Our flooded street in Palermo after the massive rain storm

 

Let´s just say that I´ll never forget the road trip there.  After all, who could forget the experiences of an 18 hour drive?  But visiting Tucumán turned out to be so much more than the adventure of getting there.

Ever since I arrived in Buenos Aires, the first time last July, I have been wanting to visit northern Argentina.  So when my boyfriend invited me on his trip home to Tucumán, I couldn’t have been more excited. I couldn’t imagine a better way to see a new part of the country than with a local.

On the way to Tafi del Valle

The night before we were supposed to leave it downpoured in Buenos Aires.  I had no idea just how much until we went out to buy some soda and all of a sudden the elevator plunged to the ground floor and water gushed in. I began to scream and as we pried open the door and stepped out into my lobby we found ourselves in two feet of water and even more in the street.  When city buses passed people began shouting because it pushed all the water into store fronts.  The scene was a total “locura,” large bags full of garbage floating by and people trudging through water above their knees.  We decided we had to get out of there then and there before it got any worse and our rental car was floating by too.  And so our voyage unexpectedly began.

Definitely still in Argentina

The drive, despite its unbearable length, took us through some absolutely stunning scenery and kept us on Route 9 the entire way.  We passed through big cities like Rosario and Cordoba, then would find ourselves in small farming villages with herds of sheep and people selling animal hides alongside the road.  Ever-present through the windows of our VW Golf rental car was a beautiful expanse of landscape, and for added assurance that we were still in Argentina, more herds of cattle than I´ve ever seen.  When we got to Santiago province, I was shocked by the amazing landscapes and at times felt like I could have been driving across the desert of Nevada, huge fields of giant cacti and nothing but sand dunes blurring across my window.

Aguilares, our destination, is a city of 30,000 people and is located just 40 minutes outside the capital city San Miguel de Tucumán.  It´s the kind of sleepy town where people leave their doors unlocked, children play in the street, 13-year-olds drive motorbikes, and everyone knows everyone (and their business).  It’s a place that couldn´t be more different from where I grew up.  Picking up hitchhikers along the road is totally normal, as in many South American cities, and a nice way to help people who have no other form of transportation.  During the unbearably hot afternoons, the dirt roads were scattered with stray dogs, children on bikes, old men sitting in plastic chairs chatting as they passed cold bottles of cerveza.  No one ever seemed in a rush to go anywhere.  In fact, stores in the “town” open from 10-1pm and then close until 6pm.  I use the term town loosely since it is more a cluster of stores and a main plaza where teenagers hang out and groups of boys show their machismo when any female species walks by.   I couldn’t quite grasp the concept that if you needed something, and you missed the 10-1 window, you’d spend the whole day waiting.  But I also appreciated the tranquility of this place, the friendliness and familiarity of everyone.  Lemons, mangoes, oranges, watermelons, sugar, wheat, and soy grew everywhere and sold for a fraction of the price in Buenos Aires.  Portions of the most enormous squashes I had ever seen were sold by almost every fruit and vegetable vendor at the Saturday feria that we visited, and used in a lot of local dishes.   I couldn´t get over how much I was reminded of Sa Kaeo, a small town east of Bangkok where I had spent one month teaching English.  Both places so different from each other culturally, yet something about the smells of fires burning, images of whole families, baby included, riding on motorbikes, the market we visited, bumpy dirt roads, modest open-air houses, and the friendliness of the people brought me right back there.

Farm fresh squash

I had brought a stack of pictures that I had taken with me when I left New York to remind me of some great moments in my life.  As the photos were passed around, everyone began commenting about how much I had traveled.  It hadn’t actually occurred to me that somehow in one stack of photos I had memories from New York, Miami, Pennsylvania, Los Angeles, Puerto Rico, Thailand, Cambodia, Canada, China, Italy, and Mexico. They ooh’d and aah´d at the picture I had taken from the rooftop of my parents apartment building in New York, and I realized no one had probably seen so many tall buildings before, other than in a movie.  Conversation stirred about me riding alone on trains around Europe when I was 20 and that I traveled through Southeast Asia for two months by myself.  Everyone looked around the room at their own sons and daughters, all around that age, and wondered how it was I had been to so many places and their children had never even left their town, with not much of a desire to either.

