“It is cheering to think of friends in distant lands. We are all very much alike, moved by the same hopes, ambitions, likes and dislikes; in short, we are all human”
– Paul Harris, Founder of Rotary International and Wisconsin native
The quote from Paul Harris is really resonating with me right now. This weekend was our Rotary District 4835 Conference in San Miguel de Tucumán, Argentina. Tucumán province is the smallest province but the most densely populated, and is located southeast of Salta Capital. I arrived in Tucumán on Wednesday evening, as I had arranged visits to a few clubs in Tucumán to make the most of my time there. My four-hour bus ride was pretty boring, with the exception of one of the bus drivers who was from Buenos Aires and asked me for my phone number so we could “hang out” when he comes to Salta. No, gracias!
I arrived and went to the apartment of Vanina, a Rotarian with the Tucumán 9 de Julio club. She works in alternative medicine and lives right in the center of Tucumán. She also has a terrifying chihuahua that did not like me. At all.
As soon as I arrived I pretty much had to head out to the Rotary Club Tucumán meeting, so we didn’t get to chat much. I took a taxi to the meeting and I was literally shocked by the size and feel of Tucumán when I arrived, and was a little overwhelmed to be in a big city again! Salta has 600,000 people but it feels like a small town. Tucumán has around 750,000 people but feels huge, industrial, urban, with lots of traffic and super fast-paced.
The meeting was extremely formal – I kind of felt like I was back with Rotary Club of Milwaukee! They had around 30 members, all around 50-70 years of age, and they had several tables set up, a podium, and a pre-arranged dinner (soup, a breaded chicken breast with pasta sauce and cheese (kind of like chicken parm but not quite, and a dessert). As soon as I arrived one of the Rotarians started talking to me in English, and him and I sat down together. I got up before the meeting started to get my PowerPoint situated, and when I came back to the table I quickly realized that he had extreme alzheimer’s or dementia.
I am very fortunate that in my family no one has either of those terrible diseases, so I don’t have a lot of experience with it. Over the course of about 1.5 hours, he asked me “How long are you staying in Tucumán?” 17 times. He offered to drive me home and I was honestly terrified the entire time. I had just gotten into the city but luckily have a great sense of direction and was able to direct him back to Vanina’s apartment. I asked him to pull over/park and he asked why I was getting out of the car. He told me he was going to take me around the city (at this point it was midnight). I quickly thanked him, told him I needed to go to bed, and as I got out of the car I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
The next morning I was woken up by Vanina’s housekeeper who made me vanilla tea and served me a delicious chocolate/dulce de leche tart for breakfast. I set out to explore the city on my own and see what Tucumán had to offer. I visited a lot of the touristy things all around the city.
That night, I visited another Rotary Club — Tucumán Noroeste. Our district governor, Juan José Rodríguez is a member of this club so it was great to meet him in person, as we’ve e-mailed fairly often since I arrived in Argentina. He reminds me a LOT of my grandpa! I didn’t do a formal presentation at this club — instead, we talked a lot about the problems with Rotary in NW Argentina. I felt extremely comfortable with this club and I really connected with them as we discussed ways that we can improve Rotary.
Friday the conference began! I was so excited to meet the “GSE” team from the USA. This stands for Group Study Exchange and it’s made up of 5-6 young professionals and one team leader from a Rotary district. They spend a month in another country and get to see how their profession works in that country, experience the culture, etc. This group was from Virginia and arrived in Argentina at the end of April — they ended their trip at the district conference. I was waiting around in the conference room when I heard American English. I basically ran over and introduced myself, and they were all shocked to hear me speak perfect, fluent American English — they had no idea I would be there, or that an American was even living in NW Argentina thanks to Rotary! Stuart, Joe, Becca and Pam and I all had a great time over the next few days, along with their team leader Oakley.
The conference finally began and honestly it was pretty boring on Friday. There were a lot of long speeches, the most interesting being the welcome by our district governor.
