IN THE MIDST OF ARGENTINA'S CRISIS
By T.L. Petersen
Observer Staff Writer
It was the experience of a lifetime, Lori Shelton says.
Adventure, travel, education Shelton found it all during December. Also risk, uncertainty, danger and illness in a foreign land as people revolted and governments tumbled day by day.
Shelton, a 19-year-old La Grande native and a sophomore at Eastern Oregon University, followed through on a dream and accepted a month-long visit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with her college roommates family.
Little did she, her mother Rhonda Shelton, her roommates Lara and Vicky Ghio or their parents in Silverton, realize that Argentina would be rocked by riots and an overturning of three governments inside of a few days while Shelton stayed only 10 blocks from the Argentine seat of government and the countrys version of the White House, known as the pink house.
Shelton had jumped at the chance to visit Argentina.
Ive always been in love with Spanish, Shelton said.
As an EOU sophomore, shes already taking the highest levels of Spanish classes available and will soon complete her minor in the language.
Last year Shelton decided that she would seek a foreign exchange program to a Spanish-speaking country. Then she met Lara and Vicky while working at the bowling alley and it was soon decided that an exchange with a family and friends would be financially more viable, and probably more fun.
The girls all decided to go to Argentina over Christmas, which would be the height of summer in the southern hemisphere. The Ghios would stay for a week, then return to the States where the family lives part-time in Silverton.
Shelton would stay longer, visiting with her roommates cousins and aunts and uncles.
The trip itself was a revelation.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Shelton was able to save hundreds of dollars on airline tickets and experienced going outside the U.S. for the first time, other than driving into Canada.
At first, the trip was amazing.
Shelton was tempted and teased into eating everything, from meat carved from carcasses being sold in street markets, to a concoction called bloody pie that includes scraps of beef parts stuffed into a sausage-like casing.
I cant believe I ate that, Shelton said, pausing at her photograph of the dish.
Around her, though, the Argentine people were seething.
The government was stealing from the people, Shelton says.
Shortly after she arrived, the Argentine government issued orders that no family could access their own bank accounts for more than $250 a week.
Non-violent protests began. Grandparents marched through the streets with other groups as anger and mistrust of the police, viewed as being involved in the government scandals, grew.
But Shelton was still having a great time, interviewing a variety of people, learning the culture, going out to dance clubs in a city larger than New York every night, sightseeing and learning to dance the tango in exchange for demonstrations of favorite American dances.
She even bought an American flag t-shirt from an Argentine shop.
But tensions began to boil over. The entire city work force of Buenos Aires called a one-day strike, a day that Shelton remembers as eerie since the buses and taxis didnt run and people wandered through the streets.
Lara and Vickys father took all the girls to the beach, fearing the possibility of violence in the city. He wanted to get us out of the city, to shield us, Shelton recalls.
When the Ghio family returned to the U.S., they urged Shelton to come back with them, but she decided to stay and finish her adventure.
Her roommates left their native land Dec. 17 and four days later Shelton found herself in the midst of the first series of riots.
Her hosts wouldnt let her leave their apartment, and Shelton quickly learned why.
The police will kill you even if you dont do anything, Shelton said.
During the first day and night of rioting, about 25 people, including police, were killed. They (the police) dont care. Theres no punishment for hurting anyone, Shelton said.
She saw much of the bloody violence as it was reported on Argentine television in graphic, street-side reporting. And she heard it outside the apartment, as city residents banged pots, pans and drums through the night hours.
I was in my room writing in my journal and they started banging pots and pans at 11:30 at night. It lasted two hours.
After that night, people started to get crazy, Shelton says.
They burnt down a hospital and were throwing rocks at the pink house.
The next day, large numbers of Argentines began looting and ransacking grocery stores even as merchants pleaded that they had nothing to do with the government crack-downs.
The president of Argentina resigned that night. His appointed replacement resigned the next day. The next president followed the same path.
It was getting worse and worse, Shelton said.
Meantime, Sheltons mother and the Ghios were contacting and calling Shelton, checking on her safety and urging her home. Shelton confesses that she tried to gloss over what was happening when she talked to her mother, not wanting her to worry.
Right after Christmas, another convulsion of rioting resulted in many of the government buildings being torn apart by stones and burned, places Shelton had visited and taken pictures of days earlier. And she got sick with heat stroke, probably from the amount of walking she was doing in the 90-plus degree heat and high humidity of Buenos Aires.
Her mother talked to La Grande medical professionals and called with words of advice. Her hosts doctored her with home remedies and traditional cures. Shelton probably needed intravenous IVs, but refused to go to a high-priced hospital or risk her health at what the Argentines call a public hospital.
Her hosts urged her to go, but her response was, Oh no, theyre not sticking needles in me there.
She remembers calling home and saying, I just want to go home.
With only days left, though, she wasnt willing to spend more money on a new ticket. Shelton flew home on her planned departure date, sick, but determined to get home.
The airport security, she recalls, was extremely tight as guards emptied every one of her overstuffed pieces of luggage, and handled every item shed packed, including her dirty clothes.
Argentina had just accepted the resignation of a fourth president.
Arriving back in Chicago at 5:30 a.m. on a late December morning and facing American immigration officials, Shelton, still not feeling good, could only grin at them.
I told this guy everything (at immigration), Shelton admits. And she added her heartfelt appreciation of coming home to America. He told me I made his day, she grins.
Shelton is putting together a scrapbook of her trip and remembering stories.
While she was encouraged to speak Spanish, Shelton says she felt a sense of security in knowing that almost everyone could speak some English. And having access to e-mail and phones kept her connected in the midst of the chaos to those who cared about her.
I think I always knew I would get to go home, Shelton says, so it was very interesting to be there.
And the sense that Shelton felt being in the midst of history in the making was neat, she says with an irrepressible grin.
The learning was amazing. Shelton said when she arrived people were asking for her opinion about the U.S. war on terrorism and Osama bin Laden.
She learned quickly not to say I think, but to say We think, since large numbers of Argentines dont support their government, dislike it and distrust it, and in Sheltons opinion, have trouble understanding that there is public support in this country for action against the terrorists.
And Shelton soon learned to ignore the derogatory comments she heard when she wore her American t-shirt. There were suggestions she burn it, since Argentina didnt need any more problems right then.
At the opposite extreme to those comments, Shelton was taken aback by the amount of kissing involved in Argentine culture. Greetings involved kissing, goodbyes involved kissing and most social exchanges involved kissing preferably on the lips.
I had a blast, Shelton says, looking back on December. I met a lot of cool people. I think I grew up a lot.
Shelton hopes to continue to travel, perhaps getting to Costa Rica before long. But for now, there are classes to take to finish her education major, and more time to adjust to her expanded sense of what it means to be home. In America.