The World’s Best Small Town That You’ve Never Heard Of

San Martín de Los Andes

San Martín de Los Andes—a remote village in Patagonia and my home for the past five months—defies description. I’ve puzzled over this opening sentence for the past 10-15 minutes, trying to pin down this place’s character and even in my native language, I’m like a stuttering teenage boy in the presence of divine beauty, afraid of assigning merely secular words to such majesty. And this is from someone who has lived on four continents and traveled throughout the world for the greater part of the last 10 years. There’s no denying I have a healthy basis of comparison, and there’s something ineffably special about this Swiss-style town replete with chocolate shops, cervecerias, and artisan craftworks embraced by an amphitheater of lushly forested mountains along the eastern finger of a beckoning lake. And that’s only the beginning.

San Martín de los Andes, Google Maps
San Martín de Los Andes, Thank you Google Maps

San Martín’s most prominent feature, the Lago Lácar, flouts categories of color. Like an iris, the lake sways from raincloud gray to milky turquoise depending on the light and the wind. The town bus terminal is one block away from the beach where men sweat through 5 v 5 soccer, and today, the water is donning her finest military blues. It seems a fitting tribute to José de San Martín—the Argentinian general from whom the village derives its namesakea demigod who liberated much of South America from the Spanish colonizers in the 19th century. The sun ricochets off the water like stray bullets off a decorative shield, and it’s as hypnotizing as watching fire. Above Lácar rises a forested skyline—a voluptuous woman of trees laying in repose on her side—and even in the dead of this July winter, people fill the lakeside benches to talk, picnic, and sip on hot yerba mate.

It hasn’t all been Malbec and roses, though. I was here during a natural disaster that made international news.  On the evening of April 22nd, 2015, the Calbuco Volcano erupted casting a thick plume of ash over San Martín from over 100 miles away.

Calbuco Volcano, April 2015
Calbuco Volcano, April 2015

At 11:00 am the next morning, it was still pitch-black outside, and it was difficult to breathe. I checked all of our timekeeping devices thinking there must be some kind of glitch in the Matrix. How could the sun still not be up when it was nearing noon? In fact, all of the sun’s rays had been blocked out by an opaque cloud of particulate matter that was steadily blanketing everything in sight. In the words of my boyfriend, “This is some biblical, Armageddon shit!” Indeed it was, and it’s been the only day in my life that I feared the sun would never rise.

Before and after the Calbuco Volcano eruption, April 2015
Before and after the Calbuco Volcano eruption, April 2015

The community, however, faced the challenge with aplomb and immediately began clearing ash from the streets. The volcanic substance, also referred to as tephra, is supremely absorbent and becomes so heavy with water that it’s been known to collapse houses. It’s important to clear it quickly, especially from vulnerable rooftops.

All of this was explained to me by the town’s many seasoned volcano professionals. I learned that in 2011, the Puyehue Volcano—this one much closer than Calbuco—erupted and suffocated the area in meters of ash…meters…forcing the closure of the area’s largest airport in Bariloche for over a year, a devastating blow given the area’s heavy dependence on tourism. Can you imagine wading through waist-high volcanic ash? In 2015 however, the sun did rise on April 23rd, and the townspeople filled the streets donning colorful bandanas over their noses and mouths, laughing at how mild this was compared to the last eruption.

Since this was my first brush with a volcano, I had no idea what to expect. Friends on Facebook witnessed the death of technicolor in my photos during those first few days, and lamented that, “All of the birds and animals are going die!!! So sad.”

Roses dusted with volcanic ash
Roses dusted with volcanic ash, April 2015

Well, I didn’t really believe that, actually. This was certainly no 79 A.D. Vesuvius, and although I was worried about the airport being open in time for my best friend to visit the following month, I remembered how other volcanically active regions not only survived eruptions (e.g., Hawaii, Indonesia, Naples), but thrived in their wake. To that point, it’s been nearly two months since Calbuco blew its impressive load, and new plant growth is everywhere, nourished by the fine minerals of the tephra which will continue to cultivate new life for years to come. Nature’s not-so-subtle changing of the scenes, this time with a happy ending.