I´ve had many moments like this during my travels and sometimes I don’t know how to respond.  In Thailand, the people in the village where I lived liked to talk about how crazy it was that I was this young girl traveling to foreign places alone and they wondered a lot how on earth I had decided it was important to visit their town. What I have come to understand is that sometimes it´s hard to escape the mentality of a small town.  People are comfortable amongst what they´re familiar with and it´s hard to get the motivation or nerve to want to explore the unknown.  It’s harder to be as aware of how big and fascinating the outside world is and how exciting it is to explore.  These conversations always serve as a good reminder of how fortunate I have been to have the opportunity to travel to new places and to have grown up in such a diverse place that makes the thought of stepping outside it that much more natural.

Farm fresh, vendors on the route from Tucumán

What I loved about Aguilares is that it´s the kind of unpretentious place where people genuinely go out of their way to make you feel welcome.  It reinforced my long-held belief that the people are really what determine your experience in a new place. My friend Stacey, who has been traveling and writing a blog about South America for the past nine months and visited what I want to say is more than 20 cities in Argentina, always raved to me about her time in Tucumán because of the family she met there.  And I totally understand what she meant now.  I never once felt like I was being sized up, and no one ever asked me what I did or what university I went to.  People laughed and smiled a lot and wanted to know about my family and my city.  Many of our days were spent eating two lunches in the afternoons, a guilty pleasure the result of the fact that everyone in the family wanted to cook special dishes for us.  One steaming hot afternoon we ate large plates of humita, a local dish of pureed corn, pumpkin, and other seasonings topped with queso blanco and tomato sauce.  That followed only 30 minutes later by  a plate of mashed potatoes and “albondigas,” the most delicious meatballs I have ever tasted at his mother’s house.  Everything we ate was so farm fresh.  The next day we ate to-die-for Arabic food called “quipi” at an aunt’s house.  His cousin had told us the night before that her mother had been practicing English to talk with me, which I found endearing.  She was an adorable woman who on my very first day there had asked me how I liked Aguilares and what I had told my parents about it.  I could tell she genuinely wanted me to enjoy myself and was going to do everything to make sure I did.

We went on a drive late one rainy afternoon to Montevello, a really farm-centric area where the rows of houses were lined with mango, orange, and lemon trees that sat next to fields of sugar cane and soy beans.  I have never seen soy in any dish in Argentina because soy crops are almost all intended for export.  I was in heaven when I noticed entire watermelons sold for 8 pesos (US $2) and couldn’t wait to get my hands on a box of mangoes.  We took a day trip to Tafí del Valle with Jorge´s sisters and cousin and the hour long drive up steep winding and sometimes scarily-narrow roads was tedious but worth the effort when I saw the breath-taking views above.  I could have spent an entire week there and when I found out the annual cheese festival was that weekend, I really didn’t want to leave.

Being a total city girl, I had to get used to new sites and sounds.  One night while riding on the back of the motorbike of my boyfriend´s sister, we felt a huge thud and realized we had run right over a giant toad.  I felt sick to my stomach afterwards but she didn´t seem as disturbed so I tried to brush it off.  In true city-girl style I was awed by the stars at night and even more so when, driving down the main route one night, Jorge shut off the car lights for a split second and slowed down to let me hang outside the window and stare up in total darkness.  I hadn’t seen stars that bright in years and it was breath-taking.

Traveling to “provincias,” what Porteños like to call any place outside Buenos Aires, gave me a totally new perspective of Argentina.  I realized that many of the negative things my Argentine Spanish teacher back in NY had told me about her country (that overall I haven´t agreed with) really only applied to Buenos Aires – the arrogance of people because of their more European than Latin ways.  But I found other things, the strong way they pronounce words with double ¨l´s¨ here as ¨sh,¨ how men kiss each other hello (they only shake hands in Tucuman) are also characteristic only of Buenos Aires.  The thing I loved most was the way Tucumanos refer to people in conversation.  For example, “estoy en la casa con la Erin,” they would say.  It felt like an added form of respect, though I knew it was just a regional way of speaking. I also found that some Porteños haven’t done very much traveling to provincias but tend to look down on them as poor, undeveloped, nothing but farmlands. Ask a Porteño about Tucumán and in typical Argentine fashion of exaggerating everything they will go on and on about the unbearable heat there, without mentioning much else.  It´s sort of the same way we Manhattanites unfairly judge other parts of New York and New Jersey.

When we returned to Buenos Aires, we kissed our VW Golf rental car goodbye and thanked it for surviving the torture we put it through, and then vowed never again to drive to Tucumán.

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