worth riding. Constructed in the early 20th century, it is one of oldest lines in the region. This first subway line ran from the Congress building along Avenida de Mayo to Plaza de Mayo. The train cars are old-school. Wooden benches, old lights, and ancient circular hand rings hang from the ceiling. If you go to the front of the car, you may be able to see the train tracks up ahead as you ride, as well as, the passengers waiting at the next stop. Its like being in another place, another time.

There are thousands of bus lines in the city. Every street and avenue has one and contrary to the subway lines, it is rather complicated to navigate. I learned to ride the buses because I often accompany foreign volunteers to their host organizations in obscure neighborhoods of the capital or the province of Buenos Aires. There are a number of things that make riding the bus in Buenos Aires worth-while, challenging, educational, and just plain entertaining. In true David Letterman style, but probably less humorous, here are the top ten things I have noticed while riding the bus in Buenos Aires:

10. That passengers who say 'setenta y cinco' really mean 'ochenta' and those that say 'ochenta' really mean more than that.

Note: These are the prices in Argentine cents that it costs to ride the bus in the capital. The prices are either 75 or 80 as I understand it, unless you are leaving the capital (many buses do), where it could be 1.25 or 1.75 or something over 1 peso. 75 Argentine cents is if you are going 20.1 blocks where 80 Argentine cents is when you are traveling between 20.1 and 101.25 blocks. I do not know how the bus drivers decipher these distances or how the passenger calculates them, but I think both processes are way over my head. Finally, I have to admit that one day I said 'setenta y cinco' (75) and I actually got off after 30.5 blocks. Fortunately, the bus driver did not notice.

9. That it is possible to get the "black lung" from inhaling the bus fumes that permeate the physical space of the bus and if you sit in the back seat directly over the wheel for long enough, your butt with reach above normal temperatures that require you to stand up immediately.

8. That if you sit upfront and pay close attention to the bus driver, you will notice that he often weaves in and out of oncoming traffic, taxis, other buses, the elderly and small children.

Note: Bus drivers have a handy knack for avoiding other objects in their immediate environment by a matter of centimeters. These 'happy go-lucky' Argentine bus drivers drive worse than in Massachusetts (Massachusetts is a state in the north-east of the USA and has characteristically crazy drivers normally denoted by the name "Mass-holes").

7. That at least 25% of the bus drivers sport 'Diego Maradona' haircuts and even look like him too.
Note: I swear that I have seen Diego on bus lines 103, 118, 162, 60, 15, and 59.

6. That it requires precise 'timing' and 'agility' and a little bit of 'luck,' to board any bus in the city where the bus driver is 'angry.' They rarely stop long enough for you to get on, therefore, you must time your jump, checking the wind with your pointer finger, and hope for the best.

Note: I have a record of 52-64 on the busline 103. For those aspiring mathematicians, I have fallen off the bus 12 times since 2006. Also, in fairness, most bus drivers do stop for older men and woman and pregant mothers, and children with handicaps.

5. That some buses have 'seats' of varying sizes from front to back. You have seats on a flat plain, seats on a man-made mountain, small seats and big seats, seats for midgets and other small people, and seats that were taken from the best national bus services in Buenos Aires who travel throughout the country. From a distance, the combination of the above-mentioned characteristics resemble an abstract painting from the 20th century.

4. That when you fall asleep on the bus (for those that are good sleepers), you will most likely wake up in La Boca.

Note: Everybody, minus my HelpArgentina co-worker who once woke up two hours outside the city in his childhood neighborhood, have always told me stories of falling asleep while riding to work or to a party and waking up in La Boca. I am sure that the cities buses do not all terminate in la Boca, but these stories make me wonder. La Boca is a well-known lower-working class neighborhood known to foreigners for its insecurity, its lively markets, art, and colorful buildings.

3. That most bus drivers in Buenos Aires have ineffective 'right legs and feet' due to a well-known nervous twitch caused by more than 12 hour a day shifts with below average salaries. Actually, bus drivers do not work twelve hour days, but there is a 'right leg deficiency,' trust me. These deficiencies cause the constant "starting and stopping" of every ride in the city.

