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Skip Navigation LinksDiscover > Magazine > September 2009 > Mission for kids > Anna Nguyen's journal

Journal of my time in Uruguay, June 2009

By Anna Nguyen
Key Club International trustee
and ambassador to UNICEF


Anna NguyenQuestions

What are you most looking forward to during your trip to Uruguay?
I look forward most to meeting the kids at the Mandalavos Center. It’s exciting to see Key Club and UNICEF working together to help teens in Uruguay who are in the same age range as all the club members. Hopefully, after this trip I’ll be able to fully describe the situation n Uruguay.

Why did you decide to go on this trip?
It’s important to go on this trip because the three other ambassadors and I could give all the facts and figures about Uruguay, but we couldn’t relate to this situation if we didn’t see it firsthand. I’m expecting to make many new friends and share their stories with those in Key Club, so hopefully, we’ll get more support and reach our goal.

What do you hope to learn or gain from your trip to Uruguay?
Hopefully, I will be able to understand the situation better and I hope to gain some new friends.

What do you expect to accomplish on your trip to Uruguay?
I want to be able to relate to the Uruguayan teens so that I can tell their stories properly and so they get all the help they need.

How is daily life in Uruguay different from your life?
Daily life in Uruguay seems different from my life, but is also somewhat similar. Here, the teenagers like to be more active. They take walks by the beach, play a lot of soccer and hang out with their families. Overall though, these teenagers are not too different from us in the way that they are just looking for ways to spend time with friends and family, just like us.

Something I noticed was that Uruguayans didn’t have luxuries like dryers for their clothes. Many people had to hang their clothes on clothes lines. That was when it hit me that I’ve been taking my luxuries and comforts for granted.

What is most surprising to you about children in Uruguay?
I was most surprised to see how intimate the children in Uruguay were with each other. They kissed when they greeted each other (on the cheek) and they weren’t afraid to kiss their boyfriend or girlfriend in front of an adult. I was also surprised to see how active they were during their free time. Unlike American children, many Uruguayan teens play soccer, dance, play ping-pong and other activities instead of watching television or playing on the computer.

How did your experience in Uruguay differ from your idea of how it would be?
I didn’t think I’d be such good friends with the teens in Uruguay and I didn’t think I would be the one to cry when we left. I didn’t think that the poverty we heard stories about was hidden and I didn’t think Uruguay would be so beautiful and poor at the same time.

Who have you most enjoyed meeting on this trip? Why?
I most enjoyed meeting Caty, one of the Mandalavos teenagers. I remember reading about her story in Atlanta and it was really cool to me. Now if I told her story to anyone, I could relate to that story personally. This isn’t the only reason though. I remember Caty giving me a note in English that said, “I found family, a nice family with you. We lived incredible moments together. Now is the moment to say ‘bye,’ but I will not say ‘bye.’ I say ‘see you soon!’ I love you. Caty” After she gave me this note, she told me “hermanas,” which means “sisters.” She is probably the person I will remember most.

Which memory from Uruguay sticks out in your mind most? Why?
Of course my entire trip was very memorable, but there’s one memory that sticks out most. When we stayed at the retreat house with the Mandalavos teenagers, we all decided to play games. So we played some of their games and then we taught them a game called Pterodactyl. It amazes me because there was a language barrier the entire time, but we still managed to have a fun time. It showed me we were all just looking for a good time.

What would you tell your friends at home about your experience?
I would tell my friends that this trip was nothing like I expected it to be. I didn’t expect to be such great friends with such a phenomenal group of teenagers. Though we live in different countries, we’re all pretty much the typical teenager just looking for our place in the world.

Do you think your trip to Uruguay has changed your perspective on life? Why or why not?
This trip did change my own perspective on life. At first, I thought that I probably wouldn’t come back with a different outlook because it wasn’t Kenya or Swaziland. It didn’t seem as sad as those African countries so I didn’t think I’d view the world any differently than when I first left for Uruguay. But after this trip, I’ve realized that I’ve been impacted more than I can imagine. What I found was that there are teenagers in Uruguay just like me who are trying to find their talents and build a future for themselves. Unlike me, however, they don’t have all the comforts and luxuries I was given and that just doesn’t seem fair.

What messages about this trip will you bring back to your Key Club, your community and your friends?
I want to tell everyone that for many years, we have taken our lives for granted. There are so many people in the world who are living on the streets, who don’t have the opportunity to shower everyday, who live in poverty and end up resorting to violence. Deep down, though, these people are just trying to find happiness in their lives. It’s not fair that they struggle to live while we have so much in our country that we don’t even appreciate. We should be the ones who help to balance this injustice. We can help give these teens in Uruguay a chance for happiness.

