La Ciudad Oculta of Argentina & Conspicuous Consumption

It is October, the midpoint of southern spring, and I am in Buenos Aires for an as-yet undetermined amount of time. I’m looking for something productive to do with my time and trying to find some balance between the joys of idle travel and the need to do something productive… Something worthwhile. I have volunteered on farms before but I want to live in the city this time rather than out in the middle of nowhere. After a random internet search I find an organization called L.I.F.E. offering volunteer opportunities and I set up an appointment for an orientation and head over.

The lady answering the door in downtown Buenos Aires tells me that for forty bucks, I can volunteer for two weeks and that for sixty, I can work for up to a month. The idea of paying you volunteer is a new one for me but apparently quite the industry. The office is filled with young volunteers when I enter – one woman gives me and two others a welcome speech. Another sits behind a computer and takes my money. Three others sit at a table playing cards. A white cat lounges on the staircase of the office. Hundreds of Toms Shoes spill out of a closet in the back. The only person there who is not in their 20s or visiting from abroad is an interesting looking Argentine man with a friendly grin who tells me that he lives in a room above the office. Is he a paid employee? A permanent volunteer? The answers are not immediately clear.

Elefante Blanco2

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Austin’s Black Flight

From his front porch, while smoking a joint and playing dominoes with a friend, my new neighbor sits across the street and watches me out of the corner of his eye while I move in. Although I will later come to know him as “Big Dave” and we will trust each other and help each other as only years-long neighbors can, on this day, I am an outsider – I am in the racial and economic minority for the first time in my life. Because of this, as I unload my IKEA furniture, I cannot help but feel wary about moving here. I find myself abruptly cast into a foreign culture – within my own town. Five miles east of downtown Austin has taken me across an invisible border dividing class, income, education, culture, and color — and I find my white, educated, moneyed, and gentrifying self to be alien to this place. The contrast between my life and that of my black neighbors around me is baffling and difficult to exaggerate. I have never lived anyplace with such a difference of race, culture, or income between my immediate neighbors and me.

Austin segregation

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