Salta La Linda

When you enter the town of Salta, the eponymous capital city of the province, a poem greets you on Rt. 9 in the same bright green and reflective white of U.S. highway signs:

Salta La Linda
Esta es mi Salta viajero
Cuando llegas por el Portezuelo
Parece que bajas del cielo
A este Valle de Lerma
De Castilla y Perdiguero

Salta the BeautifulThis is my Salta, traveler.
When you arrive at the Portezuelo,
It’s as if you’ve stepped down from heaven
To this Valley of Lerma
Of Castilla and Perdiguero.

And the sign has it right. When you drive through the pass, verdant mountains give way to a large flat valley where the white city of Salta, Argentina rests peacefully under sunny skies. I, of course, didn’t see this beautiful view when we arrived, because it was 7:00 am after a 12 hour bus ride. Fortunately, the apartment we rented was nestled comfortably on the Portezuelo, the south side of the mountain, just a few minutes’ walk from the panorama.

Salta is a bustling city of 100,000 residents which bridges several important cultures in Argentina. There are a few wealthy people who probably own houses in Buenos Aires and drive BMW’s; some true gauchos, the Argentine wrangler and rancher; and the northernmost extreme of the country still shows traces of the great Inca empire, whose fingers reached here in the 15th century. This mixture of cultures makes a salteño, as the local residents prefer to be called.

Finally we had a real shower and to our utter surprise, maid service! I awoke bleary-eyed at 10 the morning after our all-night bus ride and had trouble understanding that the woman outside wanted to clean our apartment and give us fresh towels. The next day we were better prepared; we planned an excursion to the Cerro de San Bernardo, the mountaintop behind our house.

Armed with cameras and water, we started up the winding highway that curls around the mountainside accompanied by a few dozen other salteños in search of a hard workout or a trip with the family. After two hours of hiking amidst tamarisk trees, bromeliads, and blazing sun we arrived at the top. We could have taken the cable cars up, but that would have cost money that was beyond our slightly stretched budget. In any case, the journey up was worth it, if exhausting. We rewarded ourselves with a café con leche at the lookout cafe, perched directly above downtown and looking out into the green hills beyond the city limits. Not a bad way to spend the afternoon. Also included in the quite popular mountaintop park was a gym with free weights, a playground, an algae filled neon green waterfall, an antique silver exhibit (closed), local handicraft vendors, and several more miradores, or overlooks.

On the way back down, we took the traditional stone staircase of 1070 steps and the 12 stations of the cross illustrated at various stopping points. My jelly-like knees, not accustomed to tromping around mountains, were pretty tuckered by the time we reached the end. Unfortunately, the steps came out on the southwest side of the mountain, and our comfortable beds and chairs awaited on the southern slope. Valiant souls, we attempted to pick our way through the streets, but this section of the town lay outside our puny guidebook maps. The street that seemed to go in the direction that we wanted ended abruptly in a pile of grass and construction material, but we were determined that this was the way home. Then the path that lead through the brush ended too, and there we were, traipsing about the mountainside with only a vague idea of how we were going to get both east and down to a shower and fresh towels. We picked our way through the remains of a brush fire, trespassed on the water treatment facility, and slid down a 20 meter rock face, just barely making it back before dark.

We slept well that night.

Not daunted by our perhaps foolish daring on the mountainside, we chose for our next adventure another destination outside the city limits. The Mercado Artesanal (Artisan’s Market), so our book told us, lay just outside Salta on bus routes 7, 2, or 3. Excellent. A plan. We hop on bus 2A and for maybe five minutes it’s going in the right direction. Then it turns right and goes north. And keeps going north. Hmm. Our indulgent bus driver set us on the right path, and luckily the bus that we happened to board had a circular route. For our next try, we board 5A (N.B. 5A was not one of the options listed in our handy guide.) which has a promising sign on the front: “Mercado Artesanal.”

This expedition went smoother than the last one; we had a pleasant afternoon walking through stalls of textiles, metalwork, and other local crafts. Llama goods were predominant. We then went across the street to the fake Mercado Artesanal where other vendors showed off artesanía of dubious provenance. Somehow I don’t think that local indigeous craftspeople have nylon tags that they sew into finished goods. Yet despite its inauthentic products, the rip off Mercado was almost as interesting as the real thing. It’s amazing the crazy shit that people produce for toruists.

To cap off a bustling day we returned via bus to the city center to visit one museum before things closed down. We poked our heads in the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña (MAAM), the High Andes Arqueological Museum, and were directed upstairs to the 3rd floor. There we paid a whopping 10 peso entrance fee apiece and went into a hyper-air-conditioned exhibit of Andean artifacts. Most of the display cases had to do with child sacrifice in the Inca empire; interesting, yet not exactly an all-encompassing narrative of pre-Columbian history. Half of the tiny museum was closed for repairs, so we finished our tour in about 10 minutes, even having read all the informative placards.

