“I feel as if we can relate on some of these words I’ve written down. So turn off, turn off this song. Find someone to love. Turn off this song. You can listen to it later. And go outside.” ~The Lonely Forest
In addition to chewing and surrendering my cell phone, another path to becoming more present has been going outside.
We encountered a whole new realm of presence during a trip to the naturesque provinces of Salta and Jujuy in northwestern Argentina. The region embodied three of my new favorite Spanish words: re tranquila y linda (really peaceful and beautiful).
As a bonus, the adventure also afforded me progress on an outlandish desire to insert myself into my two favorite movie scenes. Dread for the 60 hours of bus rides to travel to, from and around the provinces quickly turned to excitement when I realized it presented me with the fortuitous opportunity to fulfill 0.5 percent of a lifelong dream: touring the country by bus as a member of a band, a Band-Aid in love with one or a journalist chronicling it all:
Although I wouldn’t mind living on what felt like the business class of buses with wide, comfortable semi-beds, unfortunately, the staff didn’t give me much else to work with to recreate this scene. They blared a serene series of music videos titled “Retro Party 2” to soothe us to sleep. The driver then woke us up at 7 a.m. by blasting tango music.
But when I pulled the curtain back and peeked out the bus window, Christmas morning washed over me as I drank in what was definitely not the city. Unlike BA, there were no horns resounding from lines of traffic, bus drivers competing for the Special Cup in MarioKart, or pigeons and trash overtaking the sidewalk. Instead, I saw tiny birds gracing the blue sky, green grass and brown dirt for miles. And I just felt happy.
I went into the trip, as usual, knowing nearly nothing about the six places we visited in the region: Salta, Cafayate, San Salvador de Jujuy, Purmamarca, Tilcara and Humahuaca. But I quickly sensed a pattern: Mountains. Rock formations. Hills.
I was initially apprehensive. Aside from many viewings of “Cool Runnings,” I’ve participated in mountainous activities only twice in my life. The first time, I hit a patch of ice, lost control of my skis and crashed into a barbecue on the side of the slopes. The second time, I almost got hanged by the ski lift – and that was after I fell out of the shower at the lodge. The mountains of trash on most Buenos Aires street corners didn’t improve my perception of this natural phenomenon.
But it’s summertime down here in the Southern Hemisphere, and we were far from the capital. I realized that, when they’re not covered in snow or made of trash, I actually love mountains and similar landscapes. From the red rock formations in the Quebrada de Cafayate to the Cerro de los Siete Colors (Hill of Seven Colors) in Purmamarca, I snapped some 500 photos as this natural architecture usurped buildings as my favorite things to photograph.
My camera glued to the window, they transformed hours on buses into photography excursions. My laptop out to do some editing, they created one of my favorite office spaces – and I’d thought working from a bus on the New Jersey Parkway once last summer had been cool. And at more than 4,000 meters above sea level as we wound around cliffs en route to the Salinas Grandes (Great Salt Flats), they enabled me to re-enact my second favorite movie scene:
“I can gather all the news I need on the weather report. Hey, I’ve got nothing to do today but smile. … Half of the time we’re gone, but we don’t know where and we don’t know where. Here I am.” ~Simon & Garfunkel
The weather that day was sunny, and there really was nothing I could do but smile. The rays mingled with the breeze to greet my face through the open car window as we raced through the mountains to get to the salt flats, where I even got to get into some of my favorite yoga poses. The driver insisted on blasting the “Pretty Woman” soundtrack on the ride down, but I only had one song lyric on repeat in my mind:
“Happiness hit her like a train on a track.” ~Florence + the Machine
Aside from a disastrous attempt to combine two of my favorite comestibles by trying wine-flavored ice cream – I can’t even imagine what the tuna flavor they were featuring must have tasted like – the magic realism continued to follow us from BA. We wanted to go to the wine region? Our hostel just so happened to have three open bus seats. We wanted to try coca leaves? Our tour guide just so happened to have brought a bag with him for everyone to try.