Saturday, June 6

Today I had to take the SAT, then go to work before I went to the airport. When I got to the airport, I was told my flight was delayed. I’m barely supposed to make the flight to Buenos Aires, which would then take us to Montevideo.

The flight is eight hours long, but thankfully, I have my iPod and one of the other ambassadors sitting near me to talk to. We’re all excited to meet some Uruguayan teens and hopefully, help them with their care centers.

Lance and I get angry looks from the other passengers because it’s midnight and we don’t stop laughing and cutting up. Eventually, we stop and watch Confessions of a Shopaholic. The seats are quite comfortable and I hate to think about the flight home to New Orleans.

Sunday, June 7

Since our flight was delayed, we don’t get to Buenos Aires until about 10 a.m. Our flight leaves at noon and we go to Montevideo at about 1 p.m. After we check through customs, I find out that my luggage didn’t make the transfer in Miami. Then I get a nosebleed. Awesome…

We meet two of the UNICEF staff members. One is named Egidio Croth and he is a representative to UNICEF Uruguay. The other is Maria and she’s the communications officer for UNICEF. Both greet me with a kiss on the cheek. “We do this in Uruguay,” Maria told me.

The airport officials tell me I’ll get my luggage tomorrow at the hotel, Pocitos Plaza Hotel. Everyone gets in the car and we drive toward our hotel. As we begin to enter Montevideo, the city seems so beautiful with the beaches and palms. It reminds me a lot of California. You wouldn’t have guessed such a beautiful place had gone through an economic crisis.

After we unload at the hotel and have lunch at a quaint little restaurant, Maria takes us on a guided driving tour of the city. We meet up with another UNICEF staff member named Aline. Egidio leaves after we check in the hotel and tells us he’d meet up with us tomorrow at the office. We drive through the city and Abigail and I of course have to be tourists and take pictures of everything.

The more we explore, the more we notice the differences between the States and Uruguay. Along the fields and beach, families, couples and friends spend the day together. It’s not like America where some families seem distant and people spend free time inside. The Uruguayan people go out and take strolls or play soccer. We also notice the cars are not as fancy looking as American cars. On most of the buildings, there is a lot of graffiti art. Some are used in place of signs for businesses, some graffiti to promote or slander a politician. UNICEF told us Montevideo was definitely affected by the economic crisis, but we didn’t think like this.

Many houses don’t have luxuries like clothes dryers so they still use clothes lines. Montevideo is definitely different from New Orleans.

It’s very breathtaking to see how the city of Montevideo seems both beautiful and poor at the same time. Unimaginable. Aline and Maria tell us the city is not as dangerous as it may seem because of the graffiti. Montevideo has a low crime rate but it has recently been rising. Montevideo 10 years ago was safe enough to leave homes unlocked, but not anymore.

We drive up a hill that overlooks the city and I can’t get over the view. After the tour, we go back to the hotel and decide that we need to buy water so we don’t get sick. We walk to a nearby minimarket. A 4 liter bottle of water costs about 41 pesos or 2 dollars. Outside the minimart, there’s a little boy just standing. The other ambassadors and I are curious to know what his story is.

After today’s tour, I just want to walk the streets and explore to learn more of this foreign place. But instead, we head to dinner, then back to the hotel for rest. Kristi and Mike tell us to meet downstairs at 9 a.m. tomorrow. We have to go to the UNICEF office for a briefing. I still can’t believe I’m in Uruguay and I can’t wait for tomorrow’s activities. Maria tells us the teens are going to teach us how to dance so we can dance at the barbeque tomorrow night.

Monday, June 8

Our first stop today is the UNICEF office in Montevideo. We meet many UNICEF staff members who happily greet us. We get a quick tour of the Uruguay Fund for UNICEF. It is small and quaint. We get briefed on how UNICEF is working with the government to support programs like PLAN CEIBAL, where every primary school student in Uruguay is given a laptop so they may improve Web activity and access, and the Community Teachers Programme, where teachers work with students who face repeating the first years in school, at home or school. The Uruguay Fund for UNICEF is also working to decrease violence. Something that strikes me: Egidio said, “How can we promote a peaceful society without promoting peaceful dialogue?”

After the briefing, I learn that my suitcase is going to be brought to the retreat house we’re staying at and I realize I don’t have my makeup bag! Awesome!

