Argentines have a phrase, "mi lugar," for when you find your special place in this world – the perfect combination of place and people that entirely suits your nature. The phrase translates simply as "my place."
I was very fortunate in my early thirties to be able to spend three years on a quest for paradise on earth, visiting pretty much every country I thought might be a suitable candidate. It turns out, in hindsight, what I was really looking for was not paradise, but mi lugar.
Much like "love at first sight," mi lugar has almost mystical connotations – it is the place in this world where, should you be fortunate enough to find it, you belong more than anywhere else.
When we arrived in Cafayate, it was with some entirely natural trepidation. After all, not only were we going to be living in a remote corner of Argentina, we were bringing along our teenage kids with all that that implies.
It is entirely human to worry about the unforeseeable, and so we pondered all manner of questions and concerns. Would our stumbling knowledge of the local lingo prove a hindrance? Would the highly dysfunctional government hereabouts be an impediment at every turn, the bureaucracy frustrating? Would the kids adapt to the new environment and be able to get a good education?
Yet, never ones to worry ourselves into inaction, we plowed ahead and on October 22 set down our bags in Cafayate.
So, how's it gone? Were our fears – any of our fears – realized?
To the extent that it may be of interest to those of you currently contemplating seeking solace on the other side of the wall, I would like to tick down some of the good and the not-so-good we have discovered as a result of our move.Mi Lugar
The first, and possibly most surprising, thing about life in Cafayate has been how social it is. The Argentines are very warm and welcoming people, and we have made a surprising number of local friends. In addition, there are the generally like-minded and almost entirely agreeable owners at La Estancia de Cafayate, complemented by a steady stream of visitors.
Interacting with only one of those groups would be more than enough social life for me, by temperament something of a recluse (my wife always laughs when I say that, but it's true). When taking all three groups into consideration, however, the amount of socializing gets positively over the top.
Last week it was a charity poker match, then my wife's big birthday bash with forty friends at the Club… I don't even know forty people in the town in Vermont where we lived the last 25 years.
It just never stops.
In fact, after seeing our friends and enjoying the beauty of a Vermont summer, the next-biggest reason for returning to the States for four months is to get some rest!
Other aspects of life here that represented a significant change from life back on the other side of the wall:Education of the Kids
Our children are now 14 and 16, ages considered very important in terms of personal development.
Before getting into what they got from living down here, a quick word on what they didn't get. For example…
--They didn't get a state-mandated cookie-cutter curriculum replete with dogma and indoctrination about completely unimportant topics.--They didn't get an education by teachers whose sole purpose in life is to ultimately get a pension. In fairness, our children had had a couple of good teachers in their public schooling back in the States, but most seemed to have majored in sapping the creative juices out of students with minors in spirit crushing and teaching utter nonsense with a straight face.--They didn't pick up bad habits from fellow students. They didn't learn how to drink, smoke, do drugs, or have sex at an age when they are not mentally prepared to keep things in perspective. In fact, it became something of a running joke how many times we went to restaurants hereabouts and the kids were offered wine, which they turned down of their own accord. When it's not the forbidden fruit, it's not nearly so desirable.--They didn't live in fear. When I see an article such as this, on the US government's zero tolerance for, well, anything – including stupid kid pranks, I am shocked. Here's a link to the article.
What they did get, however, was…
--Personalized instruction and coaching for their self-studies. In the beginning, there were another three children in the educational program, but the parents pulled up stakes fairly early on, leaving our two kids with a teacher ratio of 1:1 (except for a number of weeks when children of visiting owners and guests sat in on classes). --For much of the time we were here, there weren't a lot of other kids their age around. In hindsight, that worked out just fine. In addition to not picking up the bad habits mentioned above, they quickly adapted to interacting on the level of adults with the residents of La Estancia and those from town (many of whom act like kids anyway).--A shared family adventure. We've always been a close family, but living together as foreigners in a foreign land has made us only closer. No small feat given they are both in the challenging mid-teens. While there was, naturally, a certain amount of the teen drama, it always passed quickly and we moved forward in concert. Personally, I have learned to accept that they are no longer children but young adults who need to be able to make their own decisions and reap the rewards or suffer the consequences as a result. All in all, the family dynamic has changed, and only for the better.--Fresh air and a more active lifestyle. While my son is showing the classic characteristics of being something of a geek (by no means a detriment in this day and age), every day he walked to and from school wearing his heavy backpack and, sporadically, joined in on hikes and long walks around the sizable estancia on school projects (for instance, mapping all of the many fruit and nut trees on the property). In addition to the school walkabouts, our more active daughter also took advantage of the Athletic Club, horseback riding, dancing, hiking, and so forth.
In the final analysis, hiring our own tutors and having a hand in a curriculum that focused on the core subjects of reading, writing, and arithmetic – with a side course of Spanish, and all of it structured to inculcate the love of learning – turned out to be a big win. So much so that the kids volunteered to continue studying over the summer with the remote guidance of their lead tutor.Personal Well-Being
In a phrase, I haven't felt this healthy, this fit, this alive, or this happy in decades. The active lifestyle, the high-quality food, the multitude of good-humored friends, the fun activities… the overall quality of life… have completely reenergized me.
Whereas before a dumb email from a colleague might have sent my blood pressure spiking, now it's all water off this duck's back. Hardly a day passes without me opening my arms to the beautiful skies, a happy grin on my face. Reflexively, I start singing, "Oh, what a beautiful morning" when walking outside first thing each day.
Call me goofy, but it sure feels like stark raving happiness to me.
Speaking of beauty, I have always been one of those people who, lost in thought, took almost no notice of my surroundings, no matter how striking (and Vermont can be pretty striking).
