By Ann Austin, VRG Intern
During the summer of 2011 I was going to live in Ushuaia, Argentina, the closest city to Antarctica for about 6 weeks. I would stay with a host family of four and volunteer every day at a pre-school called Dailan Kifki. Although Ushuaia was going to be my final destination, there were no direct flights to the area from the United States. So I first flew into Buenos Aires and stayed there for a couple days before departing once more for my home-to-be.
In Buenos Aires I stayed with a friend of my host’s in Ushaia. A lot about Buenos Aires reminded me of New York; drivers’ disregard for pedestrians, the subway, old museums, streets and sidewalks crowded with people waking at fast pace, and most importantly the hundreds of restaurants. In Buenos Aires I had no trouble finding food to eat. There were vegan and vegetarian restaurants aplenty where I could find meals I was used to as well as vegan versions of traditional Argentine cuisine. Two restaurants that I especially liked were called “Noble y Natural” and “Kensho” and they served all vegan food. Buenos Aires was only a stopping point, however. The big capital city would not be anything at all like the small, remote town of Ushuaia.
In Ushuaia, the food situation was a lot different than in Buenos Aires. Because Ushuaia is located in such an isolated area and the temperature is always so cold, there isn’t much produce that is grown anywhere nearby. Argentina is one of the highest meat-consuming countries in the world and, in Ushuaia especially, it was very difficult to find vegan food. But it was still possible. One of the reasons it was so hard for me to find food for myself at the beginning was because, for the first couple of weeks at least, I wasn’t looking for any. The family I was living with made me food when they ate their meals. There was always food I was able to eat, but the meals did not have much nutritional value. Most nights I would have polenta or some type of white pasta for dinner. Although the family was respectful of my wishes to not consume any animal products, it was difficult to get all of my nourishment from the food I was eating at practically every meal. I gained weight consuming empty carbs every day and I found it was hard for me to stay healthy eating only the food they made for me.
The food (even more than the language) was the toughest aspect to get used to. And not just the food itself, but the timing of the meals as well. The members of my host family didn’t eat breakfast, and if they did it was something very light. I, however, could not make it through the day without something to eat in the morning. I had to have food in my stomach before I set off for work at the pre-school. I usually had whole-wheat bread with jam. Most people I met would go about their days having eaten little or no breakfast and then around noon they’d have a light snack. The family I stayed with would come home after school/work and have a pretty heavy snack between 3 and 5pm. This is when mate, a beverage made from dried leaves of the yerba mate plant, is drunk. It’s usually consumed with crackers, cookies, pastries etc. I was usually hungry by the time I was done working, so I would have crackers with the mate. Dinner was eaten late, usually around 9 or 10pm. It was an interesting contrast to my normal eating habits in the US. I enjoyed the challenge of the new experience, but it was still extremely difficult to adjust to.
Eventually I began going shoppping by myself at the local grocery store. I’d buy almonds, bananas, apples, and other snack foods that I could bring with me to the school. But the food was not very fresh. I often could not find good quality fruits and vegetables. Almost all the fruits were badly bruised or rotten. However, in my last couple of weeks in Argentina I discovered a natural foods store called Iacasi only a few blocks away from where I lived. I was so happy I had found it. It had EVERYTHING. Dried fruits, nuts, lentils, vegan cookies, whole wheat and buckwheat pasta, candies, I even found some dulce de soja (the vegan version of dulce de leche) which tasted just as good as the real thing. I was finally able to find healthy food. The only problem was that it was expensive so I could only get a few items at a time with the money I had. The health food store became my haven for a while. I regret not having found it sooner. I probably could have stayed healthier in Argentina had I been able to chose my own food from the start. My experience in Ushuaia, though challenging, gave me a lot more courage to advocate for myself when it comes to food. I realized that I shouldn’t rely too heavily on others and that I should be the one taking control of my diet. Though there were not too many good options for me, I still gained a lot of knowledge
about Argentine culture and its foods (even the kinds I didn’t get to eat).