Note: there have been no smooth rides here since the beginning of democracy in 1983. This is not a reference to the effects of democracy on the right legs of bus drivers over 35, it is purely a comment on how long this bus-ride insanity has been going on in Argentina.

2. That Buenos Aires buses, like the subway described earlier, can be like a night club on wheels.

Note: each bus driver or group of drivers on some bus lines have decorated, pimped out, and styled their buses, mostly toward the front where they spend their days. Disco balls, bright lights, stuffed animals dangling from the ceiling, and occasionally signs with phrases like "Miguel's bus since the 80's" animate your bus ride. These 'colectivos' are artistic expressions of disgruntled bus drivers just having a great time while 'on the road.' I think it is entertaining and adds yet one more reason to ride or not the bus each day.

1. That the bus lines in Buenos Aires are the hub for the cities informal market of local vendors, sellers, and common people needing to make ends-meat.

Note: each bus ride in the city is blessed with someone trying to sell you something. I actually enjoy these people and welcome what they are selling. Three years ago, the informal market existed of random people with half-baked schemes who were selling half-eaten candies, small items, and undecipherable things.

Today, these people and others have advanced presentations that are scripted, well-thought out, and that make you want to buy what they are selling. Well, sometimes. The point is that today it is impressive to see the salesman-like qualities that have developed in some. You can find anything from Cd's to flash-lights, movies, wallets, and common kitchen knives on the bus ride home from work.

Some final comments about Number 1 above:

-These bus-ride vendors and the diversions they may represent are forbidden or more uncommon in other parts of the world. For me, the relationship between bus-drivers and vendors is like an act of solidarity. Solidarity for their current situation and a spirit of cooperation to make a better life for themselves. Yes, I have seen some bus drivers ask for a small fee, but generally, it seems to be good will.

-I also recognize that that it may be desirable to bring these vendors or sellers into the formal economy, put those skills to test in local businesses or in sales, and that some of them may even be just plain lazy; but nevertheless, if they can work, make some money to support themselves, and improve their quality of life, for now, I am all for it. Plus, I just got the new Bruce Willis flick for 3 pesos and it actually works!

As you can see, being a volunteer coordinator in Buenos Aires has its perks. I highly recommend riding the bus, with supervision, upon visiting this great city.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Nahuel is playing chess in Turkey as we speak

At approximately 815pm on November 19, I received the email from the Turkish chess coordinator. I made the payment for Nahuel on our co-workers credit card. It was done. As far as we know, Nahuel is playing chess in Turkey and this story does in fact have a happy ending.

The Nahuel saga teaches us a number of things. Here are my conclusions.

I think that it is wonderful that our volunteers and others want to help a person like Nahuel realize a dream or even better yet, for him to have the opportunity to be recognized for his accomplishments. It is no small thing that a group of volunteers and organizations came together to send a young boy and his father to Turkey. I am grateful that everything worked out and I am grateful that people are willing to got out of their way for someone else like this.

On the flip side, there are some very serious issues that deserve reflection with regards to the Nahuel story. One of the major issues has to do with 'communication.' Despite the 'good intentions' of each person in this story, it is potentially 'dangerous' in any environment, but particularly this one, to promise a young boy that he would be able to go to Turkey without really having a plan or knowing all of the information needed to execute that plan.

The commitment to helping Nahuel created uncertain 'expectations'. It created expectations that there would be money for him and that the arrangements would be taken care of. But what if our efforts failed? May be nothing. Now is not the time to discuss the environmental, cultural, and social sensitivities that exist in Nahuel's neighborhood, in many neighborhoods like his. Nevertheless, I think that it is important to remember that we must be careful with what we promise to others or the actions we take to help others. We must assure that the lines of communication are clear and always maintain a degree of discipline when we contemplate such actions and their potential consequences. Certain attitudes or procedures did not occur throughout this process, but no one is to blame for that. Nevertheless, we were fortunate that everything worked out in the end. I hope each person took something away from this experience for the next time. I know that I did.

