It was 8:15 A.M. when my friend Florencia flagged down a taxi and headed back into Salta to go to work, leaving me at the edge of town. She had met me at my hostel at 7:15 A.M. and had helped me get to the best spot on the outskirts to hitch a ride north to Bolivia.
I was glad the weather was clear and warm. At least I could suffer rejection in comfort. After more than two hours holding my arm out, I was reminded why I'm not in sales—I don't take rejection well. At this point, I thought that maybe after Florencia got off work, she would swing back to see if I was here. It would be good to see her again. Or maybe I would hail a taxi (at any moment), go to the bus station, and do this the easy way. The way most travelers do it. Buy a bus ticket and get right to where I want to go.
Just when I was about to crack, a small, white, Budget-Rent-A-Car car, pulled over. There was a policeman in the passenger seat. His window was down. I asked if they were going north, if they were going to pass through Güemes, a small town at which I could hitch a ride farther north, or at which one could head south, if so desired. They said yes. I hesitated in disbelief for a moment, but then went around to the back of the car as the driver got out. I threw my pack in the trunk and he closed the hatch.
The policeman was from a little town East of Jujuy and was getting some training in Salta. He was just hitching a ride home after his work week. This had been his routine for a few months now.
Adam was from California and had been traveling the world for some number of years. He was collecting some money from a work accident—he had been a heavy equipment operator—and had some more cash flow from inheritance. He was tired of the people in the United States and was scouring the globe for a new place to live.
"People in the States just think about money. They've lost their values, their sense of right and wrong, and it's just getting worse."
"How did you find Australia?", I asked. "The people there are really nice, aren't they?"
He said, much to my surprise, that it was even worse.
"I really like Argentina. The people here are great," he said.
Visions of the guy that stole my bag and the people who pick-pocketed me in Buenos Aires danced in my head.
"How long have you been here?"
Maybe he was just choosing to ignore the bad apples, or possibly just hadn't met any in his brief stay here.
He was driving north from Salta to San Pedro to check out some land. He said you can buy several thousand acres for only a couple hundred grand. He'll spend half the year hear and the other half in Chile if he goes through with it.
He ha mentioned that he liked writing. I asked what he wrote.
"I haven't had anything published, but I'm deep into Buddhism." he said. He then said some deep stuff I didn't understand, a few words about global warming that I ignored, and something about being on the same frequencies as other people, to which I just grunted. Although I'm not sure we were on the same frequency, Adam was a nice guy and gave my spirits a lift. I hoped he would find a peaceful life in this land of really nice people.
When we got to the "Y" in the road where our paths led in different directions, he dropped me off and continued north-east, while I walked a few hundred meters to the highway that led slightly west of north to Jujuy.
I was hoping that my wait would be shorter this time.
The clock ticked. The sun beat down on me. I could feel my neck and my right arm burning. Dozens of cars passed, most of the drivers not even looking in my direction, as though I didn't exist. I stood up as a car approached and stuck out my thumb. I sat back down on the guardrail after he had passed. I repeated this dance numerous times. One car passed with three men in the front seat. The one in the center flipped me off.
Two-and-a-half hours later, I was seriously questioning my sanity. Several tour buses passed me by. "I could be on one of those right now," I thought to myself—more than once.
Mid-afternoon, I heard a horn honk behind me. I was facing the oncoming traffic and after the last car had passed, I sat back down and looked for the next car. I hadn't seen the small, silver Renault pull over a hundred meters down the road. I threw my pack on, picked up my camera bag, and hustled down the shoulder.
"You going to Jujuy?" This was my new plan. Just get to Jujuy, buy a bus ticket, and enjoy the good life.
"Can I come?"
"That's why I pulled over. The trunk is unlocked."
I walked around to the back and pulled on the trunk. It was unlocked, but not unlatched. A big chunk of plastic broke off the hatch lid. "Shit! I guess I need to push the button first."
I got my bag in, closed the hatch, and walked around to the passenger door. The driver looked at me funny and I told him I had just broken his car. He stepped out to take a look, fiddling with the piece of plastic that I had placed in the trunk. I think his idea was to glue it back later. Beautiful. I just broke the car of the guy that's offering me a ride.
