After leaving Buenos Aires, I headed for the northwestern Argentine town of Salta. Upon spending a few days there, I would guess the picturesque Andean foothills that surround Salta are probably more of an attraction than the town itself. Not that the city lacks charm: in Salta, shops and cafes encircle a big open plaza, a gondola bears visitors up to a scenic green mountaintop, and a sprawling public park boasts a central lake. Wide sidewalks around the park are sprinkled with vendors selling boho jewelry and bags from blankets on the ground, maté gourds and silver bombillas, empanadas and ice cream.
But I hesitate to give Salta two enthusiastic thumbs up because, though just a few hours from Buenos Aires, it seems to lag years behind the capital city in sophistication. I say this not only in reference to the grittier streets and alleyways, the canal cluttered with trash, the relative dearth of bank machines, or shops and cafes that are a bit more provincial than those of its more cosmopolitan cousin. They are one factor, yes, but the people there are another. As I ran laps around the park and then on the main roads, I seemed to be the only runner in the city, a far cry from the busy jogging paths in Buenos Aires. I got an uncomfortable share of wolf whistles, suggestive comments, vehicles slowing down, honking, their drivers hollering to me as if I were doing something infinitely more whorish than going for a run.
At night, the roads around the main plaza were fine for walking — well lit and bustling with people going to and from dinner, or bars, or the theatre — but if you ventured a bit beyond that, the streetlights became more sparse, the streets more dim, and clusters of men lurked in dark doorways, slouched up against graffitied walls, appraising me as I walked by. I had to keep my guard up, meet their eyes and shoot back the same hard glare, striding rapidly and purposefully, exuding the message I am not an easy target, so do not fuck with me. I was catching less of a robbery vibe and more of a personal safety vibe here. This was not something I had encountered anywhere else in Argentina, ever. And so, despite the lovely parts of Salta, I was not too sad to leave.
I had decided to travel overland through Argentina and Bolivia, rather than fly. As fast and convenient as air travel is, I feel like I’m missing out if I fly over all the rough and real and potentially interesting bits. The ride to the Bolivian border would take 14 hours, but I didn’t care. I’d taken much longer drives and flights, and besides, Argentina is known for its deluxe buses. I’d ridden for nearly 24 hours on a bus from San Martin de los Andes to Buenos Aires, in a cushy pod with a bed that folded flat, a duvet, and a waiter who brought coffee and meals. Same for my trip from Buenos Aires to Salta. So when I boarded the bus to La Quiaca, the town on the Argentine side of the border, I was shocked back into depressing reality. I had to remind myself to suck it up. It wasn’t like I hadn’t ridden on crappy developing-country buses before — and this one, despite its crowded seats and worn-out upholstery, was far from the worst I’d encountered.
So this leg of my trip would begin here. While in Salta, I had passed an alchemy store selling incense, soaps, oils, candles and other stuff supposedly infused with herbs and essences that attract money, love, clients, that type of thing. I figured it couldn’t hurt to grab a couple bottles of essential oils for “creativity stimulation” and “better business,” and a couple soaps for “money attraction” and “open roads.” I supposed if they didn’t improve my client base, bank account, and creative output, at least I would smell good. It was the latter soap with which I lathered before I left: Open Roads, conjured up to remove roadblocks in travel and in life.
I would later reflect that the Open Roads soap was either a complete wash (pun intended) or it really did work — and saved me from real, honest-to-God trauma during the trip, leaving me to contend merely with discomfort, exhaustion, and moderate difficulty.
The journey started off poorly through no fault of the soap: in a severe breach of my usual travel prep, I forgot to pack my Tylenol PM in my carry-on. For me, Tylenol PM eases the discomfort of lousy seats and bumpy roads, and knocks me out cold. After I emptied my bag looking for it, I spent hours fidgeting, cramped, twisting in my seat to try to find a comfortable position. Just at the point when I was about to nod off, some creature crawled onto my hand. I don’t know what it was — insect? arachnid? I flailed my hand like it was on fire for much longer than necessary to fling it off me, managed to sublimate a bone-jarring scream into a series of whimpers, and abandoned any hope of sleeping.
We pulled into the La Quiaca station at 5 a.m., before the sun rose. I was startled by the abrupt transition from hot sunny Salta to this dark freezing morning, and from comfortable, second-world Salta to these grimy third-world surroundings. I took a taxi a few blocks to the Argentine border office, which was closed.
I pulled a long-sleeved shirt over my thin t-shirt, wrapped myself in a silk sleeping bag liner that I use as a travel blanket, and arranged myself on the cold cement ground outside the office, sitting on my rolled-up sleeping bag and using my backpack as a backrest. I pulled out my book: The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho. I wanted to take my mind off the fact that I was achy, chilly, tired, and hungry — and it succeeded, at least for a while. The book is a fable about an Andalusian shepherd traveling through foreign lands seeking treasure, and a great read for the road. A couple of hours in, though, I had to stand up and stretch my stiff muscles using a hand rail as a barre. A scruffy dog came up then and, when I settled down again, sat next to me. We looked at each other and he moved closer. I petted his ears and he leaned into me, laid his head on my chest, and closed his eyes. I know it is a truly bad idea to pet random third-world street dogs, but I was feeling bleak and in need of a friend, and the universe sent me one. I wasn’t about to question its choice.
