Day 2 in Buenos Aires. The rain has cleared and it’s a beautiful, sunny summer day. We were scheduled to spend the first part of the day with the fine folks at Voluntario Global, the non profit organization that for the past several years has helped connect scores of volunteer travelers who wish to give back to some of the most vulnerable and poor in the greater Buenos Aires area.
Helping the poor in Buenos Aires is a daunting task. Argentina was once one of the world’s top economies. But having barely survived multiple financial crises, a military dictatorship and a war in the last few decades, it’s estimated that there are over 4 million people or almost 1/3 of Buenos Aires’ population living in poverty with over 1 million completely indigent and unable to purchase basic food needs.
We’re not talking the kind of poverty where Mommy or Daddy can’t afford a new X-box for little Jane or Johnny for Christmas kind of poor. We’re talking the bitter, devastating kind found throughout the better part of the third world kind; the kind where you regularly see young kids as young as 3 or 4 years old, juggling, playing music, or performing acrobatics or just plain begging at stop lights for spare change so their family can eat.
The Argentine government is unable (some say unwilling) to help all the poor, many of them recent immigrants from surrounding countries such as Peru, Ecuador or Paraguay or indigenous people from rural Argentina who make their way to the capital for a better opportunity and find it lacking.
That is where Voluntario Global comes in. They work with volunteer travelers from all over the world and help them connect with different organizations in Buenos Aires to make a difference. We interviewed the organization’s founder Valeria who gave us some insight on how the program works.
Voluntario Global offers many different packages that not only provide volunteer placement but can combine the traveler’s volunteer experience with long term accommodations, tango, salsa or Spanish classes, so it’s not all dreary work all the time if you don’t want it to be. I was really impressed with Voluntario Global’s mission but more importantly their enthusiasm and commitment to their mission. Their accommodations, reserved solely for volunteers, did create a bit of envy from our production crew as we had rented an apartment in the Micro Center that was in dire need of remodeling.
They invited us to see some of the volunteers in action, so we headed off to one of Buenos Aires’ biggest psychiatric hospitals, where we met up with volunteer travelers from the U.S. who were helping the patients with creating a garden. Simple, relaxing tasks such as gardening can offer valuable therapy to patients as they begin to transition leaving the hospital to return to the outside world.
Next we made it over to one of the community food kitchens and computer training centers in the colorful but impoverished La Boca neighborhood. There volunteers can help in the kitchen or in the computer training center helping to train people with little access to technology.
For travelers who’ve never visited Buenos Aires or for travelers seeking a new kind of experience when traveling, then Voluntario Global is really a valuable asset, not to mention the lifesaving services they are giving to help the many poor in Argentina, who’d have little to no hope otherwise. If you don’t find your way to Argentina but would still like to help out, Voluntario Global has fundraising opportunities as well. Visit their SITE to find out more.
After we left the fine folks at Voluntario Global we continued our tour around the colorful, touristy but edgy neighborhood of La Boca. I say edgy because almost every travel guide out there and especially the locals will advise you against stumbling around La Boca at night. However, during the day, there is plenty to do and it’s full of tourists and police so you can walk along and find it as fun and inviting as anywhere in Buenos Aries, especially along the colorful if touristy El Caminito.
Caminito is a street with a long strip of restaurants and bars teeming with Tango Acts, performance artists and people hawking souvenirs. La Boca (the mouth) gets it’s name from the fact that it’s a port town. At the turn of the last century this is where many of the Italian immigrants ended up. The neighborhood was even more poor and hardscrabble during these times and the large barges and ships that came through would give or trade their excess paint to the locals, who used it to pain their “mostly” tin houses, the result is one of the most visually colorful spots in all of South America.
Also La Boca is home to the legendary soccer team the “Boca Juniors” where the great (love him or hate him) soccer player Diego Maradona used to play. Now if you’re not there on game day, no worries, then you can still check out the incredible museum and even walk out onto the legendary “La Bombonera” field to get some kind of feel for the craziness that is futbol (soccer) in Argentina.
But if you really want to get a feel for how crazy soccer is in Buenos Aires, hit up a game. Since we weren’t in La Boca on game day, I went to see the the Boca Junior’s chief rivals, “Club Atletico River Plate” play on the other side of town a few days later. Just remember not to wear your Boca Juniors souvenir shirt to a River Plate soccer game. You literally could get killed for this seemingly innocent mistake. We’re not talking “Jets vs. Giants” type of rivalry here. In Argentina, soccer is a akin to religion and it can get taken to a level that we in the U.S. see as insane.
The night I went with my buddy Humberto who organizes tour packages to the games for travelers. River Plate was playing one of the other many soccer clubs in the Buenos Aires area. Let me tell you the atmosphere was out of this world, people singing, chanting, laughing, having a good time. Due to problems and extreme violence in the past, they no longer sell or allow alcohol at these events and the visiting team fans are required to enter the stadium from a completely different area of town under heavy, heavy police escort.
As the game wore on and River Plate, which was in a slump, seemed destined to lose. The crowd went from joyous to downright surly. Before the game began, when I had my video camera out, fans were clowning around, trying to get in the shot and welcoming me to the game, but now they were giving me a vibe of “get that camera out of my face” and I did so.
River Plate lost, didn’t even score a goal and Humberto apologized on behalf of the team, saying it was one of the worst soccer games he’d seen in a while. For me, a very casual futbol fan, I had a great time taking in the atmosphere of a professional soccer match in Buenos Aires.
When the game was over we, the home fans, were required to stay in the stadium for a good half hour to 45 minutes more as the visiting fans were allowed a generous head start to leave the stadium safely (once again under police escort). The visiting fans, knowing the home fans can’t leave until well after they do, often take their time leaving, sticking around to chant songs and taunt the home fans (especially after a visiting victory).
I can’t imagine a sport, any sport, being taken to these extremes but there is a ton of history and rivalry between clubs in Buenos Aires. When you think about the insane amount of money and respect paid to athletes in the U.S. these days well…I’m not sure which is the bigger fallacy.
The next day was a Sunday and I wanted to hit up the big antique flea market in the historic neighborhood of San Telmo. San Telmo is one of Buenos Aires’ oldest neighborhoods and it is really quiet a charming area of town. It has a bit more of a gritty feel to it than the upscale neighborhoods of Palermo or Recoleta, but it also has more of a neighborhood feel to it as well.
San Telmo is within walking distance of major tourist sites and has a lovely section of restaurants and bars at Plaza Dorrego which set along cobblestone streets. The flea market is huge stretching along block after block and attracting locals and tourist alike each and every weekend. There are probably at least a dozen or so hostels and hotels in the neighborhood of San Telmo that attract a more alternative, indie budget traveler. So if you decide to break with the crowd and stay in San Telmo rather than the other more upscale areas of Buenos Aires, you’ll be in good company.
NEXT UP: We get outside of the city and get an amazing change of atmosphere with some common day trips.