“Oh, you’re young. She thought you were going to be 50” said Yvette, the woman in the front seat, pointing to our guide and driver, Ana.
“What, 50? Why would I be 50?”
Another woman, Yvette’s older sister Jillian, turns to me in the back of the small, red van. “Well, you’re married and traveling alone. Who does that?”
Who does that? I’ve been answering that question a lot since I left my job, and it’s pretty difficult to explain in broken Spanish to the Argentines I meet. Luckily, I’m riding with two 30-something American women. I cover the usual bases (a dissatisfaction with my job, a desire to follow my passions, a severe dislike of regret) as we weave through traffic on the way south of Salta. The women nod their heads in understanding.
Or was it feigned interest? You see, I don’t know if they expected me to be a part of their sojourn to Cafayate.
The previous night Ana and I exchanged a flurry of e-mails setting up my inclusion in her day-long tour to Cafayate, a popular town about three hours south of Salta known for its wild scenery and vineyards that are just now gaining worldwide attention. I waffled for awhile, unsure if I wanted to impose on a trip others had planned and accept a complementary tour. Ultimately, I decide to go; if Ana was inviting me to join them then there must have been some discussion with the others on the tour.
The jury’s still out on whether that was the case, but, as I climbed into the van just after 9AM the next morning, I was met with nothing but kindness. Travel has a way of drawing back our layers, of exposing our bones. People are a little quicker to open up, a little easier to see into. It makes us more receptive and less judgmental. But I’m still caught off guard and disarmed by the kindness of strangers. By Ana’s offer to squeeze me into her tour for free. By Yvette’s and Jillian’s willingness to share their day with me.
The four of us chat companionably, asking questions in an effort to get to know each other as fast as possible. Salta’s southern limits abruptly end as we pass into a kind of cloud forest terrain. It is overcast and wisps of clouds mingle with the trees on the hilltops around us. Yvette recently sold all of her possessions and moved to Buenos Aires to work full-time as an artist in a studio. I smile, selling everything and jetting is a common story among travel bloggers. Jillian is a graphic artist and here visiting her sister. The two of them have been journeying around Argentina for a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, Ana peppers us with factoids about Salta province that I struggle to scribble down in the bouncing van.
On the northern edge of the Quebrada de las Conchas, an enormous gorge that connects Salta with the town of Cafayate, we are stopped at a police checkpoint. Ana produces the requested licenses and documentation, and the two policemen pace around the car periodically stopping to bend over and stare at something. I briefly wonder if there are nondescript brown packages beneath the sun cover behind me. A silver car is parked to the side of the road, every door and window – even the gas tank latch – sealed with official-looking tape. Someone forgot their documentation. Eventually the police end their drama rehearsal and bid us onward. We make a fortifying stop at Posta de las Cabras where I promptly consume a piece of torta de mil hojas undoubtedly crammed with thousands of calories. I notice Yvette and Jillian share a quick glance over their short coffees.
The road through the Quebrada de las Conchas winds, curls, and loops between looming serrated peaks like the intestines of some great beast. Shades of red, gold, brown, and green flash in the sunlight, the mountains’ metallic bones peeking through the sandy sediment. Layers of rock angle up from the ground, cocked at acute angles by some cruel force in the guts of the earth. Mind and camera struggle to take in the scope of the landscape. As we wend our way through the valley I picture our little vehicle as a microscopic organism crawling between the scales of a megalithic chameleon. We stop every five minutes to stand before natural grandeur and record our insignificance as the sun pounds the shadows of clouds onto the mountainsides.
Ana tells us it’s believed that the Incans hid treasure in the quebrada after the execution of Atahualpa by the Spanish. To this day, intrepid Argentines comb the mountains looking for this ancient trove. It’s one of those forest-for-the-trees moments when the treasure seems so obviously in plain sight to a foreigner like me. Each new hairpin turn yields a vista that further highlights the inadequacy of language. Eventually we stop talking altogether, the whistling of wind through rocks and the micro-beeps of digital cameras the only soundtrack to our prolonged awe.
By the time we reach Cafayate, it’s early afternoon and the journey has taken two hours longer than expected. Here, the arid gorge gives way to white sand dunes that the Jesuits of centuries past found so agreeable to their viticulture. The town is small and beautifully appointed for tourism. Restaurants, hostels and hotels, and gift shops crowd around the central plaza. Giant buses line the streets beneath palm trees. We stop for a much needed lunch that combats the diabetic stupor caused by the torta I ate earlier in the day. Ana runs a tight ship and we blaze a trail to a local finca for wine o’clock, an heladeria serving wine ice cream, and a goat cheese factory in succession. By 6PM we are on the road back to Salta.
The return through the quebrada is quiet except for Ana’s personal karaoke session to a selection of 80s power ballads. Jillian nods off next to me as night enters the gorge and slowly erases the colorful bands around us. We travel through space, the infrequent lights of small towns revealing people of all ages out and about in droves.
In the middle of a particularly dark stretch, the van’s headlights outline something in the road. Yvette and I spot it at the same time. It’s a body. We snap to wakefulness and the four of us hurriedly pull over onto the road shoulder. Exiting the van, the smell of gasoline assails us as a man slowly rolls over beneath a flipped motorbike, his leathers creaking against the new asphalt. Ana speaks to him in rushed Spanish and calls an ambulance. Another car pulls over and the driver helps me lift the bike off the injured rider. It’s pitch black and we’re dangerously vulnerable to oncoming traffic. I rush back to the van and grab a mini LED flashlight as Yvette and Jillian create makeshift traffic cones with a couple of orange shopping bags and large stones littering the side of the road.
The man’s leather jacket and denim jeans have been abraided in several places, exposing bloody gashes and who knows what else. I point the light elsewhere and see a helmet ten yards off in the brush. I grab it and see that much of the paint has been grated off. More cars pull over. Ana and I alternate directing oncoming traffic around the scene with the flashlight. The man is coherent but groans and writhes amidst the exploded remains of a pound of sugar. His wife had sent him to purchase the ingredients for some baked good, and he talks to her quietly on his cell phone. He tells her not to cry.
After what seems like an eternity, police and an ambulance arrive. Onlookers trail away and we are the final ones to see off the injured motorcyclist. We wish him luck and resume our journey back to brightly-lit Salta. Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is” blares on the stereo.
I’m a little worse for wear. My own skin feels parchment thin. I think of my own wife and hope the injured man’s didn’t cry. But I’m warmed by a small flame inside knowing I was able to repay kindness as a stranger on the road.