Night has fallen on Salta by the time the rental car is organised and the final briefing takes place outside my hostel. Juancito and the Blue Pirate will embark with me tomorrow to explore the surrounding country. The Blue Pirate wants me to try and recruit a couple of extra people to fill the spare seats. “Can you ask anybody in your hostel?” she says. “Just ask them all. There were those two guys who came today. Maybe they would like to.”
I have a weird phobia of making the first approach to strangers. Strange for someone who spends so much time on stage, but I’m on this score, I’m timid. I hate making phone calls. Even if I’m ordering a pizza I have to rehearse what I’m going to say, and put it off for half an hour to psych myself up. Calling friends I haven’t spoken to recently makes me nervous, while calling a girl I like generally requires about three days of preparatory deep breathing. Far easier to put things off until they’re no longer relevant. Plus the two guys who came today are Americans. Several days in a hatchback with them could go horribly wrong. “I’ll see how I go,” I say in an attempted palm-off. “If there’s anyone around, I’ll ask them.”
“But I know what that means. That just means we won’t get anyone.”
Pinned. She knows me too well, and this after just a few cumulative weeks in my company. If only she had been on hand to give pre-embarkation briefings to all my ex-girlfriends.
But later that night I confound all our expectations. The Americans are looking over a map right outside my door, pointing at each one of the places we’re going to visit, and asking the receptionist about buses that way tomorrow morning. The fit is too perfect. Remembering the lessons I learned from Washington and Level Five about our northern cousins, I invite them to join us.
We’re away early, before the sun is up, the five of us still sleepy-quiet, heads bobbing around as though suspended on strings. On the odd occasion as a kid when I had to get up while it was still dark, it always felt like I had woken up into some other world, one that never existed outside these moments, a place of hush and softness and low lights, a Roald Dahl witching hour to tiptoe through in socks. Even now the early mornings retain some of that otherworldly feel, the way still-burning streetlights flicker over our faces, the strange hypnotic daze that holds sway over us. Treading quietly in the church of early morning, where we know instinctively that too much noise insults the sanctity. Instead we mutter occasional comments as the town dissolves behind us, leaving space to fill the gaps between, while the sky’s upturned bowl glows a dim blue outside our windows.
The old road north to Jujuy is pretty and a little sick-making as it curves back and forth, with high views over valleys and reservoirs spaced by plunges through thick hanging forest. Sky forest, it’s called, and it’s as magical as the name, enormous Entish trees caked with clusters of moss and vines, parasites hanging off in plates and reams like exotic skin diseases off crusty old sailors. Then we emerge from the bends and run north, all north, as the road straightens and arrows toward Jujuy like a nemesis in the final stages of pursuit. (“Do you know what ‘nemesis’ means? A righteous infliction of retribution manifested by an appropriate agent. In this case…”)
It turns out that tolerance has won the day again. Jon and Jamie are both smart, interesting kids; they both have senses of humour; decent taste in music; accents that are easy on the ear; and they each say “dude” and “whoah” just enough to be funny without getting annoying. They laugh at my jokes – the surest way to my heart. They buy me beer – the second surest. They understand surrealism – the great failing of so many of their countrymen, who stare at it blank-faced and bray nasal comments like “I doan geddit.” We sing songs in the car like happy travellers. My favourite is ‘On the Radio’, by Regina Spektor. This song has some of my favourite lyrics of all time, for their simple directness and truth.
This is how it works. You’re young until you’re not.
You love until you don’t. You try until you can’t.
You laugh until you cry. You cry until you laugh.
And everyone must breathe until their dying breath.
It’s extra relevant today, because for all their good points, Jon and Jamie make us feel incredibly old. Someone mentions Blink 182. I start singing ‘Dammit’. They join in. When we finish I say, “Man, I haven’t thought about that song in years. I can still remember when it first came out. That was pretty much the anthem to my adolescence, back round 1997. Did you know it back then?”
“Uh, not really,” says Jamie. “My parents didn’t let me listen to that sort of music, since I was, like, six.”
