Alex Hart

Welcome to my website


2 Comments

Argentina – How was it for you?

It is raining in Buenos Aires when I arrive after a 15 hour bus trip. I decide to take a car to the airport rather than another bus and as I chat to the driver I realise I have absorbed more of my surroundings than I had realised. As we pull up at the airport, the driver jumps out and, unexpectedly, kisses me on both cheeks and wishes me a safe journey home. At this point I realise that there is so much more of Argentina and South America  that I want to experience.

So, as my time in Argentina comes to an end it’s time to reflect on the journey. How was it?  Did I achieve what I set out to? To quote T S Eliot (the journey of the Magi) “it was (you may say) satisfactory”.

I didn’t come here to do the touristy things – visit beautiful places and spend time in luxurious estancias or hotels instead I wanted to plant myself in a community and help (in a very small way) with some of the projects carried out here.

I haven’t worked as hard as I am used to working.  Has my presence here made any notable contribution? – It is doubtful. However hopefully I can help pave the way for other volunteers to step off the beaten track and come here to help. Plus just one smile – Just one hug from any one of the children here (and trust me I have had lots!)for me, makes my visit all worthwhile.

Big Hugs!

I was told by one Argentinean that the Santiago del Estero region is the ugliest part of Argentina.   I  don’t see that.  In Aῇatuya I see a quiet country town with plenty of pretty green and lots of birds, somewhere I can wander around, be greeted by all manner of strangers and feel safe.  I have met some lovely people here and even after such a short period of time I know I am going to miss some of them very much.

Aῇatuya is a community that struggles on several levels. However despite the poverty, regularity of teenage pregnancy, violence, abuse, alcoholism, and incest, most people here are just trying to make a life.  My conclusion is that people here in Argentina have the same worries, problems, loves and hopes as people do at home (and indeed people in most countries). Being here as a result has felt quite natural to me.

I won’t miss the relentless heat, the dirt and the loneliness from being on my own.  However the kindness of people makes up for most of that. I will definitely miss the quiet and the slow pace of life here and most of all, the children.

Even the mad dogs don’t venture out in the heat at Siesta time just the mad person armed with the camera!

As for me – has the trip changed me? Well for starters I realise that so many of the ‘luxuries’ I am so particular about at home really don’t matter – I haven’t missed them at all.  I have missed my family and just a touch or a kind word from a stranger when you are alone can make all the difference to your day.  I wanted to change my life, to make it simpler and happier and this trip has helped create a bridge from my old life to the new.  I have learned to slow down a bit and I am going home very relaxed as a result.

Oh and just to be clear, I won’t pretend that my Spanish is fantastic either – although it has improved a lot. At least I have a whole diploma course to look forward to next year to sort that!

I have one further comment to add. Sometimes you need to push yourself and step out of your comfort zone entirely. We all share this world and we all have a duty to take care of it and of each other.  Everyone should from time to time put themselves in others’ shoes and do something for a stranger without expectation of personal gain – you never know what will come from it and it helps bring balance to the world.

So for now, Hasta Luego!

Besos xxx

Ps The Jacarandas are in full bloom and are simply beautiful!

Advertisements


2 Comments

The Puma and the Goat – Postcards from Anatuya

I have got used to the slow sway of life here in Anatuya.  I have never been a very good sleeper but I find here I look forward to the days when I can have a siesta with greedy delight. Mornings are often spent  drinking coffee in the shade watching the world go by.

I can’t help notice that my frown lines have all but disappeared. Life is pretty good!

 This little dog decided that a shelf in the local library was the best place for his siesta!

The other morning I was having coffee in the town square with my friend Juanita when a gentleman approached her. He remembered her from his childhood but had not seen her for many years. Juanita explained to me that the man’s great uncle had been her neighbour when she was a child and had saved her life when she was five years old.

At the time, Juanita and her family were living in the countryside about 10kms from town. Juanita had a pet goat called Gomez whom she loved very much.  Juanita and Gomez went everywhere together, the little goat attached to Juanita by lead. One day they wandering in the bush looking for food for Gomez to eat and Juanita felt a sudden rush of air against her skirt and from nowhere a puma appeared and leaped on the tiny goat, instantly snapping its tiny neck.  Having gained its prize the cat turned to face Juanita, challenging her to approach it. Juanita started yelling at the top of her voice and the neighbour, passing by on his horse heard her screams and rode quickly to the little house where she lived to alert her parents.

