My friend Eric sent me one of his favorite Hemingway quotes: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” I’ll take it further. For me, there’s one little thing that’s discouraging about being a writer. And it’s trivial, really. It’s the fact that if you’re good—I mean, if you’re really in it to win it—you’ll disembowel yourself, spooning your own savage entrails into a rich broth with spices and baking it all to a fragrant golden brown, finally serving yourself up on a decorative platter for your readers. And when the bleeding wound has crusted over and you’re fighting infection, you have to accept the fact that your words will never be as sensationally newsworthy—as impactful—as a picture of Kim Kardashian’s ass.
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’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 namesake—a 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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Enamorex®—Because Love is a Strange Bird.
Making a mask mainly for the mirror,
Familiar chant sweetly filling my ear—
A couple drops there, a couple drops here,
That scream solitude is something to fear.
Taking my liquid courage to cry,
Beatless, stone-cold heart to belie.
The next best thing to my true friend—
Writing the craft, legend to upend.
At the crest of the city
Lies the now quiet park,
Where Love lost His mind
And nearly killed us both.
I laughed when the vibrant kites spiraled toward my cheek.
As the ladybugs told their jokes
And my sun-steeped limbs danced with the clouds.
I could still taste the bitter, black caps
In the rising majesty of sights and sounds,
Cool water calmed my mild nausea
Tucking me in for an afternoon of sensory delights.
Until I saw it—
Eyes agape with the shriek of a twisted secret,
Thin, blue rims punctured by the bleak, black caps
Scurrying over the grass with
Disjointed shards of thought
Gushing from a sick-crusted mouth.
And His posture, once familiar,
A befouled alley strewn with broken glass.
His limbs stiff in self-protection,
Throwing erratic blows to fight
Shifting specters along desultory paths.
“Can’t you see the kites, Love?”
“No. It’s all an Inferno,”
He replied with the curdling rip of alienation.
I stood witness to His imagined torture
My fragmented faith walking the razor’s edge between
Hospital and Home,
And looked again into the stormy, dark caps of His eyes
For an answer.
He shot down the hill in terror
To crush His delusions
Under the merciful tires of traffic below.
My body resisted seeping between the verdant blades
And my feet took flight.
Vomit dripping from the picnic blanket
As I finally reached His quaking hand and
Guided our four heavy, labored legs down
Stained sidewalks and steep curbs
Into Our house on the old, familiar street corner.
“You’re going to be fine.”
“Yes, you are. Don’t worry. It will be over soon. I love you so much.”
I tend to pity the person who’s shackled with the perfect scorecard of privileges. Without poverty, ugliness, shoddy parenting, social isolation, deformity, handicap, ignorance, bad luck, or a general lack of opportunities, what can we blame for our failures. Advantage makes a person responsible for less-than-optimal outcomes, and what normal, self-respecting, other-blaming person wants to be held to that standard?
What do people typically seek from their professional lives? You may hear responses such as “fulfillment” or “autonomy,” “meaning” or “personal satisfaction.” More often than not, the response pays thought not only to an individual’s talents, but to a larger aim as well—to do good in the world. As if by nature, most of us harbor an aching desire to make a difference, to leave our communities a little bit better than we found them. While the will to exact positive change is evident in the hearts of people, there is a troubling lack of benevolent careers that pay enough for someone to survive and raise a family. Why is there such a discrepancy?
Like many of my peers, I dipped my toes into several professions after graduating from college. My most rewarding jobs included being a teacher, a freelance writer, and an addiction specialist, but the compensation for these positions was severely lacking. Many jobs that are absolutely essential to society pay pauper-wages, careers in fields such as education, social work, home care, medical assistance, childcare, small farming, construction, and more. This decreases the number of people who go into these important lines of work and makes our infrastructure more tenuous. Without those who provide our food, shelter, medicine, childcare, and schooling, our society would collapse into disorder and desperation. And yet they receive next to nothing for this essential labor, which causes many to turn to public services such as food stamps and General Assistance (GA). Locked into this grueling treadmill of poverty, these people burn out, become sick, and in turn, aren’t able to raise healthy families. The cycle continues.
I hit my breaking point working as an underpaid addition specialist for two years in San Francisco. I was the valedictorian of my high school and I’d graduated summa cum laude from Berkeley with degrees in psychology and sociology. I had other job options, but I’d wanted to give back to a community of people in need, to do the right thing. I had a caseload of over 50 clients with a high turnover of colleagues. It quickly became clear that I’d either need to marry into money—how passé for a self-sufficient, well-educated woman—or seek a better-paying career. I chose the latter.
In recent years, I doubled my salary when I became an SEO manager at an online marketing company. I wrote and edited online articles with the purpose of driving people to morally dubious, for-profit education clients, entities that have contributed to the explosion of student loan debt. I justified this to myself on the grounds that it was for education, so it couldn’t have been all bad, right? My desire to “make it” economically pulled the wool over my eyes and I felt spiritually bankrupt in the process. To my old company’s credit, they gave me free reign to create research-backed infographics that told the truth about wealth or gender inequalities, that explored careers in clean energy or medicine. These messages didn’t exactly align with the company’s desire to attract new students for client “diploma mills,” but they let me have my virtual soapbox to air all manner of issues important to me. For that, I am very thankful. They let me be me, even if I did get laid off one month after receiving a perfect performance review.