We hope that Nahuel will win the tournament too. :)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Nahuel goes to Turkey

Though this is just my second blog and I have a number of other things to write about, I am going to put them off to tell you about the saga of "Nahuel goes to Turkey."

Nahuel Rojas is a 10 year old boy from the south-western part of the capital of Buenos Aires. He lives with his parents and his siblings in a low income neighborhood. Nahuel is a regular student at a small community center called Centro Conviven. Centro Conviven is a quasi-member organization of HelpArgentina (details of our relationship with Conviven will most definitely come later).

Nahuel is a chess star. I have never met Nahuel, surprisingly. I have only heard of his incredible potential. Nahuel was a champion of his age group in Argentina. Previous volunteers had mentioned to me that Nahuel has exceptional abilities and deserves to be recognized. Nahuel wanted to go to the world championship of Chess, to be held in Turkey this November 2007. That was all I heard until about two and a half weeks ago.

Centro Conviven has at least seven volunteers from our program working to teach English, leading other educational activities, and finding ways to enagage some 25 plus students from the surrounding neighborhood. All of the volunteers have good intentions. They want to help the community, the kids at the center, and they are almost always attentive to the needs of their students. This was the case with Nahuel. One of our volunteers who worked with Nahuel, developed a closer relationship with him and met his father. The word began to spread that Nahuel needed money to cover his flights, visa, entrance fee, and hotel in Turkey. One of the volunteers and definitely several others, volunteered to help raise the money that he needed.

How much money will it cost to send Nahuel to Turkey? What did Nahuel have to do to confirm his participation in the tournament? When actually is the tournament? Does he need a visa? Is this even possible for Nahuel?

These are just a few of the numerous questions that circulated in a mood of 'chaos and confusion' among the community center's staff members, the people that knew Nahuel, and the volunteers who were trying to help him. Nobody had 'all' the information. Each person possessed a piece of the puzzle to send Nahuel to Turkey, but who was going to put it all together in time?

One of the volunteers who originally expressed her interest to help Nahuel and his father get to Turkey, started the process. She then passed on her 'promises' to Nahuel and his father to a different volunteer who organized the campaign right up until she was scheduled to go traveling in the southern Argentina. Her departure occurred within days that Nahuel had to be on a plane to Turkey. Left to assemble the final pieces of this well-intentioned, but poorly organized effort, was the director of Centro Conviven, another non-Insight volunteer from Europe, yours truly, and in bits and pieces, our dedicated on-site volunteer coordinator from Estonia. So how many Argentines, Norweigns, Estonians, and Americans does it take to send an innocent little Argentine boy to Turkey for a chess championship? Answer: more than necessary!

Though the above commentary is not in the least bit 'funny', I felt like I was in a ridiculous off-broadway show. The above-mentioned actors and actresses participated in what was an intriguing plot, with various elements of humor and stress, but that fortunately will have a happy ending.

Our volunteer who was currently coordinating the efforts before her trip to Patagonia began to round up and mobilize her friends and family to donate through HelpArgentina to the "Nahuel goes to Turkey" fund. 100 dollars here and 300 euros there, HelpArgentina slowly received about 1000 dollars over the course of a week for Nahuel. Supposedly, but nobody really knew for sure, another 1000 mixture of euros, pesos, and dollars existed as well for Nahuel. Extraordinarily, however unclear or uncomefortably last-minute, funds were rolling in for this young chess player.

Nahuel and his father had to fly out on the 13th or 14th of November, flight paid for, entrance in tournament confirmed, and visa problems resolved. A local travel agency found a flight for an inexpensive USD1247 with a layover in Rome of 24 hours. The director of Conviven, on the phone regularly these days, had confirmed that Nahuel would be accepted late into the chess tournament, thanks to a note from the Argentine federation of chess and the Argentine ambassador to Turkey (who knows the ambassador?).