Speaking of life, did I mention that this area is a bird-watcher’s wet dream? I learned that three biogeographic regions converge here—Andean forests, high mountains, and Patagonian steppes—each with distinct avian species. In fact, S.M. de Los Andes hosts the annual South American Bird Fair in November, the premier event of its kind on the continent. If you’re like me, you can identify maybe a handful of birds including common seagulls, pigeons, and pelicans, but let me tell you: there exist citizenries of strange, feathered creatures I’d never imagined. There are spring grass parrots with fire-engine red bellies which create jubilant flash-mobs of squawking;  there are tall, gray and yellow birds with footlong beaks which irrigate verdant lawns with their worm-prodding; and there are brown sparrows the size of soccer balls which dig through trashcans and shriek when startled. I am no bird-watcher, but even I took notice of the chirping, trilling, twitter of the village’s omnipresent avian choir.

Patagonian parrots, S.M. de Los Andes
Patagonian parrots, Downtown S.M. de Los Andes

Birds haven’t been the only ones to treat this area as a sanctuary. Before becoming San Martín, this area served as a winter refuge for the Puelches, an indigenous tribe that raised horses on the eastern slopes of the Andes. In 1898, it was taken over in a territorial dispute between Argentina and Chile, and various settlements and agriculture began to sprout along the lakeshore. In 1937, Lanín National Park was created, stymieing development and protecting the natural environment for generations to come. That early preservation of this region in Patagonia is the reason it still feels unadulterated more than a century after its founding.

I have yet to speak to the village’s most impressive feature: its societies. And I use the plural of the word intentionally. Sure, San Martín boasts impossibly friendly human inhabitants, but there are also roving gangs of healthy mutts and cats everywhere. It’s not uncommon to see a pack of five collarless dogs racing euphorically up and down the sandy lakeshore. I contrast this with what I witnessed in Mexico or Nepal, for instance, where ownerless animals were normally sickly, losing fur in patches, depressed, and malnourished. But not in this Patagonian Shangri La for domesticates. Here, the dogs and cats are affectionate, rock vibrant coats, and don’t live in need, even if some of the long-haired dogs have dreadlocks around their hindquarters which bob—rather adorably—as they frolic. The thing is that there’s abundant fresh water at the lake, kind people, and enough organic compost from Argentina’s legendary “asados” (barbecues) to feed them. I’d never lived in a place where salubrious dogs and cats roamed as free citizens.

Lago Lácar, where dogs and cats are free citizens
Lago Lácar, one of the local canine citizens

And finally, the human society. Here’s a recent story which sums up the bonhomie of San Martín for me: a pair of Belgian filmmakers, Paulina and Damien, were here last month collecting footage of grassroots communities. They were on a budget, and decided to stay with our dear friend Daniel whom they’d found through Couchsurfer. Their first night in town, Daniel put together a dinner party and prepared “carne relleno,” a thick, tender steak wrapped around garlic and red peppers, salted and baked in a decadent red wine broth. The dinner party raged past 3:00 in the morning—as many dinner parties do here—and it slipped out that Damien’s 30th birthday was two days later. Wondering how we could make it special for our new friends, we rallied a group of 10 and hosted an epic asado to celebrate. Everyone played instruments and feasted on tender meats, fresh bread, and birthday cake from an awesome local bakery. Now that’s the type of community I want to be a part of: one where strangers can roll into town and have a barbecue thrown in their honor two days later, as if among old friends.

For me, a person who has lived wandering from country to country for years, it’s the first time I’ve really felt at home anywhere since fleeing my mother’s coop. The Argentinians have a phrase that sums up the kindness and warm cheer of the people here: “re buena onda,” or very good vibes. I’m grateful for the buena onda here and I’ll do my best to pay it forward.

Thank you, San Martín de Los Andes. You’re hard to leave and impossible to forget.

Bandurrias, June 2015, S.M.
Mirador Bandurrias, June 2015, S.M. de Los Andes

Argentina Does it Better: Medical Care

NOTE: Scroll down to the last three paragraphs if you’re pressed for time and want to know why Argentina does medical care better than the United States. If you’re interested in the arresting tale of this bloody shirt, enjoy the ride.