Holy shit. Six. These guys were born in the 90s. And not just scraping in there, I mean deep into 1991. And somehow they are fully grown living breathing adult humans, walking around in front of us. Their pleasant and intelligent conversation is also a few steps beyond what you’d expect from the average 19-year-old.
The day’s destination is Purmamarca, whose Seven Coloured Valley was brought to you by the same nomenclatural ingenuity that brought our nation the Snowy Mountains, the Blue Mountains, and the Great Sandy Desert. Jamie and Jon have been this far before, and Jon can’t stop talking in adulatory whispers about some jam in his bag. “I can’t wait to get there and open that jam. Oh man. Hey, we need some bread. We need some bread for our jam. Jam.”
“Dude, I think you’re a bit fixated on this jam.”
“No, you don’t understand. We bought it here. We had the strawberry one here and it was amazing. I mean, amazing. And I have a jar of the orange one here. Jamjamjam somethingjam…”
Despite its titular shortcomings, the Seven Coloured Valley is physically striking as it lurches into view shortly after the turn-off to Purmamarca. The way its shades change so vividly and abruptly from one hill to the next is impressively improbable. The geological signage also adds another great joke to life’s retarded comedy (see photos below). The town itself is tiny, a few neat and dusty blocks around a central square, roads of packed dirt. Our cheap hotel has a twice-life-size carved wooden Jesus nailed to the cross out by its front driveway, complete with blood and thorns and tortured Saviour’s grimace. It is mildly unsettling to find him welcoming you at each arrival, to say the least, and has a somewhat incongruous relationship with the traditional hotelier’s ideal of a relaxing and comfortable stay.
“There’s so much dust here,” says Jon, getting out of the car. “It’s the story of Purmamarca. Dust and jam.” I tell him it should be his album title. We leave them in search of a suitable medium for jam ingestion while we three continue on an afternoon mission to the salt flats.
The road is an immense mountain climb, hairpinning on well-tarred roads up to the pass at 4200 metres. Juancito is a pilot, and gets unreasonably excited by altitude. He tells me that these are some of the highest sealed roads in the world. I’m not sure which issue of Sealed Roads at Altitude Almanac contained this thrilling information, but he seems pretty pumped. I would have thought that for a guy who flies at ten thousand metres most days, a mere four ks would be a doddle. But apparently it’s different in a car.
Juancito also has an iPhone. I must admit that it triggers a distant flicker of jealous rage when I see him searching for Spanish words in his amazing electronic dictionary, given that I lugged a two-kilo paper version over with me. (Then I remember what unexpected reward that dictionary delivered and I feel better. But that’s a story for another time.) His gadget also does all kinds of other cool things, including playing music through tinny but actually semi-listenable speakers (no mean feat for a phone in a moving car). He must just be following on from this morning’s singalong, but I kind of flinch when unannounced he flicks on Regina Spektor’s album Begin To Hope.
Most of you will know that when a relationship ends, certain musicians or songs are taken hostage by the break-up. Bands you used to listen to with that person, or that you associate with them. And when you hear one of those songs, let alone a whole album, it brings everything back in such a sudden rush that it can be unbearable. You can see yourself lying in bed with this person, heading for sleep and tangled up together, or away on some adventure that you shared. So Regina Spektor has been way off-limits since I left home. Even when she put out a new album, the tenor of her voice was too familiar and I couldn’t let it play. A whole slew of my favourite bands joined her in exile, mostly the folkier stuff that had been mutual property: Iron & Wine, Amanda Palmer, Band of Horses, Joanna Newsom, Bon Iver, Tom Waits, Cat Power, Stars, Sufjan Stevens, The Weakerthans. I can picture them all shivering on a bench outside the church hall waiting to be let back in.
It has been a long time, and I’m not prepared for it, but I decide to let it ride. Juancito is enjoying himself immensely, singing along with every word. I don’t want to ruin his moment, and soon enough I can’t help joining in. And it’s strange, and it’s sad, and some tough memories come knocking, but it’s also like meeting an old friend after a long time, that first odd period while you kind of suss each other out, examine faces and listen to voices and reassure yourself that yes, this is indeed the same person you once knew.
