What Are We Doing Here?

In the past three weeks, Casa de la Mateada experienced: an entire house full of illness (everyone except me had something), a car accident, two concussions with subsequent trips to the emergency room, a robbery, and an earthquake. We joke we need to wear helmets everywhere we go. As if we could stand out any more!  Regardless, it’s safe to say that our program director, Santi, is well prepared for the next round of Casa students.

Emergencies aside, this past Saturday marked the first day of spring in the Southern Hemisphere, and also just over a month since the start of the program. Much has happened since then, but I’ll try to focus on the most crucial moments, in no particular (or chronological) order. First and foremost:

Of course, some food updates:

One of the best parts about meals with the nuns is the bread. Argentines love their bread (this country has some serious Italian roots). For a large portion of my childhood, my diet consisted almost exclusively of bread, so I am pretty excited to be here. It’s very common for people to make their own bread, called pan casero. Here’s our stab at it:

The parrilla (grill) deserves its own section. The Casa has yet to host an official asado (tradition Argentine meal of A LOT of grilled meat), and until I took the initiative to purchase the parrilla itself, it wasn’t even a possibility. Martin took me to a random hardware store and I bought one for 190 pesos, about $35. It was a grand moment in my life. I realize I’m not going to leave Argentina a virtuoso at guitar, a world class tango dancer, or even fluent in Spanish. But I hereby vow to leave this country as a parrilla master (I’m sure there’s a spanish term for this that I have yet to discover). Since we didn’t want to shell out the time or money for a full blown asado, we went with hamburgers for our first grilled meal. There’s no need to rush,  as there will be significant quantities of meat consumed over the course of the next three months. As for Sunday’s meal, take a look:

The purchase of the parrilla was on the way back from our first-day-of-spring-outing from a place called Agua de Oro. It was fantastic to get out of the city and explore the Sierras de Córdoba a bit. We relaxed in nature and enjoyed many gorgeous vistas, including some graffiti (not natural per se, but beautiful nonetheless). More importantly, we encountered a bunch of 11 year old hustlers who schooled us in fútbol. After we gained an early lead, they talked us into a bet where the losers had to buy Coke for the winners. They destroyed us, 7-3. I think it was worth it, though:

Jake action-shots are my favorite.

Jake action-shots are my favorite.

The weekend before last was one of my favorite moments abroad thus far. Jake and I ventured back to Escobar to meet our Vincentian priest friend, Hugo. He invited us on a service retreat with around thirty high school students to a small town in the providence of Entre Rios, about an hour and a half north of Buenos Aires. The service project was to paint a school, which should come at no surprise given that there seem to be an endless supply of schools to be painted worldwide. Not only were we fully immersed in Spanish, we were also fully immersed in Argentine culture in a new way. We drank mate often, ate dinner fairly late at night, and talked endlessly about our cultural similarities and differences. I have to say, Jake and I had a fantastic time given that the twenty something 16 and 17 year old girls treated us like we were the last men on earth. I doubt we’ll ever be the center of attention like that again in our lives. Needless to say, we enjoyed ourselves.

The Vincentian Crew

The Vincentian Crew

I could leave it at that. My first month abroad, wrapped up nicely with chummy stories, mildly witty comments and a never ending supply of photos of food. But this blog is more than that to me. I want to share my thoughts, be they random, happy, pessimistic or sad. So here goes the heavy stuff.

The Vincentian retreat really made me question a lot of things, the most explicit of which was my program choice for study abroad. We have countless opportunities to reflect on our experiences in Argentina with the Casa, which is fantastic, but it comes at a cost given the amount of scheduled time to which we are committed. And a vast majority of that time is in English. We are only immersed in Spanish two days a week and have done a very poor job forcing ourselves to speak Spanish outside of the necessary moments. I went this entire weekend without speaking a word of Spanish. The weekend before that I learned more Spanish than I ever have because I was forced to communicate from the second I woke up to my last waking hour in something other than English. So why did I choose a program that is so heavily oriented in my own language? And furthermore, my own culture, as I spend most of my time in a foreign country with people from the US.

Sadly, Argentine keys don't unlock the secrets of life. Just doors. They're awesome, though.

Sadly, Argentine keys don’t unlock the secrets of life. Just doors. They’re awesome, though.

