A train ticket and a TEFL certificate were all I had when I traveled the 1,000 miles from Buenos Aires to San Carlos de Bariloche.
As we rode through the endless flatness of Patagonia—past broken railway sheds and the silhouettes of wind-bent trees on the horizon—I wondered what I was getting into.
I had no job. I’d never been this far south. I knew no-one.
It was a long, dry summer and the carriages were filled with a blinding red dust. All the way down, we held handkerchiefs to our faces.
As I peered through the train window, I thought I was traveling to the end of the earth.
But within a week, I’d found a job, friends, and a comfortable log cabin with a view of the vast, blue Lago Nahuel Huapi, and the snowy peaks of the Andes.
I was teaching English at a small school nestled in the forest above the lake. It was founded by an English immigrant who had driven down in a jalopy from Buenos Aires, along unpaved roads back in the forties.
How did I get the job? I simply turned up, flourishing my TEFL certificate.
The head of the school (the founder’s son) looked me up and down. “You look like you’ve come a long way,” he said. “You’d better drink something.”
And while I was sipping a glass of water, he gave me the job.
Then he invited me to lunch, served Argentine-style at a long trestle table packed with gizzards, liver, blood sausages, and flanks of beef.
The classrooms were wooden huts on stilts—for the heavy snow-drifts in winter. The students were local kids growing up in rural hardship. Their grandparents had emigrated long ago from Switzerland, Germany, England, even Japan.
They were determined, resilient, and tough. And they had big dreams. They wanted to be journalists, doctors, or translators for the UN.
We’d spend long hours doing role-plays, practicing pronunciation, or running through the grammar of the present perfect tense.
They worked hard, and after a year they all passed their Cambridge English exams with top marks.
And because of them, I stayed far longer than I’d planned. Bariloche—and its people—were too beautiful to leave.
On Saturdays we’d take students skiing…high above the gleaming archipelago of lakes in Nahuel Huapi National Park. One of the perks of my job was a season of free ski passes.
And there was no doubt: these mountains have more majesty and beauty than anything in the Alps.
At night I’d cycle into town with friends to eat the best empanadas in South America. Or to buy another supply of dulce de leche, which I’d carry home and eat with a hunk of cheese.
Or we’d visit a local bar to listen to the guitars and violins of Chacarera, the rural folk-music of Argentina. Sometimes the gauchos (Argentine cowboys) would stop by for several beers, after a day herding and chasing down cattle.
Log cabins, nights of music and dancing, skiing in winter, extinct volcanos to climb, and the fascination of European culture transplanted to this remote South American outpost…Bariloche is a magical paradise.
They call it the Switzerland of South America, and it’s partly true. But there’s also the deeper, newer identity forged by the great distances the first immigrants traveled, and by the mix of cultures.
It’s in the music, the food, and the dances…but more than that, it’s in the voices of my students, and their unique outlook on the world.
If there’s one place I’ll ever return to, this is it.
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