My world has always been small. I was born in a tiny New England town of 2,000 people. The city I’ve lived in for the past 12 years, although technically one of the largest in the country, can still be crossed from end to end in 20 minutes. And although I study in Los Angeles, I somehow ended up at a school where almost everyone knows everyone else by name. This is to say that “7 billion people” has always been an intangible, impossible concept to me.
Since the beginning of my time in Buenos Aires, I’ve noticed certain scenes — bodies squished like sardines on the subway; throngs of people running along the ever-busy Avenida del Libertador, like ants following pheromones — scenes that remind me of their duplicates in every city, on every train, in every street. In every country, millions of lives that will pass each other, never touching. Like all young adults with clichéd worries and fears about the future, I’ve thought a lot recently about my role in all this chaos. More than any other part of my semester thus far, my four days in the rural northwestern province of Jujuy confirmed this feeling — that of a tiny ant — and more than that, they reminded me that my customs and habits are by no means what’s common in this world of ours.
Friday, 9:43 AM
I think that those grassy patches of highway median are the same in every country. The trees are just as beautiful as any other, but with the bad luck of having been planted in the only place where no one will appreciate them. Chocolate wrappers and torn-up strips of tire, invisible at the start, clutter the view of what could be, under very different circumstances, a nice place for a picnic. Every so often, we pass a small shrine nestled into the red dirt. The cows on the side of the road don’t care that I miss someone terribly.
The music of Gipsy Kings sounds in my headphones and our bus passes an alien landscape, not exactly hills nor rocks nor cliffs nor monoliths, but rather what looks like a wall of stalagmites where a supervillain could harbor their secret hideout.
Saturday at the artist’s house
Off the side deck is the studio of an artist who studied under the apprentices of Kandinsky and Klimt. Full of bones, oil paints, gouache, gold leaf, metals. The man speaks Spanish with a thick French accent, but when he starts to explain why he lives in this tiny town, of all places to settle, it seems like his accent floats out the window over to the horses grazing in the pasture. I wonder if the horses are jealous of the artist. Do they know they’re living in the presence of a genius?
“The bathing woman has always been an important theme in painting,” he explains, offering his words like a gift that we don’t need, but that in his eyes we are obviously lacking. The artist isn’t pretentious, nor funny, nor friendly, nor rude, nor cold. He’s the artist.
Laying in the grass on his property, I think about France. How many people live in his hometown? How many backpacks are there in Tiny Town-en-River or whatever other city you prefer? HOW MANY TOOTHBRUSHES ARE THERE IN PARIS? WHO AM I?
Sunday at the salt flats
Tutúm-tutúm-tutúm-tutúm-tutúm. Our wheels cross the seams of the salt flats and the horizon begins to disappear, white meeting with blue farther, farther, farther still until no one can separate the two. The mountains are still visible, but are sort of like a dream — I can see them, but I can’t really explain the logic of their existence in this moment.
The baby, Agustín, wears a tiny red hat and fixes his eyes on each of us without smiling. We all turn into the paparazzi, taking photo after photo after photo of him. We’ve heard that the people here believe that being photographed steals your soul, but the baby’s mother sees us and doesn’t say anything.
Coca leaves have what I imagine to be the flavor of dead bugs. Despite this, I don’t spend very much time without a wad of the sacred plant in the corner of my mouth. Following tradition, I ask for more leaves from our guide, Fabrizio, with both hands.
I’m trying to think of any one thing or substance that we venerate in the United States the way the people of Jujuy do with coca leaves. Money, aspirin and Instagram followers are my initial three thoughts.
We give a bag of clothing to the family at the salt flats, and leave in our air-conditioned bus once again. Tutúm-tutúm-tutúm-tutúm-tutúm.
Marlén has a brown sweater and sad eyes. She’s selling bracelets at the fair in Pucará, and is beautiful even though her nails are dirty.
“Girls, one question,” she asks.
She asks us how to say in English that her bracelets are handmade and pay-what-you-want.
“H-A-N-D-M-A-D-E,” I explain. I give her some useful phrases on the back of a napkin.
Marlén wants to go to Colombia, and maybe to the U.S. one day. She asks me for a quarter to add to her coin collection. I give her South Dakota.
Monday, bread and goats
Have you visited the home of Clarita and Hector Lamas? I recommend it highly.
At the end of the road filled with rocks and cacti there’s a small house with two large mud ovens. On the journey to this house, one would feel very much like an ant, the only vehicle on the road, following curves between cacti and offerings to the pachamama, Mother Earth. Nevertheless, upon arrival at the Lamas estate, I immediately felt like a Very Important Person. Differing from the idea of a guest in the United States, you have a role in preparing lunch, because for a few hours, according to Clarita, you are part of the family.
A cat watches us from its viewpoint in a gutter above the outdoor kitchen. Sweating and without practice, we take turns using the tool, I’m not sure what it’s called, to get all the air out of the dough.
Clarita sings her favorite song from the region while she fixes the edges of my “ugly bread.” I apologize, and she laughs.
The youngest daughter, Caro, has a white newsboy cap and a sweet demeanor, and she guides us down the hill toward a pen with goats and three puppies that are training to be sheepdogs. She enters the pen and then says some very important words in that moment:
“Who wants to hold it?” Caro says, offering us a baby goat.
I held it for too long. Calm and gentle, it felt comfortable with me, but it was probably scared shitless. I hope that they don’t eat it, although we had just eaten goat immediately prior, so its chances aren’t looking good. I give the goat a little kiss and we return, climbing the path and doubling over in the wind.
The bus rumbles down the highway and I stare out the window, absorbing the endless colors and ravines of the mountains that stretch down the side of the valley. It’s a very strange feeling to accompany these foreign hills with the music of Frank Ocean in my ears, but for whatever reason, they now feel almost familiar.
Three hours on the bus await us. The sun begins to set, bathing the mountains in a maize-colored light that captivates me. We continue. The cows on the side of the road don’t care that I miss someone terribly.