An audio and video podcast of my trip hitchhiking around the world by sea.
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Posts from — May 2009

Small But Significant

I climbed into the dusty cockpit of an old pick up truck, no surprise considering the powdered dirt roads it pushed through for a living. The driver and I immediately reached an unspoken agreement not to speak. We’d never met before, yet talking felt both unnecessary and uninviting. We shook hands. I closed the door. He drove. I looked out the window.

The light pushed the sun past the desolate mountains that boxed in this dessert valley town and with the loss of light the cold air grew more bold. I knew the school was remote, I had no idea just how remote. So as the driver silently drove without expression, I stared out the window with my thoughts while a rickety pick-up clattered loudly across a washboard road to a concert of clanks and bangs.

One dirt road turned into a lesser dirt road, which eventually became no more than a sandy wash. With the dimming sky, I grew anxious to arrive. The driver, blankly guides the truck through a pack of llama and keeps driving until finally with only enough light to silhouette the hills, we came upon a dinghy white church and two lonely buildings. The children begin to gather.

The sun had fully set. I had traveled 20 hours by bus to Salta; shopped for and bought a freezer, then drove 4 more hours to San Antonio De Los Cobres, left my bags, switched cars and drove one more hour away from the closest human to reach this school. Now I would stay for a while, drive back across the dark country sleep a few hours, then rise before the sun to retrace my steps back to Buenos Aires. I could have sent the money. I could have stopped in Salta, and bought the freezer and returned… but I needed to see this.

I’m glad I did. With no common language a woman came out to meet us. She greeted the driver, then myself, then lead me to one of the buildings. Inside a row of modest bunk beds filled a small room. One young man was in the room, he greeted me with a smile that warmed the cold room. I’m not sure if he was a student or helper, but he knew a very small bit of English, which he was pleased to share. On occasion, a young face would peek cautiously around a corner, then disappear again.

We walked into the next building over where I was offered a hot cup of matte and bread. I sat with the boy and continued to talk as much as we knew how. When our conversation reached its limits, the boy stood and returned with a guitar. Moments later the other children entered and sat around the table, all watching closely, guardedly. The young man with the guitar spoke pleasantly to the others, all younger in varying ages. He convinces them to sing.

Some of the kids grab percussion and play along. Some sit, statues staring at the newcomer. Their voices weren’t strong or especially lovely, but the moment, the memory that I will forever carry with me is both strong and beautiful. I take pictures and share each captured memory from my bright digital screen with the curious brown rosy faces. A few smile at their reflections, several bottle their reactions unsure of the moment.

In the same room where the children sang, where I grinned and took pictures, just steps away was a small cage. From a single wire, swung several pieces of raw and dried flesh. It housed the meat that made their meals and it was enough to turn your stomach. It was what they had though. It was what we would soon replace. It might have been 1½, maybe 2 hours, but every minute was special. When it was done the children were dismissed to their rooms.

In the big scheme of things, I didn’t do much. I drove a ways. I took money that you donated, bought a freezer, and made a trip to the school it would help.  I listened to children sing. I clapped. I shook their hands. But for me it was much more. I took a peek into a small, quiet existence of group of people, few ever see. And for all the waiting, for all the driving, and futile attempts to communicate along the way, it was worth every minute.

In the end, I said good-bye to every one, climbed back in the truck and pulled the heavy door shut. The driver got in and without a word began to drive. I sat, stared into the darkness, and watched my memories play warmly back.

May 18, 2009   No Comments

San Antonio De Los Cobres

When we last left off, our hero (…aka Derek) sat at some random corner in Salta, Argentina. He sat at the corner he was supposed to sit, at the time he was supposed to be there, waiting for the cab that was supposed to pick him up.  Unfortunately, the cab never showed up, and after an hour and a half, he realized it wasn’t going to. We’ll pick up at that very moment…

Everything had turned around nicely, what with my new friends and personal translators, new information (and inspiration) about the school and community of San Antonio De Los Cobres, and now a fully accommodated ride to the school and a place to stay. I was finally going to meet the kids I had trekked across Argentina to help… Except I was missing one very important piece, my ride!

