Don't Cry For Us Argentina

SALTA/TUCUMAN, BOLIVIA: November 19-22

Crossing the border from chaotic, cheap, coca-selling Bolivia to the more relaxed and quieter neighbor of Argentina proved painless and easy, although the sign stating our most southerly goal of Ushuaia as 5,121 kilometers away (over 3,182 miles) was both thrilling and daunting. However, we did have our first taste of just how much this country would separate us from our hard-earned cash flow when we tried to exchange money for a ridiculous rip-off rate and then later realized that a 7 hour bus trip that would have cost $3 or less in Bolivia was almost $21. Sh*t! It was at least a small consolation that we would will be even closer to Brazil, which meant that my chances of hearing my new favorite song would probably increase, but even that knowledge still left us glum. To add insult to injury, it came as a shock to learn that not only would we be paying an arm and a leg for bus travel (and plenty of it, considering that Argentina is the 8th largest country in the world), but we would have to start paying for our bags to be stowed in the baggage compartments, on top of tipping attendants on each end of the trip to move our bags no more than 2 feet--we were steaming in more ways than one in the sticky heat.

Peevish and sweaty we took the first of 2 buses, transferring in Jujuy for our final destination of Salta, where we shacked up in the brand new and quite modern 7 Duendes Twin Hostel for $9.50/each in a dorm room (again, those Argentine prices, and this was for a "cheap" hostel!). The following day we putzed around, although I had to keep reminding myself where I was; it was quite evident we were no longer in Bolivia, but it still felt like an in-between place. We walked all over the city (shocker), including quite the hike up stone stairs hugging Cerro San Bernadino, which also featured Catholic Stations of the Cross at strategic locations on the ascent. The top afforded us a magnificent vista of the city, where we also felt quite accomplished next to the people arriving via gondola and even enjoyed some FREE public bathrooms, complete with toilet paper and soap--it felt like Christmas. On the way back to the hostel we tried to locate a food source, but seeing as how it was 2:00 p.m., all restaurants, mercados and businesses were closed for siestas (banks were closed for the day!) and we found our cranky levels rising precipitously. Salvation came in the form of a Bolivian restaurant where the owner graciously agreed to make us empanadas to go, so we settled into chairs and waited for our 1/2 dozen stuffed dough goodies to arrive.

Steve: After picking up our empanadas we walked back to the hostel to eat and catch up on some blogging and overall internet research. Of course, it turned out the empanadas were the best ones on the friggin' planet so we should have gotten a full dozen. We decided that it only made sense to go back and get six more so that we would have something for the following day's adventures. I made Leah stay at the hostel so she could relax and get out of the heat because only one of us really needed to suffer; as it turned out she would end up missing out on a classic experience.

As I returned to the awesome-Bolivian-empanada-lady I noticed that her street sign was already brought into the shop. Although she was getting ready to close up, she kindly obliged me in making more empanadas and she seemed more flattered if anything. No quicker had I taken a seat to wait than a couple of gentlemen sitting across the room asked me where I was traveling from. After hearing that I was from San Diego, California, of the good ol' United States they called me over to sit with them. They promptly began telling me of the sights around northern Argentina that I had to see, even pulling out a couple of tourist maps/brochures for me to take. We then talked about work and I found out that they were both "poets," or more appropriately lyricists for local bands. Then as it turns out one of the gentlemen, Hannibal ("like Silence of the Lambs" he told me in Spanish), is also an Aguirre; he was surprised, excited and enamored all at the same time. We ended up exchanging e-mails and promised to keep in touch as they both had contacts in the U.S. and wanted more. My empanadas being done, we shared a round of hugs and I said good-bye to my newfound Argentine friends, Hannibal and Jose. I left the shop on cloud nine as this kind of unsolicited friendliness is something you only read about but never really expect to encounter. I understand Leah's frustrations with Argentina's high costs but I was already sold on the quality of the people.

Leah: Having decided to stick it to the bus companies, we headed out the next morning with our cardboard signs intent on getting farther south without paying a dime (note to our parents: we had talked to several travelers who hitched throughout Argentina and Chile and assured us that it was easy and, safe, especially with a man the size of Steve. This sentiment was also echoed by our guide book, as there is apparently a huge hitch-hiking culture in these countries, both for locals and visitors. We did our research, I promise!) So what if we white-lied a bit about being on our luna de miel (honeymoon)—our real one wasn't that long ago and we figured it would make us seem less threatening and garner some smiles and free rides.  Having never done this before besides on our epic adventure from Honduras to Nicaragua with our French buddies, we were excited, nervous and figured we had a reasonable chance of a lift within a short time. Welllll, 2 hours later we were still standing at the intersection across from the gas station smiling, throwing out thumbs and trying to maintain the advertised honeymoon glow, despite being sweaty, hungry and sore from perma-grins and keeping our arms perpendicular to our bodies for hours on end.