Something that perplexes me even further are the inherent contradictions built into the program. We travel to the poorest parts of Córdoba to “accompany” those populations only to return to the most affluent neighborhood in the entire city. We have plentiful food, clean water and clothes, and more than enough healthcare to go around (as demonstrated by our accident-prone group). Did we really need to pay the hefty sum of collegiate tuition and then some for semi-authentic cultural immersion coupled with limited exposure to marginalized peoples? Frankly, we don’t know what our presence offers these people yet. Nor do we know what we are doing here ourselves.  When, if ever, will it all make sense?

It was Doug and Jen’s class, Contemplatives in Action, that offered some peace of mind. The theme of the class is complex, as evident by the loaded course title. How does one live a contemplative life without sacrificing the ability to live? Are monks “copping out” with their choice to live an incredibly simple life? Many of us would claim they miss the true excitement and vivacity offered when one exposes oneself to the world. So how do we strike a balance where we aren’t just going through the motions, living to work, and merely existing, but still engaging in something worthwhile?

This is our Contemplatives In Action classroom inside of Casa Luna.

This is our Contemplatives In Action classroom inside of Casa Luna.

Both professors claim a good place to start is to acknowledge the fact that, for one reason or another, we are physically here in Argentina. The metaphorical “here” is a bit more complex. (First relief: a class about what it means to be “here” is much easier to understand when it’s taught in one’s most familiar language. Academic lingual immersion would be very difficult for me at this point, so I’m now okay with classes of this nature in English.) In order to increase one’s ability to be “here,” one is required to cultivate presence through contemplative practices. Many exist as a part of traditional rituals, some ancient, from cultures all around the world. Our lens is focused on those of the Jesuits as the program is run through a Jesuit school. So far this consists of thorough examination of the lives of saints and the actions that led them to holy lives.

And sometimes I take them outside.

And sometimes I take a guitar outside.

But Doug stresses that meditative practices can consist of any number of things, like a walk without a destination or even a conversation with a loved one. For me, I’ve found peace in yoga, a religion in itself, but more recently, guitar. I started to play seriously at the start of my sophomore year at DePaul and found great joy and clarity in it several hours a week. But in Argentina, it’s taken on a whole new role in my life. Any spare second I have, a guitar is in my hands. Almost everyone in our house has mentioned that they’re hard pressed to find a time where I’m separated from my guitar. Jake WC even said I’ve gotten much better since we arrived, and he never heard me play before this semester. That made me feel almost as good as it does to play.

There are certainly more ways I can integrate more formal contemplative practices into my life, but it’s good to know I don’t have to start from nothing. This program has exposed to me the full extent to which I regularly bolt far away from what’s in front of me. I get lost in my own thoughts hundreds of times a day and miss out on so much of what life offers me. I’ve been successful so far relying on my inherent privileges as an educated, heterosexual, Caucasian male. And everyday, more and more of the privileges I possess expose themselves. But another fundamental (implicit) aspect of the Casa program is to replace the feeling of guilt towards these privileges with a sense of responsibility. The Jesuit mission focuses on the people we are to become, not just who we are today. To ignore that our privileges offer us huge potential to affect the world in a positive way would waste the extensive resources we’ve inherited. Resources of fiscal and intellectual value.

The privileges we will exploit to benefit others less fortunate than us are unknown at this point. As is what this program will ultimately do for me. Who will I be when I return? Will I ever return? What will I miss while I am abroad? Was this the right program for me? There’s so much we can never know in life that it seems pointless to concern ourselves with answers to questions like these. And for me, it took a break from our progression-obsessed culture to realize it. I don’t know if I can wholeheartedly embody the live-for-today mentality while I’m here. But I’m working on it, and that’s all we ever can do.

PS –

Here’s a few pics of our house:

Casa del Sol

Casa del Sol

The man layer. Don't be alarmed, it's always this clean.

The man lair. Don’t be alarmed, it’s always this clean.

My favorite room, of course.

My favorite room, of course.

La sala (living room).

La sala (living room).

Most houses here have quinchos, which are kind of like a guest house but really are meant to stage meat for asados.

Most houses here have quinchos, which are kind of like a guest house but really are meant to stage meat for asados.

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