These are always short at first, then they get longer as time goes by and the newness wears away; the first time on a bus, the first time in a small town again, the sound of unabated wind, these things take time to get used to. You don’t want to interrupt your acclimation.
A guy just walked by me with flip flops, no shirt and sunglasses in his hand. I can hear a bid trilling in the tree above me and another back behind the hostel with a slightly slower tempo. Gina and I just got here after moving from another hostel. It is still a key moment of our trip. Early yesterday morning we woke up in Salta. We had taken a 19-hour bus over night from Buenos Aires and came into the medium sized city around 6 in the evening. Compared to the pace of Buenos Aires, it was relaxing. Still, while we were climbing around a hilltop the next afternoon, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed at still being in a familiar place. A place that albeit was less Argentine than many other cities I’ve visited, but still predictable in other aspects. The regional food was advertised as such, rather than being a matter of course. During the day the streets were still noisy and although we found a nice hiking trail it terminated in a motorcycle racing track. All this made me feel more determined to get into a new country where there would be more open countryside to wander.
The next day we got on the bus with tickets to La Quiaca on the border with Bolivia. I was a little stressed out about the prospect of changing Argentine pesos for bolivianos and had woken up early to use the internet and calculate a reasonable rate for the pile of notes I’ve got stashed in my sock and in other less conspicuous places. We left Salta, still in the dregs of morning light on the horizon; a light already strong and clear as it is in the morning in the desert. Outside the city, the tawny rolling hills began to break open to the jagged rock underneath. The red and yellow stone began to rip through in an almost brutal fashion creating a sublime landscape in which even the double-decker bus felt like a Matchbox toy, rolling along haphazardly. Cactus began to brindle along the facets of the colored mountains and then land along the road dove down into green valleys that seethed along the riverbanks.
We took in the new landscape and sighed over the ticket stubs in our pockets that were due to take us past it all into a town that our hosts back in Salta had said had nothing to detour the traveler. I looked out longingly at the arch, crumbling landscape and wished there had been a way to see it without having to employ the services of a tourist agency. I contented myself by thinking that I was at least able to take a look at it and take a few smeary bus window pictures by which to remember it.
After about three hours we pulled into a stop in a town called Tilcara that I had never heard of. The Lonely Planet had mentioned it in a passing way, but not in any kind of superlative ‘must-see’ language. Imagine: an old clapboard western movie set amidst incredible jasper and copper mountains and a small hippy town in Vermont shaken in together with adobe and dust and broad felt hats worn by men and women alike. The bus station was a formality, it was a place people came to rejoicing; they did not leave, but we did. The town was too small for a long stop over. The bus had been still about two minutes, giving us just enough time to gasp before it began moving again. ‘No, no, no,’ I thought. ‘Why did I not pluck up the courage quickly enough to run for the front of the bus yelling ‘para, para, queremos dejar aca!’? I quickly sidetracked myself by focusing on the next town, Humahaca, which had actually been written up as a popular tourist destination. It was in the same region, it was also small. Yes, Humahaca would be just as nice, if not better, we would get off there. I ran the idea by Gina, she thought it sounded good and with Humahaca only 40 km down the road we started to gather up our stuff to jump off. Already envisioning a reckless retreat into the scattered mountains, the bus driver chasing after us with our bags, while we shouted back to him just to pawn that crap; we didn’t need it; we had found our mountain paradise.
As we drove further and further away from Tilcara the scenery began to droop. The towns began to look hastily constructed out of everyday materials: wire and concrete wounds on a quickly greying desert. The mountains were still spectacular but they no longer had the burnished and colorful look to them. Had they become commonplace already? Had our imaginations merely leapt at the area around Tilcara because it was the first place we had seen? The cactuses shriveled up and turned to rocks, indifferent rocks. The blue of the sky glazed over from lapis lazuli to suburban pool water. Humahaca sat crowded and city-like amidst the now faded grandeur of the mountains. Gina and I looked at each other. What happened? There was an advertisement playing over and over again on a stereo system within range of the bus station. I gave up and sat back into the seat, beginning to feel both dejected and restless; the bus was stationary, there was still time to do something. I pondered for a moment and then jumped up, telling Gina I’d be right back. I ran to the nearest ticket window. ‘Hay algo por Tilcara hoy?’ Si, a las dos’ The lady in the ticket window informed me. Ok, good enough. It was 11:30. We wouldn’t have to wait that long. I ran back on the bus. ‘Gina, c’mon let’s get off here.’ With her wonderful sangfroid she shrugs sleepily and gathers up the stuff around the seat. Outside, I tell the driver we’re getting off and need our stuff. He tells me no. We have to go to where our ticket says, la Quiaca, which is still about three hours away. I tell him that we’ve got to get off here. He doesn’t understand, so I just repeat it again. Finally, he gives in and tells the porter to get our bags out. The porter comes over and says that I need to wait to La Quiaca. ‘I need to get off here.’ ‘La Quiaca.’ ‘Here.’ We take the bags out and the bus departs. I go up to another ticket window and find that there’s a bus that leaves at 12. On the crowded bus we’re even able to find seats next to each other.
Tilcara, has no sewage system and no gas. I can’t remember the last time I saw a place so wonderful. We walked out along a canyon yesterday and down into a waterfall. It was such a beautiful trail that we got up at dawn this morning to walk it again. I made the instant coffee a little too strong and had a panicky moment watching Gina walk nowhere near the edge. On the way back we encountered a little kid who told us that he was going to school and asked if we wanted to go with him. We were up along the edge of the canyon. There was nothing around. He was walking down the trail that we had just come back from and had seen nothing. ‘There’s a school?’ ‘Si, signor.’ ‘What do you study there? ‘…’ ’Do you study math?’ ’Si.’ ‘Languages?’ ‘Si.’ ‘Which languages?’ ‘…’ Ok, kid, go with God.’ But there was no point in saying that; there’s no other way for a kid going to school in the mountains to go.