Soon there were two other locals hitching as well, so the passing cars had their choice of a local woman, a local man or two wonky gringos. We’re not sure if that ended up being the final lucky straw or not, but soon enough we saw a shiny grey Peugot pulled over to the roadside and a friendly middle-aged man beckoned us to climb aboard. Pedro said he could only take us 25 kilometers east, but it was 25 free kilometers, so we were fine with that! Along the way we passed acre after acre of sugarcane, as our new friend explained about his work as an agronomic engineer and the trials and tribulations of fatherhood with 3 teenage girls (not that my own dear old dad would know a thing about that!). Pedro was chatty, answered our various questions about Argentina, exports and local dishes to try, all while zipping us along the fairly empty highway on the road to Guemes, where we could catch a ride south. Soon enough we bade our buddy goodbye and watched his car pass from site, as we mopped the beading sweat from our foreheads on the outside of town and wondered if we’d be sleeping under the stars in the sugarcane fields that night.

We had barely taken sips from our water bottles and propped our backpacks against a pole when the next brave soul took up the gauntlet of schlepping us around. David, a food distributor and business owner, drove us the entire way from Guemes to Tucuman, over a 4 hour car ride. Along the way we learned all about his business (see, foodies attract foodies!), laughed about him being a father to 3 girls (seriously, what was going on?), learned about the national parks in the area, heard the story of how he met his wife (love at first sight during college!) and even dabbled in a few political discussions with our fellow Catholic. However, suddenly, Steve whipped around in the front seat and exclaimed, “I just got stung in the neck!” I of course reassured him that nothing of the sort had happened in the air conditioned car with closed windows, but upon closer inspection I could in fact see the protruding stinger and the bee crawling around on his pants. David screeched to a halt so we could deal with the situation; after removing the stinger I made sure Steve wasn’t have a severe reaction and we traipsed back to the car.

With temperatures soaring over 105 degrees and fields and wildlife sailing past our peripheral vision, David announced that he was hungry. I told him I had empanadas he was welcome to, but he said we would stop for a proper lunch instead. We pulled up to a roadside rest-stop (since he drives the route a few times a week he definitely seems to have his favorite spot) and struggled our way through the unrelenting heat and humidity to the cool confines of the restaurant where we ordered sandwiches and a large bottle of Sprite to share. After a quick prayer we got down to the business of eating and more talking, our conversation punctuated with David hopping up—or lumbering as it were—to greet friends and business associates. When the bill came and we tried to pay for our portion, David rebuked us with the insistence that he invited us and there was no way he would accept our money. We tried valiantly, but in the end he got his way and after a bathroom break we were on our way. Free ride and free food?! We were incredulous at our luck, but more bowled over by this charitable gentleman who seemed to somehow enjoy having two slightly stinky hitchhikers in his car as much as we enjoyed being in it.

Upon reaching Tucuman, David dropped us a few blocks from the city center outside his apartment; we had the privilege of meeting his wife and snapping a quick picture with many cheek kisses and much thanks before making like turtles down the street with our packs. We debated on trying to hitch to the next biggest town, but it was late afternoon and we decided that wasn’t smart. However, we needed to check bus times to ascertain if we’d try and hitch in the morning, so we had to haul all the way across town (about 20 blocks) to do so. Then, the hostel search began in earnest. Of course if we were avoiding bus fares we sure as heck were avoiding cabs, which meant that we had to criss-cross the city yet again in an attempt to find cheap(ish) lodging--something that’s always enjoyable in scorching wet heat with heavy bags draped down both sides of your shoulders. I’ll save you the details, but the first hostel in our guide book was too expensive, the second was no longer even a standing building and the third was the farthest away and ended up being just as expensive as the first, although I managed to talk them down.

Safely ensconced in our high-ceilinged dorm room, we were spent, aching and just wanted to sleep, but a fellow bunker, Carolina entered soon thereafter and we became caught up in conversation. And by caught I mean stuck in a web of trying to figure out what the heck was coming out of her mouth. The Argentine accent has already been quite the trip to get used to (for those unaware, in Latin American Spanish words with a double “ll” make a “y” sound. Ex: pollo= poi-yo. In Argentine Spanish the double “ll” and words beginning in “y” make a “j” sound. Ex: calle=poi-joe), but she was from Buenos Aires, which apparently is one of the hardest to decipher. I’ll say! Half the time I didn’t know if she was asking a question or telling me something, but somehow we still managed to explain who we were and what we were doing before finally begging off to go to bed.

