Today the students for Spring 2004 IES London arrive at the residence hall. There will be around 120 students arriving today to start their four months abroad. They are each responsible for getting to the Residence Hall from the Airport on their own. It is really pretty easy–take the Heathrow Express to Paddington and hop into their first Black Taxi. Or if they are brave, get on the Piccadilly line all the in to the South Kensington Station. They are greeted at a modern building, a total refurb, by IES staff. Given orange juice, a danish, shown to their room, their internet port is pointed out to them, the satelite TV in the lounge, the kitchen they share with 5 other students, and the 24 hour security. This afternoon we will take them to the South Kensington station to help them get a bus pass and this evening point them towards the King’s Road for their first dinner, a chance to meet their cohorts.
When we got to La Plata, Argentina, five years ago–it was just a little different. Just a tad different. Where we have students arriving days early, only one or two were brave enough to go to Argentina early. Personally, I wouldn’t have wanted to be five minutes early to the airport. It was simply too intimidating. I knew that La Plata was an hour from Buenos Aires, but I didn’t know how to get there, how to change money, nothing. So I wanted to arrive at the meeting point perfectly on-time. Which I wasn’t, our plane landed in Cordoba because of fog in Buenos Aires, but the group waited for us in EZE. While I was going through customs–I managed to find Mike Schatz in the crowd. He was the first person I met in my group, at the airport–6 hours early for the plane. Okay, maybe only 5 hours early.
We got through customs and Brian Campbell or Erika Martinez found us. From the second we kissed hello, we were under our “No English” contract. So I sat in a circle on the floor of EZE airport not talking to some of my future closest friends. Wondering, “Where is Juliet, her flight was before me, why isn’t she here?” Eventually we were led to “comvis” the vans that would become our constant escorts around the Province of Buenos Aires. Juliet was still nowhere to be seen and apparently, we were leaving her there.
In the comvi, I most specifically remember talking to Cameron. He was one of the brave ones who traveled early. He was a student from the Santa Clara and had already been to Machu Piccu. Tara had also arrived early, so she had even had mate and knew how to say, “De donde sos?” and sound very Argentine. We spent an hour on the comvi traveling from EZE to La Plata. When they parked across the street from the Ex Jockey Club, I don’t think I was alone when I thought, “No, no, no, no. This can’t be where we are supposed to be, take us to the place in the brochure.” The Ex Jockey Club was the place in the brochure, Argentina was just a very dirty place. Eventually I fell in love with the graffitti, the posters, the trash; but the first day it seemed so unreal.
We were then ushered into a ballroom that used to be beautiful, but that day was cold, dusty, dank. We sat at old tables, carved by students and activists. I think there might have been soda. It was a huge room for such a small group. The ceilings were two or three stories up, the windows were shuttered. We sat down and were given folders of information and told to meet back in the morning. Then one by one, families came to get us. It was like some sort of black market adoption, as we were sent away to our new homes. When Adriana picked me she said, “Puedo ayudarte?” I said, “Que?” Because with the argentine accent is sounded more like, “Puedo ashudarte?” Can I help you? No, no, that’s okay, I’ve got it.
That night she cooked me dinner–ravioli with tomato sauce. I went straight to bed. I was too confused about anything to do anything else. I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t understand anything.