There is so much wrong with the world it seems sensible to look at what countries can do right. For something new I will highlight six countries that are normally not part of the international discussion, they being:
- San Marino
- The Gambia
So what makes a good country? To answer the question, one must ask, “What makes a good neighbor?” First and foremost it is important to have a sense of proportion. Nobody wants a neighbor to buy half a city block and build a sprawling compound, those neighbors being:
RUSSIA: A land grab in Crimea only makes Poland and the Baltic States nervous.
CHINA: Tibet would still like its country back.
So having a neighbor who will not build a garage on your lot line is a good start. So how does one prevent the encroachment? Having natural boundaries helps. For example, being an island in the middle of the Mediterranean helps Malta remain Malta. Another effective boundary is a fence.
The poet Robert Frost once lamented how nature doesn’t love a wall. I don’t if that is totally the case when it comes to mountains. The imposing Himalayas create a nice buffer between Bhutan and China. Chile has remained relatively stable with the help of the Andes. In some cases, having a fence allows neighbors to remain neighbors.
Another attribute to have in a neighbor is one that takes pride in the upkeep of his or her property. The front yard is the introduction and it is a considerate notion to fill the space with natural beauty. A good example is Bhutan with a government mandate that 60% of its land remain forested.
Malta and Singapore took a different approach and completely deforested their countries. Still, they have made attempts to bring nature back.
Malta passed the Fertile Soil Preservation Act of 1973 where any soil excavated from a construction site must be transferred to farmland. Still, the rocky terrain isn’t conducive for much agriculture. The Encyclopedia Britannica even describes the brittle soil like a French runway model, being “…young, immature and thin.”
In Singapore the government started a conservation program to mandate at least 10% of the land be set aside for parks and reserves. So if you visit this tiny nation, you can walk through its botanical gardens that house 1000 types of orchids. Then you can wander through the Gardens by the Bay, a billion dollar futuristic park which may foreshadow how we all eventually will interact with nature, the interaction being clean, efficient and not very natural.
Singapore is a country that runs more like a business. And like any company concerned with its image, there are rules not only for the employees (citizens) but customers (tourists) as well. Guess which of the below is not considered a violation.
- Walking around nude in your own home
- Not flushing the toilet
They are all punishable with fines up to one thousand dollars. You can’t even stick gum under a park bench for the country banned its sale in 1992. And forget about being a vandal. That will incur the corporal punishment of a caning.
Singapore is the neighbor who is constantly looking out the front window with the cops on speed dial. So you better think twice about playing football in your front yard because you don’t want an errant pass to end up in Singapore’s prized orchid collection.
Besides having a front yard with green grass, groomed trees and colorful flowers, it’s also nice to show a little civic pride. Flags are the personification of what a country believes, but what the colors represent can vary from country to country.
Red represents the blood spilled for independence in Chile, but means the sun in The Gambia. In Bhutan white represents purity, but in Chile it represents the snow-capped Andes. In The Gambia, blue represents the iconic river, but in San Marino it represents liberty.
Now if you are going to wave a flag in your front yard, you should have a motto to back it up, a little saying to inspire you when you are running across a golden meadow to clash with a mortal enemy or firing up the leaf blower on a Saturday afternoon.
Most county mottos are a relatively benign like The Gambia’s “Progress, Peace and Prosperity.” Malta’s “Power and Consistency” sounds like something you would look for in a mid-size truck. “Onward Singapore” sounds pretty pedestrian until you look at the country on the map. It actually looks like it is departing from the Malay Peninsula.
Then there are countries that don’t have a motto for their official titles say enough. There is The Kingdom of Bhutan aka The Thunder Dragon Kingdom. Then on the opposite side of the fence is The Most Serene Republic of San Marino.
Based on these two titles you would probably want San Marino as a neighbor for it would be practicing tai chi in the backyard while Bhutan would definitely be wailing on its electric guitar in the garage. (Thunder!)
Speaking of noise, it’s always best to have neighbors that are occasionally seen but rarely heard. This is especially true when it comes to pets. Nobody wants to wake up at 5 am to barking dogs or crowing roosters. Pets can help foster friendly social intercourse, but it must be the right kind of pet.
Chile’s huemul may work, but then again, it looks like a North America Deer that started lifting weights. I don’t think The Gambia’s hamerkop would work either. With an angular head and buffed torso, it looks like it could work as a bouncer in some avian nightclub. Malta may have the answer for its national animal is at least domesticated – the kelb tal-fenck aka rabbit dog.
The kelb tal-fenck is such a fine specimen that the American Kennel Club describes it like an Italian sports car:
“ General appearance is one of grace, power and speed. Its head is long, lean and chiseled… It has a long, lean and muscular neck… Its shoulders are long and well laid back… It handles mountain curves with exceptional ease… It’s acceleration over uneven terrain is unparalleled…. Its exterior also comes in black, tan and Chilean red.”