We duet, with The Blue Pirate laughing in the back, all the way up to the salt flats. In keeping with the theme of straightforward naming, these are pretty much as you might imagine them to be.
White plains stretching on out forever, like we three were an 8-point ellipsis printed on A0. The complete lack of perspective corresponding for once to the literal rather than the emotional. They mine the salt out here, long open cut trenches that could be awaiting the sarcophagi of the gods. Dozing bulldozers idle in the sun by a mining station, the buildings themselves made out of bricks of salt. A couple of enterprising locals, cloaked like Sand Warriors against the glare, make a living by carving sculptures and jewellery from the stuff. Try doing that with mustard.
The way back is a long slow fall down the same road, watching it fall away under us like a roll of ribbon unspooling to the floor. The intense drama of the landscape from so high up would only turn me into an adjective whore if I tried describing it. Better to look at the pictures instead. Juancito drops into neutral and we challenge ourselves to see how far we can go without putting it back in gear. Turns out it’s not for 54 minutes, until the last hundred metres uphill to the hotel.
We crash the door open elated, only to find Jon looking forlorn. “It was no good,” he says, sitting on his bed, with the air of a man telling you of a nearby aviation disaster. “The orange. It wasn’t good.”
The guilty jar is on his bedside table. I test it out. It’s really not that great.
“Well…you could just get some more strawberry, couldn’t you?”
“Yeah, but… I don’t think I could face him. The jam guy. I mean, he lied to us. He told us the orange was good. And we were waiting for it all this time… I can’t go back there.”
We try to put the trauma behind us as soon as we can, up early again the next day to watch the sun come up into the canyon pass, firing the rocks into stunning red-gold, before we get on our way to Iruya. The dirt road to this isolated town splits off from the highway shortly after Humahuaca, which I can’t stop saying as Oogachucka, meaning Juancito and I act out far too many renditions of a Big M ad than grown men should. We contest that it’s important cultural education for the Yankees. The lowlands require a bunch of crossings of a very modest creek, no more than a few inches deep, though The Blue Pirate holds her breath and squeaks and cheers Juancito on each time as though he were Sandra Bullock jumping the Speed bus over the gap in the overpass. After this we settle into another longer, slower climb – really slow, with the rutted rock of the crude roadbed sending shudders through the car with every metre. The boys are plugged into headphones. So is The Blue Pirate, doing audio Spanish classes on the iPhone. I lean into my corner and don’t say much. I’m thinking of cars and roads and Regina Spektor.
When you’re heartsore, every album is a soundtrack to a scene that starts to play the second the first note is heard. Begin to Hope was she and I driving back to Melbourne from northern New South Wales when I was the only one with a licence, a strange disjointed 26-hour waking dream with half-hour snatches of sleep between each next big chunk of road, the long straight run down the Newell through dusty outback spots like Dubbo and Parkes and Shepparton, getting lost on ever-dwindling country roads at night and using that one miracle bar of reception to call my housemate to find us on Google Maps, winding up in those last few hours to the Victorian border and over in a dream state from the sleep dep and momentum, the thrum of the tires under us and the slipstream past the shell, the height of the oil crisis and the ticking unspoken worry that there wouldn’t be enough in my account to fund that last murderous two-dollar-a-litre petrol stop, the downcast skies of the real south sweeping in to replace the New South blue, leafless trees thrusting fingers at the clouds while she tried to photograph them out the window, the deep melancholy that sights like that bring at the guttering end of a burned-out afternoon. Me wearing her sunglasses when the glare got too bad and us singing those songs together and me feeling like maybe we were an actual couple at last, at least for a little while, seeing us the way people in the milk bars we stopped at would have seen us, even though our ending was already as clear on the horizon and inevitably arriving as the flat grey banks of Victorian clouds. But in this moment, its imminence was both bone-wearyingly sad and yet somehow ok, and as we swooped down the long hills of the Calder with tail-lights poking holes in the close-wrapped dark and one eye out for speed cameras, and she switched bands and sang me Okkervil River from start to finish in perfect step, I felt a little bit like I was flying, and that at least this moment might survive the crash.