It was confirmed and then dis-confirmed, before being confirmed again, that Nahuel did not need a special 'visa' to enter Turkey. His Bolivian passport and Argentine identification card (Nahuel and family are originally from Bolivia) would suffice. However, we were told thereafter that Nahuel would not be able to stay in Rome for a night without a visa. After a few hours of suspense, it was confirmed that he could stay as long as he was in "transit." Though this may be well-known information, we did not know it at the time. It was drowned out in the panicky emails and phone calls, and confusing conversations between native and non-native speakers. The confirmation of Nahuel's 'in-transit' permission to stay in Rome led to the official booking of his flight to Turkey. Part of this flight was donated by the Argentine Airlines (the one good thing they have done since Aerolineas Argentina is probably the poorest airline in the world).

In summary, Nahuel had a flight to Turkey, did not need a visa, and he was confirmed as a late entrance for the chess championships. HelpArgentina, the channel for the donations that came from abroad, released the funds to the travel agency to pay for the flight. To assure that this process was transparent, HelpArgentina asked for a "factura B or C" (like a receipt) before releasing the money to the travel agency. The agency's courier made three 'wonderful' (sarcasm) visits to HelpArgentina in two days with unclear information on the wrong receipt and a copy of Nahuel's flight itinerary, I guess, to keep us informed on his flight status? Who knows. Good natured and hardworking, our courier finally brought us the receipt what we needed. Nothing would be easy it seemed.

Just when we thought it was over, there was more. Nahuel still owed about USD1400 for his entrance fee, hotel and food, and so on. Basically, the rest of the trip. About half of this money was out and about, in the hands of dispersed volunteers, and seemingly waiting for someone to collect it. I was under the impression that somebody was going to make the payments online over the weekend to leave poor Nahuel with a clear mind to play some chess?

Monday morning, November 19, today, Nahuel and his father are in Turkey for day two of the world chess championships. Nahuel played during day one, but did not play today, and will not play until the final payments were made to the Turkish Chess Federation. Reasonable or not on the part of the chess federation, why were we still not done with all of this, I asked? Nahuel has traveled from Mataderos/Villa Lugano to Turkey to play chess, just let him play, somebody!

"Does anyone have a credit card who is willing to pay online so that Nahuel can play chess tomorrow?" "You will be reimbursed by 25 volunteers from 16 different countries!" "Any takers?"
One of HelpArgentina's staff members stepped up to the plate. If only we knew where exactly to make the online payment to the Turkish Federations website?

You tired yet?

Trying to read Turkish online and speaking with three different people who confused me further, we had no concrete answers on 'how to pay.' I picked up the 'magical white phone' once again. This magical white phone allows you to miraculously travel to Turkey by only pressing 15 digits, considered a call from the US, but from Argentina for only 39 dollars a month. I called the cell phone of the director of the Turkish Chess Federation, Abdurrahman KORAL. Hearing the swift movement of chess pieces in the background, followed by "I can't talk right now," Mr. Koral said to call back later.

I finally spoke with the Turkish king of chess, Mr. Koral himself, pleading for the online link to pay for Nahuel with my co-workers credit card. Mr. Koral told me that it would be hard by phone to pass along the information I needed, so he would instead write me an email shortly and something about how he has "8,000 emails in his account." I continued to be confused.

Its 735pm in the evening. I am sitting here waiting for Turkey to write to me. I desparately want, as does everyone else, for Nahuel to be able to play chess. I sincerely hope that Nahuel and his father are not loosing too much sleep over this, but it must be agonizing for them to fly to Turkey, to a different culture, and be waiting anxiously for Nahuel to get the 'nod' from the authorities. Either way, I was confident that it would fall into place and please read my third blog for the conclusion to this story.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

How it all started

I suppose that it all started when I was born. But I am not going to bother you with my life story, I am going to relay to you what I feel and what I see here in Argentina. I am going to speak the truth and I am going to write about my experience, among others, working as a volunteer coordinator for a non-profit organization called HelpArgentina, located in Buenos Aires.

Also, it is the hope that this blog will show you all little about what is actually going on in Argentina today through my eyes. It is, however, as much a personal experience and reflection as it is an opportunity for me to give you a fair and honest look (as much as is humanly possible) at a number of grass-root non-profit organizations and associations, their stories, and their volunteers, in a slowly evolving Argentine social sector.