Last Saturday, Jon and I went to El Catedral de Almagro, a dimly-lit warehouse with antique furniture, high ceilings, and abstract artwork. The corrugated tin walls, barrel tables, and huge papier-mâché human heart suspended above the bar lent the space a unique vibe, and the tango-savvy crowd felt right at home. Every night, El Catedral invites people for lessons in the national dance of Argentina. Jon had promised that we’d learn before leaving Buenos Aires, and we’d loosened up our limbs with a couple of cheap bottles of wine before hitting the dance floor.

A live band complete with an upright bass, a cello, an accordion, several guitars, and a piano took the stage just after 1:00 am. Parties in Argentina don’t get going until the early hours of the morning, as people are prone to eating dinner around 10:00 or 11:00 pm. Jon and I conversed with travelers from Switzerland and Germany, and the crowd began to thin out after the band finished around 2:15.

We were across town from our apartment in Belgrano, but we had our bikes for us waiting outside. Traffic was sparse at this late hour and it was a balmy 80 degrees.

We didn’t realize it at the time, but we started heading out in the wrong direction, and before long, Jon had gotten too far ahead of me on Rivadavia Avenue, a relatively busy thoroughfare with no bike lanes. I accepted that I was completely lost and figured I’d just meet Jon at home, asking passersby the general direction of Palermo, a neighborhood with which I was more familiar and felt confident I could navigate. After about 25 minutes of following the advice of these kind, inebriated strangers, I’d found a familiar path which I took all the way northwest, back to our Belgrano apartment.

I walked in expecting to see Jon with his feet propped up on the table, maybe enjoying an episode of M*A*S*H* or a TED Talk on paranormal activity. To my surprise, the apartment was dark and empty. It was 3:15 am.

I took a quick shower as relief from the heat and sticky exercise, and when I emerged, there was still no sign of Jon. The clock hit 3:45. I walked out onto our balcony to look up the street, and checked on a baby pigeon in a nest to the left of our bike storage area. As usual, the neighbor’s cat was eyeing the little bird, but had never mustered the courage to jump the gap which was two stories above the sidewalks below. I tried to read, but my mind kept drifting as I looked up and down the streets. By 4:30, I decided to check out the route from El Catedral on Google Maps. I’d figured he’d probably gotten a flat tire and had to walk the rest of the way. Once I determined that the entire journey was projected to take less than two hours on foot—and this was by the hypothetical “Google walker” who was no match for Jon’s rapid ambulation—I began to get worried. Ok, not just worried. I panicked. It was 5:15 and the sky was starting to get light, and there was still no sign of Jon.

I ran downstairs to speak with the security guard of our building who tried to assuage my fears. We jointly made a plan to call the police at 7:00 am if Jon still hadn’t turned up.

It was 6:10 and the sky was brightening. My imagination visited all of the usual dark places of an ambiguously bereaved (and hysterical) girlfriend. Accident. Robbery. Kidnapping. Senseless beating or murder. Leaning over the banister, I finally spotted a figure making haste toward our building. He was tall, wearing a blood-spattered white shirt, and walking a bike. I ran downstairs to meet him.

Here’s what happened: after we’d gotten separated on the journey home, Jon had hit a pothole on his bike which threw him over the handlebars. His chin, taking the brunt of the impact, had split open as he hit the ground, and he also sprained his right wrist. His arms were covered with nasty cuts and contusions. Two witnesses called an ambulance which drove him to the hospital. When he arrived, medical staff asked for only two things: his name and his age. They stitched up his chin and treated his wounds for free. In the United States, this treatment could have cost him over $3,000. According to the New York Times, it can be over $2,000 for three stitches and around $1,000 for a short ambulance trip, a ride that was free 30 years ago, even when wounds aren’t life-threatening. In fact, if we were at home, I would have considered taking a needle and thread to him myself, or calling one of my friends who’s a doctor.

The thing is that medical treatment is free in many countries, developed and developing. A friend shared with me recently that in his home country of Brazil, medical staff won’t allow people to leave before they receive the treatment they need, free of charge. It’s a proactive view of health that makes people more likely to get the care that keeps them healthy and productive. Many Americans can attest that in any medical situation, emergency or not, even the case of the insured, the first question isn’t, “How can we get this person the treatment they need immediately?” The first question is often, “What will this cost and will my insurance cover it?”

