Techo : juntos por un mundo sin pobreza

Overcoming poverty in slums through the collaborative work of families living in extreme poverty with youth volunteers.                                            

Catriel is two years old. He lives with his mum, Jenny, 18 years old and with his two sisters.

They live in a place called Villa Iapi, in the city of Quilmes, South East of Buenos Aires, only an hour away from the fancy neighbourhood of Recoleta.

I arrived in Villa Iapi late on a Friday night with hundreds of other volunteers. We installed our little sleeping bags inside of an empty school and waited that the Techo group coordinators presented their amazing work.

I came across Techo completely randomly, while living in Buenos Aires, a friend of a friend had been a volunteer over a weekend and told our common friend how inspiring this association was. A couple of weeks later, I was in a bus, heading towards one of the “Villa Miseria”, name of the slums in Argentina.

Techo is an association that was created in 1997 in the small town of Curanilahue in Chile, by a group of young people that wanted to overcome poverty. To face the urgent situation of extremely poor and unacceptable conditions in which some people were living, they decided to build transitional houses for the families in the slums.

This wonderful project lead to an amazing organisation operating nowadays in 19 countries across Latin America and the Caribbeans.

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We struggled to find the way into Catriel’s home at first. After banging on a sheet metal wall for 5 minutes and waking up the neighbours, Catriel’s dad, Luis, showed up. We apparently woke him up, he had forgotten we were coming on that sunny autumn day.

Catriel, his sisters and Jenny weren’t there. Luis was with his new girlfriend in the family home.

He told us Jenny and the children had been staying at Jenny’s parents place, a couple of houses away.

In order to get a Techo house the families have to go through a selection process, as the association doesn’t have enough houses for all the families in need. Indeed, only the poorest families living in terrible conditions would get a house.

The fact that Jenny and her kids weren’t there was a problem for the Techo coordinator. Who were we supposed to build a house for ? Luis and his current girlfriend ? The house was supposed to be built next to their actual house, on the small piece of land belonging to Luis.

The Techo coordinator had to have a conversation with the entire family before taking any decision. After a long talk between Techo and the family, Jenny and Luis decided to give their relationship a second chance and really wanted to get a fresh new start. The construction could finally start.

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In the middle of the villa, stuck between buildings, there is a small piece of land with a house. Around the house, it is mud and there is a horse. Luis uses the horse for work, he got a new job. He delivers goods with a carriage on his horse all around the Villa.

The house is small, it is around 8 square meters. There is no door. It is more four stone walls than an actual house but there is a mattress on the floor, a stove and a TV with The Simpsons playing. They have electricity but no running water. The toilet is a hole, next to the house hidden by sheet metal walls.

There is no bin, the floor is covered with trash, papers, horse dung, diapers…

The house that we will build for Catriel and his family is only a few centimetres bigger than their actual one, but it will be a good fresh start in healthier conditions of living.

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It took us two days, and more than a thousand volunteers to build 145 emergency shelters to families like Catriel’s one.

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A month later, we came back to Villa Iapi to check how everything was going with the families. Sadly, Luis and Jenny weren’t together anymore and the house, that was already really worn out was most likely going to be taken down by Techo.

It was really nice though to be able to see Jenny and the kids again, they were all going to live with the grandparents from now on. I left her some pictures of the kids and we said goodbye.

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I joined the Techo team once more a few weeks later to participate in the encounter of the families in need of an emergency housing.

We visited Maria’s house. Maria has two grandchildren of 5 and 7 years old, a girl and a boy. They have never met their father. Their mother, Maria’s daughter died a few months back. She was beaten to death in front of the children by her boyfriend. Maria is crying while telling us her story. She is old and sick and the only things she has left on earth are her grandchildren and her son.

She lives in one of the Villa Miserias, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. She lives in extremely poor conditions and shares the same bed than the two kids. Some of their neighbours got a Techo house and Maria had been waiting for an answer to get one as well.

I got the privilege with 4 other Techo volunteers to tell her that their house was going te be constructed the following month. She bursted into tears in a mixture of both sadness and happiness.

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To know more about Techo : 💙

 

 

El Calafate, Argentina

Horse back riding and trekking near El Calafate, in the Argentinian Patagonia

For the third year of my bachelor’s degree, I had the opportunity to go on exchange to Buenos Aires, Argentina. During the year I spent there, I did some of the best trips of my life so far. One of them was a 10 days road trip to Patagonia covering both Argentina and Chile. I have so much to share about it that in this article I will only write about my two days in El Calafate with my Swedish boyfriend, Jacob.

We landed at El Calafate’s tiny airport around midday, left our bags at the quite nice Hotel Kalken and went for a stroll in the city center. Despite the fact that the town was almost completely empty (by midday all the travellers are out and about discovering the beauty of the surrounding national parks). El Calafate is a very cute little town, mainly consisting of wooden houses, with a friendly atmosphere where you could feel the holidays spirit, only 10 days away from Christmas.

After a quick hamburger on the terrace of a little wooden cafe we left for our first excursion : a 2 hours horse-ride in the hills.

A small bus came to pick us up at the hotel and drove us, roughly 20 km from El Calafate, towards Cerro Frias, which is an ecological adventure park that offers a vast array of different activities within the stunning landscape.

Horse back riding

As I am prone to vertigo and slightly frightened by horse-back riding I asked if I could have the smallest horse of the estancia. I spotted a tiny white and brown horse and asked if he could be my ride. Unfortunately, that horse belonged to our guide and instead I was offered a tall black one (suitably named Tornado). I was scared and I struggled the first minutes of the ride as Tornado, only wanted to stop to eat (maybe not such a bad partner match after all) but then the beauty of the surroundings took over. The Mountains, the turquoise lakes, the yellowness of the vast grasslands… It could not have been more perfect. I started to feel like a true gaucho in the middle of the pampas and it seemed like time and place had remained in the 19th century.

