Jul 22, 2004
|Written by Karen:
Since Ted was well enough to take care of himself, but not well enough to leave the hostel, I went on a day tour to the nearby town of Cachi run by the hostel's travel agency. The tour guide was my age, and named Veronica. There were 10 or 12 other backpackers on the tour, and we were transported in a mini-bus. Since there were only two of us on the tour that were not fluent in Castalleno, Veronica had us sit together so that she could give the English translation to both of us at the same time. The other non-speaker was an older man from France named Jean-Claude. I found it amusing that the American and the Frenchman were grouped together. Jean-Claude was very talkative, and the self-proclaimed authority on everything. For example, when he found out I was a geologist, he began explaining (incorrectly) the local geology to me. When I tried to politely correct him, he would insist that he knew what he was talking about. I'm sorry, but it definitely takes more than drying out dust to form rocks! Jean-Claude had been a doctor in France, but when his marriage fell apart, he decided to quit working and travel the world for the rest of his life. He used to have a bad heart condition, but as he told several people on our trip, "The doctors told me to stop smoking, stop drinking, stop making love, and not to go higher than 1000 meters. I told them I couldn't do that. And now, I drink and smoke as I wish, I have sex, and I go where I want, and no more heart problems!" So, in Jean-Claude's educated opinion, it was the stressful lifestyle that was the source of his heart troubles.
Other memorable people on the trip were from Buenos Aires; two 20-year-old giggly gals, a fellow named Facundo (not the one from Tigre), and two German women my age who are living in Argentina. The giggly girls and Veronica all liked to tease/flirt with Facundo, so there was a lot of shouting "Facu, Facu!" when they wanted his attention. In turn, Jean-Claude liked to flirt with the giggly girls, who played along but then made jokes about him to me when he wasn't around (since I sat next to him on the bus). In line for the ladies' room, the two gals indicated to me that I had better make sure Jean-Claude knew I was married. I said "Oh, si, si, lo digo!" (=Oh yeah, I tell him!).
The tour took us through spectacular views along a winding road through a narrow canyon. Veronica told us that the residents of this area live in remote areas very far away from their neighbors. However, each town has a school and a church. The children live at the school during the week, and then are sent home to spend the weekend with their parents. If there is a wedding or a funeral, everyone gathers at the church. So in effect, the school and the church are important social centers for each town.
The people from this area are also somewhat superstitious. If you want to take a photo of someone, it is very important to ask first, because some of the locals feel that the camera is stealing their soul. As an example, Veronica told us a story about a journalist and photographer that came to this region to do a newspaper story. Their driver told them not to take anyone's photograph without asking first, but the photographer took a photo of two women on the road anyway. One of the women shook her finger at the photographer, but he took the picture anyway. The woman got so mad that she reached down and scooped up some dirt from the road and blew it at the photographer. The driver got freaked out, yelling at the photographer "Look what you've done! Now she's cursed us!" Later that day, their car rolled off the road.
Veronica also said that the people who live in this area have a saying that if you are walking late at night and you see a light behind you, that it is a lonely, lost soul just looking for company. So just let it follow you and don't turn around, because if you turn around to look at it, something bad will happen to you. Veronica said that when local people are asked to describe the light, or draw a picture of it, they draw or explain the image of a flying saucer. Supposedly, the people that described the lights had never heard of UFO's or seen TV, movies or listened to radio (where they might have heard about them). As a result, a lot of people think this is a heavy traffic area for UFO's. Veronica added that NASA had sent some scientists to this area to investigate the UFO claim, but came up with nothing.
After all this talk of strange powers and UFO's, I thought it was weird when Veronica kept calling me Helen. She said, "I know your name is Karen, I don't know why I keep calling you Helen. For some reason, when I look at you, I just think 'Helen.'" I explained to her that I had a great aunt named Helen, who I spent a lot of time with as a child. We joked that maybe Helen was somehow traveling with me in this place of strange forces!
At Parque Nacional Los Cardones, we took a short hike in the 'Enchanted Valley' as a group before continuing on to Cachi. The last stretch of road on the way to Cachi follows the old Incan road. The road is incredibly straight, and Veronica explained that the Incans were able to get it so straight by spacing out men along the distance, each holding a flaming torch. Then they simply lined the torches up. Cachi is a beautiful little town with cobbled streets and an outdoor crafts market in the main plaza. We had some time to look around inside the museum, and Veronica kindly translated for Jean-Claude and me. I was fascinated by a small statue of the Pachamama (the Mother Earth goddess), where visitors had left small offerings. Veronica pointed out that some of the offerings, specifically candy and cigarettes, where not really very good for the Pachamama! She also said that the statue was an unusual representation. More commonly, people use a 3 or 4 foot high pyramid of rocks to represent a Pachamama offering location. I facetiously left an offering of some coca leaves in the hopes that I wouldn't get altitude sickness again. Veronica said that she'd show me a real offering spot later.
Just outside of Cachi, we stopped at an overlook spot. There was a Pachamama pyramid at this location - the 'real' one that Veronica had mentioned. She showed me that the proper way to make an offering is to draw a cross on the ground (the result of Christianity and Pagan religions mixing), to symbolically open the mouth of the Pachamama. The offering is put in the center of the cross and then buried, and a rock added to the pile. Since Veronica was showing me anyway, I buried a few more coca leaves, just to be on the safe side! Later I read that the rock pyramids are called apachetas, and that they are erected along travel routes, especially mountain passes and at the base of steep slopes. The apacheta offering invokes the protection of Mother Earth and the mountain spirits for the traveler's journey.
On the way back to Salta, Veronica tried to help the time pass by getting people to sing traditional songs. First the giggly porteños sang some tango songs, then they tried to get Jean-Claude to sing some French songs. Jean-Claude could hum the tune to several songs, but didn't know the words. Fortunately, having been drilled in the French national anthem and some Edith Piaf songs (like Ma Vie En Rose) during high school French classes, I still remember the words to such tunes. So I'd sing the words while Jean-Claude hummed the tune. That led to some jokes about me knowing French better than the Frenchman! Next, the two German women sang some traditional German songs. While Veronica was trying to come up with another French song to get Jean-Claude singing, I piped up, "I could sing a traditional song from the United States." Everyone was skeptical that such things existed, but I convinced them to listen. I began with an introduction, which Veronica translated into Spanish - "This song was written by a man named Woody Guthrie, who was an activist for the working poor in the 1930's and 40's. The song is a well-known folk song in my country." Then I sang the first stanza of 'This Land is Your Land.' Veronica asked me to sing it again, but slower so she could translate it. So I sang the first stanza again.
Veronica told the group in Spanish that the lyrics said "This land is made for you and me from here to there."
So I explained that the lyrics reflected Guthrie's philosophy that the beauty of the land should be for everyone's enjoyment and not just for the rich few, which Veronica translated for the group. Then there was a long pause, everyone was very quiet. Then someone asked, "Do you know any Madonna?" :(