Our next stop is the actual center of Mandalavos, which literally means “You lead” or “Voices lead.” A sort of play on words. We head on to the backyard area where there is nothing but a ping-pong table that looks handmade and a punching bag. Abigail and I link arms partly because we don’t know what to expect. We get introduced to all the kids in the Mandalavos welcome committee. There’s Oscar, Carlos, Maurice and Caty who are my age. Then there’s Matias, Belen, Jessica, Alex, Cintia, Jonathan, Jorge and Suzie. Suzie’s a volunteer at Mandalavos who used to be a Key Clubber in Chicago. Thankfully, we have Macarena, our translator provided by UNICEF, to introduce us to the welcome committee. We also have Suzie who translates some questions for us that the teens ask. After all the formalities, the teens take me, Abigail, Lance and Jared outside to play ping-pong. Well, I watch since I’m terrible at it. Instead Carlos shows me how they dance. After that, we just stand around asking each other questions through Suzie and Macarena. Lance taught the Uruguayan boys something…how to make fun of my height. For lunch, we eat in their canteen. Their servings are quite large! After lunch, we all go visit some of the high schools in Las Piedras (where Mandalavos is located.) One of the things I notice is how they have a little time between classes to play games in the courtyard area. After we visit the schools, we head back to the center where we get back in time for the afternoon snack, which is basically like a smaller lunch. Even though it’s just ham, cheese and bread with a cup of hot chocolate, everything tastes delicious. Then we find out that the hot chocolate we thought was some Uruguayan method of making it was just actually Nesquik powder. I can’t help but wonder if the reason everything tastes so good is because of the people I’m eating with and the exciting atmosphere they bring. After snack time and playing a few more games, we head into the canteen area to watch the videos that teens made in the video workshop and videos that neighboring community center teens made for a video contest. The Mandalavos teens won a first place and received a Wii game station. It’s weird since many of my friends have Wii game stations, but these teens are so excited to share one among 100 kids. After the movies, my suitcase arrived, but I felt so ashamed to have all my luxuries like camera, charger, blow dryer, shampoo, etc. when I know how little these teens have.

After we chat a little more, the welcome committee and the rest of us load into two vans and head to the retreat house. Have I mentioned how cold it is? Because it’s very cold. We get to the house and everyone dances and plays around, then later we have a late dinner—Uruguayan barbeque. After dinner we play Uruguayan games where we run around in a circle and say something in Spanish. Then I teach them to play Pterodactyl. It’s weird how much fun we had even though we can barely understand each other. Dessert comes out. They sure do have a lot of food.

Tuesday, June 9

I wake up today with my face extremely cold. Caty mentions how I said, “I’m a girly girl. This is as close to camping as it gets for me.” We go for breakfast and I don’t eat much since I’m so tired. We all stayed up past 2 a.m. and woke up at 7:45. After breakfast, we dance even more. I show them how to do the sprinkler move. We all take more pictures together. The Mandalavos teens load one bus and the Key Club crew loads another. The Mandalavos teens are headed to school while we head to another school for another briefing. We learn how one school is working to help children with mental challenges integrate the system. We are also provided with numbers of students who dropped out, the school schedule for students, etc. It’s really interesting to see how the Uruguayan community is so involved with getting kids back in school. They tell us that they do it because they love doing what they do. They name the Community Teachers Programme. Then they also tell us that they can definitely see how well Mandalavos is affecting some of their students. After the briefing, we head back to Mandalavos just in time for lunch. More food. I start to get the impression they eat as a hobby. After lunch we head to the backyard area to play ping-pong where I actually attempt to play, but lose pitifully with a score of 0 to 7.

Caty takes Abigail and me inside to have a little cake. The boys don’t get any. Abigail and I look at the pictures they have on the walls and I notice some of them painting the beautiful murals on the walls inside. I also notice a picture of Alex and Caty painting the ping-pong tables. After a little more play time, everyone grabs a seat and sits inside in a circle. It’s time for the reflection…by far the hardest part of the entire trip. Some kids on my right are talking loudly and Fernando, the guy in charge of the Mandalavos Center, tells them they are not obliged to stay, so they must either be respectful or leave. I have a lot of respect for that man by now. Mike points out that they chose to respect Fernando because they don’t want to be kicked out of Mandalavos, which they consider their home now. The teens at Mandalavos talk about our time with each other. I remember how Belen said, “I don’t know why we can get along with people who don’t speak the same language as us, but we disagree and make fun of those who do. It shouldn’t be that way.”

