Tales from Salta, Argentina by Natasha Borsky
How do you feel when you are discovering new places, smelling new aromas, meeting new cultures, and humbling your previously articulate tongue with a new language altogether? I believe that it is a basic human need to journey and discover, both geographically and within ourselves, and it was this persistent and primal force that drove me to venture into South America for one year, an experience that forged my soul like steel through heart wrenching experiences of love, death, risk and celebration.
After 3 months of playing “capoeira” through the “pueblos” (villages) of Brazil, learning a whole new way of conversing through my “bunda” (bum) via the ever sensual and playful samba, eating “acai” (purple berry puree), and speaking Portugese ( a language so colourful, it’s the equivalent of the Irish lilt with a sexy, Latin flavour), I was ready to meet Salta.
Salta is a surreally beautiful province in Northwestern Argentina. It is dramatically set at the foot of the magnificent Andes, a stones throw away from rainbow coloured deserts, vineyards, and vast salt plains that take your breath away. Its ethnicity boasts a unique fusion of Spanish colonialism, mixed with indigenous elements and Gaucho (cowboy) culture. The cultural and scenic variety of Salta means that one needs at least 3 weeks to explore the province and do it justice.
After 4 weeks of tasting and smelling Salta, I felt it was time to deepen my experience. I found myself doing volunteer work at “Nino Jesus de Praga”, a public children’s hospital located about 6 blocks from the main plaza. My initial contribution began with inadvertently entertaining the children as I read them nursery rhymes in Spanish with as much passion and theatre as possible. Regardless of the story, the delivery always led to the children rolling in laughter, crying out, “Escucha la gringa, como habla!” (Listen to the white girl speak!). It was wonderful being a novelty by default!
In her wisdom, Josefa, the health educator, decided to make use of me in other areas of the hospital, and so I graduated from “Nursery Stand Up Comic” to advisor in the “lactantes” ward (young mothers). I had yet to personally experience the joys of childbirth, so I felt my guidance and counselling rather contrived! Nevertheless, I gave it my best shot.
I quickly began to appreciate that the skills and the knowledge that I took for granted, such as basic hygiene and nutrition, had never been made available to these young women, in their vastly different world. The intimate connections that we forged occurred through group discussions on relationships, self worth, and making the best with what we had. These phenomenal, “Salt of the Earth” women, no more than 17 years of age, were able to find some comfort through discourse, despite the language barrier. I found myself befriending many of them.
One afternoon, after I had finished my “shift” and I was heading out of the hospital, I found myself being invisibly steered towards the children’s oncology (cancer) ward. Each room had the standard “Jesus Christ on the crucifix”, dull grey chipped paint, and an infestation of rats and cockroaches. Parents slept alongside their children for up to six months at a time on flimsy plastic chairs, with only a blanket to provide any comfort. Feeling a profound shame at the conditions and lack of services on this ward, I knew then that I had found my place.
I regularly visited the children in oncology with armfuls of story books, songs to sing and various snippets of news from Salta. Every Wednesday, Gerardo (the love of my life at that time) and I, along with another musician, would visit the ward, singing local folk songs, and attempting to add some colour and variety to an otherwise monotonous day.
I grew to love those children, and throughout those months, Marco, Juan Jose, Silbina, Karina, and many more beautiful little human beings, drifted in and out of my life. Those named all died of avoidable infections contracted at the hospital, rather than from the cancer itself. Juan Jose, in particular, left a scar in my heart that I would not trade for the world. I am still to meet a greater gentleman than this seven year old boy who managed to ask me “vos queres gaseosa?” (Would you like a softdrink?), whilst he had only hours to live. Frustrated by the hopelessness of the situation, I sent out a few group emails to home (Australia), asking for any donations towards the hospital. I was thrilled and touched to receive AUD$8,000 from family and friends, which I knew would go a long way in a place like Salta. I immediately set about making as many changes as possible. I was able to harness local artists, patients and friends to paint murals for each ward. We completed 21 murals in total, each of which was 2 square metres in size (They still hang in the wards to this day!!). Blinds were brought in to provide shade in the rooms during the hot Summer months, and the refrigerators were repaired so that the vaccinations could be stored on site. Oxygen meters were purchased, along with a plethora of books and nappies.
Local newspapers were eager to latch onto the opportunity of spreading the word about “the white backpacker from Australia”, and before I knew it, I had a regular slot on two radio stations, discussing topics such as sexual health and hygiene. The segment was called “Hola Cachi, Habla Tashi!” (Hello, Cachi, this is Tashi!).
It was all too easy for the hospital to become my absolute world, so thankfully, my evenings gave way to a world of folklore music, Tango passion and delicious food! With the smells of humitas (pureed corn with cheese wrapped in corn leaf) and empanada (half moon shaped pastries with mince meat that tasted like ambrosia, thanks to all the animal fat!) drifting through the plaza, the nightlife along Calle Balcarce revitalized and energized me.
I have shared with you a very intimate snapshot of one year in my life, a year steeped with learning and discovery. And through that year, I came to believe that those who have the luxury of choice and the opportunity to explore the unknown also take with them the responsibility to add value to the places that they visit, in whatever shape or form that is aligned to their values.
Wishing you sincere and enriched travels,
Must Sees: Salta
To those brave enough to drive in a city where rules are hypothetical, and finding your place on the road is like a game of chess, hiring a car is the most empowering way to discover Salta and its secrets:
- Cachi, a gorgeous “pueblo” with the most delicious goats cheese and honey!
- Iruya – Imagine rainbow coloured mountains, covered in strawberry sauce, with clay homes sprinkling its ragged vertical ridges, all the way to the valley below.
- Pumamarca in Jujuy (see the seven coloured mountains)
- Quebrada de Humahuaca (more amazing rock wonders)
- Cafayate (incredible bike riding through deliciously fresh and sweet vineyards).