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Published: February 16th 2009
Have you ever gotten onto a bus for a twelve hour journey and had no idea what World meet you at the other end? That was the fantastically freeing feeling I experienced as I sat cross-legged in my chair on top of a double decker bus, headed for somewhere called Fernandez, 800km north of Buenos Aires. This whole trip so far feels like I have been handed a giant box of candy (or dark chocolate truffles) that I can eat from endlessly without getting full. The bus terminal in Buenos Aires pretty much gave rebirth to the word bedlam. It consisted of a long, straight platform with over 50 buses lined up in a row, pulling in and out, with hundreds of passengers and wisher-well people milling about with their baggage. Over the loudspeaker bus platforms and destinations were being announced, intermitten with bursts of Spanish from bus conductors on bullhorns announcing the immident departure of their ride, which we hoped wasn´t ours. Backpackers, local couples, families of six children, old Bolivian couples in fluorescent traditional garb headed all over the Americas. And there was Gerborg and I, two blonds with hopeless Spanish, standing with our backpacks and tickets
that indicated our bus would pull up somewhere between platforms 19-29. I felt a bit like Harry Potter, like where am I supposed to go exactly? The bus that was scheduled to leave at 8pm pulled up at 8:05, we saw the label for Santiago del Estero and recognizing it to be the capital of the region of our destination, hopped on with a bit of luck and it all began. I was listening to the great song by the Kinks from the Djardeeling Express soundtrack
“This time tomorrow what will we know? I can see the world and it ain´t so big at all. This time tomorrow what will we see? This time tomorrow where will we be?”.....
And of course the French classics from Charles Aznavour like La Boheme and
"Amenez moi au bout de la terre, amenez moi aux pays de merveilles. Il me semble que la misère serait moins painible au soleil ( rough translation: take me to the ends of the the earth, take me to countries filled with marvels. It seems to me that misery will be less painful under the sun)"
In Fernandez we redefined our understanding of heat.
Its the hottest region of Argentina and we arrived during high summertime so you can imagine the dust and… We were picked up by a 75 year old German man, founder of the sprawling, much dilapidated development Foundation where we would set up camp for the next ´five days before starting our tour of the north. The other young German volunteers showed us to our round, adobe hovel of choice and after flooding it, mopping, and shooing out the dogs, scorpions and spiders it was very cozy. In La Banda we danced and drank enormous cups of beer at the local folklore festival. I will never forget the way the dancers twirled and spun across the stage in their long red dresses, enacting the night when the devil came down to earth and danced with a woman all night, until she dropped dead at dawn. Why do all the legends end up with the beautiful woman dead?
In Santiago-del-Estero we sat around a backyard charcoal barbeque and around 1am finally partook of the delicious beef asiago that this country is so rightfully famous for. Our host Diego and the other German volunteers explained why life outside of the capital
Tucuman, the city where Argentina's founding fathers declared independence from Spain...many murals to show it too
is so much superior and desirable (safety, friendly neighbours and block party style feasts all throughout the year etc..)
In Tucuman I prayed for a photographic memory. We walked through he museum where the founding fathers of Argentina first declared their independence from Spain, and strangely the room where the signing was performed is the only surviving part of the original house. I bought a few rosaries at the local artisanal market and then we drove up the mountains with Jose, our old German tour guide and host, to pick up 15 teenagers from a camp they had been attending. It felt like driving out of the desert and entering the lushness of a subtropical rainforest. Actually that’s what it was, and I will never stop being surprised at the variety of geographical climates you can drive through here in one day. For a former priest, Jose is well versed in the average slurs of road rage and his attempt to express them in English like ¨He has no light on his ass! Asshole!¨were endlessly amusing.
Next in El Mollar we walked through the fields of the Menhires stones, the Argentinian equivalent of the stone henge. It was
the most peaceful, green field of emerald green grass and even in the drizzle I didn’t want to leave. Having driven 500km on Wednesday we stopped for the night at a hostel in Cafayette and ate hot tamales and humida on the plaza. I bought some lama-wool purses as souvenirs and took pictures of a troupe of young Bolivians performing traditional dances in the park at midnight. The next day, driving through the mountainous National Conservation park we passed waterfalls and move around rivers in the midst. What a magical place. Around every other corner or so you could see the red hanging flags overtop a minerature red brick house, indicating a shrine to Saint Gil, patron saint of travels and those who die on the road. One of the most unforgettable moments was shortly after passing a large waterfall on a ¨horseshoe corner¨ and around the bend was a wide shelf carved out of the face of the mountain´s dark rock, filled with bottles of many shapes and sizes all centered around a white female statue. The unexpected scene was lit by a dozen or so white candles flowing between the water offerings and somehow not extinguished despite al
the thick mist. After reaching the top of the mountain at 3, 102 meters we stopped alongside the road to watch horses galloping across the field in a heated polo match.