We were about to throw in the towel and head for home, rather unimpressed with the MAAM, when the small library on the 3rd floor caught my eye. I hesitantly ventured in to have a look around when an elderly man asked us if we wanted a brief history of Inca culture. Sure, I thought, it couldn’t hurt. There didn’t seem to be that many books, so he coudn’t possibly keep us there for long in such a perfunctory library.

Two hours later, when we signed the guest book and headed out, I began to fully comprehend the wealth of information in the library. Interestingly enough, the knowledge wasn’t in the shoddily laminated photographs, the well-worn book covers, or the few glossy coffee table books scattered on the shelves. The historian, Rubén, was the greatest asset that the library had.

Rubén invited us to sit down across from him at a formica table built for 10. I later learned that he had purposefully chosen not to sit at the center of either long side, nor at the head or foot of the table. He explained that in the tradition of Inca culture, the symbolism of placement is very important. He wanted us to feel welcome, and not as if he were the leader or most powerful person at the table. We were there for a conversation, for learning, and he did not want to appear imposing. At first, the discussion was much more one-sided, with a brief explanation of Inca symbolism and holy imagery.

Then, Rubén began to speak more holistically about Inca culture, and the influence that it still has in many people’s lives. In our first few months in South America, we came across very few indigenous people. The Spaniards pretty much wiped out Argentina, leaving the country open for European settlement. Now that we’ve moved further north, some of the things that the historian had to say make a lot of sense. It was fascinating to hear talk of unity and progress from a bookish old man in a museum; his advice about looking for similarities in people, rather than differences, was a sentiment that caught me off guard. I have tried to do so in my travels, but I confess that at times I feel more of an outsider than a compañera or hermana. It is difficult to blend in when all eyes notice the blonde hair and pale skin that marks me as different. One would think that after living in Miami and being a minority in the workplace I would be more prepared to look different, to be the odd one out, but I haven’t been. Salta was a transition for us, moving from the Big City to the Country, from westernized society to the Old World. Rubén’s advice about traveling and communities has been invaluable to me. I needed a brush up on my grade-school knowledge of American (not just US) history, and I needed to remember that one of the best tools the human mind has is its ability to change perspective. An active citizen of the world must constantly reevaluate his or her perception of the world, because it is most certainly not the only possible interpretation. You’re supposed to do this when you travel, yet at times it becomes difficult: habits are hard to break; there is comfort in routine and familiarity. In order to get to know new places, I’ve learned that you have to open your mind to different people and different points of view.

A lovely new perspective, worthy of Salta la Linda, is Rubén’s description of the Inca concept of time. I don’t think that it is particularly revolutionary, nor will is transform my way of life, but it is something different. The way he described the passage of time is that the past lies in front of you and the future behind. Puzzling? Paradoxical? Perhaps. All shall be revealed. As one walks forward, one uses history, prior knowlege, and one’s ancestors as the foundation for your path. Thus, you go up and around supported by your past. Eventually, though you never see it, you reach the future when you flip over again. It’s a bit like being on a mouse-wheel, but it’s you that’s turning, and not the wheel. An upward spiral. It’s quite different than the convenient time-line modeled in history books. For Rubén this paradigm is patently obvious. “You can’t see your future, right? Then why should it be in front of you? It is behind.” Of course, it all makes sense now.

I have a feeling that this trip, I will need to do quite a lot more thinking about my past in order to start working on my future. Having epiphanies about how little you know is not extraordinarily exceptional: humanity’s ambivalence between insignificance and dominion is part of modernity. What was extroardinary about our visit to the museum was that it filled me with a sense of purpose. With a calm but solid certainty, Rubén told us that it wasn’t chance that brought us into the museum, and that not everyone is willing to hear or lear about different cultures. I was beginning to feel a little directionless, even aimless in our travels, but to have a stranger look me in the eye and tell me “You have a purpose” was pretty heady. Even if all Rubén told us was that we should listen to other people and share our views along the road, these simple things were now embued with meaning, with significance. That simple fact gave me bit of comfort and made me feel less frivolous, less of the dreaded “tourist.” Trite, perhaps, but it made me feel better. We are engaged in a task of making connections and finding interesting places, which seems a whole lot more rewarding than being “on vacation.” I now have a mission, a task; not only do I bring commerce, luggage, and incovenience: I bring ideas, curiosity, change, and possibly understanding.

¿Qué linda, no?

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