To the west, long white salt flats and over snowy peaks, Chile. North, across the barren expanse, the Bolivian altiplano. To the South, majestic Mt. Chañi of Jujuy province in Argentina. And east, an enormous nearly full moon just rising over the hills. There at 3200m in the middle of nowhere, I witnessed the most beautiful sunset I'd ever seen.
Earlier that afternoon, I wandered from San Salvador de Jujuy into Purmamarca, the first of a series of idyllic villages in the Quebranta de Humahuaca (roughly, Humahuaca "Canyon"). After a short walk through impressive geological formations, I got antsy from the omnipresent tourist infrastructure, sport-clothed crawling porteños, and began to think that I should just appreciate the area's beauty from the bus while zooming up to cross the border in the evening (this whole time I've wrestled with when to stop and when to keep going, the project ahead is starting to weigh on me again). In a last attempt to dissuade myself, I visited the tourist information post and obtained a map of the area where I immediately noticed that some 60km up I would find salinas grandes, large salt flats. The taxi would cost too much and I was told that there'd be no guarantee of finding accommodation in the small village some 10km from the main road that I'd located, that it would also be incredibly cold at night, but I still quickly managed to hitch with some hospital workers heading up for their 9-day shift in another small village.
We crossed a pass at 4200m, then swooped down into a large plain with the salinas at the back and I hopped off at the road crossing. The air was still, dry and hot, the sun was sharp. Everything popped with incredible contrast, enveloped in complete perfect silence.
For two hours I just sang, practiced accents or focused on the crunch of my footsteps on gravel as the light changed. I crossed some cows, a donkey, vicuñas, three cars passed me, and eventually I arrived in Tres Morros, the village I had noticed on the map which was actually just made up of three houses and a church. I was quickly located by guard dogs, then André came to hush them.
André is the third generation of his family mining borax from the salt mines. The mineral has many uses, but he mentioned it as a base element for ceramic enamels. He inherited this small complex where he employs and lodges 10-15 workers who work 23 days on and 7 days off. Most of the crew was on leave but I got to meet three of them, though I only caught Waldo and Silverri's names. Good-natured and smiling, we quickly worked out that I could stay the night with them. I gave them my cookies and what was left of the coca leaves I'd been chewing, dropped my pack, then ran onto a nearby hill to photograph the sun's end-of-day ode to the lunar landscape.
After tea and home-made bread, we ate potato mash and fried breaded steak, then a thick soup with another beef cutlet, all under candle light since the generator had broken down. They had just slaughtered one of their cows two days prior and were excited to show me all the meat they had, including the skull that remained after they feasted on the 10-hour fire-roasted head. The food was good, enhanced by the company. I always find that there is a lot to converse and laugh about with Andean people. Argentina seems to have moved much more aggressively with its Spanish education programmes than in Peru or Bolivia though, because no one knew of anyone who still speaks Quechua, other than Silverri's grandmother.
After dinner we drove to André's home in Moreno 30min away to drop off some beef for freezing, fetch some adobe blocks for construction and I also got to meet his wife and two sons. Once back, we quickly parted to our rooms to crawl under thick wool-like blankets and find some warmth and sleep in the cold night.
The breakfast of coffee mixed with yerba mate and bread was quick. Then we said our goodbyes, they resumed work constructing a new room for the house and I hiked back out to the main road. It then took another 2 hours until someone offered me a ride, but I still made it back on time to catch the series of buses I needed to make it across the border by 20h and see the amazing landscape unfold as we rose up to the Bolivian plateau.
Leading up to Jujuy
I found it hard to take many photographs in Buenos Aires after the exciting day spent at the demonstration. I rather bring you stories than descriptive street pictures. I mostly spent long mornings with my friend and then walked without end through the metropolis' myriad neighbourhoods. I came away with the impression that it would take months to mentally grasp its size and character, much less begin to know the thousands of hidden gems, theatres, bars, cafés, parks, that are strewn throughout its cosmopolitan well-architectured fabric. I still managed to cross another demonstration, this time at night and carried out by slightly more upper class citizens, asking for justice and proper respect of national values all the same. ¡CACEROLAZO!
I left with a 21h bus north to Salta, the famously beautiful and pleasant northern provincial capital surrounded by Andean foothills. I only spent an afternoon there but was instantly taken by its charm and palpable sense of community. As was my luck, I happened upon an important annual parade of gauchos from surrounding areas, the emblematic Argentinean cattle ranchers, in full traditional garb. It was followed by a moving communal mass held in the same street. The priest's main message to the crowd was to sing, everyday, and revel in the beauty of that which we're lucky to be surrounded by. ¡Salta no es linda, es bellísima!
Some linguistic observations to end the diatribe. Residents of Buenos Aires, porteños, speak a particular slang made up of words acquired from their Mediterranean immigrant populations called lunfardo. I was told that few people realise that the words they are using are lunfardo, but as such, piber means young man and cana or botón mean jail, to give examples. In Argentina I also got to appreciate the Spanish language's fun capacity for reinvention. There, factura most often doesn't mean "bill" but "pastry" Chivito is not a young goat but a beef steak. Like in Paraguay, sopa can mean "soup" or a thick salty corn and cheese cake. Finally, pava can still mean female turkey (or "woman", sometimes "hot woman" in Spanish slang) but it's more commonly used to describe a kettle. Where else in the world can you travel where the language is spoken across so many contiguous countries? I'm even more fascinated by the history behind this fact, of which I'm getting a good refreshing dose in Bolivia.