One of the great things about San Rafael, in Argentina, is the interesting range of people who live or spend some of the year here. Our neighbours in Rama Caida, just outside the town, fall into the latter category. They both work for the largest Canadian Union – Rhonda is the International Officer and Stephen is Director of Communications. Sitting over coffee in their beautiful garden last week I talked to them about their reasons for coming here.
KK: You presently live in Ottawa because of your work but your permanent base is in Vancouver. From western Canada to San Rafael -it is not exactly a well beaten path – how did you end up in Rama Caida?
RS: We always wanted to travel in Argentina and made our first trip here in 2006, when we went from the top to the bottom of the country. It really appealed to me in terms of the culture and everything and I remember saying to Stephen “I think I could live there.”
SH: We love Vancouver in the spring and summer but the winters are long and very wet.
KK: Right, so the weather was a big factor?
RS: Definitely. We love Mexico and have spent a lot of time there. We actually talked for twenty years about buying a place there but in the end we decided it was too hot for a long stay.
SH: We have travelled in a lot of South American countries. One thing that struck us was that the infrastructure here is comparatively good – the roads, the transport systems and so on.
KK: I see, so tell me more about how you came to San Rafael – were you tempted by other areas of Argentina?
RS: On our first trip we really liked Mendoza and in 2007 we came back and spent some time travelling south from Mendoza city down to Bariloche. We had done some research in Canada about the area and San Rafael sounded really appealing.
KK: You both speak some Castellaño but you wouldn’t describe yourselves as fluent. Was the fact that there is a lot of information on the internet about San Rafael in English a part of your decision?
SH: Yes, it definitely was. We actually found our house through Escape Artist.
KK: Really, I hadn’t realised that. So what were the things that attracted you about San Rafael?
RS: We liked the size. Mendoza is a bit big and the areas on the outskirts are a bit like the suburbs of a Canadian city. San Rafael has all the facilities you need but it still has a compact feel and there is easy access to all sorts of nice little places.
KK: Yes, there is plenty to do here for visitors.
RS: We liked the dry climate and the fact that it is a fruit growing area.
KK: Okay so you researched all that before you came, then you arrived and presumably found you liked the actual place – how was that trip, did you visit many properties?
SH: No not many, we spent one day looking around but as I said we had already seen this place on Escape Artist and were interested in it.
RS: Obviously the garden was the big attraction although when we bought it was run down and needed a lot of work.
KK: Yes the garden is stunning – and huge ….Your property could be described as a garden with a house rather than the other way around!
SH: Yes, and it needs a LOT of maintenance!
KK: That brings me to my next question – given that you are only able to use the house for a few holidays a year – what made you decide to buy rather than rent?
RS: That was a bit weird, we have travelled a lot, all over the world, and yes we would normally rent apartments or houses, but this was different somehow, it is hard to explain, something to do with the light…we just wanted something more permanent.
KK: San Rafael seduced you!
SH: Yes! And we wanted to be a bit more a part of the place, not just tourists passing through.
KK: I can understand that, and you are very much part of this community despite the fact that you are not here all the time.
You both have high pressured jobs in Canada, do you see yourselves being able to spend longer periods here in the future and do some of your work remotely?
RS: In the short term that isn’t really going to be possible though we did initially hope to be able to do that. My job is very intense and involves a lot of travelling, also to be honest at the moment the internet provision here isn’t good enough for us to be able to rely on it.
SH: It is one element of the infrastructure here that really lags behind .
KK: Well I certainly endorse that! Talking of politicians – you are both very involved in politics in Canada; do you have any involvement here?
SH: No, that wouldn’t really be appropriate as we are not Argentine. We are interested in understanding the political scene. In the future we might become involved in some volunteer work as a way to contribute to the community.
KK: My perception of Canada is that it is a very efficient, egalitarian country. With the best will in the world Argentina couldn’t be described in those terms! What are your impressions of how things work here?
SH: It seems to us that the basic amenities are okay here, the trash is collected twice a week, public transport is pretty good and relatively cheap and so on. It is true that some things are very bureaucratic and inefficient and that takes a bit of getting used to. For example I went in to pay my car tax the other day and found that I owed money for the last two years but I was completely unaware of that – they never sent me any bills. And yes there are minor irritations like the endless lines at the bank but when we come here we are on vacation so it’s not that big a deal to us.
RS: And you know there are problems everywhere and public services are under threat even in highly developed countries. One thing we like about Argentina is that the income disparity between the affluent and the poorer people is less than in most other Latin American countries – that is our impression anyway. The fact that Argentina still has its own manufacturing base is a big strength – it has maintained its own ability to produce goods.
SH: Efficiency isn’t always everything anyway. We like the fact that here the “big box stores” are not as widespread and that we can do virtually all our shopping at the local neighbourhood shops which are all family owned and run.
KK: I definitely agree with that although there are times when I fantasise about being able to go to a hardware superstore!
Have you had any experience of the medical services here?
RS: Yes we had to take our granddaughter to the medic when she was staying with us and it was absolutely fine – we didn’t have to wait long and the doctor was good.
KK: That’s great to hear. Is there anything else you like about the lifestyle here?
SH: It generally seems very laid back and family orientated. We love watching people on Sundays – the way they pile their car roofs with tables and chairs and head off out of the city, often just to sit with their families and drink mate and chat – just being together seems important.
KK: That is very true.
SH: And the food is superb. We love the vegetables.
KK: That’s not what people usually think of in terms of Argentine food!
SH: Well yes, the meat is obviously fantastic, everyone knows that, but the variety and freshness of the vegetables are a real treat.
KK: So, can you tell us about what do you do when you are here?
RS: Not a lot! We did all the tourist things the first few times we came. Now we like to visit the odd winery, Stephen plays golf and I really enjoy being in the garden, swimming reading and so on. We sometimes make a trip somewhere, and we have had quite a few friends staying with us.
SH: We actually really enjoy the maintenance and the gardening. We live in an apartment in Ottawa at the moment so we love having the space here and just puttering around.
KK: Sounds idyllic! Are there any downsides to having a vaction home so far away?
RS: At the moment I am travelling a lot for work so the long journey down here is a bit of a nuisance, but really it is not a big deal as we are used to travelling. The main issue is that I changed jobs just after we bought the house. Previously we could have come for four to six weeks at a time but now it’s only two which always feels very short.
SH: There is always the odd surprise that you can’t do anything about – such as the big storm a year ago that blew down several of our trees. We were here at the time but if that had happened when we were in Canada it would have been hard to deal with long distance. Fortunately we have a local family who look after the place and they are fantastic caretakers so we don’t have to worry too much.
KK: And what are your future plans – would you consider living here permanently?
RS: No that is not an option as we have family commitments in Canada but the ideal would be to spend four to six months of the year here when we retire.
KK: Good, I will look forward to that!
About the author: Kate Kirby is a mother, partner, ardent foodie and artist. Originally from Scotland, she has lived with her family near San Rafael in Argentina for three years. In her former life she worked as a cook, a teacher, a cleaner…anything to keep the wolf from the studio door. For more information on her painting and the art holidays she runs in San Rafael please see her website: www.kate-kirby.com
Links to useful resources on Argentina
Vacation Rentals in Argentina
Medical Tourism In Argentina