Then Juancito steers us up over the top of the pass, and a green and sweeping valley falls open in front of us, lush as the fields of Rohan, a high plain hidden by peaks in all directions. It is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, and no camera will ever do it justice.
Fuck it, I say to myself.
He props the phone on the dashboard, and over the car’s rattling it doesn’t exactly play us the music, but at least gives us a guide to follow. The road doubles back on itself in swerving loops, away and away and away into the valley below, some secret hidden land where anything could live and anything could happen, and we watch it all spread out below us and we sing. We sing to the mountains ringing the fat green plains, and we sing to their cathedral columns and their amphitheatres, their looming sculptures and their grandeur, and we sing imagining ourselves the first explorers to find this magic place. We sing to the donkeys browsing in the rubble of a ruined hut and we sing to the once-an-hour buses that force us so close to the edge that our bowels clench up in fear like they’re thinking of escape. We sing to the thick slow sunlight and to looping back through our own dust clouds, our windows buzzing up and down in spasmed symmetry. This is my music, that I loved, and every note of it sung out into the gold afternoon makes me smile, because I know this isn’t just the soundtrack to an old scene anymore. I still want that memory, and I’ll carry it with me, but now this music has life again. Now this music is the soundtrack to today, and when I hear it from now on, today is what I’ll be able to remember. The whole process of separation is like learning to be a real person again, and today I’ve claimed back another little piece of myself.
Iruya is a place I can’t describe. You’ll just have to go. A tiny little town perched on a cliff-edge, sunk deep within a valley but still with much further to fall. The encircling mountains closing it in with epic shapes on each side. And most of all the silence of the place – the altitude, the isolation. An empty hostel with the most basic of amenities, but the concrete balcony on the literal edge of town, an unimpeded view out and away to the world. We drink beers and watch it, taking it all in. In the morning the others go walking to some nearby viewpoint. I don’t want to risk a dodgy knee incident this far from medicine, so I stay back feeling like the crippled kid left behind by the Pied Piper. But watching the sunrise from the balcony, huddled in a tapestry blanket like some covered-wagon pioneer, is hardly the worst thing in the world. While the sun slowly works its fingers around the crags and cliffs above me, a giant condor cruises over, wings snapped taut, their fringed edges splayed in the wind as he hunts for food. He stays with me for a good half hour, carving smooth circles in the air directly above, riding the currents without ever seeming to expend an ounce of energy, rising and dipping out of sight behind nearby hills before cruising back into view, down low to examine the terrain before coming back, always coming back to altitude.
It’s a long ride back to Salta that day, down the length of the Humahuaca Valley whose landscapes change, surreal and abrupt, with each few passing minutes. The vibrant harshness of the dry desert world, twisted cactuses dotted up the hills like bandits in the showdown scene of every Western you ever saw. The kind of landscape none of us have ever been in, but all of us immediately recognise. Juancito wants us to form a band of land pirates, because this way I won’t get seasick. We think though that we should ditch the hatchback and go back to get those donkeys.
Coming back into Salta we remember that it’s the start of the gaucho festival. The gauchos – Argentine cowboys – are filling the streets in their thousands, columns of them on horseback being incongruously directed around police detours. We ease the car through the streams of livestock. Tonight is the anniversary of the death of General Güemes, who lead a gaucho army against the Spanish. The gauchos will go to his monument and drink the whole night through. We drive to the top of Cerro San Bernado, the hill that towers over the whole city, and watch Salta’s lights come up on the black plain below as the colours fade from the sky.