C’est la vie.
As a freelance writer, I still occasionally write articles for online marketing companies. Why? Because I love to write and I need to eat. These are the people who pay for my work. Plain and simple.
So why does our society offer such limited options for those with big hearts who don’t want to live in poverty? Are the astronomical salaries of defense contractors, corporate lawyers, investment bankers, lobbyists, and other ethically unsavory professions a reflection of our priorities as people, or is this simply a case of historical Wealth and Power protecting their elevated status, an ossification of the status quo?
I’ve seen evidence for both sides.
First, American priorities seem entirely out of whack. A handful of people in the U.S. have more wealth than the entire GDP of impoverished nations such as Sierra Leone, Ecuador, and Liberia. Our annual defense budget ($637 billion projected for 2015) is more than enough to feed and educate every child on earth, and yet our government callously fills the coffers of our defense contractors without addressing the real root of our nebulous War on Terror: a lack of access to opportunities in developing countries. Take care of basic needs for people, and the scourges of modern society seem to clear themselves up.
If we had a real interest in curbing violence around the world, we would have stopped building weapons which further escalate conflict and started investing in the hearts and minds of our purported enemies. This is not to neglect the countless non-profit organizations and other groups supporting infrastructural projects across the world. The issue is that a disproportionate share of the wealth is funneled into militaristic as opposed to humanistic ends. We should be paying people to do something better than shooting a gun. A majority of civilians on both sides of the conflict recognizes that building schools and providing basic services is better than building weapons or military bases, and yet we’re manipulated into believing that occupying other countries against their will is somehow for our protection and their benefit. It’s shameful.
We can’t continue pursuing the same militant strategies which have only fueled the flames of anti-Americanism in the Middle East and around the world. Our interest in other countries has been justified on the grounds of “freeing the people” from oppressive regimes or spreading democracy. It’s curious that we only pursue these “noble efforts” in countries that are of strategic interest to us for resources (e.g., oil reserves in the Middle East), corporate development (e.g., United Fruit Company in Central America), or otherwise. Where are our strides to end tyranny against the North Korean or the Nigerian regimes? The horrors of these countries are well-documented, but we do nothing. And then the American government goes and shakes hands with the oil-rich Saudi Princes, the leaders of a country where women still can’t drive and there are regular beheadings stemming from a misuse of Islamic law.
Another problem is that many Americans, likely exhausted from mind-numbing careers, seem to value entertainment above edification. We pay our actors, pop musicians, and athletes exorbitant sums for delighting us in the Coliseum of Mass Media while our schoolteachers and caretakers struggle to save for retirement.
There is ample evidence that American priorities are somewhat misguided, and it’s not entirely our fault. In fact, we’re behaving very rationally given the system into which we’re born: one where life’s meaning can be artificially constructed by the amassing of goods and power.
To that point, Wealth and Power have a history of safeguarding privileges for themselves and for their heirs. There are more millionaires in the Kangaroo Court of our country, the United States Congress, than ever before, and there are countless examples of people jumping between public service and private companies to bestow benefits on the other. Companies can pay for the election of representatives of their choosing, especially in the wake of Citizen’s United which enables businessmen to unleash unlimited campaign contributions. Our “public servants,” on the other hand, continue to pass legislation which protects incredibly low capital gains and corporate taxes for society’s most entitled people. There are some well-meaning politicians who strive to serve the larger public, but they are increasingly rare as Wealth becomes more and more politically prescriptive in the outcomes of elections.
So how do we change a society embroiled in political pseudo-conflicts, Republican versus Democrat, which always leaves the same wealthy entities in power? Grassroots movements such as Occupy Wall Street have the murmurings of creating change, but the lack of leadership in orchestrating demands extinguished the flames of revolt too quickly. What is the tipping point of a revolution? When will enough people stop watching the hypnotic shadows on cave walls and become privy to the real forces directing their lives?
Writers of the past must have had some idea about the size and complexity of the world. Even Nietzsche, Montaigne, and Marx had opportunities to travel, to experience the delicious diversity of natural scenery, belief systems, and earthly pleasures. Did their reflections hold any external validity, or were they broadcasted simply because Western Europeans have a stranglehold over what we now deem to be “classic”? They no doubt had a powerful grasp of expression, but they were given leading roles in shaping epistemological history by virtue of privilege and tradition. How many true thinkers have been denied a voice due to less favorable circumstances? How many unsung philosophers labored over never-to-be published manuscripts, great works of art ignored, yellowed by time and finally reduced to dust in the cruel course of time?
Furthermore, the complexity about which I speak has never been more apparent, has never been more thought-shattering than it is today with our endless opportunities to virtually taste the wonders of existence. It’s impossible to feel the feeble rain in this ocean of possibilities. Montaigne possessed a sizable but limited library comprising the most monumental works up to his day. The collection may seem primitive and limited by modern standards, but at least it was finite. How does a modern person glean the gold from the silt in this baleful sea of information?
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.