Crossing Cultures: Obama in Argentina

IMG_2596One of the most interesting yet intimidating events we experienced in Buenos Aires was President Obama coming to visit. The first day we arrived in the city, several people told us he was coming, even though it wasn’t for another month. However, his arrival in Buenos Aires was greatly anticipated and incredibly controversial. In order to explain why, one of our professors gave a weeks-long history lesson about Argentina.

Forty years ago, the Argentine military staged a coup and took over the government, which began the darkest period in the country now known as “The Dirty War” or “La Guerra Sucia“. During this time, the military leaders formed the Triple A: The Argentine Anticommunist Alliance. The Triple A hunted down and killed any left-wing activists, military dissidents, or Peronists. An estimated 30,000 people “disappeared” meaning they were killed or kidnapped. Many children of the victims were kidnapped and given to military families. The 30,000 disappeared are known generally as the “desaparecidos”. Having occurred only four decades ago, the Dirty War and its victims still feel like a fresh wound in the hearts of many Argentine citizens.

How does Obama’s visit play into this? Well, he was set to arrive in the country on the fortieth anniversary of the military coup. This date angered a huge number of Argentine citizens because many feel like the U.S. somewhat “condoned” the military’s activity because Henry Kissinger had secretly approved the military rule, and U.S. has yet to release classified documents about the war that could possibly shed light on the fate of many victims. People were mad. They were angered that the President of the U.S., a country that did not push harder to respect and help human rights during such a violent time in Argentina, felt he could come to their country on such an emotional and important day.

When President Obama arrived on March 24th, huge protests were held in Plaza de Mayo which rests between the government buildings that house the Argentine president’s office. We decided to attend the protests. As we walked down the main avenue to the plaza, hundreds of people held up pictures of their killed or disappeared friends and family members and shouted “Nunca Más!” meaning “never again”. I couldn’t help but tear up as we witnessed the emotion and unity of thousands of citizens in the streets.

While many held up signs and photographs, we witnessed more intense protests of Obama’s visit in the form of burning American flags and posters denouncing the President’s presence. Once we saw these, my roommate and I decided to head back to our house just to be safe. It was an incredibly intense day in the city, but I was undeniably lucky to witness such an event–one that I will never see again. It gave us a chance to step away from our American identities and understand a different history from a new perspective.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

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After a month in Patagonia, our UM group headed back to the big city: Buenos Aires. As someone who has never lived in a city of more than a few hundred thousand people, moving to Buenos Aires for two months was a daunting change, especially considering we would be living with a family who spoke little to no English. Luckily, my roommate and I were placed in a house with a kind and inviting house mom, Cecilia, and her two daughters, Clari (19) and Maria (17). While the older sister insisted we go out with her almost every evening with her to see everything that Buenos Aires nightlife has to offer, Maria was more of a homebody who taught us to cook her favorite Argentine dishes and helped us with our homework for the University of Belgrano. They created a perfect mix of activities and down time, and both were incredibly concerned with helping us have the best time in their city.

At the University of Belgrano, we took culture, art, and literature classes from professors who spoke almost no English. While at first this seemed like a negative aspect, it turned out to be one of the best experiences we could have had! I think everyone in the group impressed themselves by learning to take notes and follow along in hour and half classes which were entirely in Spanish! While living among millions of people first seemed daunting, my confidence was boosted through the roof, and I feel more strongly than ever that I could travel to just about any country and learn my way around, with or without language barriers.

Living in the city does have its downsides. After eight weeks constantly surrounded by people rushing to their next location, I realized that I probably am not built to live in such a populated area, but I feel so lucky to have had the chance to experience life in Buenos Aires. We saw some of our favorite bands, watched impressive tango dancers, ate the best food I’ve ever had, and visited museums with art by Frida Kahlo and Antonio Berni. I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything, but I learned a lot about myself and my likes and dislikes and preferences for a good quality of life. I missed the mountains, the small-town feel, and bike-friendly city. With that knowledge about what works for me and work doesn’t, I think I will be able to choose my next move/job more wisely because I’ve had these experiences.

Patagonia, Argentina

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After a ten hour flight and twenty-three hour bus ride, we arrived in Bariloche, Patagonia. Bariloche is a town of about 100,000 people in the foothills of the Andes Mountains that sits on the shore of Lake Nahuel Huapi. I, along with thirteen other University of Montana students (whom I had only met previously in passing) hopped in cabs from the bus station and headed to our hostel, La Justina, which was to become our home for the following month. I felt rather uneasy realizing that I was to share a room full of bunk beds with five other girls who I had never spent any time with. A few weeks later, I knew I could not have found a better group of women to share such awesome adventures and such a tiny room with.

While the town of Bariloche itself is beautiful with the massive, turquoise lake and surrounding mountains, we found that its popularity derives from not just majesty and beauty of the town itself but the Patagonian mountains and national parks that surround it. While we were in Patagonia, my bunk mate, Cree, and I were able to embark on four separate backpacking trips in three different parks. I thought that getting on the trail would provide some familiarity for me in such a foreign place, but for the majority of it, it felt quite the opposite. We had to use our Spanish language skills that had only been practiced in the comfort of UM’s classrooms in order to buy bus passes, comprehend the counterintuitive bus schedules, and yell at the driver to drop us off near a dirt road we had only read about in online blogs to find the trailheads. On our first backpacking trip to a mountain lake called El Frey, we ran into several others on the trail, but no Americans. When we reached the top of the mountain after 8 grueling miles, Cree and I sat together on a boulder that rested a few dozen yards past our tent to soak in the view. Several minutes later, a man approached us to ask for matches to light his stove. After sharing our lighter and conversing for a bit, we asked where he was from, only to learn that he works and lives in Victor, Montana. And even after entering a different hemisphere after a half day flight, a full day of a bus ride, and 8 miles into one of the national park trails, we felt a little closer to home and enjoyed the sunset with our new friend.