A month in Argentina? Si, por favor!

September 2012


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MARTIN WEREN of Hillcrest High School shares his Argentinian experience.

Last year, I was one of about 20 teachers from around New Zealand who won a Language Immersion Award (mine was in Spanish) from the Ministry of Education, and late in January I received confirmation that I would be going to Argentina for a month. March 22 duly arrived, and after a 12-hour flight and a 13-hour overnight bus trip, I arrived in the city of General Roca in Rio Negro province.

I met my wonderful host family and was soon beginning an intensive language course at Roca’s Universidad Nacional del Comahue. The city, 1200km south-west of Buenos Aires and approximately 400km equidistant from the Andes in the west and the Atlantic in the east, has about 80,000 inhabitants, and is the centre of Argentina’s fruit production, with some 70 per cent of the country’s apples and pears grown in the region thanks to massive irrigation in the fertile but arid Alto Valle. There are also significant plantings of peaches, plums, cherries, and grapes, table and wine). The city is completely flat and set out in a square grid system with the Big Canal flowing across the north of the city and the Little Canal across the south. This meant that it was almost impossible to get lost, and the city was compact enough that I could walk everywhere I needed to go.

I did the language course with a second New Zealand award winner who will spend the full year in Argentina. As a relative beginner in Spanish, I was delighted with the progress I was able to make in the month. Of course there were challenges and frustrations, but they were relatively minor, and overall the trip was hugely positive and rewarding.

The two other New Zealanders who flew to Argentina with us went in a different direction, and had more time in schools and less time learning. My school experience was limited to visiting a class of eight-year-olds learning maths and two early evening visits to a private English school. They enjoyed the opportunity of listening to and chatting with a native English speaker – and of course for them New Zealand is an exotic location! – and they loved the simple Powerpoint I showed with some iconic Kiwi images (All Blacks, cows, sheep, beaches, wine, etc.) and a few personal slides of my school, fishing in the Coromandel, and so on.

Argentinians all very much want to learn English, and those who can afford to are happy to pay more for private tuition.

Some of the highlights included:

  • spending Easter in Bariloche, 500km away from General Roca and very similar in many ways to Queenstown;
  • gaining an insight into how big and relatively empty the country is;
  • the Pampa Linda area near Bariloche, with its lakes and glaciers, and a 3500m mountain at the end of a very challenging road (a local freak of geography means that one of two lakes, which are only a kilometre apart, drains into the Pacific and the other into the Atlantic);
  • asado – the Argentinian family weekend feast of grilled beef and pork, salads, and wine;
  • visits to a winery and a boutique brewery;
  • lingering like the locals in cafes with a coffee and a newspaper;
  • visiting a feedlot sheep and beef farm in a desert-like environment;
  • walking in the parched hills behind the river;
  • helping the two boys in my host family with their French and English learning;
  • having the time to do some independent language study;
  • not having to worry about NCEA or any school deadlines for a month;
  • feeling safe at all times in a new environment;
  • a month of no rain and continuous autumnal sunshine;
  • executive class travel in buses to and from Buenos Aires;
  • hilarious dinner-time conversations, discussions, and arguments with my host family on all sorts of topics, with Google and Wikipedia as referees;
  • meeting lots of interesting, friendly, and welcoming people and realising that aside from a few cultural differences, we are all quite similar.