Posted by: Shanie Matthews | December 1, 2009

Learning Happiness from What Might be Considered the Least Likely Place

Inspiration hides in many forms.

As noted in the About Me page, I moved with my husband, Jamie, to Argentina nearly five years ago.

I was 32, married three years, had a non-existent biological clock and the feeling that my life was in a rut.  We decided it was time to think outside the box.  We packed up our life in the United States and moved 7,000 miles to a large, neglected farm in San Rafael, Mendoza, Argentina.

Our 65 acre (26 hectare) chardonnay grape, plum and olive farm had a previous employee.  He and his family were our only neighbors.  Their names, we came to learn, are Juan, Ann, Jorgelina, Maria Sol and Eduardo.

When we arrived, the five were living in a small house with another five-member family. They did not have their own place to lay their head at night nor any payment for past work done (except for the small lot next to our farm with a partially built house).

Our first lesson of cultural differences began immediately. We were told by the past owners of the property that Juan and family were good people but “…were not our friends and shouldn’t be treated as such.”

Jamie and my ideologies in life had a hard time accepting this bit of advice.  Despite misgivings, we listened to another’s word instead of being attentive to our intuitions.

We hired a management company to overlook things and employed Juan to work on the property as well. Because of our language barrier and not knowing each other we thought this to be the easiest way to start out.

It was apparent after a few months that the management company was trying to swindle money from us but we weren’t absolutely positive, weren’t sure about the culturally correct ways to discuss such a matter, nor had any proof.

The day after Jamie and I discussed how we were going to talk with the management team about our feelings a huge thunder storm enveloped the dry, arid landscape.   The San Rafael area is often hit with thunderstorms of immense proportions and we were about to see the intense destruction that they are capable of.

The ting of raindrops started hitting our metal roof… within minutes the winds picked up to a steady 50 mph, gusts to 70 and the rain turned to hail.  But this hail was the size of a swollen golf ball. When it started to come down, it was in sheets.  The view, that only minutes before was brown sagebrush, thriving, green vineyard and deep blue river, was now completely white. Visibility was no farther than the end of the porch.

Then it was over.  The torrents of rain and wind were finished as quickly as they had begun.

Jamie and I peeked out the door.  It felt and looked as if we had just been at war with Mother Nature. Large tree limbs were on the ground.  Our beautiful, flourishing grapevines had been raped and beaten. They no longer looked like the vibrant plants they were a few minutes earlier.

We started to walk around the vineyard, slowly taking in the damage.

Through the rising mist of the melting hail, I saw a silhouetted figure coming our way.  At first I couldn’t make out who it was…it was Juan.

He was lingering at an exceptionally large grape vine that was visibly torn to shreds.  He gingerly held the leaves between his fingers. We walked up to him.

“No bueno.  El administación es malo, muy malo.”

With broken and reconnected Spanish we began to understand that Juan had seen the management doing dishonest activities with our farm.  Juan had been concerned to tell us because he didn’t know if we would believe him.

Despite the knowledge of being taken advantage of by the management team, it felt as if a load had been lifted from our shoulders.  Our feelings had been right.  Our hired team was not being truthful with us and our instincts had been correct.

We decided to go with our intuitions the second time around and made some changes.  We hired Juan as our full time caretaker.  The farm was his canvas; it was his turn to show us what he could do with it.  We also hired a full time employee to work underneath Juan.  For the first time in his life, Juan was being trusted to show his intelligence in regards to grapes and his ability to be a boss.

Growing up with a father as a caretaker and learning the ways of the vine from a young age developed Juan into a true expert of the field.

Juan did amazing things for our farm and in the meantime we did things for his family.  We provided electricity, a roof, windows, furniture, house wares, clothing and other needed items.  We even bought Ann dentures; it was an incredible feeling when we saw her new, beautiful smile.

With time the language barriers came down and the family that we were once warned against became our new Argentine family.  Their love, trust and ability to teach us the little importance of materialistic values was, at times, overwhelmingly wonderful.

When we chose to sell the farm, Juan’s family was one of the main reasons we were sad to do so.

On our last night on the farm the family came to wish us goodbye.

We gathered in a group hug to say our farewells.  As I felt the warmth and affection from Ann and Maria Sol on either side of me, I realized that I was hearing the sniffles and short breaths of tears being shed.  Tears flowed down my cheeks.

This was a grand life lesson; follow your heart and love will follow.  These five people are now a part of me.

They are my inspiration.

They are the truth of life. Happiness is not the size of the house you own. It is not how much you earn. It is not the car you drive.

Happiness is a state of mind.



  1. […] five years ago when I went from an active social calendar to living with my husband and dog on a isolated 65-acre farm in Argentina. Obviously, for me, I find their collaborative spirit of bringing the knowledge of the […]

  2. […] be moving into a three month skiing sabbatical at Las Leñas (a legitimate circle as that is where our South American journey began). But in questioning my decision to leave Patagonia, I guess I have realized that it comes […]

  3. […] it up. The purchase of this property led to us meeting a person that would change my life forever, Juan. He not only helped me to activate my dreams of really being able to help someone, he also taught […]

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