Father grabbed his gun and the family headed into the bush following the little girl’s screams. Shots were fired into the air and the puma fled. Poor Juanita needed a short slap to break her hysteria and was whisked home for a warm bath and a hot chocolate for the shock. The next day Juanita begged her parents to show her where they had buried her darling pet so she could plant a cross and lay flowers. It was only several years later that she discovered the family had in fact barbecued the little goat and eaten it that night!

And so the stories continue until the morning turns into lunch….

Lila – Juanita’s current pet in Juanita’s shopping basket – her favourite mode of transport


1 Comment

Food Glorious Food!

One of the disadvantages of staying in a hotel for long periods is that you can’t just pop into the kitchen to make yourself a cup of coffee or raid the fridge for whatever you fancy. Unfortunately the café facilities at the hotel here are very limited and my room has no fridge or tea and coffee making facilities. As a result I have got to know the local cafes and restaurant and their staff very well

Argentina’s food has been heavily influenced by the Spanish and Italian settlers in the country. Bread, pastries and pasta form a large part of the daily diet. Another favourite is the Empanada (basically a sort of mini Cornish pasty but in my view nowhere near as good).  There are few veggie stalls or fruit shops here in town and the selection of produce in these is small when compared to some of the little shops I saw in Buenos Aires.  This lack of choice, naturally enough, is reflected in the café menus too.

 Jose the local cafe owner was somewhat bemused at me taking photos of his pastries and declared to the rest of the customers “she is from New Zealand” by way of explanation 

Here in Anatuya, the poverty of the region becomes apparent when you scour the supermarket shelves for yummy things to eat. There is not much choice and what there is, is plain and relatively expensive. I read in the paper today that inflation (in relation to food) is running at 12% since January.  Its no wonder that families struggle to make ends meet.

Obesity in all ages is a big big problem in Anatuya (excuse the pun). Diabetes is a huge issue in the region with children as young as 8 being diagnosed. There are apparently 70,000 type 2  diabetes patients in the region. The people here  guzzle enormous amounts of sweet fizzy drinks and ice cream (due in a large part to the heat I have no doubt).  They also have a great love for the evil dulce de leche – the caramelised condensed milk you find in banoffie pie- it’s everywhere! Somewhat surprisingly, there are no brand name fast food/burger joints here. I suspect this may be influenced by the fact that the local mayor is/was a doctor.

The local restaurant serves fantastic steak (as you would expect), has a great selection of wines from Mendoza and the ravioli is authentic and delicious. But after a couple of weeks of steak or chicken with salad for dinner, my palate is craving something a little more fragrant and colourful. For example, eggs benedict with fresh wilted spinach straight from the garden. Watermelon, ripe avocados, and sweet baby tomatoes. Prawns cooked with Lemongrass, ginger and chili. Lamb skewers with brightly coloured peppers sizzling on the BBQ washed down with a Mission estate Sav. I crave the heat and flavours of a Thai red curry and I go to sleep dreaming of the smell of the juicy red strawberries currently in our garden, freshly picked and still warm from the sun. Torture!   However before I start to feel too sorry for myself, its worth remembering that most people here can’t afford the luxury of eating in cafes and restaurants or incorporating steak and nice wines in their diet. A sobering thought.

So, as it is I think very soon I will be suffering from the local condition of ‘bread spread’ – basically a widening of the hips and backside caused by sitting down to consume copious amounts of ‘pan’. Oh lord it’s going to be a long and painful month at the gym when I get back…..

 


2 Comments

No entiendo nada!

If there is one big piece of advice I could give to anyone visiting South America (particularly females travelling alone) it would be make sure you have a decent grasp of Spanish.  By decent grasp I don’t mean Spanglish picked up in Mexico or on the Costa del Sol, or for that matter Spanish you learned in school donkeys years ago. I realise that an ability to speak Spanish might seem an obvious advantage (if not a necessity!) when visiting a Spanish speaking country, but in truth as English speakers we do tend to assume most people speak some English and that we’ll cope.

I thought that my schoolgirl Spanish would be sufficient to get by with which was somewhat naiive. The reality is that here in Anatuya,  it’s like putting someone who has learned some basic  English in Aberdeen or  Glasgow and seeing  how they cope!  “Dinnae worry aboot nicht – ye’ll be fine” (yeah right!) Just forget what you thought you knew and start again please!

The first few days helping at kindy were a baptism of fire. I swiftly learned phrases like “don’t cry!”, “get off the table” “sit down!”  “on the chair!” and of course there’s ” no!”  “no!” and then again “no!” Even when the littlies do understand what I am saying, very often I don’t understand their response which can be upsetting for them (and frustrating for everyone else around). Trying to get the little darlings to stay in the kindy area is difficult at the best of times, but there were huge floods of tears when I told one little girl she must stay put when all she wanted to do was go to the bathroom! Oops!

