Living and Working in Argentina
I Always Knew I Would Return
Following an exhausting week of final exams, my first year of college had come to an end. Just a few weeks later, in the summer of 1999, I would board a plane and head to South America. I was not going on vacation. I was not pursuing an international internship. Instead, I was going to serve a volunteer mission in northern Argentina…for two years. I literally said goodbye to family, friends, and comforts as I ventured into the unknown.
Those two years in Salta, Argentina helped me further appreciate many things in life—such as air conditioning back home. I do not recall visiting significant landmarks during that time, or dining at exclusive restaurants, but I do recall the humble communities that requested our help. As missionaries, we taught English classes to those residents eager to learn. We constructed homes of basic brick and mortar. We dug massive holes in the fields, later to be used for waste collection among villages. And in those areas where electricity was not available, we spent our evenings in the homes of close friends, playing games by candlelight. As my mission concluded in July of 2001, the local people had become “my second family,” while the regional terrain had become “my second home.”
I soon returned to college and graduated with a degree in Latin American Studies. I also married my wife, a native of Argentina. In 2005, I began working as a luxury travel counselor, designing personalized trips for clients across Central and South America. By late 2007, I had discovered the ruins of Machu Picchu, the sands of Copacabana, and the cascades of Costa Rica. Yet, our family was hoping for something more. We no longer wanted to just visit Latin America—we wanted to settle there this time again.
Returning to Live in Mendoza
So, we took the plunge. With non-refundable 1-way airline tickets in hand, we boarded our plane in January 2008 to return to Argentina—not as tourists, but as residents. Along with my wife, our infant son, his stroller, our dog, her kennel, and eight massive suitcases exceeding all baggage limits possible, we embarked on a journey that has brought us to Mendoza, Argentina. And here we remain today.
Located along Argentina’s western border, Mendoza is considered the capital of the Cuyo region (Desert Land). In the distance, majestic Andean peaks grace the blue horizon, separating Mendoza from Santiago, Chile on the other side. Now considered one of eight distinguished wine capitals of the world, the province of Mendoza is the fifth largest wine producer on earth. Between December and March (peak summer season), local valleys are bursting with color as fertile vineyards yield clusters of multi-colored grapes. Agricultural workers rise with the sun and pedal their rustic bicycles along country roads to start their day. With the radiant sun overhead, these diligent individuals scour the vines, harvesting grapes into large baskets in order to receive well-deserved fichas in return (unique coins later traded for pesos—the local currency).
Downtown Mendoza is a city rich in picturesque plazas, street cafes, and designer shops. The tree-lined avenues offer plenty of shade for local residents crowding the sidewalks on their way to work. Corroded FIAT models pack the streets alongside gleaming AUDI sedans right off the showroom floor. Motorbikes and scooters weave in and out of traffic, with young men delivering pizzas, pharmaceuticals, and ice cream late into the evening. Business men unwind under the umbrellas of sidewalk confiterías, sipping on coffee and discussing the day’s headlines with colleagues and friends. In the central square, Plaza de Independencia, creative artists sell their crafted goods as stray dogs play a game of chase amongst themselves, all the while observed by onlookers anxiously waiting at their bus stop.
Despite the scenic appeal of Mendoza, there are also signs of poverty that visitors cannot ignore. Just as I learned in Salta, nearly a decade before, such signs of poverty play an essential role in the cultural definition of Argentina. Tired men politely offer to shine your shoes on every block, graciously accepting spare change in return. Horse-drawn carts trot down busy roads, often congesting traffic, as children jump off every few meters to grab empty boxes and bottles discarded into neighborhood trash bins.
Just a short distance from our apartment, three windshield cleaners stake claim on a convenient street corner downtown. With squeegees in hand, and a bucket of diluted glass cleaner, the three cousins anxiously wait for cars to line up every 30 seconds. This is their spot. This is their routine. As the streetlight turns red, they quickly encircle the cars, offering curbside service to all those interested. In most cases, drivers shoo them away with a brisk brush of the hand, or simply roll up their windows to avoid contact. The light then turns green and these young men return to their corner and wait.
A few drivers might allow them to clean the occasional windshield. In such cases, all three cousins rush over as a team and hastily soak, wash, and dry all the windows on the car - quite the 20-second workout! Some drivers offer a few coins in return. Others offer cigarettes. Some say, "I'll pay you tomorrow". Others simply drive off. Together, as a team, they earn about U$1.00 every 30 minutes. At the end of the day, they split the money before returning home. One is a father of two kids. None of them go to school.
While this might not be a dignified job for some, at least they are not stealing. Instead, they are making a living in a way most people could never imagine. As one cousin told us, "We come from a bad place. But that doesn't mean we aren't good people." Such personal stories and experiences, while often heart-wrenching, add to the unique charm that brought us back to this diverse nation.
Finding Work and Creating Opportunities as an Expat
Recent years have also brought multiple million-dollar investments into Mendoza, specifically related to the tourism sector. Premium hotels are constructed each year, while fine wine cellars continue to be inaugurated out in the countryside. An influx of European and North American clients has kept Mendoza quite popular. Yet, overall, it is still difficult to find profitable work…especially as an extranjero.
Despite initial job leads, I found myself without work and struggling to cover our expenses upon arrival. I had recently left my successful position at a travel agency back home, so I was now independent and in need of urgent employment. In such situations, one learns the innate value of creativity and a pro-active attitude.
The international travel industry is always in need of bilingual assistance. From working the front desk at a local hostel, to leading guided tours, expats can benefit from such opportunities abroad. I began to offer personal travel consultation to those North American clients planning to visit Argentina and Chile. I relied on previous knowledge and experience of the region to further promote leading tourist destinations. Advanced Spanish language skills have allowed me to forge strong business relationships with travel partners across southern South America. Travelers now depend on me to not only craft their journeys, but to introduce them to the cultural aspects that I myself fell in love with years ago.
Numerous expats utilize their passion for writing to share international experiences online with others. Bilingual writing skills are another valuable asset for international companies. Expats could consider the idea of providing quality translation and marketing services while living overseas. Due to my interest in travel, I decided to contact regional hotel chains looking to translate their websites and marketing materials aimed at English-speaking customers. I now provide such work for hotel properties spanning Argentina from north to south. Such job opportunities have also led to further translation work with publication companies and script writers. I encourage anyone living abroad to branch out and offer their talents where possible. Networking in smaller cities, like Mendoza, can be quite beneficial for the diligent expat.
The journey has not always been easy, but we would never trade these experiences for anything else in life. Argentina is, in general, a very warm and hospitable nation. New friends have made this transition easier for all members of our family. We recognize that there is much to accomplish, and much to contribute, while living here again. Since most of us spend our lives wondering where we should be in life, I invite you to explore that question carefully and be willing to take your own calculated risks. After all, twenty years down the road, none of us want to ask the startling question, “What if?”