That is not the kind of country we should be.

Solution: This is a no-brainer. Medical care is something that everyone needs in their lives and shouldn’t be performed for outrageous profits. If a hospital in Argentina can give a man an ambulance ride and medical treatment for free, emergency rooms in the U.S. should be able to do the same. This isn’t a radical idea. It’s the humane thing to do.

Japan Does it Better: Respect for Public Space

Take a stroll through any urban district in the United States and you’ll find abundant evidence of a mass disrespect for shared, public facilities and areas.

  • Our subways, busses, and building facades are often covered with graffiti and filth.
  • Gutters are clogged with trash and refuse.
  • Public libraries are sometimes the only option for the homeless seeking a place to bathe.
  • Many children view public school as an obnoxious necessity rather than a privilege and disrespect the classrooms, books, and teachers that serve them for low pay.
  • Public institutions have a reputation for being inefficient and the officials are often characterized by malaise rather than pride in one’s community.

Everywhere you turn there are examples of Americans simply not treating their public, shared space with any measure of care or reverence.

In my opinion, there is a fervent individuality, a “me-first” mentality that pervades the American conscience and makes it difficult for us to think in terms of the collective good. My mother told me that littering used to be an even bigger problem in the 1970s and 80s, and at least by that measure, Americans have improved. It’s generally condemned to throw one’s trash on the ground, but there are many other ways we can refine the cleanliness and care of public space and institutions.

I found that a communal mentality is endemic to the Japanese people, both in their personal groups and with respect to public space. They are continually aware of what is best for the larger good, what is best for the group. It is uncouth and unusual for people to act selfishly or without regard for the rights of others. As a result, the streets and public transportation are efficient and clean; graffiti is rarely a problem sparing a few non-conformists; there’s a generalized respect for education and the role of public school teachers; and public services are carried out with care and pride in one’s community.

I lived in Japan for two-and-a-half years, and there were several instances where this communal consciousness became readily apparent. The most obvious example, of course, is the Japanese tradition of removing one’s shoes before entering another person’s home. There are some restaurants, dressing rooms, and temples which also have this policy, and the message is the same: I will remove my shoes out of respect for this space to keep it clean for others. Japanese schoolchildren contribute to the cleaning of their classrooms and take up chores collectively. This ritual not only promotes a communal attitude in the completion of a shared task, but also teaches children that shared space is to be kept clean and respected. There is no better illustration of this public-mindedness than sharing a meal with Japanese people. First of all, it is a custom for someone else to always fill your cup. If you are eating with Japanese people and are sharing a pot of tea or a carafe of sake, your dining companion will ensure that your cup remains full. Also, when the food is eaten family style, nobody will take the last bite of anything.

The most heartwarming (and heartbreaking) of these instances, however, was with the Japanese homeless. I should note that homelessness is not nearly as big of a problem in Japan as it is in the United States, and most people who do live outside have some form of mental illness. In Niigata City where I lived, there were a few homeless people who took up residence in the train station walkway elevated from the road and protected from the rain. Each person had a clean, well-constructed cardboard box home with a sliding door. These people would always leave their shoes outside of their box before entering, and would never disturb anyone passing through the train station. It was amazing that even the most destitute of people constructed their living quarters so as to not impose on the public, as if anything less would be undignified, unseemly, and collectively irresponsible. Despite their poverty, there was respect for shared space and an awareness of others.

Solution for the U.S.: We need to get our children more involved in the consciousness and maintenance of public space. Whether it’s a park or beach cleanup, repainting graffitied walls, tracking one’s carbon footprint, or spending more time at centers of communal activity (e.g., libraries, civic organizations, universities), there are many ways to ensure that future generations exercise a greater respect for our shared facilities.

Foreign Lands of Opportunity

Did American society hit its apex before we were born, or have we been force-fed a moderately skewed version of our greatness? Where is this fabled Land of Opportunity when over one-third of our children live in poverty? Something isn’t quite right in the United States. While no country or society is perfect, I’ve observed that some countries simply do things better than we do. The central purpose of this thread is to present some alternate systems from around the world to serve as examples for how effective we could be.