Pets can help a neighbor become neighborly, but nobody beats friendliness more than an excellent host. Singapore may fine you for chewing gum naked in your own kitchen, but Malta just wants you to enjoy your visit.
Malta is an old country and being in the middle of the Mediterranean with the continents of Europe and Africa less than 200 miles from its shores, it has always been occupied. It has seen so many foreign armies it is almost easier to list the countries that haven’t invaded:
- The Grenadine Islands
- Costa Rica
Having so many uninvited visitors throughout the years has imbued this tiny nation with a welcoming spirit. Maybe the residents were aware that most invaders were there to visit but to never stay. Malta has always been a high-seas truck stop. It welcomed St. Paul for a three month visit when a shipwreck washed him to shore. On the run from the pope in Rome, Baroque painter and all-around rabble-rouser, Caravaggio, laid low there for fifteen months in hopes time away would cool the papal anger.
The Knights of Malta offered the hothead protection and in return Caravaggio painted one of his masterpieces, not of the Maltese landscape or a portrait of a kelb tal-fenck taking a corner at 30 mph. Instead he thanked the knights by painting an immense (12 by 16 feet) scene of the beheading of St. John the Baptist.
This offer of thanks is like showing up to your neighbor’s dinner party with wilted flowers and expired sauerkraut. I wonder what the knights said to each other when they first saw the immense painting.
KNIGHT 1: We stick out our necks for this guy and this is how he repays us, by foreshadowing what may happen to us?
KNIGHT 2: Do any of you have a closet big enough for this?
Besides having a welcoming attitude, a neighbor should provide plenty of activities. Nobody wants to spend an evening trying to play Jenga with a combination of checkers and dominoes because the host was too cheap to buy the real version. No, if you are going to visit a foreign country, you want to have plenty to do. That’s what makes Chile so inviting.
Being 2,600 miles long and only 200 miles wide, Chile looks like a coastal country solely dedicated to beachfront property. But if surfing and sunbathing are not your thing, then head into the Andes where you can ski and snowboard to your heart’s content. And if that isn’t exciting enough, then strap on some crampons and spend the day scaling a frozen glacier.
Still want a sense of nature but with more heat. Then head north to the Atacama Desert with 350 cloudless days in the year. This Chilean paradise is officially the driest place on the planet with an average yearly rainfall of NOTHING!
So what to do in a desert with no chance of survival? Well, stick close to the coast and bring along that snowboard to surf the largest urban sand dune in the world, Dragon Hill. (Thunder!)
This sand dune looks like a frozen tidal wave just waiting to crash upon the good citizens of Iquique. But before that day of reckoning, surf all the way into town and grab a completo in the town square. (Delicioso!)
Surfing in the desert not your thing? Then drive to the other end of the country where you can almost see the South Pole. Patagonia is a place so remote none other than famed television celebrity and nature survivalist Bear Grylls almost died while filming one of his survival episodes in Man vs. Wild. Don’t believe me? Here is a picture of him trying to use a primitive sailboat made out of discarded driftwood in a desperate attempt to reach civilization. (Spoiler Alert: The camera crew had to bail him out.)
Staying alive a priority while vacationing? Then why not visit the city of Valparaiso, a town that time forgot, a once booming port that was soon bypassed with the opening of the Panama Canal. Age may be showing on this beauty, so why not help cover its wrinkles with street art.
Don’t worry, this isn’t Singapore. Roll a joint and grab a spray can. The city needs your help or as its most famous resident, poet Pablo Neruda, said of his hometown:
How absurd you are You haven’t even combed your hair You never had time to get dressed Life has always surprised you
Not interested in huffing paint fumes while tagging public buildings? Then make a day of it in the capital of Santiago. Here you can sit at a local café and drink regional wines while listening to locals complain about government spending. Want music and dancing? Why aren’t you in Brazil?
And there is the rub. Even though it would be fun to have neighbors who throw one heck of a pool party, I think we all would prefer to have neighbors that are low-key and short on the drama. Nobody wants neighbors that samba every night. Nobody wants to look out their bay window for they hear shouting and yelling as an unfaithful husband’s clothes are being run over by a riding lawnmower. Sober behavior may be boring, but it does bring about a certain stability.
Chile may not be the most “fun” country on the South American block, but it is by far the most responsible. It receives no foreign aid from the United States and even has established a sovereign wealth fund from the proceeds of its national mines. It’s also the only South American Country in the Top Twenty of The Heritage Foundation Economic Freedom Score.
Unsurprisingly, Singapore ranks #2. With no debt, open markets and low taxes, Singapore is a poster child on how to run a country/corporation. Government integrity is paramount to this tiny nation; so much that the CIA World Factbook describes the country as “Remarkably open and corruption free. I mean, how can we work with these squares if we can’t blackmail them?”
Not only is stability an important aspect of a good neighborhood but safety as well. All countries so far mentioned have a Level 1 clearance by the US State Department when it comes to travel. Remarkably, the British peacefully handed over the keys to the people of The Gambia, Malta and Singapore without instigating a civil war.