He was virtually impossible to understand—I would place him in the top three of my most-impossible-to-understand-Spanish-speakers list.
We took off and quickly got up to speed. We passed other vehicles. He told me hitchhiking was forbidden here. The speedometer read 160 kilometers per hour, or almost 50% over the posted limit (that's almost 100 miles per hour). He had a cigarette in one hand and dialed and spoke on his cell phone with the other. We were going around corners, relatively sharp ones considering our pace. If we had a blowout, I was quite certain we would both die. At least—if the tires held—I would be in Jujuy really quickly.
When we got to the outskirts of Jujuy, his car began to make an awful sound. The two-foot-long piece of pipe that connects the header to the exhaust pipe had broken. He had had it welded back in Salta, but the weld had just given out. He pointed out the new pipe in the back seat.
He told me we were going to his house. He had just given me a ride and he was a big guy—probably over 300 pounds. I wasn't going to argue with him. We would probably just stop by for a minute, then he would drop me at the bus station. After all, he had insisted that it was much safer to take the bus. He pulled up along the curb in front of his house and parked the car. He told me to get my things and come with him. He checked that the trunk was locked and said my backpack would be okay.
He opened the gate and I followed him through, greeted by his two big, friendly dogs. I felt rather like I was intruding, but set my things down on the living room floor. His wife greeted me and told me to come along. I followed her into the dining room. He was already seated and motioned to the chair across from his. His wife proceeded to feed us a large plate of pasta and chicken followed by a bowl of soup. I was extremely thirsty after spending almost five hours in the sun without a drink. He and I gulped down a couple liters of Coke alongside the meal.
According to his wife, Lia, this isn't the first time Rolando had brought home a backpacker. The last time, his visitor stayed for a week.
"I worked in the Jujuy government for 32 years. I enjoyed it," he tells me, "but now I race cars for fun."
He's got a small, tricked out car in the driveway. We continued to chat at the dinner table while he puffed on a few CJs—cigarettes made in Jujuy.
"These are made right here in Jujuy."
"Where is the tobacco grown?" I ask.
"Jujuy. It's all done right here," he explains.
"So you smoke them because they're better?"
"No. They're cheap."
After lunch, his wife offered their sofa to me, as the siesta is the standard afternoon activity in Latin America. I'd had a tiring day, so I took her up on the offer. She had been on her lunch break and was headed back to work, so she took off and I crashed.
Several hours later, I got up and Rolando was no where to be found. I was thirsty and wanted to replenish the Coke that we had finished for lunch, but the gate was locked. Rolando's mother-in-law was home and looked for the key to let me out, but there was no key to be found. Rolando had one and his wife had the other. So, grandma and I chatted for a while. She was 84 and retired at 39 from nursing, but went to work at another hospital. Her husband died in 2002. She got very sick after that but was recently doing better. She seemed to be getting around okay.
Before long, Rolando got home and let me out to go get some Coke. Shortly after I got back with the Coke, things started to hop. A friend of theirs, a mechanic, came over and pulled Rolando's broken Renault into the driveway and began to tear the exhaust system apart while Rolando and his son watched. Then their son's exquisite girlfriend, Mercedes, came over. She and Lia fixed panchos (hot dogs) while the guys all hung out in the driveway. Some other friends stopped by for a while, but didn't stay for dinner.
After the Renault was fixed, the guys began to tinker with the racer. At about 12:45 A.M., they fired it up for a test drive. It was loud. They took it for a spin around the block and woke up anyone who had previously been asleep within a 6-block radius.
At 1:00 A.M., I grabbed my bag, said good buy to the son, his girlfriend, and the mechanic. Rolando, Lia, and I got into the once-again-quiet Renault and headed to the bus station. My plan was to take a 1:30 bus which would arrive in La Quiaca at about 6:15. After arriving at the station, we found that no seats were available on that bus, so I got a ticket for 2:20 with another company.
Rolando began chatting with some other Argentines while we waited for the bus to roll in. He introduced me to them and we ended up traveling on the same bus to La Quiaca. When my bus pulled up, I thanked Rolando and Lia for their hospitality. They had been amazing.
They are the reason I hitchhike, I remembered.