Friday, July 13, 2007

Week 3: Tucuman, Jujuy and Salta - Posted from Buenos Aires

4 July 2007
10:15 p.m.

Happy 4th of July!

I spent the morning of the fourth of July traveling by plane from Salta to Buenos Aires, but that's really the beginning of week four. Week three we spent traveling in some very rural areas of northern Argentina.

We left Villa Maria on Tuesday, June 26th and traveled overnight from the Cordoba province to the Tucuman province. We spent Wednesday traveling through Tucuman. We visited the Quilmes ruins, climbing the most amazing cliff to look out across miles of mountains and the ruins of an ancient civilization.

Thursday was an even more amazing day. We began the day in Cafayete at a local winery, where we taste tested a variety of wines, an experience I am certain others would have found much more enjoyable. Personally, I was more interested in the cat that kept wrapping itself around my legs than the wine everyone else thought was wonderfully light and smooth (whatever the hell that means). I'm sure this does not surprise those of you reading to know that I was more interested in the animals than in the wine. I am assured however, by the wine connoisseurs of our group that this was a most amazing experience (personally, I would have been happier with a giant vat of salsa and a book!)

After happily tasting as many wines as possible, we then proceeded to tour the countryside where we waded through streams and climbed a variety of mountains (all quite drunkenly I am sure). First, we stopped by a riverbed, where we had the amazing idea to remove our shoes and socks and wade through the ice cold water, just to see what the experience would be like. I suppose it wasn't any different than any other time you would wade through a river in wintertime, but somehow to us, it was amazingly creative and fun. Like all spontaneously stupid ideas, we neglected to consider the consequences of having muddy feet upon exiting the river. As a result, we spent a good ten minutes attempting to remove mud from between our toes and attempting to dry our feet without getting our socks dirty. This was an exercise in futility. Ultimately, we boarded the bus, much muddier yet somehow extremely content. Those who were party-poopers and chose not to participate have no idea how much fun they missed.

We then traveled through the Quebrada de Cafayate. This was a very large canyon system with multi-colored mountains and ridges to climb. First, we visited “El Obelisco” or the obelisk. This was exactly what it sounds like: a giant obelisk that of course we had to climb. It was steep and ended at a point. We climbed and settled ourselves at various points along the way, creating one of those perfect Kodak moments.

After sliding down the obelisk of death, we ventured further into the Quebrada and visited “El Anfiteatro” a point at which the mountains loomed so close together, they created a natural cavern. The result was an amphitheatre with natural-occurring acoustics. We had the opportunity to sit and listen to some local musicians perform a spontaneous concert at the center of this cavern. The sound was incredible.

Finally, we ventured to the “garganta del diablo” or devil's throat. This was the first time I almost died in Argentina. (For those of you who are unaware, the first time I almost died in Latin America occurred four years ago in Brazil, while river rafting. This was mild in comparison, but the fact remains: I ALMOST DIED.)

Due to the fact that I refuse to allow my lack of athletic ability and coordination to dictate the activities I will participate in, I decided that I would attempt to climb devil's throat just like all those other crazy people, who actually had athletic ability and coordination. This was a mistake. Everyone knew it, but this did not deter me.

With reckless abandon, I attacked the 75 degree angled slope headed upwards. Amy and up should never be used in the same sentence, especially when rocks are involved, nevertheless, I forged ahead without regard for my own personal safety. I also failed to consider the nerves of steel required by my companions while witnesses to my impending rock-climbing disaster.

I should insert here that this is in fact Latin America, which meant of course that the rock-climbing we were participating in did not involve any form of safety nets or harnesses or special equipment. Rather, the only equipment necessary was a hard head and an unlimited supply of stupidity.

And so I climbed. I will have you know that I did not fall on this climb. Nor did I get stuck. However, I did make use of Sammy getting stuck to delay my eventual climb downwards. Yes, our fearless leader climbed even higher than the dumbest of us would go and promptly got stuck. In his words, “it was a lot easier getting up here.” Thirty minutes later, he had finally climbed down to the point the rest of us had climbed up.

Unbeknownst to me, at the bottom of Devil's Throat, the majority of the party waited, not worried about Sammy, who had been stuck for thirty minutes, but rather, obsessing about the fact that I had not yet fallen to my death. They waited, with bated breath, cameras perched, searching in vain for that first glimpse of my graceless arrival at the bottom of Devil's Throat.

Once Sammy was down, this of course meant that the attention was now fully focused upon me and I was of course now required to venture downward. And so, I flung myself forward and slid on my ass straight down that mountain, like the ass-sliding pro I was.

The second time I nearly died in Argentina occurred on the following Monday. The days between my Devil's Throat experience and the Death Slide experience were relatively uneventful. We attended various outdoor markets, took a couple tours of local towns in Salta and of course took endless pictures of the gorgeous mountain scenery surrounding us everywhere we went.

Then, on Monday, we had what I can only refer to as hell day. We arrived in the small town of Iruya on Sunday night. We had traveled lightly, leaving the majority of our luggage in the town of Salta, as Iruya was a mountain town and we were required to walk from the outskirts of town to our hotel where it perched at the very top of the town. This was a straight walk upwards and was not exactly enjoyable, but it was worth it. The hotel was gorgeous and the view from our rooms was absolutely stunning. Monday morning, we got up early and set out for the small town of San Isidro, another small mountain town, set high in the mountains. The only way to arrive at this town was to walk, which is exactly what we did.

