There’s a specific story about tropical cultures that we in the US like to indulge in. We tell each other that in warmer locales, people are happier, more relaxed, and more connected to others. They take long strolls, while away hours talking deep into the night, and live in the present, with no worry for the future. We promise to take a vacation someday, or maybe just up and move, leaving behind our bustling lives for a paradise of temperate weather.
And yet, when I sat down with the host of a fellow volunteer in Rosario, I was told a different story.
Here is what he told me: that, as a young person living in Argentina, he is afraid for the future, and afraid for his people’s nonchalance regarding the future. He is afraid that nobody else seems afraid. He is afraid that, as prices for food keep rising while wages remain stagnant, the Argentine lifestyle will prove itself to be unsustainable. Annual inflation in Argentina is around 40% right now, and restaurants keep menus with a clear panel so the prices can be switched each day to match inflation.
He told me that although Argentines are quick to make friends out of strangers, priding themselves on their amity, they are also the first to tell each other to avoid certain neighborhoods. This proved to be true; countless people since I arrived, AIESECers and otherwise, have counseled me to avoid walking alone, especially at night, and especially in neighborhoods between the major tourist hubs.
He told me that living in the present meant few Argentines complete their education, unwilling to invest in an uncertain future. UNESCO reports that the high school graduation rate is only 44%, and it is even more dire in universities, with only 27% of students graduating (Centre of Studies on Argentine Education). This is despite a robust, tuition-free public education system which attracts students from around the world. Instead, Argentines choose to enter the workforce early, or not work at all. Unemployment currently hovers at 9.3%; this number increases among young people, where unemployment among youth under 29 at 18.9% (National Statistics and Census Institute).
And he told me that, as much as we’d like to think of the tropical attitude as innate, at least some of it is induced. Politicians use tax revenue to fund free football games and generous welfare programs to cement their elections and re-elections. A study from Libertad y Progreso found that in 2014, more than 18 million Argentines (42% of the population) relied on government welfare – and with mandatory voting, that 42% voting block means changes in the system is unlikely. As he told me about these political tactics, I was reminded, uncomfortably, of Roman bread and circuses, used to appease the public, while corruption reigned in the upper-echelons.
For him, the ambition of the US is something to be admired – a symbol of our economic strength. As much as we want to go somewhere and relax, he wants Argentina to speed up, and adopt some of the air of urgency that is so typical of US cities. And this resonated with me – for all that I came to Argentina as a break from school and work, it was driven, too, by a desire to see and do more, not for my world to stay the same. People in Argentina, he told me, don’t look outwards. They are content with what exists.
Sitting there, I was struck by the irony of the situation. Everything he stated as a fault of the culture of Argentina was something that contributed to me being there, at that moment, having that conversation. If not for Argentine hospitality, I would not have a host family during my stay. If not for the welfare programs, I would not be able to work at the food bank I am currently volunteering at. And if not for the slower pace of life in Argentina, I would not have been sitting with him in a gas station store, whiling away the hours chatting with a stranger.
There is a balance to be struck here. If Argentina is a model of security and amity, then New York is the opposite – a model of endless ambition and, in the process, a lack of the human interaction and trust in others. And while neither is perfect, there is much we could learn from each other, for as we look to South America and long for a different life, there are eyes looking back, wishing for the same.