And my favorite town turned out to be the one I knew nothing about – AKA the one I didn’t get a chance to look up and scribble notes about while borrowing a fellow bus passenger’s guidebook a half hour before arriving in the region. Tilcara is a beautiful Andean village with one main road and plaza. Nestled into a valley and surrounded by mountains, it was picturesque but without feeling touristy like Purmamarca had.
Our hostel was one of the coolest and calmest I’ve ever encountered. Perched atop a hill, it had a beautiful outdoor garden with a gorgeous view of the sunrise and sunset. Song lyrics, wine bottles and hammocks – a few of my favorite things – graced the outdoor patio and bar area. Enjoying the view from a colorfully striped hammock one morning, I consciously felt the most relaxed and happy I had in a long time.
Between the hostel and an indigenous Andean restaurant in town, I also received two of the best vegetarian meals – and meals period – that I’ve had in Argentina. At the restaurant, we ordered five different plates that together contained only two elements that weren’t vegetables. Yet the flavors were astounding, and we all left too full for helado – a rare occurrence. At the hostel, I almost asked for seconds of the delectable vegetable torte the girl who does the cooking whipped up behind the bar. But feeling stupid for having previously mocked the staff’s insistence that we could dine at the hostel when restaurants lined the road, I ate my words instead.
After packing five cities/towns into the previous 72 hours, I had felt the anxiety from that journal entry creeping back over me earlier that day when Jess and I found ourselves with two free hours in Tilcara. It was too late in the day to venture somewhere new but too early for dinner. Conditioning our consumption customs continued to cultivate calmness, as once again, we invoked a beverage, mate, to become more present. While we had been ready to fast-forward to dinner, we passed a lovely two hours chatting over the tea, savoring the adventure we’d been anticipating for years.
This slowness that at first felt strange soon seemed seductive. While showering back at the hostel that night, I peeked outside through the little green wooden window that overlooked the patio. As trees, stars and mountains cajoled my mouth into a smile as the water rained down, six words streamed through my head before I could stop them: I am not a city girl.
Don’t get me wrong. I haven’t been camping since my mom tricked us into “vacationing” at Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-“Resorts” – a trailer park in the woods of Pennsylvania. I cringe when I hear “Redneck Woman” and judge people who play it at loud volumes and sing along with their eyes closed. I can’t live without Gmail and Whole Foods, and I had a dream the other night about switching to Timeline on Facebook.
But I definitely don’t belong in a city, although it is fun for now. After staying at the hostel for just two nights, I could see why the four young people who live and work there all seemed so down-to-earth, serene and content. And I wanted to be like them. I didn’t see any of them eat, but I’m fairly certain they had their master’s in mastication.
On the bus odyssey back to BA, the movies the staff selected to show struck me as a strange series, starting with one about an alien named Paul. But what interested me most were the antipodal portraits of perfection among the peculiar lineup.
In “El Juego Perfecto” and “Black Swan,” the characters all achieve perfection. In the first, a charming Cinderella story, a team of poor Mexican boys wins the Little League Baseball World Series in a perfect game. In the second, a dramatic thriller that should not be shown before breakfast, Nina nails both roles of the White Swan and the Black Swan before uttering her final line, “I was perfect.” Both finales gave me the chills – although one involved an adorable pack of cheering underdogs and the other a deranged ballerina bleeding to death after she stabbed herself with a mirror shard.
Although both plots commenced with innocent characters, they seemed to diverge on the point of motivation. Nina was obsessed with being perfect, while the kids found more pleasure in rolling around in real grass fields in the United States than in winning, let alone perfection. Nina also spent a lot of time indoors practicing ballet in a big city, while it was all sun, grass and dirt in random towns for the baseball boys.
As I tend to be more of a Nina myself, an English-speaking perfectionist, I have been trying to live more like my little amigos now that I am back in the big city. I don’t see myself joining a baseball team anytime soon. But I spend my free time on our terrace or at the park, seeking sun and soil and trying to trust that happiness will find me as long as I let nature take its course.
“You don’t find happiness when you’re searching for it. And I should have realized, I was wasting precious time. But I never had the chance to change the batteries in my watch. Oh and it’s a Monday night in June, and I should be sleeping. But it’s so damn warm inside. I’m in the garden dreaming. And I got one chair for myself and another for my feet.” ~Stornoway