In its long history, the Kingdom of Bhutan has never once been occupied/colonized. As a Buddhist nation it has tried to provide a counterpoint to ever-expanding Western commercialism. The former monarch, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, even created a Gross National Happiness (GNH) instead of a Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The king believed his citizens would be better off if the country followed these core tenants:
- Equitable socio-economic development
- Preservation of cultural and spiritual heritage
- Conservation of the environment
- Good governance
But in order to achieve this national well-being, the king leaned heavily on tenant #2 by expelling 1/6TH (100,000) of all non-Buddhists from the country.
It may be easy to achieve cultural preservation and national harmony by kicking out the minorities, but is it neighborly? For in the end the best attribute to have in a neighbor is one willing to step in to lend a hand, which brings us to San Marino.
San Marino is a tiny nation (23 square miles). It’s also one of the few countries completely surrounded by another (Italy). To look at it on a map is to see a micro country, a craft state that someone created in the garage, which is not so far from the truth.
San Marino came about during the fall of the Roman Empire. Its name comes from its founder, Marinus, a stonemason who fled Roman oppression in modern-day Croatia.
Marinus didn’t end up in Malta but found refuge on Mount Titano in the Apennine Mountains. He liked the place so much he decided to build a monastery. From there a tiny nation sprouted on the hillside with the idea that all citizens should be free. And with this strange notion in the middle of feuding Papal States, San Marino went onto to achieve some remarkable milestones.
- Established its sovereignty on September 3, 301
- Is now the oldest extent sovereign state
- Wrote its constitution in 1631
- Is now the oldest running constitutional republic
What is even more remarkable is how San Marino was able to achieve any of this by being so tiny. It helped that it has never been occupied by a foreign power. (Napoleon once stopped by for tea.) But how? Could the surrounding powers not find it?
It probably helped that San Marino was founded by a stonemason and not a stockbroker. Money is fine, but castle walls built on an Italian mountain helps keeps the away the riffraff.
From the beginning this tiny nation made a point of making sure its citizens were free to live their lives and elect whoever they wanted. And it was with this unshakeable belief in liberty – written in Latin on its flag – that gave its citizens the desire to reach out to a relatively young nation that was on the cusp of a crisis.
Like a thoughtful neighbor who brings over a casserole dish for a grieving family or a chainsaw to help remove a felled tree, San Marino sent a letter to the leader of this struggling nation to let him know the citizens of the tiny republic were thinking of him. And in a diplomatic act of lifting someone’s spirits, the citizens made this leader an honorary citizen. His struggle was their struggle. Their beliefs were what he was fighting for. And even though this leader was in the midst of national and personal turmoil, he took the time to thank the citizens for their kind words, honorary title and sterling example what all nations should hope to be:
Although your dominion is small, your State is nevertheless one of the most honored, in all history. It has by its experience demonstrated the truth, so full of encouragement to the friends of Humanity, that Government founded on Republican principles is capable of being administered as to be secure and enduring… Your Good Friend, Abraham Lincoln p.s. Thank you for the Viennese pound cake. Mrs. Lincoln and I found it delightful.
FUN FACT #1
When I was young, I thought that the food chili came from the country Chile. After all, turkeys were invented in Turkey, right? But did you know chili was created in Texas and Texas and Chile share the same flag design.
So which flag came first? That would be Chile by 21 years, although both flags drew inspiration from the United States Flag.
FUN FACT #2
The waxing moon on the Singapore flag represents a young nation on the rise. The five stars represent the country’s ideals. Which of the below does not belong?
- Fresh Breath
Hint: You can’t freshen your breath without any gum.
FUN FACT #3
The Gambia is only one of two countries that has the word “The” in the official name of the country. (The Bahamas is the other.) Why the The? The citizens felt like putting a The in front of Gambia would help separate their small nation from other similarly named African countries like Guinea, Ghana and Gabon.
FUN FACT #4
San Marino is one of the few countries that do not have a national flower, animal or tree. Since it has no taxes on the sales of its goods it almost acts like a duty free shop. With this understanding, here are some suggestions to help shape the country’s identity.
NATIONAL FLOWER: Dutch Tulips – 1 for $3 Euro or 12 for $26
NATIONAL TREE: IKEA Bookshelf – $120 Euro
NATIONAL ANIMAL: Animal Muppet Doll $30 Euro – Matching Drum Set $85
FUN FACT #5
Bhutan is one of the few countries that have a net zero rating when it comes to greenhouse emissions. It probably helps that 70% of the land is covered in trees and it became the first country to ban the sale of tobacco products.
FUN FACT #6
The Maltese Flag is not a representation of objects and ideals, but a scrapbook of bravery. The vertical red and white stripes come from the banner of Roger the 1st, who in appreciation of the Maltese people’s assistance in fighting the Moors, ripped off a part of his flag and gave it to them. And the cross in the upper left hand corner, is the George Cross awarded to the Maltese by King George the VI for their valiant participation in fighting the Germans and Italians during World War II.