Sleep itself was intermittent, especially when another dorm mate arrived at 4:30 a.m., a loud and stumbling drunken mess as he poured himself into bed-- and that was before his obscene snoring started! To ice the cake, when I sat up in my top bunk bed in the morning, the only things in my line of site were his spread legs, shredded and holey boxers and protruding man bits that hadn’t stayed tucked safely away. It was a train wreck and to make matters worse, we could hear (and see) him loudly scratching his exposed nether regions in his sleep as we packed to leave. What a way to kick off Thanksgiving Day (and Jayna’s birthday)!

We took a cab to the gas station where we intended to hitch (being clear across town and still sore and demoralized from all the walking the day before with our bags, we decided a few bucks was worth it this time) and sent out mental vibes for more good luck. However, it took us several locations, advice from locals and an hour walk outside of town until we arrived at the spot where we were told people had the best luck heading south. And we thought we were tired and tender before! Steve danced on the sidewalk, I tried to look powerful, coy and unassuming all at the same time and we sipped grapefruit soda and watched local meat vendors with their horse-driven wooden carts parade through town, their loudspeakers blaring. Again, I’ll save you the monotony, but after about 5 hours and not a single hit, we called it a day; we had to make it quite a way to the next biggest town and we weren’t going to risk being stuck in the middle of nowhere.

Lucky us, we now had the privilege of repeating our hour-long walk, but in reverse! (Steve: I did some calculations on MapMyRun.com and in total we hoofed more than 15 miles in two days with full packs; no wonder we've lost weight!) We made it to the bus station and bought a coffee so we could use the wifi, which then prompted Steve to need to use the bathroom. I held down the fort making final arrangements with our Couchsurfer host in Cordoba (our overnight destination) and when Steve came back he had a peculiar look on his face. I asked what was up and he said…

Steve: "You'll never guess who I came across." As I was heading back from the loo, I saw a pair of bright orange pants sitting at a restaurant table; attached to said pants was Megan and attached to her was Taryn. Our American friends from the Uyuni tour just happened to be passing through the Tucuman terminal since their previous destination did not have a direct bus to Cordoba. Our original plans had been to try and meet up with them in Cordoba for a turkey dinner, but Leah and I had realized that this wasn't going to happen. However, seeing them in Tucuman, obviously in the same situation, we ended up having a little Thanksgiving gift right there in the terminal. Seeing some friendly faces on a day that was important to all of us and did wonders for our spirits. Not that we were particularly down or anything, but after an exhausting day of failed hitchhiking (or a successful day of figuring out where not to hitchhike) seeing them helped remind us of the things that we should truly be thankful for. It again seemed as if there are no coincidences--maybe we weren't supposed to have hitched a ride. Otherwise we wouldn't have crossed paths with our friends on this of all days. I realized that Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday of the year--a great chance (excuse) to overeat but more importantly an opportunity to just be thankful...something we should do every day anyways.

Since the girls already had tickets for an earlier bus, we only had a short amount of time to catch up and make plans for meeting up in Cordoba. We sent them on their way and decided that it was time for our Thanksgiving meal. Unbeknownst to us, Tucuman is supposed to have Argentina's best empanadas. Although this claim may have been made by a Tucumanian (?), after having some Thanksgiving empanadas at the bus terminal we would be quick to agree. I for one miss the turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, etc. (all mixed together in heaping forkfuls, of course)--which I swore to Leah I would make up for upon our return to the States--but our empanadas were a hearty substitute. We said some Thanksgiving prayers, giving thanks for our health and safety as well as for that of all of our loved ones back at home, and quickly dug in to an array of stuffed pastries--pollo picante, beef, ham and cheese, capresse, and the piece de resistance the marinera empanada--cheese, onion and shrimp. On my honor I will figure out how to make these and I will bring them back to the States (along with potato rellenos and lomo pizza, the latter of which will be in a future blog entry!). So family and friends back at home, don't worry, we ate well and gave thanks just like the rest of you!

With a couple of hours left to kill before boarding our bus we ventured across the street from the terminal to the Parque 9 de Julio, a giant multi-use space that is probably about a mile square. No sooner had we gotten to the corner of the terminal when we became a threesome...a tan, wolf-eyed dog tagged along with us, apparently having learned that the safest way to navigate and cross the busy intersection was with humans. He stayed with us as we found a nice place on the grass to rest our bones. Although Argentina has an inordinate amount of street dogs like the rest of Central and South America they seem to have a different relationship, with many Argentines leaving food and/or water out on the sidewalks and not being afraid to show some affection via petting. Our new companion was clearly not a stranger to pets as he settled in and relaxed while we stroked him behind the ears. Leah found that he deserved a name, if only for the short time we had with him. He was appropriately named Pavo which is "turkey" in Spanish. It was fitting that we would end this Thanksgiving adventure with a little turkey--maybe not how we expected but then again life is full of surprises.

CLICK HERE FOR PICTURES OF SALTA & TUCUMAN

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