A disadvantage of having learned a few languages at school is that you can also often mix languages up. E.g. I have on more than one occasion asked people here to do me a “map” so I don’t get lost. Imagine their confusion when I hand them a piece of paper and pen and ask them to “escribe me una carta”. Carte being French for map – however the word  “carta” in Spanish means a number of other things as well as possibly a map.   I suspect that a few people wondered if I wanted  them to write to me when I go home to New Zealand….

Yesterday however I realised the full extent of my language shortcomings when I visited the capital of the region. I didn’t have a bus ticket but my name was on the list so all good the hotel manager assured me. I forgot my bible (dictionary), left behind my passport, telephone numbers for everyone here including the hotel and promptly forgot the name on the minibus that transported me there. Oh dear.

There was a mix up over bus times – I realised I would miss kindy and trying to explain to anyone I asked for help that yes I had a ticket but no there was no ticket of any sort that I could produce was not easy.  It occurred to me that I could be stranded there for the evening with no passport or other ID to produce to a local hotel. When you are the slightest bit stressed it’s surprising how all knowledge of a foreign language deserts you and you start gesticulating like a bad version of charades! Anyway thankfully a phone call to C in BA solved the kindy issue (thank you C!) and I managed to work out the rest and get back without further issue.

So – although the language is getting a bit easier to understand and I can even manage my way through the paper now quite happily, it’s probably best not to think about all of the mistakes I am making when I open my mouth or the impression I am leaving!!! Still at least the kids havent been rotten and tried to trick me into saying all kinds of rubbish (have they???)………


3 Comments

Its all about the children

So far I have not said very much about the projects that Haciendo Camino undertake here in Anatuya. To be honest it has taken quite a few days for everything to sink in and settle.

In Anatuya the people at Haciendo Camino work diligently, passionately, without fuss and with love on all of the projects they carry out. It’s not about “saving the world” it’s about making the day to day quality of life for the people here a little bit better, step by step.

As part of the work they do here, they provide support for the children at the Hogar Santa Catalina (children’s home), run by the Catholic church.

The first time I was introduced to some of the children I was a little surprised at how polite, bright and upbeat they were and how well they treat one another. Some of them have experienced terrible things in their lives yet they dont allow this to grind them down. It makes me feel humble and is so refreshing particularly when it appears that some of the adults in the local area have accepted their own fate/quality of life and seem to have given up trying to do anything to improve things for themselves.

Haciendo Camino works hard to bring fun and love into the children’s lives as well as provide practical support. The staff play games, treat the children and generally make a fuss of them. The way the children react to these small acts is enough to move anyone to tears. The children get wonderful support here at a crucial time in their lives.  You can read more about the projects here: www.haciendocamino.org.ar/programas/ninos

However there is always more that can be done – for example helping the children make the transition into adulthood.  It seems there is not always enough support to help all of them find their place in the world once their time at the Hogar is complete. Resources here are stretched, and for me, that’s difficult to accept – these children deserve more. I can only hope that the support they receive now will help each and every one of them cope with the future to come.

Over the next few weeks I look forward to spending more time with these remarkable kids. However in doing so, I know that I will leave myself open to heartbreak when it comes time for me to leave here.


1 Comment

Skunk Town

I have been in Argentina for a week now and am starting to settle in.

At Haciendo Camino, M talked to me about the town and its inhabitants. The emblem of the town is a skunk.  Anas means ‘Zorrino’ (skunk) in the Quechua dialect. I was a little alarmed when I heard that. Why is that I ask? Is there a bad smell (“Hay un mal olor”)? M is not sure if I am pulling his leg but explains that there used to be lots of skunks in the area, but not so much now.  There are over 20,000 people living here in Anatuya There is not much work here though and a high proportion of the population are unemployed. Families are large and poverty is high as a result. The work that Haciendo Camino does is very important to the community because of this.

Aside from this, all the teenagers seem to have smart mobile phones and there is fast, free wifi all over town (NZ take note!!). The town is very flat and laid out in blocks of wide avenues with lots of pretty trees. There are lots of little birds too and it is nice to wake up to their chirping.  The main mode of transport is scooter and on a Friday night the young caballeros and their girls gather around the town square revving their scooters in a manner reminiscent of West Side story.