We began the walk at the base of the town of Iruya next to a small park. We waited there for the entire group to arrive, and while waiting, became quite enchanted by a slide which appeared to be straight out of a cartoon. It stretched high into the sky, seeming to rival the tallest of mountains, and was a straight shot down. The slide ended with a slight tilt up, set for launching some unsuspecting victim into the atmosphere. Miriam, one of our fearless leaders, decided to climb this slide, but not being the venturous sort, she slid down the slide at approximately 1.2 miles per hour, clinging to the sides and slowly pedaling her way downwards. I of course had to show her the correct way to utilize this marvelous invention.

And so, I climbed the 4000 steps into the sky (okay, it was more like 40, but it seemed terribly high) and after perching at the top of the slide for that perfect Kodak moment, launched myself downwards. I was quite surprised at the speed with which I hurtled downward. I felt like I was in a wind tunnel, I moved so quickly. The ground hurtled toward me at alarming speed, necessitating a shriek of girlish fear.

The best part was my landing. I am told it was
worthy of record books. The way it happened was that I landed on my feet. It was absolutely unbelievable that I would land on my feet when moving so quickly, but land on my feet I did. I am told that I literally shot from a sitting position to a standing position and that my entire upper body ricocheted slightly backward from the force of my landing, but that gravity then pulled me forward. For one split second in time, my entire lower body was still, while my upper body swayed backward then forward. Sadly, gravity was a powerful force that jerked my body forward and down, so that approximately 3 seconds after landing on my feet, I landed on my knees with a horrendous thud.

I did end up with a scraped up knee for the adventure, but also with a series of Amy photos that are worthy of awards. I am particularly fond of the shot of me on my knees laughing hysterically.

The third and final time that I nearly died in Argentina was on the hike from hell. As I mentioned, we were staying in the small mountain town of Iruya and were planning to hike to the “nearby” town of San Isidro to visit an elementary school there.

Two and a half hours later we finally arrived in San Isidro. Those hours can only be described as non-stop torture. Two and a half hours hiking up the mountain, following the rocky riverbed of death - whose great idea was this? We crossed the same river at least twelve times (NOT an exaggeration), rock-hopping across the rapids, which of course filled me with memories of flying down a Brazilian waterfall for my very own special rapids experience. Luckily on this trip, my only close encounter with the rapids involved a misplaced foot that landed in two feet of rushing (and freezing cold) water.

The trip up the mountain was nothing less than torture, a test of our endurance, and it was only sheer stubbornness which kept me pressing forward, especially when the group had a tendency to spread out a bit too much, leaving a couple of us alone at key points of the walk. Good hiking rules were not being followed!

Eventually we arrived within sight of the town. This meant that if we looked up, we could see the town sitting at the edge of a cliff, just waiting for us to climb the final 500 feet straight up.
I of course was more inclined to climb into the back of the ambulance sitting in the middle of the path and take a nap. You might be wondering (as I was) what on earth an ambulance was doing on the side of a mountain. Well, if you looked up in the opposite direction of the town, you could see men standing on the edge of the mountain, swinging picks at the mountain because they were building a road. Presumably the ambulance was there so that if one of these road-builders were to fall off the side of the mountain, first aid would be available on scene immediately.

Despite the pressing need to avail myself of first aid, particularly in the form of an oxygen mask, I pressed onward. We walked uphill quite a ways before arriving at “stairs” leading upwards. These stairs were more like a jagged ramp etched out of the edge of the mountain, headed straight upwards, with the steep drop of death at your right, and the side of the mountain stretching upward to the left. And so we inched along the very edge of the mountainside, bracing one hand against the side of the mountain in the hopes that this tactile connection would prevent an unfortunate stumble across the threshold of death.

Finally, finally, we arrived at the town, visited the school, interacted with kids and promptly took a nap on their playground. This sounds as if we did not enjoy our visit in San Isidro. We did, we were simply so exhausted from our climb, we needed a small power nap to recover.

 I suppose I should mention that I left San Isidro and Iruya feeling quite amazed at the fortitude of the inhabitants of those towns and the neighboring mountains. Some of the children we met take walks similar to our hike up the mountain every single day in order to attend the school we visited (they of course make these walks in a fraction of the time it took us). Some children literally climb up and down the mountain several times a day, just to receive an education, or to tend crops or for some other mountain business. These people are strong and endure living conditions the likes of which I cannot even imagine. Many of the houses we saw were no more than four feet tall, with three walls and a tarp stretched across the roof for protection from the elements.

After walking two and a half hours to arrive at this school, witnessing these people's simple lives, then making the return journey (in more like three and a half hours), I am quite simply struck at how fortunate a life I lead and yet, how these people do not even seem to worry that their lives are not what mine are. They are happy, they are living a life upheld by centuries of tradition and they are certainly more entwined and connected to their roots than I will ever be.

Of all of my experiences during this trip, my visit to San Isidro was undoubtedly the most profound and enlightening of them all, the unending climb over rocky terrain included.

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