My month in Salta (with a few days in Buenos Aires) was an intense learning experience filled with many challenges. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the trip: I met incredible people, ate delicious meals, and experienced unique cultural events on a near-daily basis. But this first trip of Traveling Savage will be remembered as the journey that tested my solo travel resolve, mental toughness, and ingenuity, and the one that set the bar and measuring stick by which future trips will be devised and judged.
I’ve distilled a few overarching observations from the month abroad below.
I can’t speak highly enough of the CouchSurfing community in Salta. Not only are there events happening almost every night, the group is spearheaded by a handful of stalwarts who are supremely friendly and welcoming. By meeting up with these guys, I was able to partake in making empanadas, help out in the kitchen for a massive pizza party, organize an asado, and meet up for drinks at local establishments. Not only was the social contact a crucial antidote for the creeping insanity of isolation (see below), I feel like I also made some really good friends that I hope to see again one day.
Lesson learned: Whether or not you want to actually sleep in someone’s place, there are meet-ups in cities around the world where CouchSurfers simply get together to hang out. While I might be traveling alone and feeling lonely, CouchSurfing is a reliable way to meet open-minded people who would love to chat. CouchSurfers are accustomed to new faces and much of the awkwardness of getting to know people is removed by virtue of CouchSurfing’s transient nature.
So guess what? My four years of high school Spanish didn’t exactly cut it in Salta. I know, hard to believe. My Spanish was much better in Spain when Sarah was speaking it. Unfortunately, this language glitch nearly crippled my plans in Salta, where English is not common. I was incapable of having meaningful conversations with the majority of people I met and the lack of communication amplified the isolation I felt from traveling alone. Language is a really basic element of travel, and I’m embarrassed to have overlooked its importance during my preparation. Also bad but unrelated: three pairs of underwear and socks are not enough. I spent an inordinate amount of time doing laundry. Next trip I’m rolling with five of each.
Lesson learned: Had I been vacationing in Argentina or backpacking through, my Spanish skills would have been enough to get by (albeit at a very basic level). However, for the type of travel I’m trying to do, I either need to focus on predominantly English-speaking destinations or do much more legwork ahead of time to ensure I’ll have the ability to communicate where English is not common. I will continue to learn what I can of the language ahead of time, but there comes a time for realism: while there are programs that purport to make you fluent in three months, I’m neither particularly skilled in language learning nor do I enjoy the process.
You’d think that a guy who wrote about the importance of the quest would have a rock-solid quest guiding his travels. And I thought I did. Turns out “soaking up the culture” isn’t a full-time pursuit. Silly me. As a result, I experienced a lot of downtime while in Salta and fought to keep aimlessness at the periphery. It didn’t help that I stuck a bit too stubbornly to my parameter of spending one month in the city of Salta, which, it turns out, is used primarily as a jumping-off point for seeing the sites that orbit it: Cafayate, Cachi, Tilcara, Purmamarca, and Humahuaca among others. I ventured down to Cafayate but spent the remainder of my time within Salta and the neighboring community of San Lorenzo.
Lessons learned: Soaking up culture is a passive function, almost osmosis-like, achieved more from being observant in a place than from any concerted effort. I need to be more purposeful when choosing destinations. Instead of simply going somewhere that will be warm (for example, ahem), I will choose a topic of interest for investigation and let that topic guide me to the related destinations. This will provide the purpose I felt lacking in Salta.
I can’t look back on this trip with any regret; these lessons only come the hard way. My time in Salta provided me with the knowledge I need to perfect subsequent Traveling Savage trips, and I’m chomping at the bit to take these lessons learned and apply them to my future trips. Where am I going next? Stay tuned…
What say you? Are these the rookie mistakes of an inexperienced traveler or the growing pains of a unique travel plan?