But before any of this future blogging continues (note: I am already using the word 'blogging', damn cool...), I probably should introduce myself, my background, how I got to Argentina, and then present the organization that I work for, HelpArgentina.

I am originally from Maine. For those of you that do not know where Maine is, it is in the north-eastern part of the United States, near Canada. Maine has running water and electricity, contrary to public opinion. It also has big dump trucks, hicks, lots of forest and mountains and beautiful landscapes, rivers and lakes, and most importantly, peace and quiet.

My parents:

My parents are great people, kind people.

My mother is a painter, dancer, choreographer, volunteer, and progressive. She is progressive in her politics and progressive in her spirituality. She spends many parts of her days inspiring others, helping others, and enjoying life to the fullest. I am convinced that she is a highly-evolved soul.

My mother battled breast cancer in 2005. Always positive, upbeat, and willing to embrace her situation, she overcame her illness. Thereafter, she found herself on a new plain, with a new knowledge and a new 'inner light' that shines and that I find truly inspiring.

My father is a local physician in our small coastal town of Damariscotta. He has been a doctor for more than 25 years. If you know anything about small towns, then you will know that they are 'small.' That means that everybody knows you, you know everybody, and sometimes they even know your deepest and darkest secrets. Our small town is not suffocatingly small, but it is hard to avoid that intimate feeling of everyday life. That smallness has allowed my father to be the doctor of and for everyone in the 'whole' town. I am exaggerating slightly, but my father has cared for and continues to care for a great percentage of our quaint little community. He has dedicated his life to making our community better and he is loved for it.

My father has other abilities that never cease to amaze us. Since his hippie days with my mother in northern Maine, growing tomatoes under their bed during those brutal Maine winters, he has been a builder. He builds and innovates, innovates and builds. I have not lived one year with him where there has not been at least 3 different renovations going on at the same time. These renovations do get done (my mother may disagree at times) and have become the source of our utmost joy and occasionally, our deepest anxiety. Our joy is when my father finds peace building (he is often busy at work) and fixes things, and most recently, when he built by himself a 4 story barn on our property that houses an indoor basketball court, playroom, art and dance studio, and top-floor apartment. Our anxiety is when there is constant construction and 'almost' finished projects lingering, and when we see my father on the top rung of a ladder, four stories above the ground, with a piece of 20 foot plywood dangling from one arm, hammer in the other.

Needless to say, my parents are unique people, creative people. They dream and they achieve. That's admirable.

My introduction:

Since I was a child, I have desired to give back to the community, to others. My parents were most definitely the biggest influence in this as I learned from their example. But it is also truthful to say that I have always 'felt' on an individual level, a unique passion for people, for finding ways to help others, unconditionally. I also feel strongly about the profound innate human capacity to act 'lovingly' toward others. To care or support others. I have never felt it stronger than now while living in Argentina.

Volunteering or community service was an integral part of my high school years in Maine. I volunteered with youth through the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program. I visited regularly a group of local elder care homes that my father founded in our community. There I grew close with several elderly people, listening to their life stories and helping them get around. I also worked for an elder care service where I took care of a 93 year old elderly woman. We frequently took drives to the ocean so that she could leave the house. We even ate ice cream and pizza.

Following high school, I spent the better part of one year living and studying abroad. My time in Oxford, England, Hawaii, and particularly, Mexico; opened my eyes to different realities. While living with a kind and humble host-family in Mexico, I also observed for the first time 'severe poverty.' I watched and observed homeless families and street kids with regularity, helped out where I could, a smile or some spare change; and often found myself wondering what life was like for them, what they thought about, or dreamed about, if anything.

I returned home to Maine after this year with an evolved perspective of myself and my future role in society. It was clear that I wanted to support others, but it was not clear how I would go about such a general idea. If any of you have the opportunity to travel, experience new cultures and new people, I highly recommend it; it will change your world for the better, whether you recognize it or not.