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After this wonderful day we booked a table at Kau Kaleshen, a very picturesque little family restaurant and we were so glad we did. The dishes were beautifully decorated with flowers, everything homemade and delicious. My lamb was perfectly cooked and Jacob’s salmon so tasteful. The atmosphere was very welcoming and charming, and the staff very friendly. We loved everything about that place and it is now one of our favourite restaurant in both Argentina and in the world!

After a good night rest, we had a quite eventful breakfast, with about 50 retirees, which was not that peaceful and quiet as one would think. So apparently Hotel Kalken is the place to stay when you go on an elderly group tour in El Calafate. (Note to myself to remember that when I am 80.)
As soon as we finished our buffet breakfast a bus full of excited tourists picked us up. We were full of emotions during the hour bus ride to get to Los Glaciares National Park. Very excited, a bit stressed about what we had planned and so full of wonder from looking out the windows.

The first glance we got of the glacier was a couple of seconds only while our bus took a right turn on a narrow mountain road, which was enough to render us both completely amazed. We made one last stop to see the glacier from a distance with a stunning view of the Lago Argentino and then headed further into the park.

Glaciar Perito Moreno

Immediately when the bus stopped we ran towards the wooden stairs and started going down to be met by the most magnificent view of Perito Moreno. It was absolutely breathtaking. Once in a while, maybe every 15 minutes or so, a piece of the glacier falls into the lake, creating dozens of icebergs floating around. The show is magnificent, the noise of the ice breaking resonates in between the mountains which is always delayed by a couple of seconds compared to the actual breakage you see.
Words do not suffice to describe that magnificent show. We felt so small taking in the view and once more felt so amazed by the profound beauty and wonder of our planet.

We then boarded on a ferry to cross the Lago Argentino and arrive on the glacier side. The boat ride took 20 minutes and the view from there was equally breathtaking, we could see the glacier from its front wall and got close enough to almost touch some of the smaller icebergs. They seemed quite small from the shore but up close they were the size of a truck floating around in the freezing water.

Once on the glacier side Jacob and I realised that we did not bring food, a mistake not committed by our more organised co-visitors, and of course once on the glacier, the lack of 7/11’s was apparent. So we would not eat for the entire day. Thankfully, one of the guides gave us an apple each so we would not hike on almost empty stomachs. But on a rare occasion such as this one, the landscape and the day was so amazing that stomach growling was easily forgotten.

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We started the trekking by walking through a small forest and a rocky beach for about 20 minutes before reaching a tiny wooden shed where all the gear and crampons (those weird spiky shoes) were stored.
When we all finally got our climbing-irons on we started the hike : an hour and half trek on the glacier.

The trekking was amazing and so much fun, as we could not walk regularly with the crampons but rather in a more penguins-esque manner and it is really one of the “musts” things to do for those going to Patagonia. Looking in front of us, ice and only ice for kilometre after kilometre, since the Perito Moreno is 250 km2 and 30 kilometres long and one of the world few glaciers that is still growing!

Walking on the ice, avoiding the crevasses and the small blue lagoons was fantastic. We were aware that tourists go up on the glacier almost every day in summer but you still feel like you are the first human to step foot on it and it is wonderful. We felt like explorers discovering Antarctica (although it is a few thousands kilometres away…but the closest we ever got to the South Pole) and stepping foot on an unknown land. It was magical. Once again, I lack the words to explain how amazing that moment was, truly one of the best experience of my life so far.

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I also feel proud of myself for accomplishing this challenge. Being strongly affected by vertigo, I never thought, a couple of years before that trip, that I would climb a glacier. Lets be honest, it was closer to walking than climbing and the trek is even advertised to the ageing clientele of Hotel Kalken so it is not as difficult as I make it sound. But for me it was a personal challenge and it made me feel stronger, braver and ready to take on more adventures and to continue fighting my fears.

Finally, as a reward for our efforts on the glacier, when we reached the highest point of our small trekking, after walking for about an hour on the ice, we got a little surprise : a glass of whisky, on the rocks of course.

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For more information :
(prices are from December 2015 so it might have changed since)

-Hotel Kalken : http://hotelkalken.com/index.php
We paid approximately 80€ for a standard double room for two people with breakfast included, it was already really expensive for what it is and now the prices have gone up even more.

-Cerro Frias : http://www.cerrofrias.com, they offer horse back riding, 4×4 drives, trekkings and zip line. We paid approximately 50€ for the horse back riding including the transfer back and forth from the hotel and an 1h30 of riding. You can also pay a bit more and have lunch or dinner at their very charming little cottage.

-Restaurant Kau Kaleshen :
https://www.tripadvisor.fr/Restaurant_Review-g312851-d1941232-Reviews-Kau_Kaleshen-El_Calafate_Province_of_Santa_Cruz_Patagonia.html
Reservation is preferably as it is getting more popular. It is also a hotel, fact that we wish we had known before as it is probably very nice.

-Trekking on the glacier with Hielo y Aventura : http://www.hieloyaventura.com/HIELO2015/minitrekking-eng.html
We did the Mini Trekking, which includes the 20 minutes boat ride and 1h30 trekking on the glacier. We paid approximately 130€ for that excursion but it is so worth it. They also have a longer trekking for the entire day, that I wish to do next time we go to Patagonia. Also, do not forget to bring food!

PS: For the entrance at Los Glaciares National Park, do not forget your student ID if you have one, it is way cheaper.