Jon and Jamie are flying out in the morning, so we head out for a send-off. You will never feel more fully Argentine than in the arms of La Casona on a weekend. It is without doubt my favourite place in this whole country: a huge old house with maybe eight rooms circling a central courtyard where a large fire burns in winter to keep off the chill. Adobe walls, wooden floors, stained wooden furniture, ancient posters on the walls, deserving the word ‘rustic’ without veering off into bullshit tourist kitsch. A real place. Every smallish room has six or eight tables. Every table is packed full of people. Every second guy brings a guitar. This is the magic of it. There are no official musicians. But the groups in each room take turns to sing, backing their nominated player, calling out suggestions to each other, joining in the choruses of each other’s songs. Every song is a classic, every song is Argentine, every song is about heartbreak or love. “Vivo amarte, cansado y triste, llorar, llorar…”
Their joyous Latin melancholy rolls the whole night through. The place doesn’t fill until 1 a.m. or empty until 6. The hours in between cast a spell, and time passes unnoticed. There is nothing like hearing the swell of harmonies rising through you in a language that, while sung, you still struggle to understand. The emotion is clear, just the same. You can feel it sweep you along. Everything is raw, visceral. The food is thick rough-cut chunks of meat straight off the fire. The Fernet comes premixed with chilled cola in large glass bottles. Its bitter black syrup rolls thick and cold over your tongue, and you swear you can feel it coating your insides like tar; as though if a flesh-eating bacteria destroyed your body, you would leave behind a relief sculpture of your innards in solidified black sugar.
Tonight the Fernet flows freely. The beers too, Salta’s black ale, so cold and sweet it tastes like ice-cream. I drink an unknown number. I smoke an unknown number of cigarettes. My head spins with the combination, floating off somewhere with the smoke and the chorus of voices, tenuously tethered to my ability to speak. It doesn’t matter. Life is full of hilarity and joy. Jamie has convinced the young receptionist from the hostel to come along, after having made eyes at each other for the duration of his stay. He’s awkwardly doing his best 19-year-old impression of smooth. Dani is there too, our friend from the Antarctic ship and the reason we came to Salta in the first place, and a few of her friends. Verónica has a sharp wit and a no-bullshit approach and the best part of my attention. Dani’s soon-to-be-husband Pancho summons more Fernet like a conductor bringing up the brass section.
A bunch of gauchos come in, and one sits and chats with us, a young and handsome chap called Sebastian who calmly dresses me in his hat and cloak at the drunken insistence of my friends (the Argentines, incidentally, not the foreigners). He lives in camps and on horseback out in the middle of absolutely nowhere, yet is one of the most cultured and well-comported gentlemen I have ever met. He speaks enunciated, classical Spanish, with an educated yet humble tone. His clothes are immaculate, as are his manners. He stands whenever ladies arrive or leave the table. He buys and pours us beers without mentioning it, and looks surprised when we reciprocate. He passes me his snuff tin every time he takes it out, and teaches me the correct method of ingestion. He speaks in a considered manner about life and language and literature. He listens carefully when anyone speaks to him, as though deeply considering each word. Caballero, while literally ‘horseman’, has come to mean ‘gentleman’ in Spanish, just as the French chevalier was the precursor for ‘chivalry’. However ancient, that connection survives yet.
By now Jamie has finally made the leap and is making out furiously with the receptionist in a corner. Unfortunately he had to get so drunk to summon up the courage that he loses all sense of time and focus. Every time he goes to the bathroom he gets distracted by random conversations and leaves her sitting there looking bored for half an hour, then seems surprised to see her on his return. Later I will find him in the courtyard slurring at a guy who is so drunk he seems to be speaking into his own shoulder, while the receptionist stands next to him with her bag and her jacket and her extremely irritated ‘I’m leaving now’ expression, waiting to be noticed. The Argentines are singing. The Blue Pirate is playing with the iPhone. Jon is locked in a valiant attempt at conversation with one of Dani’s friends. Jon speaks absolutely zero Spanish. María Elena speaks a tiny smattering of English. Somehow they manage to converse, in some form or other, for most of the night. I suspect he may be a little bit taken with her. He’s somewhat flushed and never once surfaces from the conversation to ask for help or try to escape. “It’s strange,” he tells me later, as though describing a great mystery. “I spent, like, hours talking to her. Talking to this 30-year-old lawyer. I didn’t think we would have anything to talk about.” Again I can feel the difference in age, how much things have changed in these recent years. For him, at 19, her age of 30 is almost impossibly distant, another land on the other side of who knows how many mountain ranges. For me at 27, she’s just a sweet-natured girl, and the path back to 19 looks pretty short indeed. But, like the lady said over the tinny crackle of the iPhone speakers, this is how it works. You’re young until you’re not.