Saturday morning I got there early and found two of my Salteño Rotarians, Martín and Ana María, as well as Adrianna, a Rotarian from San Pedro de Jujuy who I stayed with when I visited their club in April. I got my presentation all set up for later that morning and nervously waited. Finally it was my turn to present! I think that it went pretty well but apparently I close my eyes a lot, because my eyes are closed in a ton of the pictures I have from my presentation. Nevertheless, a bunch of Rotarians talked to me after and invited me to visit their clubs, and one told me that my Spanish was excellent (hello self-esteem boost!).
As soon as I was done with my presentation, there was a presentation by the GSE team. Two of the team members spoke pretty good Spanish but the others only knew a little bit before coming to Argentina. Nevertheless I was super impressed at their efforts and their ability to speak another language in front of 200 people. I also learned a lot about Virginia!
The absolute highlight of the entire weekend for me was getting to see all of the high school exchange students who are living in this part of Argentina (none are in Salta province, unfortunately). There are 31 students from France, Canada, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, and the US who are currently going to high school in this part of Argentina and living with host families. It was so, so inspiring to see all the kids and all of them genuinely looked happy! Some of them are going back to the US in just a few weeks and all of the girls from the US told me that they weren’t ready to go back and couldn’t believe their exchange year is already coming to an end. Two returned students who are Argentinian and lived abroad last year also spoke to us about their experience and I definitely teared up because so much of what they said really resonated with me.
Like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, as Paul Harris said, “It is cheering to think of friends in distant lands. We are all very much alike, moved by the same hopes, ambitions, likes and dislikes; in short, we are all human” The Argentinian boy who lived in Germany said that he thought that all of the Germans would be cold. The German girls started laughing in the background, and he said “I quickly learned that it’s all about making connections. I could have lived my entire year thinking that Germans were cold, but as soon as I let my own guard down and started to fit in with my host family, I was amazed at the warmth I felt.” Now, Argentinians have a reputation of being particularly warm, but I still am amazed at the warmth I feel here. Yeah, there are days when I am just mad at Argentina and get super frustrated. But overall I have so many Argentinians that genuinely care about me here and am really starting to realize “we are all human.”
The conference also took place on May 25th, Dia de la Patria / The May Revolution / beginning of the Argentine War of Independence. It’s super important and I’m fairly certain that every city in Argentina has a street named “25 de mayo.” Nevertheless, there were a lot of talks about Argentinian pride, freedom, what it means to be free, what it means to be Argentinian, patriotism, etc. over the weekend and I sat there thinking that I felt proud to be Argentinian too…. wait. I’m not Argentinian. Somehow in the last four months I’ve come to closely associate with the Argentine people, I guess. I’ve become informed on the politics here, have a fairly well-educated stance, complain about things other salteños complain about, don’t get mad about things I used to get mad about, etc. We had a dinner/gala on Saturday night and the 9 de Julio club who organized the conference got some excellent, excellent entertainment. All of the professional dancers reminded me again of how much I love Argentina and how cool the culture is here.
Over the weekend I also felt extremely proud to be American. Which is strange, and honestly a new feeling for me, because some of the things America and Americans do really, really annoy me. I’ve come to realize that Rotary emphasizes the good in any country, and the USA is no exception. I am doing my best to portray my country in the best way possible while I am here, and show them that Americans do know about things happening in the rest of the world, and are not all ignorant and self-centered.
After the tango and gaucho dancing was over, the GSE team was invited up to sing and they sang “This Land is Your Land.” In addition to realizing I didn’t know all the words, I also realized that it is a beautiful song and love that it talks about a lot of the different parts of the USA. I’m really starting to appreciate the diversity in the US, especially as I try to explain what “US culture” is — haha! Does that even exist? Everything is so different in each and every state, but we’re all still considered “Americans.” Anyway, it was a great weekend full of lots of reflection and I’m inspired by a lot of the Rotary clubs in the district, especially the ones down in Santa Fe province. Now I really need to track down an Argentina Rotary pin at some point to add to my collection and balance out the American ones!