In a future incarnation, we will run world tours that seek to deliver extraordinary travel experiences through encounters with ordinary people. And when we do, a road trip in Northwest Argentina will be one of our first stops in South America.
After stumbling upon a dazzling gaucho festival on the first day of a week-long road trip, we figured our travel karma would have run out. Instead, our journey across the valleys outside of Salta featured interactions with engaging people open to odd encounters.
Here's a taste.
Dan and the Tobacco Pickers
After carving our way through the Quebrada de las Conches, my mind drifted to thoughts of supper and sleep. Clouds settled in, the sky no longer popped and I looked out the window thinking that even in the luxurious flexibility of a car, things outside zipped by much too quickly.
Then I saw it.
Giant leaves in turns of gold and green in the waning afternoon light, worked by cowboy-men in mesh aprons. This struck me as the sort of beauty reserved only for the eyes of masters.
I asked Jason if we could stop; I jumped out of the car, camera in hand, to investigate.
To me, the scene was stunning. I also felt very much like I didn’t belong there. But I figured “What the heck?” and engaged the men with my broken Spanish skills and curiosity. I broke the ice and chatted with them about their work and where they lived. It turns out these giant golden leaves were tobacco.
Instead of shooing me off, the men gave me an extended lesson in globalization through the story of a tobacco harvest — these leaves would eventually make their way to China and Japan for use in cheap cigarettes.
At the very end, Señor Guerrero approached me with a fatherly warmth. He explained the difference between the low-quality tobacco in his hands and the stuff where I came from. “It's cheap and easy, not like Virginia tobacco used in Marlboro cigarettes,” he suggested in an attempt to make a connection with my home country.
I thanked him, I shook his hand and waved to the rest of the men. They smiled.
I hope they had a story to tell over the dinner table that night. I departed with a memory that won’t be leaving me anytime soon.
Audrey and the One-woman Empanada Factory
At around midnight in Cachi, I searched for the owner of our guest house to help us with a fickle lock. Surprisingly, I found her in the kitchen hovering over dozens of freshly-folded empanadas queuing for the oven. Wishing to share this experience, I called Dan and our travel mates for the week, Jason and Aracely.
When we asked the woman her recipe, she just smiled. In her modesty, she insisted that making empanadas was easy, something we all could do. As she spoke, her hands moved methodically, tucking and pinching the edges of one after another perfectly formed bundle.
Empanadas in her hands: second nature, in the blood.
The reason for this midnight empanada fiesta: her children. They were adults and worked far from home, but that didn’t prevent a mother from trying to take care of her children from afar. Each week, she sent a batch of empanadas by remis taxi to their homes in Salta to satisfy a need – hers and theirs – that they eat at least a few hearty meals each week.
A mother’s desire to care for her children, even when they are grown, seems to be universal.
Dan and the Coffee Connection
There we were in little town Campo Quijano. It was 9:00 in the morning, the town was just waking up and we walked the streets in search of breakfast at best, coffee at least. We were crushed to find that the recommended café in town was closed. (Frankly, it was the only café.)
There had to be coffee somewhere. No need generates action like the need for caffeine. I approached several random people on the street, “Is there a café or restaurant where I can buy a coffee?”
After a few confused exchanges, the woman in the photo below proposed to me a rather simple solution: “Buy some pastries for breakfast at the bakery over there. Then, come to my house and I’ll make you coffee.”
A few minutes later, there we were seated at her dining room table — boiling water, instant coffee and sugar laid out. As we chomped on hard pastries (bread was not Campo Quijano’s strong point), our host told us stories of earthquakes come and gone through the cracks in her dining room walls. She explained her need for friends. She was this town’s social hub; she used to have her friends over for breakfast on their way to work each morning. These days, she doesn’t have the energy to cook breakfast, but friends still pop in to say hello and bid her good day.
Their looks of surprise – at a group of travelers having coffee at the table — were priceless.
If we shared more cups of coffee with one another, would the world be a better place? I think so.
By the way, if you go to Campo Quijano, make sure you find this woman. Thank her again for us. And be sure to get her name.
Your turn: What sorts of interactions with ordinary people make your trips special?