First, a caveat: in the argument that follows, some would say that I’m being unfair to the good ol’ U.S. of A. It’s true that as an American, I’ve enjoyed opportunities that will never be afforded to the vast majority of people in the world. I recognize this and concede that I am eternally grateful for the medical, economic, educational, and other infrastructural blessings which have allowed me to become who I am. It would be a disservice to future generations, however, if I were to sit idly by after traveling the world for several years and rest on the laurels of these privileges.

I believe that the United States has a moral responsibility to be an even better country given its vast wealth, technology, diversity, and above all, the character of most Americans. We strive to be good people. We want to work hard. We want to have careers in which we can help those in need. For all these reasons and more, we have a moral obligation to be a better country. It’s uncomfortable to admit, but we have a recent history of being a short-sighted, self-serving aggressor who nearly eliminated the Native Americans; enslaved Africans in the name of economic progress and false racial inferiority; installed countless dictatorships in the Americas and the Middle East; and continues to be ruled by a corporate- and politically-minded oligarchy rather than a true democracy. The darker side of our past (and present) is beyond the scope of this essay, but I highly recommend Howard Zinn’s bestseller “A People’s History of the United States” for those who are interested.

Here’s what I’ve observed to be the greatest disparities between what I was taught to believe and what I’ve since learned about our country:

  • We pay lip service to the importance of education while our children are placed in crumbling public schools or luxurious private facilities depending on the income level of their parents.
  • We drum up patriotism for international conflicts despite mass international condemnation of our aggression.
  • We hold military bases in over 130 countries despite our declining influence around the world, the dying gasps of our propagandizing megaphone of democracy, freedom, and the oft-repeated obligation to “protect American interests.”
  • We assert that we favor women’s rights despite the underrepresentation of the Second Sex in business and government, and their overrepresentation in the media’s voyeuristic eye and sexualized exploitation.
  • We pretend to value the health of our citizens while we skewer the Affordable Care Act either as not going far enough to help the needy and uninsured or as a socialist abomination riddled with illusory “death panels” and anti-American values.
  • We express a vehement anti-drug attitude while American doctors prescribe enough opiates (e.g., Vicodin) to keep every single American medicated 24-hours per day.
  • We profess that we are an economic example to the world when there are Americans working full-time who struggle to escape poverty and have to rely on a shrinking number of public services.
  • We publicly maintain that we have a fair justice system when people are given different legal fates for the same crimes based on the color of their skin and the price of their lawyers.
  • We pay our educators, artists, and social workers a tiny fraction of what we pay our most shameless lawyers, investment bankers, and entertainers.
  • We assert to protect the mothers of our children and yet we are the only developed country in the world without paid maternity leave or a viable system of childcare.
  • We continually stress the importance of the economy and paying down the national debt while our garages swell with electronics, furniture, and other perfectly good items we throw into storage after upgrading to keep up with the Joneses.
  • We are brought up believing in the importance of individuality, and yet we constantly judge ourselves according to a flawed social barometer.
  • We are raised with an assumption in a meritocracy, and yet those with the wealth and preexisting social connections are continually rewarded.

In sum, we masquerade as a Land of Opportunity despite the fact that some countries do things much better than we do.

I’d like to make two more notes before I begin: I advise you to travel, and to travel widely. Once you learn to approach people on a platform of human commonality rather than difference, the world becomes a better place. Sure, there are a few assholes everywhere, but after living long-term on four different continents and traveling to 40+ counties, I’ve truly begun to appreciate this shared fate we have as humans, despite the manufactured conflicts and petty xenophobia we have pumped into us based on largely arbitrary national boundaries. Traveling is the absolute best thing a person can do to truly educate oneself. In my opinion, the top-tier universities have nothing on a person who observes the world voraciously first-hand with an open heart and an open mind.

Lastly, who am I to give an entire country advice on how to run things more effectively? You’ve got me there. I’m simply a concerned citizen trying to open people’s eyes. I derived these ideas from my own observations, and I’m thankful for those countless researchers, policy-makers, and formidable intellects I’ll be summoning to support my ideas.

Thank you for being so interested.