Observations from a sardine can

San Francisco to Salta is 972 km by road according to our atlas which is probably a reasonable enough estimate.  Twenty four hours (twelve there, twelve back) strapped into a moving sardine can in the company of a three year old is something of an endurance test for all concerned, despite the fact that he was pretty well behaved most of the time.  My proudest moment was on entering Salta province and catching the first glimpse of the mountains… “Look mummy, those are big hills.  They are for climbing on”.  That’s my boy!  Sadly son, the best chance you’ll have of actually climbing a hill resides in the UK, ironically enough.  This has nothing to do with height, or danger, but culture; here there is little culture of climbing hills, so it is hard to find people to go with, mapping is poor to non-existent, and in many cases access can only be gained by taking a machete to the thick scrub growing up the sides.  The few hills which gain the dubious privilege of being designated tourist attractions are rewarded with a layer of concrete; all the way up to the car-park at the summit.  But I promise we’ll find something to climb on next time we’re in the UK. 

Before we reach the hills of Salta, a goodly chunk of the journey is taken up crossing the province of Santiago del Estero, where a significant proportion of Argentina’s Arabic/Middle-Eastern population are located.  Argentina is largely a nation of immigrants, although most groups have been here for three generations or more and racial integration here in general has been better achieved than in Europe or North America.  However, there are many areas of the country where certain surnames dominate and the people are still thought of as being predominantly from, e.g. Germany in the province of Entre Rios, Italy in Buenos Aires, Wales in the Patagonia, and, in this case, the Middle East in Santiago del Estero.  We can only imagine the first Arabic peoples fleeing war and hunger, arriving in Argentina’s immense territory and surveying its vast and varied topography; from the lakes and glaciers of the south, the arable wetlands of the East, the high Andes mountains to the West, and the eternal plains of the fertile pampas in the middle.  Bewildered by the sheer sensory overload of it all, perhaps a small voice from the back pipes up “That bit has sand… it would remind us of home” and off they popped to Santiago del Estero.  Thus it was with some astonishment that we discovered this year that the entire length of this hitherto desert province had been transformed into an oasis of green, but back to that in a minute. 

Santiago de Estero is one of the poorer provinces (being not very fertile I would guess), and it appears that the police department isn’t over-funded.  On a couple of occasions we witnessed a police road-block complete with orange cones, manned by two officers.  The first officer steps smartly out, and with a “don’t mess with me” face brings the traffic to a halt.  He then goes around to the drivers side window of the leading car, leans in and says – I kid you not – “My colleague here needs to go to the next village, can you give him a lift?”  We enjoyed watching this little performance happen to the car in front of us, and then a few villages further on, we found ourselves in front and thus became the designated police transport.  “Yes” is probably the most sensible response, given that “no” would likely lead to having the car taken apart and us being fined for some imaginary minor infraction.  In any case we had room, we were going his way, we do quite often voluntarily pick up hitchhikers anyway, and the young officer more than paid for his ride by entertaining our child in the back.  I took advantage of the opportunity for some local information, and asked him what had happened to Santiago province to make the plants grow.  The short answer; it’s been raining for months.  Climate change is pretty easy to identify in places like this where previously weather patterns had been so predictable that folk knew from one year to the next which dates they were expecting it to rain, and by how much.  Maybe those Arabic forefathers were able to look further into the future than we’re giving them credit for. 

Not completely related, or actually maybe it is, the other thing I noticed going through Santiago were the campaign placards; Agro-toxins kill our orange trees.  Now I reckon if you genetically modify soya seed, and then you spray the fields from the air with poisons designed to kill everything except the genetically modified soya seed, it probably isn’t a great surprise that your spraying takes out more than just the weeds in the soya field.  So I’m asking why it apparently didn’t occur to anyone before to wonder what would happen if there was a bit of a wind on spraying days, or where the chemicals would end up after they filtered through to the irrigation canals.  I’m not a great sociologist, but I’m guessing the simple answer is that the orange trees belong to the poor guy whose field backs onto the land owned by the rich guy who grows the soya, and that the real challenge will be one of persuading the rich guy to give a damn, particularly in the current economic climate where soya is making the already rich even richer despite the whining about levels of taxation. 

So, eventually we leave Santiago del Estero behind us, the hills come into view, and a couple of hours later, so does the city of Salta.  Salta city is a loud urban sprawl, whose aspect is improved by its backdrop of surrounding mountains (although one might say that the aspect of the mountains would be better improved by the removal of the urban sprawl… I guess it’s a question of preference).  Salta isn’t any less attractive than any other city, but it is a city, and not being a great shopper I’ve never really figured out what I’m supposed to do there having sampled most of the coffee shops and looked in most of the museums.  Certainly I wouldn’t go more than twice without good reason, especially while so much of the rest of Argentina still lies waiting to be explored.  But beggars don’t always get to choose, and a meeting had been arranged so to a meeting I went. 

I do believe that some meetings are a necessary evil, which is why I’m committed to being there… but some of what happens seems to come down more on the side of the evil than the necessary.  How much of this could be done by email?  Probably most of the “information sharing” bits, and definitely anything where we are merely reporting “lack of progress” (per-lease) which would mean we could better use the working time for, uh, well, the items that actually need working on.  Partly it’s a cultural thing.  Here “being busy” and “doing stuff” is what is important, whereas my temptation is always to analyse; “yes but what are we being busy with… could that doing stuff have been done more efficiently…”  Maybe at some stage I’ll learn to be happy that I’ve been busy all day, rather than asking whether I’ve achieved anything.  Anyway, that was that.  The good points as always; people and ice-cream… there’s a couple of folk who we only ever see in Salta, one in particular who I really love to catch up with so it was good to drink tea and do the washing up with her; and we make it our mission to sniff out good local ice-cream anywhere we are and Salta’s no exception.  Joni had fun chasing the cats around the house (they quickly learned to make themselves scarce), he also enjoyed discovering a whole new range of Thomas toys, Thomas books, even Thomas on his bed, a different plaza to go out to, and best of all, a new ready made audience including young people who were more than willing to be bossed around by a three year old mini-dictator for a couple of days. 

And then we piled back into the sardine can and drove twelve hours home again. 

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