Hotel Difuncor (aside)

The people of Anatuya are incredibly welcoming and friendly. As I am on my own here, every good morning, smile and kindness proffered is like gold. Tourists are rarely seen here and I have got used to people staring at me.  With my big straw hat, white skin and slightly out of place clothes I must look a bit odd (in the same way an eskimo walking down the streets of Kaikohe would). Some people ask me where I am from and go very quiet when I say ‘New Zealand’. Clearly NZ is not on everyone’s radar!

It’s important not to sweat the small stuff here too. I was a bit stressed when I saw a couple of cockroaches in my hotel room the other night. Even more so when I saw the one I killed swiftly disappeared (Were they having a cucaracha(cockroach) fiesta while I slept?) Sometimes its a case of suck it up! (Oh and buy bug spray!)

On top of that, some of the other guests seem to be running a business of some sort outside my hotel room door – mountains and mountains of envelopes appear without warning. It is a bit disconcerting knowing they are busy just a few feet away from where I am sleeping – and there is no chance of sleeping in as they start early before the heat of the day.

Speaking of heat, it does get very, very, hot and feels worse when you have to walk everywhere. Last night it was still around 30 degrees at 6.30pm. Yuk! –  and it hasn’t hit 40 degrees yet never mind 50!  When I have to go out in the heat of the day I am a bit like a cockroach myself scuttling between the small patches of shade! The humidity level here is relatively low, and people tell me ‘at least you don’t sweat’ (yeah right!).

So after a week what can I tell you – the gobbledygook people spoke when I first arrived is turning into conversations I can understand and my vocabulary is slowly increasing beyond basic pleasantries.

So far life in Skunk town aint too bad!


2 Comments

Culture Shock

I am not a fan of big cities generally – dirty and noisy and generally the same. I did fall a little bit in love with Buenos Aires though. Perhaps it was the fact that things didnt always work properly or the way the drivers optimistically turned the little streets into 2 lane highways hooting furiously at anyone who got in their way (or heaven forbid, parked). The bookshops of all variety on Corrientes kept me occupied for hours, and the old fashioned cafes dotted about the little cobbled streets were just charming.

The bus station is however not the nicest place to be. I got hustled the second the taxi pulled up – an enterprising young girl popped the trunk of the cab and whisked out my case in a second. How she managed it I dont know I could barely lift the damn thing! When I went to take the case she smiled broadly waiting for her cash. Feeling annoyed at having been had I smiled and attempted to move on. At which point her minder appeared from the shadows and explained that I needed to pay her for the huge service.  Inside the terminal there were dozens of similar types. I let them give their spiel and in my best spanglish simply said “no entiendo” and disappointed, they moved n.

What can I tell you about the bus journey? Well it was 13.5 hours! I didnt eat the sandwich they provided which is just as well as when it was light enough to see by, I saw that it was covered in mould (nice!). However the bus was very comfortable and the staff pleasant and helpful.

I arrived in Anatuya (pronounced anyatoosha) dazed, tired and excited. P came from Haciendo Camino to meet me and show me around. My first impression of the town was that it is small, quaint and has a fresh country smell.  I comment to P that it is not as hot as I expected – he smiled and said that today was not a normal day. temperatures can and often do get above 50 degrees. Oh crap. How is my pale English skin going to cope with that? I will need a tent to cover me up!

The hotel room is small, adequate but  has no window other than onto an internal courtyard and feels very hot. There is air conditioning though thank goodness so I should be able to sleep.

 

First stop is the childrens home – the children mob P and cover him with kisses. Then on to Haciendo Camino to meet the staff and the local women. The local dialect is quite different to anything I have been used to and I understand barely a few words. Everyone bombards me with questions and my head is spinning.When I explain I speak very little Spanish someone asks – so why did you come here? Good question – what can a person who has been office based for so many years truly have to offer in this setting when they dont understand what is being said?!

By now I am feeling totally overwhelmed and head back to the hotel and out in search of lunch. Finding a cafe I ask for a Hamburger. There is a brief discussion whereby I think she explains they dont take cards – thats ok I said. However after half an hour no hamburger appears instead I am offered some plain crackers wth my coffee.  I want to cry (I am so hungry and tired!) and I wonder how I am truly going to cope for the next month.

I am not shocked by the conditions in Anatuya or the difficulties the people here face – it is what I expected. More than anything else I am completely moved by the work that Hacindo Camino does and the love and dedication they express.  On top of which, the children at the Hogar (home) are polite and bright and so positive I want to hug them all. However  I see I am going to have to work pretty hard at my Spanish if I am going to be any use to anyone and not be too lonely.

Culture shock?  Yes it has been a big, big culture shock.