Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Another Country's Windows

I haven’t been this cold in months, I think. I wait for the 4 AM bus to leave Tupiza for Villazon, the border town where I’ll get my passport stamped and then enter Argentina. I’m freezing, I hear the girl in front of me whisper to her boyfriend. They are English, I can tell from their accents, and I envy them for the way they curl up together in their seats, sharing a blanket. I pull my jacket closer around me and wish for my hat, my second jacket, a cup of hot tea. Finally, half an hour late, we pull out of the station, southbound. The driver flicks the interior lights on in the inky blackness and blasts the radio, shouting to his ayudante as he goes. I close my eyes and try to sleep, hating him.

Villazon remains the cold, gray town Paul described. The buildings, set evenly along the icy, silent, early-morning streets, loom around me, the dark windows blank eyes that watch me shiver past. The sidewalks are broken by spindly, leafless trees, and the gray sky hangs low. An Australian girl emerged, teeth chattering, from the Tupiza bus, and so we walk together without speaking towards Argentina, sucking on caramels I bought from the bathroom guard with my last three Bolivianos. The border is marked by a long bridge and a sign that reads, in antique white lettering, Bolivia. When I turn and look back, I see that the other side reads Argentina. Just like that, we’re in. I take one last look at Bolivia, and then I am weeping in the cold. 

Good-bye, I am thinking, to the country with stretching deserts and bare hills, women with wheels of cheese in the streets, and those colors of the satchels and clothing. The long braids woven with yarn, the jolting roads, the clusters of mud huts and the spindly smoke of fires fruit-scented roadside fires. The alpaca, the freezing showers, the broken sidewalks. The way I felt, traveling through, like some kind of vagabond in the same three-day clothes, the only gringa in the lurching bus. The freedom of that, the sweet alone-ness. Already, people who look like me, with big packs and light skin, stand around outside the customs office, and I know with a dull and sudden ache that something's over. It's not just Bolivia; it's the last eight months of these places that exist so poor and wealthy both. It's a way of life I made, a way of navigating, and now, as I step over the line that divides that time from this, I feel a little something deep inside me tear. It's over, I am thinking, even though there's still so far to go. Something's lost, I know. I didn't expect this sharp and funny grief, but now I wonder how I didn't see it coming, for with each step forward I move closer and closer back: glass-paned stores, smooth paved roads, new clothes, rich food and the wanting. The taking things for granted, and the ease. Are you okay? The Australian girl asks, and I nod. It’s just the cold, I tell her, and brush the tears away.


It’s a spectacular ride from the border south, different enough to make me wonder whether the line on the map that divides the two countries is a real geographical divide. I lean back in my seat beside the Australian girl and admire the clean bus, the soft seats, the view from the second level of this double decker. The road feels so smooth beneath us, and the scenery—golden fields, distant mountains, the rainbow colors of the rocks and the blue sky of morning—keeps us silent, looking out. I could get used to this, I say, and then the bus shudders to a stop. I imagine a rest stop, even though we’ve only driven two hours, and then the driver comes down the aisle. He says something I can’t understand, something in the Argentinian accent that crushes the words, merges them together, creating a smooth and unrecognizable sound. He rounds up a couple of guys, and the next thing I know I feel them pushing the bus so that we roll forward, the engine off. Eventually, the bus rumbles to life, the guys come back on, flushed and laughing, and off we go. So much for the nice buses, the Australian girl says, grinning. We remember aloud the rickety buses that took us through Bolivia, the ones with the rattling windows and open grates, and marvel at the way those got us to where we needed to go without ever failing us.


I spend my first Argentinean night in Jujuy, a warm, valley city that Paul admired. I stroll up and down its sun-baked streets lined with tall, elegant doorways, the soft colors of the paint on the aging colonial walls, and the cafes that stay open all day and most of the night, serving real coffee with milk. I eat and eat of the spinach quiche that the woman sells in the deli beside my hostel, and I spent long minutes before her shelves of wine, eventually selecting a bottle that costs just three dollars and tastes, when I share it later with the old woman who runs my hostel, like liquid heaven and smells like pine and apples. In the night, the air is soft, and I sleep fully and long; it’s warm enough for just a sheet. The shower in the morning is hot, steaming up the white-tiled bathroom as the sunshine floods in. Que rico, I think as the water pours over me, and I don’t feel sad to be in Argentina, after all. Donigan was right; it does take just a day to forget how sweet a hot shower, or a slice of hot quiche, or a glass of white wine can taste. I feel guilty for how quickly I adjust.

On the ride to Salta the next day, I discover that I’ve learned to sleep, finally, on buses, and I close my eyes to the warm afternoon light and the baking fields of corn and grazing horses. I’m so sleepy, in fact, that when the driver wakes me up to see my ticket, I hand him a baggage slip from a bus ride to Sucre instead, then frown when he kindly shakes his head and passes it back.

In Salta, I find a hostel at the end of a whitewashed block south of the center, which is painted inside and out with every imaginable color. A gray cat lives here, a cat who sleeps on my bed by night and races up and down the stairs, over the connecting roofs, by day. The owners, a twenty-something couple with baggy pants and loose, curly hair, pour me a glass of wine on the first night and then sing together while a guest from Cordoba strums his guitar. I find, too, a market like the ones I found in Bolivia and every other place, a market with tiled counters where ladies serve up soup and plates of egg and pork and salad, juices of banana and orange and carrot. I see the manta of the indigenous everywhere, and the same braids woven with yarn. I am not so far, I discover, from the countries where I found something special and fell in love. Here, too, I can sit on the curb and drink soup from a bag, and I can wear the same clothes for three days in a row, as the Argentinian owner of my hostel does. I have not lost the freedom, I discover, that I felt in those freezing, high-up countries. It's the Latin, after all, that I've been living, and it just tastes different here. On these shadowed streets it's smoother, now painted with long Spanish windows, the shades halfway drawn to mute the sun. 


  1. Soon you will be in Buenos Aires, which thinks of herself as special in the Latin American world, whose residents, the Porteño, as they pass on the street, pause in the cafés, operate the shops and businesses, will make you wonder where you are: Madrid? Milan? Catania? Lisbon? It will be rare when what you see reminds you of the places you've fallen in love with as you've ventured south and more south. Turn a corner - am I in Lyon? Turn another corner - am I in Barcelona? Then another - Queens?

    But that is why Buenos Aires is here? She is the exception that illuminates the rule.

    You are leaving the campo and the 3rd world cities along your track. You are coming to Manhattan. Get ready.