First of all, my apologies for the unacceptable lapse in my correspondence. In the last month most of my free time has been taken up by traveling. At the end of March I spent a week in a small farming town in the breadbasket, the province of Santa Fe. I then had two weeks back in Buenos Aires before heading to Porto Alegre, Brazil and then Asuncion, Paraguay.
I. Santa Fe
In the small town of Pujato I felt so welcomed and at home. Everyone is related or friends with everyone else in town...I met so many cousins of so-and-so. I stayed with a family of Italian descent. See photo attached of me and my friend Cata with our homestay mom and dad. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen either drinking mate or eating homemade alfajors, cookies with caramel filling and coated in chocolate. Partly to avoid turning into a roly poly and partly to make room in my tummy so I could eat more, I jogged or biked around town almost everyday, which was a great way to see the town and the people. While in Pujato I got to ride in crop cultivator, watch a cattle auction, and see cheese made at a small dairy. My dad pointed out that I could have done all of those things back in Missouri, but I'm pretty sure that small towns back home don't have dance clubs that are still going strong after day break. I don't know quite how I did it, but I went out with some girls from the town to a dance club until 8:30am and then had breakfast, took a shower, napped, and then went to Easter mass. I hope to go back to Pujato in the next month or so...the homemade alfajors are calling to me!
II. Buenos Aires
Once back in Buenos Aires I had two field study visits to "villas miserias." These villas are poor neighborhoods in Buenos Aires that were built by immigrants when they couldn't find a place to live. These neighborhoods often suffer from a lack of public services and infrastructure. The villas are not shanty towns, as I had imagined, they have buildings that are multiple stories high built out of bricks or concrete and have little corner stores and restaurants. The villas are often seen as an eyesore and nuisance, but they have been a part of the city for over 50 years and continue to exist because the government has been unwilling or unable to deliver the necessary services. It is unbelievable that people are living in these conditions less than 10 blocks from the most expensive restaurants of the whole city in Puerto Madero.
On a lighter note, in the two weeks before Brazil I went to a play done completely in the dark, an independent film festival, and a drum circle performance. The play in the dark was the coolest theatrical experience I've had in at least a year. It was really cool because the actors incorporated sounds and smells that helped the audience imagine scenes from places like Africa to China. At the film festival I watched a Chilean film called "Navidad." It took me about 15 minutes to get used to the accent, but finally I was able to get into it. The film was about three teenagers who end up spending Christmas together and at the same time are trying to figure out who they are. The cinematography was really good even if the plot was a little unimaginative. If you are interested in watching the trailer its http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ospkB6qmdUE. The drum circle was a really cool performance of like 20 drummers and was attended by a large portion of the hip 20-somethings in the city.
So after a week in Porto Alegre, Brazil I've concluded that Portuguese is like a sing-songy french with a few Spanish words thrown in from time to time. I think my idea of Brazil was probably completely based on what I know about Carnival in Rio, so as a result I was taken a back when I didn't see nearly naked women sambaing down the street. Funny how what shocked me most was the fact that Porto Alegre is just a regular city about the size of KC. While in Brazil I had two field visits to groups fighting for land rights in a country with one of the most unequal distributions of land and wealth in the world. One group, the quilobolas are afro-descendants seeking recognition of their right to their traditional lands and the other group the MST, are landless farmers who are pressuring the government to find them a place to live. I was impressed with the community and spirit of the quilombolas and the determination and strength of the MST.
The highlight of my time in Porto Alegre was probably the soccer game between one of Porto Alegre's teams and an Ecuadorian team. From where I was sitting I not only really enjoyed the game, but also watching the die-hard fans in the standing only section jumping in the thousands, waving flags, and singing through the whole game. I am really glad the Brazilian team won, because I don't want to know how the crowd would have reacted to a loss in this game that serves as something of a qualifying round.
At the end of my time in Brazil, my study abroad group went to Iguazu waterfalls. I had already been with Aunt Gloria and Uncle Chris, and I was really glad for that because the most captivating trail was closed this time because the water level was so high.
Although it is true that Paraguay is very poor and has many problems, I was fascinated by the sense that history was being made before my eyes. Because Paraguay was under a dictator from 1954-1989, in many ways the society has just re-started. We had a visit to a museum on the dictatorship that is only a few years old and is still being put together. After seeing some of the cells where people were tortured, a man who had been tortured and then helped discover the files that cataloged these abuses gave as an impromptu talk. I don't think I realized that I was in the presence of an important figure in Paraguay's history until I saw the same man in a photo on the wall at the achieve of the torture files.
Paraguay, like Brazil also suffers from terrible inequality of the distribution of land which has contributed to the villa in Asuncion. It bowled me over to see that the 5km long villa is built up against the back side of the Presidential Palace and Congress. I don't know how government officials care bare to look out the window and see the suffering they are failing to end. Like one of the coordinators of my program said, she didn't understand how people in the villas in Buenos Aires could say they were better off than they were back home until she saw the villa in Asuncion. The villa is built in part on top of a dump and was permeated by the sickening smells of burning putrid meat, trash, and pigs.
I haven't 100% decided, but I think I will be going back to Paraguay to do a case study for my research project. I think I am going to study a social movement called CONAMURI that was formed 10 years ago to fight for the rights of rural women and Indians.
V. The End
Hats off to you if you made it through this e-mail. I promise that the next one won't be quite so long. So yeah, I have a lot of work to do this week as classes end Friday. I have a final next week and then about 3 weeks to investigate and write by 20-40 page research paper...boy, oh boy! The good news is that I have to turn in it before my birthday, so hopefully I'll get to relax and enjoy the big 21 and my last few days in Buenos Aires.