After getting my exit stamp and walking to the Bolivian side, in the town of Villazon, I learned the visa process for a U.S. citizen: fill out the form, check. Pay $135, check. Pay in U.S. dollars — no check; I only had Argentine pesos. Provide a photocopy of my passport — no check. I would have to find a money changer and a photocopy place. The Bolivian border guards were super lax about letting people wander into town without the proper documentation, though. They told me to go up the road a bit and I’d find what I needed.
I teamed up with two young American women who had come from Salta on a later bus, and we walked up a road choked with commercial shops and market stalls. We got our pesos changed into dollars at a horrid rate, photocopied our passports, and returned to the border office. The women said they’d heard of thefts and robberies targeting tourists around these parts: some passengers on their bus that morning had woken up to find their bags stolen. I wondered if anyone on my bus would have tried to steal mine, had I been sleeping. Maybe it was a good thing I didn’t have my Tylenol PM. Maybe that big bug, or whatever it was, did me a favor.
The other Americans and I were headed to different cities, but in the same direction, and we wanted to take the train. We asked the border officer where the train station was, and he shook his head. The trains were not running from Villazon, he said: it was rainy season, and tracks were submerged at points along the route. So. We’d be taking another bus after all. Not the news I wanted to hear, but with the way the past 18 hours had been going, it was par for the course.
We trudged back up the road with our bags, legally this time, toward the bus station four blocks away. It was teeming, dirty, and chaotic, and none of the buses would be better than the one I’d ridden last night — hell, I’d love last night’s bus right now, I thought, examining the loud idling monsters belching smoke through rattling exhaust pipes. The other Americans found a bus to their destination leaving right then, and I was disappointed to see them go. As much as I like and often prefer solo travel, during trying times, a friend is a great asset. I felt bone-tired, and wanted a decent meal, a cup of coffee, and a clean bathroom so I could wash my face and brush my teeth. I asked the bus company lady where I could find a restaurant with wifi, and she just shook her head. I set off to find one myself.
As I walked through the town I realized it had very few restaurants — just regular restaurants, forget anything with wifi — and none were open at that time of morning. There were no Internet cafes, no coffee shops, not a clean bathroom anywhere. The only dining options were market-stall street food. All I wanted to do was get somewhere comfortable and relax, and I couldn’t.
In Argentina, I had blended in somewhat, but here in Bolivia I was back to standing out: a freckled, green-eyed chick with an auburn mop of hair, in a sea of dark-skinned, dark-eyed, smooth-haired Latinos. Villazon was not exactly welcoming to foreigners, and not just because of the lack of amenities normally found in towns with lots of travelers coming through. Here I encountered hard stares, a lack of smiling back, eyes that lingered a little too long on my iPod and bag. More catcalls and rude comments, as I had heard in Salta. It was a foreigner thing, and I didn’t like it. I walked around town, looking for a place where I could get out of the sun and out of the public eye. But there was nowhere to go.
Outside the town plaza, the nicest, greenest part of Villazon, I bought a couple of empanadas and sat on a park bench. My back and neck and shoulders hurt from lugging baggage and being cramped for hours into unnatural positions; my dry contacts itched my eyes; I felt exposed, conspicuous, grimy, and miserable. I knew I would be feeling this way for hours — and then would have to get on a crappy bus and feel grimy and wretched and uncomfortable for another 15 hours. I rubbed my eyes and my temples, sighed, and pulled out my book.
I had just gotten to the part where Santiago, the shepherd, had sold his flock of sheep and sailed from Spain to Tangier. But on arrival, he had his life’s savings stolen from him. I removed a chicken empanada from the greasy brown bag and took a bite as I read about this poor bastard, alone, a Stranger in a Strange Land — like me, I thought miserably. Not a friend in sight. But unlike me, Santiago was penniless and utterly screwed. I chewed my empanada. It was pretty good. I turned the page.
“(Santiago) looked around the empty plaza again, feeling less desperate than before. This wasn’t a strange place, it was a new one.
“After all, what he had always wanted was just that: to know new places. … As he mused about these things, he realized he had to choose between thinking of himself as the poor victim of a thief and as an adventurer in quest of his treasure.
“‘I’m an adventurer, looking for treasure,’ he said to himself.”
A little brown chihuahua with a blue collar was snuffling one of my shoes. I had seen him that morning on my way to the bus station: trotting saucily atop the low cement wall around the plaza: tail up, ears cocked. I liked his attitude: all the other dogs that roamed the streets (as they do here in the land of no-leash-laws) were much bigger than this little guy, but he had all the confidence in the world. I gave him half of my empanada and he took his time eating his treasure: meat first, breaded shell second, bits of vegetable rejected and left on the ground. Then he hopped up next to me on the bench. I wasn’t alone. I had wanted a friend and, again, I had one.
Understand a gift when you see one. Like Santiago, I put myself into situations like this because I want to see new and different places. I felt tired and sore and tense, but I was living. I could be sitting in an office, at a job I don’t particularly like, killing time, staring out the window. I could move through each day as if I were sleepwalking, so numbed by creature comforts I failed to notice how amazing a hot shower and clean clothes and a soft bed can feel. I’m lucky. I’m lucky, I’m lucky.
The wind ruffled green leaves above me and someone strummed a guitar nearby, singing about lost love. Learn to recognize omens, the king in The Alchemist had told Santiago. A little boy went running past me. His mother followed, weighed down by another kid tied on her back with a colorful blanket. She slowed to a walk, exasperated, and yelled, “Santiago!”
And just like that, I had one more reason to smile.