I spent four years at Davidson College in North Carolina, where I majored in history and completed an international studies concentration. I was blessed with a rich and academically rigorous experience where I cultivated great friendships, with both professors and classmates. Though Davidson still remains a predominantly 'white' school, I found myself most comfortable with the minority of students who descended on Davidson from other countries or other ethnic groups within the United States.

During my semester abroad in the fall of 2001, September 11th, struck the United States. I was participating in the School for International Training's (SIT) program in Geneva, Switzerland. It is ironic that I was in a 'neutral' country during September 11th. I have never been impartial to world events. My nature is most definitely more pacifist than antagonistic. But viewing September 11th from Switzerland, I was provided with a safe space to analyze and reflect on these horrible terrorist attacks.

Despite the understandable shrills of sadness from my program classmates and the images of falling buildings on the television at our local office, I began to contemplate, like many, what may be the numerous reasons for and consequences of these suicide attacks. What did it mean for me? What did it mean for the world and for the United States?

Too many things have transpired since 2001 to dedicate time to here. However, there is one thing I was sure about following the terrorist attacks: that these new challenges needed to be faced by humanity with an open mind, with care, and with compassion for the differences that exist in our world today. I do not speak to compassion for individual suicide bombers, but to compassion for other cultures, other ways of thinking, and for finding constructive ways to settle conflicts. Being aware of the daily struggles of others today was important for me.

I finished my semester abroad with a more developed interest in international development and foreign affairs. I felt an invigorated desire for a more academic and practical understanding of the world. I thought that living and working in a grass-roots environment would introduce me to the kinds of people and situations that would expand my perspective and allow me to give back to others.

The move to Argentina:

After graduation in 2003, I serendipitously made a contact through my father with a young American who had moved to Argentina after its economic crisis in 2001-2 to form a non-profit organization called HelpArgentina. Though it was not clear what I would actually do in Buenos Aires and for how long I would stay, I jumped at the opportunity to volunteer/intern with this start-up, improve my Spanish, and to understand what would be the aftermath of a severe economic, political, and social crisis in Argentina.

My first year in Argentina between 2003-2004 was the beginning of a relationship that would span that last 5 years since I graduated college in one way or another. HelpArgentina was in its infancy when I arrived. It was just an idea, a concept, and a vision by an American and a local Argentine to help under-funded non-profit organizations recover from the economic collapse and the social crisis that followed. In principle, HelpArgentina sought to provide the mechanism for these diverse organizations to receive donations from abroad, both efficiently and transparently.

I must admit that I would not have been able to explain what HelpArgentina was in 2003-2004. This is partly because I do not think HelpArgentina knew either. Founding a US 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization in Argentina after a crisis was no easy thing. There was a lot of uncertainty, as well as, many other economic, legal, and social hurdles to overcome. On a more personal level, I was also just a naive volunteer in a foreign country. I was just seeking to perfect my Spanish to a level so I could understand what was going on around me. I traveled around the country to get a glimpse of Argentine geography and culture too. I continued as a regular volunteer with HelpArgentina until I left Argentina in the middle of 2004.

Toward the end of my first stay in Argentina, HelpArgentina received its first major matching grant for an economic development and job creation initiative that it spear-headed for the poverty-stricken northern provinces of Argentina. Inspired by our first major effort to leave a mark on Argentina after the crisis, I began my own individual fund-raising initiative directed at my hometown community in Maine. I wrote an article for the local newspaper introducing our project and telling of my experience in Argentina. Upon returning home, I was able to raise a modest USD1000 for this economic development project and create well-needed awareness for the ongoing economic and social crisis in northern Argentina in particular.

My efforts for Argentina were simplistic and highlighted the facility of bringing a cause you care about to those you know best. These individual efforts, among several others at the time or thereafter, began a movement of individual fund-raisers for Argentina who later came to be called "Social Ambassadors." These people host dinners, plan events, or organize innovative communication and fund-raising campaigns. Irrespective of my subtle influence in this new movement, Social Ambassadors have become a fundamental part of a HelpArgentina network of people living abroad who raise donations and mobilize their communities for Argentine organizations.

