Buying up/selling out

December 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

I have almost reached the northernmost point of my trip. This afternoon I’ll head from Tilcara, a town in the Quebrada de Humahuaca, to Iruya, a smaller village 50km off the main road to Bolivia. I have no idea what it will be like, but have heard a constant stream of positive comments about the natural beauty, the people, and the condors.

I was excited about coming to this part of Argentina because I saw it as a sort of return to the South America I knew in 2009, when I lived for three months in Pisac, a Andean town near Cusco in Peru.

It has felt like a return, in many ways. There are the same breathtaking mountainous landscapes (though here with more sand and cacti), the same abundance of maize, the same stalls arts and crafts.

And there is, of course, the same dependence on tourism. Tilcara, where I am now, resembles Pisac not just in its location and architecture but also in its ever-growing concentration of hostels, restaurants and souvenir shops.

It’s common for the independent traveller to lament the vile influence of globalisation, the eruption of Coca Cola signs on every street corner, the drowning of local culture beneath waves of dreadlocked, baggy-trousered travellers. It’s common because there’s a good point behind it, but I can’t help thinking that as a viewpoint it’s a bit simplistic.

The arts and crafts, I think, provide an alternative answer. The thought came to me from an experience in Salta, the biggest city in these parts, which was a repeat of one I had in Arequipa, Peru, two years ago.

In both cities there are museums which showcase the remains of Inca children sacrificed at the peaks of some of the Andes’ highest mountains (In Salta, the MAAM, in Arequipa, the Museo de Santuarios Andinos).

The cold and dryness have kept the human remains in astoundingly good condition. We’re not used to thinking of the world of the past in the same terms as that of the present, so any experience which makes us do so tends to send shivers down the spine. These photos from early 20th century Russia do the same, for me.

As well as the ‘mummies’, what most struck me about these museums (then as now) were the fabrics and jewels left with them. Not just their perfect preservation, but also how astoundingly similar, when not identifical, they were to the stuff you can pick up in any Andean town square.

It’s not totally ingenuous, I hope, to think that horrible ‘Western’ tourism plays some part in maintaining this incredible cultural continuity, even if in an ‘artificial’ way.  If it brings money to keep museums going (as one example of economic benefit), then that’s no bad thing.And though the flow of globalisation may be horribly imbalanced, it is not entirely one-way. Some Andean goods find their way to Europe, the US, etc. as a result – so there is a presence, if not an influence, in that direction.

I won’t subscribe to a rather Panglossian phrase I’ve learnt while in Argentina: ‘no hay mal que por bien no venga’. But I will persist in thinking that the terrifying flux of the world deals in ‘bien’ as well as ‘mal’.


Roads again

December 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Another gap, again mostly full of Buenos Aires. The capital isn’t going to figure this time around, though – partly because I want to have a proper think about it just before I head back to the UK in mid-December, but mostly because I’ve left it behind for the next couple of weeks.

I’m writing this from Córdoba, Argentina’s second city which lies some 9 hours northwest of Buenos Aires. Founded by the Jesuits in the 16th century, it has a beautiful colonial centre and some stunning churches. Apologies for the guidebook tone – in fact, as always happens, the Lonely Planet version of the city didn’t quite fit over reality. The colonial centre is gorgeous, yes, but much of the rest of the city is the standard Argentine grid of concrete towers.

This isn’t suprising or bad, of course, but the guidebook hyperbole distorted expectations. I have had a fantastic three days here, though, taking it very easy with some Mexican and Colombian friends from Buenos Aires. Our lethargic schedule of visits to Jesuit estancias in the countryside, long breakfasts in cafes and hours lying in parks was the perfect antidote to BA’s constant, nervous roar.

This time spent with good friends in fact made the guidebook version of Córdoba completely irrelevant. As far as I’m concerned, Córdoba is the following:

adopting a dog for the walk from the bus terminal to the hostel, laughing at an impenetrable ‘real estate business’ board game, talking to the ducks in the park, sneaking into a Mass in a church like an upside-down wooden ship. Not to mention drinking tereré (mate but with cold orange juice), running into a road block in the main square, enjoying an excellent example of a drunken DMC (deep and meaningful conversation) and pondering the many eccentricities of the Argentines.

In other, very naff words: it’s the people, not the place.

Soon after I finish writing this, I’ll be heading to the bus terminal for the overnight trip to Tucumán. Argentine independence was first declared there, and it’s the starting point for my whistle-stop tour of the Andean northwest. I am very, very excited at the prospect of mountains, ice, llamas, and many other Andean things I miss from my time in Peru. Among these are pecularities of Andean travel, such as rather surreal combination of luxury double-decker buses and winding grit roads.

I’ll try to write an update every couple of days. Hasta pronto, then.


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