"The Hand Painted Tea Set"

A volunteer interview with Vitoria Monteiro about her placement in San Luis, Argentina.

What made you want to volunteer in the first place?

My family had lots of homestay kids from different countries in Asia. I grew up seeing how helpful and rewarding staying with a host family could be. I wanted to travel on my own and not rely on my family. I also wanted to work somewhere and get some experience while traveling. There’s a certain kind of freedom you get when you’re doing your own thing – making your own decisions and relying on yourself..

Why did you pick Argentina?

So I’d already been to Brazil and Ecuador and I wanted to explore another South American country. Lattitude offers two programs in South America (Ecuador and Argentina) and I wanted to try something new. I honestly thought it would be similar to Ecuador but Argentina was very European – especially Buenos Aires. Coming from a Brazilian background, my Portuguese was great but I wanted to improve my Spanish. It’s actually really helped now that I’m back at school. I can participate in discussions and draw on my experience working and traveling in Argentina.

Fantastic! Can you talk a little bit about your placement?

Sure! I worked at the Instituto Superior de Ingles Saint Louis in San Luis. It’s in a smaller province, about a 10 or 11 hour bus ride from Buenos Aires. I worked at a primary school as a teacher’s assistant and was paired with one other volunteer from the UK.

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Was it a boarding school or did you work school hours?

No, it wasn’t a boarding school. It was a 9-5 type thing (actually 8-4) Monday to Friday so we worked typical school hours. I would help the younger students and Charlie (the other volunteer) would help with the older kids. It took a bit of time to ease into the work but I really had a great time.

What was the community like?

The school and even the neighbourhood is very new and I believe it was built for low-income families in a rougher area. The school was really nice and it was actually a really great space for the kids to come and get away from troubles at home.

Nice, so you helped the teacher with lesson prep?

We would actually do activities with the kids. We would help them with pronunciation, games and English. Half their day would be spent learning in English and the other half in Spanish. The younger kids were very willing to learn and were very excited. They always wanted to play with me and get to know me. I actually had a meeting with the headmaster of the school at the beginning of placement and she warned me that some kids would tell us about their home life and it might be tough.

How did she suggest you deal with that?

The school had an amazing support system. They had counsellors and quiet rooms that the kids could go to. Everyone was really well supported and I think I really made a difference. The kids had laptops, dance class and even a sign language class.

Oh wow, that sounds fantastic! So it sounds like you developed some good relationships at school, how did you get along with Charlie and the other Lattitude volunteers?

Well, Charlie and I didn’t exactly hit it off from the beginning but we’re best friends now and we’re actually planning on travelling to Europe this summer. We would also meet up with other volunteers in Buenos Aires and travel with them through Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. I also became close with the grade 3 teacher at the school. We worked well together and I thought of her like another host mother. I didn’t necessarily have any problems with my host family, but I connected with the teacher more.

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Oh interesting. How was your host family then?

They were great. My host mother was an English teacher and she actually wanted to speak English with me instead of Spanish! We did speak Spanish as well but I actually felt like Charlie came away from the trip with a better handle on Spanish than I did!

How did you cope with the differences between Argentina and home?

I’m very close with my mum. When I first arrived in Buenos Aires, I had already been gone for 5 months, so homesickness wasn’t really an issue at that point. I was staying with family in Brazil and it was good but I had to take care of myself more in Argentina. Doing laundry, cooking food and doing all the day to day stuff became more important.

Do you have a favourite moment or memory?

Hmm..Well, I’ve got a few. I think one of my most memorable moment was the last day of school. It was actually very sad and I cried through most of it. They gave me and Charlie a big send off and a gift of a hand painted tea set. The kids had painted it themselves and it was really touching. They also threw a staff party for us after – I felt so close to the kids and the staff at school. They treated us so well!

I’m sure they saw that you were willing to help wherever you could and wanted to show their appreciation to you.

It could be, I definitely think that you have to go into this experience with the right attitude. If you say yes to everything and make yourself available, you really endear yourself to the staff.

Any memorable travel experiences?

Yeah, we took a trip to Mendoza with the rest of the volunteers. We went to the capitol region and discovered that it was an area that was popular for alien sightings and abductions! There was a ton of merchandise they were selling and it was kind of fun. We went on a 12-hour round trip hike the next day and the views were absolutely stunning.

Did you have any worries about keeping safe while traveling?

Having Charlie or other volunteers to travel with made a big difference and made me feel safer about traveling around. I mean, I traveled a lot when I was younger but I still had some trepidation about going to South America alone. I thought Argentina especially might be dangerous but honestly, I felt that coming out of this experience I was on top of the world! High school can be a real bummer for some people and there are so many people who get so anxious about things. It was really freeing getting to re-establish myself as a person.

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You touched on the fact that homesickness wasn’t a real issue for you, but if you had to give some advice to volunteers about to leave, what would you say?

I mean, I struggled a little like anyone. I think when I first got to Brazil I struggled the most because there wasn’t much to do except hang out with family. Don’t get me wrong, it was great seeing my grandparents but the key to homesickness is keeping busy and one of the great things about Lattitude is that you are busy with your placement. It doesn’t allow you to sit around and think about how far away from home you are.

Did you Skype home often?

I actually only Skyped about once a week. My mum and I had a set day every week and aside from that, we would text or message each other. I remember reading about homesickness in the briefing pack and I think it’s great advice. When you try to Skype with people back home, they don’t fully understand what’s happening there. I think it’s best to make friends and connections with the people at your placement (teachers/host family) because they’re right in front of you!

What was the toughest thing for you?

Honestly, coming back home was the hardest thing for me – hands down. Living life the way I was used to in Argentina, it was really hard coming back in August and then heading straight into University. I moved into residency at SFU and it was a big shock.

What was the shock? Were you just not ready for school?

No, but I think it was tough getting back into a routine. I also would tell people about my trip and I didn’t want to come off as being to braggy about it so I didn’t end up sharing too much. Some people were open to listening but after a while, you can tell some people would tune you out.

The other difficult thing was that Charlie and I came back from placement after 4 months but the other volunteers were Kiwi and they signed on for an 8 month placement. It was tough being home and seeing them still there and having a great time.

What are you doing now?

Well, I’m enrolled in the gender sexuality and women’s studies faculty but it’s tricky.

How so?

It’s a specific field and it will be challenging to find a way to apply it after school. There are a lot of options though. I originally wanted to work with women in some way to help empower them (working with sexual assault survivors). I also wanted to teach English in Asia as well, but now I realize it might not be for me. I like kids and I feel that I’m good with them, but it can be draining sometimes. I know I definitely want to keep traveling though. This summer we’re going backpacking through Iceland and parts of Europe.

Vitoria Monteiro was placed at Instituto Superior de Ingles Saint Louis. The school was in San Luis, 10 hours west of Buenos Aires, Argentina. She volunteered from March to July, 2016 after visiting family in Brazil for 5 months.

Vitoria is currently enrolled at Simon Fraser University and is studying Gender Sexuality and Women’s studies.