Half-way there

Welcome back to my blog after a long break! The few months have been a whirlwind, exploring the interior of Argentina and then enjoying Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval. And I’ve passed my half-way point in my Watson year! I’d like to share with you my six-month reflection that was submitted to the Watson Foundation a few weeks ago:

Once again, my quarterly report aligns with a shift in my journey. I am about to say goodbye to Argentina, a country that has left its mark on me. I now speak Spanish with the characteristic Argentinian “sh” sound used to pronounce “y” and “ll” and my sentences are peppered with ‘lunfardo’ (Buenos Aires slang). I fully believe in the social and corporeal benefits of yerba mate. And although I will probably return to a mostly vegetarian life after my travels, I think I’ll have to treat myself to at least one asado a month. Along with these cultural quirks, Argentina has guided me towards a project and personal transformation that I could not have anticipated months ago.

My project bloomed in Argentina in very exciting ways. I arrived with the new resolve to focus more on worker cooperatives. This narrowing allowed me to concentrate on the values that I share with certain cooperatives and led to a subsequent project expansion. I realized quickly after talking with economists and cooperators in this new Latin American context that my project is really about investigating solidarity economics—an economic framework that prioritizes people and the environment over profits through democratic enterprises that work with horizontality, transparency, equity, and participation. One of the most powerful tools in this economy is a worker cooperative, but I also allowed my project to stretch in order to explore organizations outside that specific legal form, such as a ‘street newspaper’ and cultural center in Buenos Aires where all the vendors are homeless persons.

This project, called Hecho en Buenos Aires, and other organizations/co-ops that I have visited are part of what people here refer to here as the economia popular, a subset of the social and solidarity economy that is critical to movements in countries that have very different histories of industrial development that European or North America. Using this framework to understand the cooperative movement here has really helped me create a more nuanced understanding of who cooperatives serve and how they differ given distinct economic realities.

All this project development has also resulted in significant changes to my travel itinerary. Shortly after arriving here I decided I need to go to Brazil; everyone tells me there are very exciting economia solidaria y popular movements there. It also made me realize that I need to see how the cooperative movement functions outside of the European or American context. After lots of research and careful consideration, I have added Nepal to my list and removed Germany. Nepal was suggested to me months ago, while I was writing my very first Watson application. I brushed it off quickly, feeling like it would be too challenging or scary. But my confidence and travel skills have grown so much, and I feel prepared to take on situations that may be a little less comfortable for me. Finally, the new travel policy allows me to go to Mexico! I am incredibly excited about this change because Mexico was on my original itinerary. I will be going to Chiapas and Oaxaca which are both Level 2 states. Therefore, my country list is now Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Nepal, Canada.

My project has grown significantly, but what really hits me when I reflect on the past three months is my personal growth. I started my time in Argentina in its chaotic and lovely capital, Buenos Aires. I lived there for two months, and Buenos Aires became the first city on my Watson journey in which I truly experienced loneliness. As Olivia Laing says in her book The Lonely City, a dear companion during that experience, “loneliness is a very special place.” And even more so in a foreign context, when everything can be simultaneously confusing and invigorating. It has its own unique pain, in the way that all strong emotions do, but the emptiness that loneliness digs inside you also provides space for new fulfilment.

In Buenos Aires, I was able to pull myself out of the valleys of loneliness to reemerge more determined and brave than I could have imagined.

I found power in my loneliness, energized by the caring people of the cooperative movement, by books that I read, by Buenos Aires’s famous art and parks, and by my own interactions with the city—the personalities of the buildings, the energy of streets like Corrientes, each neighborhood’s unique story. I started new art projects, taking self-portraits in my many, many beds. I wrote more. I set goals for a rich and varied life that include everything from ‘learn Portuguese after mastering Spanish’ to ‘start baking my own bread.’ I spent time reflecting and honed in on my values: autonomy, integrity, openness, and empathy.

This personal work built up my confidence to the point that loneliness because a much easier challenge to overcome. At first the glitches in communication that came from switching to Argentina’s strange version of Spanish felt like an insurmountable barrier. But over time I pushed myself to attend language exchanges and spend weekends with Argentinian hosts outside of the city, only communicating in Spanish. Recently, I spent a week in the sierras outside of Córdoba and made a group of friends who were also exploring the mountains. These were all young Argentinians, speaking in their rapid Lunfardo. I was the only foreigner in the group, but nothing felt more like acceptance than when they gently teased me about language mistakes, knowing that I was confident enough to take it.

After adjusting to life in Buenos Aires, I feel like I could move anywhere and survive, even thrive. The world feels more open than ever before. However, I also observed that I much preferred the slightly slower pace of life in the interior of Argentina. I always thought I was a ‘big city person,’ so it was important personal discovery to see how much I enjoy life in a smaller cities and towns surrounded by nature.

This experience has prepared me for the next leg of my journey in Brazil, where there will certainly be language barriers and other challenges to communication. However, I’m feeling confident and excited, especially to explore a solidarity economy that attracts less international research. I will also be traveling at a slightly faster pace during this second half of my trip, which has actually worked quite well for me these last few weeks in Argentina’s interior. I know it will make the next six months fly by.


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