One Jesuit monestary and several national monuments later I placed my first stone on the large pile of rocks for pacha-mama, the incarnation of mother earth worshiped by the Incas and still veneered today. Gerborg and I always hopped out of the truck whenever we saw the piles of rocks, on random mountaintops or riversides during the treck and we only got blessings in return. For some interesting reason the statues of virgin mary seemed to always be nearby, and its nice to see that the two ladies get along quite well in these parts.
In the Camino de Lara we saw our first cactus fields, stretching forever into the valley and seemingly beyond. Driving along a road lined with yellow daiseys we descended intot he heart of the Quilmes valley to climb into the Indian ruins there. Dear eccentric Jose, apparently a big fan of parrots, bellowed out “papaguy, papaguy!” whenever a flock of the dark blue and green birds burst out from a bush in front
of us. Quilmes is the ruins of a native city, the last stronghold against the Spanish invaders who besieged them there in the early 1700´s until enslaving the population (what else?)
In the middle of nowhere outside Cachi where the landscape more resembles photos of Mars than anywhere on earth, we picked up a group of 7 young female hitchickers from Buenos Aires and dropped them off four hours later in an equally godforsaken village where we had work to do. I haven´t mentioned that Gerborg and I had been enlisted by Jose to be his assistants, along with a short native-American electrician named Louis ( who lives in the watertower at the Foundation) on an expedition to install solar panels for several peasant clients. That’s right. So in the pass above Laguna del Praelito we pulled up to the indigenous woman´s house and learned how to mix cement, haul buckets of sand up the mountainside, carve wood poles with oversized axes, adjust solar panels to the ideal direction and gracefully eat delicious boiled vegetables while flicking away hoards of voracious flies.
In the Laguna del Praelito, a sacred green volcanic lake in the mountains, we avoided the
fishing-scene and climbing directly into the orange rocks above. Thankfully our electrician friend Louis was from that area and became our tour guide, showing us the amazing view overlooking the Laguna that doubled as a sacred site for druids and shamans over the ages. The llama cave drawings and heirogcliphs in red, white and black paint were also fascinating.
In La Casona del Viejo Molino we had the pleasure of dining with a family, one of Joses endless friend-networks after 40 years in Argentina. They run a very hidden-away, comfortable hostel outside Seclantas. In the morning on our second day there, their oldest son took us riding out to the ruins of the first Spanish administration in the area. With a white and black stallion between the three of us, we galloped through the long yellow grasses beside a river, no houses or people in sight for miles…just blue mountains and wide flat pampas in every direction. At one spot in the river we came upon a group of horses and our stallions went nuts, showing off to the mares and we had to dash across the river and dodge around the thorn bushes to get away before a
fight broke out. It was so difficult to leave that family and their pet llama who had the adorable habit of sticking his head in the living room window and wrestling on the ground with their dog (Im not sure if Pepe thought he was a dog or a child but it was adorable regardless!)
On the roadside outside Seclantas we stopped to see how ponchos are woven from llama wool, and I bought long a red and black striped gaucho belt woven with the colours of the region. A bit further down the road we visited the workhop of the most famous weaven in Argentina la Torugo. He has Pope John Paul amongst his clientelle, so we used the last of our pesos to buy woven bracelets from him in the Saltian Gaucho tradition ( a little history, Gaucho Guemes wore the black and red poncho in the war for independece so they´re quite reveered)
Finally, on the way back to Fernandez we stopped in the regional capital of Salta to eat dinner at a restaurant where the musicians double as waiters. It´s an old colonial house purchased by a music school to fund the students. So
after an extremely moving, powerful folklore song I signaled to the drummer and asked for more tea…really funny because earlier I had been joking to Gerborg what a mess it would be if the musicians doubled as the chefs and servers but they WERE and it was great service and sizzling hot asiago too. So after driving 600km home, taking a detour because the local police strike had shut down the highway temporarily, we got back to Fernandez, said bye to our friends there and hopped on the overnight bus for Buenos Aires.
Now it´s time to say goodbye to our pristine haven of an apartment in Palermo Soho and hug the dashingly handsome landlord goodbye. Tomorrow morning I will (hopefully, fingers and all toes crossed) pick up my visa from the Brazilian consulate and get on a bus for the Falls of Iguazu and Brazil!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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