This first phase in Buenos Aires was life-changing for me. Not only had I seen and learned a lot from participating in and observing a young non-profit search for its identity and create new changes in the Argentine social sector, but also I had cultivated strong relationships with local Argentines. I watched them adapt to the country's most recent instability. One important relationship was with an Argentine travel agent who later became my girlfriend and her family. Another instrumental experience was with a lower income family of 5 who spent their days between living on the street and sleeping in a small room lent to them by a family member, located far outside the city of Buenos Aires (more later on these relationships).

As established in Switzerland in 2001 and even before in Mexico, my first year in Argentina effectively allowed me to put myself in the shoes of others and to find ways to comprehend their daily realities on a much deeper level. Also, in the case of my new friendship with the Bustamante family, the family that I met on the street, I learned the rewards and challenges of helping someone in need.

HelpArgentina, 2006-2008:

I returned to Argentina in late 2005 after one year living and working in the United States. In March of 2006, I began my second stint at HelpArgentina, but in a wholly different capacity. First of all, I was a paid staff member. Second, I was working for a new innovative social enterprise called InsightArgentina, not founded by Help, but formed as an independent volunteer program under the legal umbrella of HelpArgentina.

What is HelpArgentina in late 2007? What is InsightArgentina? Why is volunteering important? And what is my role at HelpArgentina? I will respond to these last questions before concluding my first blog.

HelpArgentina is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that acts as a bridge or channel between the international community, whether Argentine donors living abroad or foreigners who want to collaborate, and Argentine organizations. HelpArgentina provides a safe and efficient framework so that these same donors may see the results of their donations through impact reports, regular updates, and newsletters. These Argentine organizations must comply with strict international norms for transparency and good practices. Uniquely, HelpArgentina is one of less than 20 'online social marketplaces' that exist today in the world. And overall, HelpArgentina seeks to strengthen a diverse group of Argentine organizations in order to improve the quality of life for the Argentine community and its citizens.

InsightArgentina has officially become the 'volunteer program' of HelpArgentina. Insight is a hands-on educational program that " aimed at those seeking insightful, socially-oriented experiences abroad." InsightArgentina, however, is not your ordinary volunteer program. It customizes the volunteer experience to fit the fundamental needs of the host organizations while very much based on the capacities that each volunteer has to offer. Insight works passionately to achieve 'results-orientated impact' to empower Argentine organizations. It also seeks to cultivate an invaluable long-term relationship between both international volunteers and their organizations and communities in Argentina.

Volunteering is important for many reasons. It is a way to give back to others. It it a way to help others in need, in some cases. It is also a way to learn about other perspectives and realities. I firmly believe that volunteering should not be taken lightly. That does not mean that volunteering has to be overly serious either. Volunteering should be fun. But, it does mean that to be an effective volunteer, one must be sensitive to the realities of others, sincere in their intentions toward others, and altruistically focused on what you can do to help, not pure self-aggrandizment. Volunteering is one of the most eye-opening and important experiences one can have. I hope that one day everyone will make a commitment, whether big or small, to volunteering their time to others.

At HelpArgentina (Insight), it is my job to receive the volunteers, to accompany the volunteers to their host organizations, and to be the intermediary between these two groups. I help to manage projects, provide institutional support, and work to mobilize and inspire volunteers so that their efforts are maximized and sincerely benefit their organizations. Thus, I spend many days riding the bus or train to different parts of the city and province of Buenos Aires to guide and visit volunteers, as well as, their organizations. The best part of my day is seeing the faces of the children and the volunteers at work. I love the contact with people, the stories, the challenges, and the rewards. I feel alive in these local environments and it inspires me to know that my presence, and our presence, does make a difference.

My experience as a volunteer coordinator with grass-roots organizations has showed me things about life that I am most grateful for. I hope to convey these things to you from here on out. Forgive me if I get side-tracked sometimes, but hopefully, these writings will be inspiring and enlightening. Thanks for reading!

In the spirit of my first blog, I ask you to take time out to understand, enjoy, and appreciate others, if not today, tomorrow.

Peace out.