I’m near tears at this point and when I see Abigail, I can’t help but start crying. I realize that in the short two days we not only impacted their lives, but they impacted ours. I realize that they are not that different from us. They’re just looking for their place in the world. After everyone gives their thoughts, the welcome committee presents the entire Key Club crew little booklets that “tour” Las Piedras. They tell us that the next time we visit, they will give us an actual tour. They also give us this gourd that says Mandalavos on it and has all of their names inscribed on it. They tell us that they will keep the one with our names. After this tearful goodbye, we leave Mandalavos and head to another briefing. After the presentation, they ask us what Key Club is and how this trip has affected us. Words can’t even describe. After the briefing they give us more food. Just what we need.

Wednesday, June 10

I wake up late and have to run to my interview for the Key Club video magazine. Many of my answers seem repetitive, but Kristi and Fran assure me that I did fine. After we all interview, we drive to a sort of detention facility center, or the office for it, for adolescents. It’s called the DNI or Defense of Boys and Girls International. During the briefing, they describe how the juvenile adolescent will come into justice. My favorite part is where they use Google translator. They also talk about the increased drug use in the Uruguay teenagers. After this briefing we head to a place called Casamiga 6, which means “friendly house.” They too give us a briefing on how they’re working with UNICEF to provide help in Uruguay. After we get through the briefing at Casamiga 6, we go “touring” around the neighborhood. We visit some preschools and elementary schools. At the preschool, we play with some of the kids and they too seem to enjoy us. At the elementary school, we come just in time to see some of the kids making costumes for a play about dental hygiene. As we look around the school, we see this big wall of tiles made by mothers and their kids. It’s very sweet and cute to see that.

Next we go to visit the oldest school in Montevideo. The principal tells us that it has been around for a hundred years. He takes us back past the cafeteria to his little technological room. Here we see the laptops given to the primary school students by the government. These computers are actually really neat! They can play games, write, research, film videos, play music, etc. I’m very impressed with how much money and commitment the government is putting toward education for children. I’m blown away when the students say if a computer crashes, they bring it to the tech room and kids who are maybe 11 or 12 years old fix the computers themselves. Kids over here definitely have a bigger appreciation for their possessions here.

Kristi and Frank decide that we’re going to look around the neighborhood. There’s a bunch of trash all around the houses in the neighborhood. It also smells…I can’t believe that people actually live in this type of condition. Kristi tells us that the people are paid to pick up the trash and sell it again. A wave of sadness overwhelms me.

We eventually see children walking alongside these houses. One girl covers her face when she sees the cameras, knowing that these videos will cause people to pity her condition. And the last thing we want from people is pity. Kristi tells us that we need to speed up because it’s rude to film. After we finish filming, we head to the mall to spend our free time. Prices here are pretty much the same as those in the United States. I did happen to buy some perfume, however. After the trip to the mall, we have one last dinner with the UNICEF staff members.

Thursday, June 11

Today is our last day in Uruguay. It’s weird to see how fast this week has gone by. We go to the UNICEF office where we have a debriefing. We ask a few more questions, go over a proposal for Key Club and UNICEF and answer a few questions for them. They tell us that they can see that this trip has truly impacted us. I just hope we impacted them just as much. After we say goodbye to our sweet translator, Macarena, and a few other UNICEF staff members, we head to Ciudad Vieja, or the Old City, to go touring and shopping. When we get dropped off, we go look at this type of opera house then visit this area with a bunch of bears. It’s really cool because each bear is painted and represents each country in the United Nations. After that, we get dropped off and this little boy says, “Amigo, do you have money, por favor?” It kills me to say “no” to him. We shop around a bit after that. We’re looking for something for Jared to buy when a girl comes up to us trying to sell bookmarks to us. Sadly again, we decline. Maria tells us that it’s policy not to buy anything from kids on the streets.

Today is the last meal we have with the teens from Mandalavos. They immediately present us with gifts that they all made themselves. I wish we had something better that Key Club lip balm to give them. There’s one person missing, however. We later learn that Oscar isn’t there because his mother passed away the night before. I feel horrible because I didn’t even think about getting him anything after he gave me a really cool painting on the day we met. After the meal, we go outside and walk along this really awesome pier, getting a beautiful view of the ocean. When we reach the end, Fernando tells us that the most beautiful part is not the end we reach, but the journey it takes to get there. My admiration level for him goes up even more. After we walk back, we all hug each other and the Key Club UNICEF ambassadors make our trip back home.