20 May 2007

Tucuman, Argentina – The Whole World Wrapped Up In One Small Town

We rumbled down the dirt road to Patricia and Pupe’s house (a friend of a friend of a coworker’s sister’s aunt’s cousin’s priest, or something similar. That’s how it works in Argentina. They’re so incredibly open and kind. When Patricia heard we were coming to town through eight degrees of separation, she insisted we stay with her). Horse-drawn carts were sprinkled among old Ford pickups, an enormous fleet of Fiat taxi cabs and the occasional luxury car. People were milling about everywhere. “Everything” stores (those shops in the developing world that literally sell every possible food and household item that you would ever need) were everywhere!

We arrived to find Pupe (who has quickly made her way onto my “Top Ten Favorite People On Earth” list) had cooked up a big giant lunch including chicken, bread, sandwiches, hot dogs, fruit, coffee, tea, orange juice, Sprite and Coke. This would soon become one of two themes of my time in Tucuman. We were there for a total of four meals and I ate the above plus Empanadas with Coke, more sandwiches with Coke, rice, bread, spinach quiche and bread with Coke, cereal and yogurt with tea and Coke and an entire homemade flan, with Sprite (they were out of Coke). By our second night I had gained a solid twelve pounds and went digging for some Rolaids.

The second theme was some of the most incredible young people I’ve ever met. We had four teams in Tucuman when I arrived and after a 100% successful panel round led by Marina, YV Argentina staff, we had ten teams when I left. Thanks once again to incredible planning by Marina (she’s basically superhuman and amazing), I was able to meet all of them.

We began at the home of Natalia, who started “Delicioso Comidas Para Llevar” (Delicous Take-Away Food). She uses a home made mud oven in the backyard to cook Empanadas (which she served to us, along with a bottle of wine that I was asked to uncork as the Guest of Honor) and other local favorites for parties and special events, using the proceeds to prepare meals and buy clothes for families in her community who are in need. Her husband supplies the wood for the oven, donating scraps from the furniture he builds. Her kids now play an active role in preparing the meals and making drop-offs. “People found out that I do this – give away food and clothes – and now they many knock on my door all the time. How can I say no? They are in need. I must help.” She recently expanded her enterprise, opening a full-fledged store at the front of her home to raise more money and meet an even greater need.

Next it was Juan, who used his funding to refurbish the city’s library and rec. center so kids would have a safe place to study and play after school. Called “Ensenando Para Un Futuro Mejor” (Teaching For A Better Future), he got computers and internet service donated so the kids could connect with the rest of the world. Juan also found an English teacher to give lessons three days a week, because he believes English will give them “access to a better life.” At 25, he works a separate full-time job, maintaining the library on the side. In January Tucuman experienced major flooding. Juan opened his doors to more than 100 people whose homes were destroyed, sleeping on library tables for more than a week while managing food and showers for those affected. He also schooled me in futbol (soccer, duh).

We met Carla in what used to be an abandoned warehouse until she asked for and got permission to use it as a studio for belly dancing lessons. Aisha, the name of the program, is now in its third year of empowering young women by building confidence through dance.

Carla has not only given these ladies a creative outlet; she has also provided an after-school activity that doesn’t lead to baby-making, as well as rejuvenated a run-down building and neighborhood. She was also willing to teach me how to shake my thang.

I finished the day at a genv.net web training seminar hosted by Ely, a Youth Venturer who started “Centro Tecnologico Vecinal” (Community Technology Center), a local internet café where she and her brother not only offer access, but training in how to use computers. Her facility is completely FREE for the low-income kids in her neighborhood. She offsets operating costs by charging adults and other folks who can afford it. She is single-handedly working to bridge the great divide that exists between rich and poor by educating youth on what is becoming the great equalizer – technology.

More than twenty young people showed up to our web training, set up profiles on our site and connected with people in other countries. Some of them had started their own programs, others were just beginners. Everyone, however, shared an interest in making their community better.

Tucuman embodies every problem and every hope that we’re facing as a generation. More and more kids are snorting Paco, the crap left over after they’ve made premium cocaine. Teen pregnancy is on the rise. Schools are terrible. The divide in wealth is growing. Politicians care less and less about people and more and more about their own personal interests. It’s only my first stop and already I’m noticing that we really aren’t all that different. Poverty is poverty is poverty. The importance of education is borderless. Empowering young people is a universal goal and as I’ve begun to see, a universal reality. Join them. Find your inspiration. www.genv.net

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