Down here, however, the beauty of the place grabs you by the collar and demands you view it in awe. It is like living in an ever-changing art display with the red rocks of the surrounding mountains the canvas.Connection to a Community
Before moving here, I was only tenuously connected to the community I had lived in for 25 years. While it is not all fun and games – because every community, no matter how like-minded, has its small cadre of serial malcontents – the overwhelming majority of the people at La Estancia and in Cafayate are positive and constructive.
In short, they are people you want to spend time with… and so we do.
The community is not just physical, but virtual as well. There is constant email correspondence between the owners, and several of us have been involved in a writers' group going on a year now. There is also a local photography group that a number of us have joined.
Here's my wife's entry for this month, a great shot (in my biased opinion) of the sort of transportation hijinks that are a common sight around here, but which would have you face down on the pavement, your arms handcuffed behind your back, were you to attempt the same in the Land of the Free.
The Concept of Time
Despite the active schedule, there is always time to linger over lunch or dinner, to have a siesta, to play a little golf with friends (even if it means getting up before dawn to get my work out of the way).
Today I ducked into town on an errand and ended up stopping for an hour and a half at Baco's café to have coffee with Mauricio the Chilean and Bausti, the son of the owner who is in the final phase of a three-week-long motorcycle ride from Cafayate to Northern Brazil and back.
Once the coffee was finished, the old David would have made his apologies and hit the road. Not anymore, as I settled into my chair at the table on the sidewalk, enjoying the perfect weather and sharing stories, music, and photos with my friends. Mauricio, despite having work to attend to at his lighting and paint store, stuck around as well. There are things far more important than money down here, especially time spent with friends.The Nature of Reality
In the US and other media-saturated countries, reality is defined by deviants with degrees in manipulating minds. The old standard "If it bleeds, it leads" has been bolstered with "If it's green, it's good" and "If it scares, it blares."
I can't stress the point enough… down here none of that counts. Reality is what you have for lunch, it's not some imagined threat lurking around every corner. Terrorists, cyber-surveillance, school lockdowns… none of it matters in the slightest.
As for the stories trumpeted over and over in the global press about the Mad Queen Cristina who is tenuously holding power over these lands, no one really cares. And the inflation has again made Argentina one of the least expensive countries in the world for those of us who are not peso-based.
Last night I had an excellent dinner at the best restaurant on the plaza – and it's a very good restaurant – and the cost of my entree was all of US$7.00.Adventure Around Every Corner
One of the best things about climbing over the wall is that so many things you will experience are new and, at least to me, interesting and exciting. While here, we have been on stunning hikes, amazing horse treks, wonderful drives deep into the Andes – on one memorable occasion spending a few days at fellow Argentine aficionado Bill Bonner's massive estancia, a place so remote that, to reach it, you have to drive for many kilometers on a dried-up river bed.
A deep-thinking friend of mine once explained how important it is to the maintenance of mental acuity to challenge yourself, even – or maybe especially – when it comes to the mundane. For example, if you are right handed, try brushing your teeth with your left as it forces you to use new connections in your brain.
Moving here from a completely different culture, with a completely different language, forces you out of your comfort zone every single day. For instance, when the patron of the well-known local bodega offered to let me ride his powerful champion stallion – he had heard I was a polo player and so assumed I could handle it – my initial reaction was to think, "Are you crazy?!" Fortunately, that thought was quickly supplanted by one akin to, "When will I ever have an opportunity like this again?" So I took him up on his offer, and what an amazing ride it was.Parting Thoughts
First and foremost, as you may be able to tell from the above, despite the trepidations we felt before heading down here, my wife and I have not had a single regret… not for a second.
The house we built, which is fully paid for (as is the case with virtually all the houses in Argentina), was beautifully constructed. And, thanks to the competence of the architect who oversaw the construction, and the builder, the building went up with less hassle than was the case with our house back in Vermont.
We have fallen in love with the area, most ardently with Cafayate but also the province of Salta and the surrounding countries that together form what is called the Southern Cone. While life here, like everywhere, has its challenges, the challenges are nothing that a reasonably intelligent and patient person can't handle. In fact, with a little help from our local lawyer and knowledgeable friends, our interactions with the government amount to next to nothing… and, in most months, literally nothing.
Meanwhile, as noted above, the much-noted inflation here in Argentina has put the place on sale… and at a steep discount. Yet, even the locals in this tight-knit community don't appear to be overly disadvantaged. I suspect that's because, unlike the big city, this is an agricultural area where the cost of input is low, and so is the price of the output… thus the basic stuff of life is extremely cheap.
It is worth mentioning the cost of labor, as well. We have an exceptionally agreeable and hard-working maid who comes in for five or six hours a day, five days a week, at a cost equivalent to $40 a week. Simply put, that means that the drudgery of washing dishes and clothes, dusting, making beds, and so forth simply vanishes from your life, freeing you for far more agreeable pursuits. This is, in my view, almost the very definition of luxury – yet at a price many Americans push over the counter at Starbucks each week.
Now, this is not to say that other places in the world don't have their strengths as well as their weaknesses. If you love to snow ski or sail the big blue sea, this is probably not the place for you… at least not full time.
I also think, despite the low cost of living here, that it's probably not terribly well suited for people without at least some decent amount of money in the bank, or a source of revenue from outside the country. For example, from a job you can do over the Internet. That's because while there is 100% employment here, the local pay scale is low and the challenges of actually starting and running a business here are considerable.
While I have often said that "anyone who can live here and doesn't is a fool," in truth your own special lugar may have a completely different set of characteristics. I understand that some people even like big cities.
Whatever you do, if the place you are living doesn't make you feel alive, then do seriously consider setting out in the quest for a place that does.
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