In time, I saw someone I recognized who worked for Mr. Guzman. Of course he, too, didn’t speak English but he was all I had, so I chased him down and figured I’d try another round of cross-culture charades. I’m not sure if it was my pantomiming or the fact that I kept repeating the name of “Viveros Guzman”, but eventually the man called Mr. Guzman. Two minutes on the phone, he hangs up and nods for me to get in his truck. I do.

He drives across town and parks at a gas station, motions for me to stay, then runs off. Right about the time I start wondering just who my new friend had called and what was actually discussed another car pulls up. Then the man returns. He grabs my bag and carries it to the new car…who I am optimistically assuming is my “cab”. I get in, ask (in Spanish) if he speaks English-he smiles, nods and drives off. 15 minutes across town we stop again in an alley, again my driver gets out and runs off. He returns moments later with a mother, three children and bags. We load up and start to drive again.

I’m assuming my driver did not actually speak English based on the number of questions he answered only with that familiar smile and nod. “Como te almo?”, I ask his name. “Sergio…” he smiles back. Then he reaches between the two seats and pulls out a cd labeled “Folclore”. He puts slides it in.

For the next several hours a Spanish man and his guitar serenaded our drive across the desert mountains. The scenery was rugged. Jagged and naked, save the saguaro cacti that rose as fuzzy toothpicks against the barren land. Driven by his music, Sergio drove casually. His hand reached into a candy bag filled with leaves and stuffed his cheek until something like a golf ball bulged out. Explaining to me in Spanish, he says a word that sounds like “Cocoa” and pats his stomach to communicate this mysterious leaf was either medicinal or tasty. He offers. I take a few leaves, nestling them inside my lower lip.

On occasion Sergio points and explains something. I in turn look, nod, and on occasion repeat a key sound in Spanish as though I understand. I don’t, but Sergio is pleased.

4-5 hours later our car drives reaches small, desolate town: San Antonio De Los Cobres. The temperature has dropped considerably and the sun is on its way down. Sergio drops off the women and children, then drives through the dusty bleak streets until he reaches a weathered building. Another man comes out and shakes my hand. He seems to know who I am, and understands enough English for me to communicate I’ll need to return to Salta tomorrow, leaving me only that evening to visit the school. He tells Sergio one last thing, and shakes my hand again.

Sergio takes me to a small house, where a pleasant woman comes out to greet me. Sergio motions for me to wait, and drives off for the final time. I am escorted me through the house, over toys scattered across the small living room, to a separate room in the back where a bed is made with a towel and even soap laid out. The sun dropping lower, I walked back to the front of the house, where I watched my breath against the chilled air and waited for my final ride.

May 13, 2009   No Comments

Anaïs, Max and Viveros Guzman

When two total strangers offer to spend one of their days traveling to translate for you in a place where you have proven to have no luck communicating for yourself, it’s a dream come true. Fortunately, I woke to find it was no dream at all. Both Anaïs and Max were not only real the next morning they were up and waiting.

Once we arrived the office of Sr. Guzman at 9 am just as we agreed. This time I didn’t have to wait at all. Viveros invited my two new friends and I into his office and we started to talk. Not sure how much we actually knew of each other I started at the beginning. I began with the basics, explaining everything to Max who immediately translated to Mr. Guzman. I explained the website, the money you (the readers) had donated to do good deeds; I explained my connection to Pepe and Tom’s shoes and how Pepe mentioned the needs of the school Mr. Guzman represented.

Mr. Guzman listened attentively to Max, Anaïs observed from the side. Then I asked Mr. Guzman to explain the needs of the school. He told us of the community of San Antonio Des Los Culbres, an area and people all very poor. There was limited industry so most of the people in this small mountain-desert town were involved in either mining or herding llama. He told me about the small school I(we) would be helping. It sat an hour outside San Antonio Des Los Culbres, there were about 24 students and only a few workers. Most of the children lived at the school, because their families lived too far to commute on a regular basis.

As we volleyed information through Max, I grew more and more humbled. Not just by the facts of poor, but hard working community and its youth, but also by Sr. Guzman. He was a soft-spoken man who didn’t show much emotion except to express his gratitude on occasion. Guzman was serving his third term as the elected Superintendent of San Antonio Des Los Culbres. He worked a few days in Salta and a few days San Antonio. He showed his heart for the people he served, but was clearly tired. I learned later in years of Superintendent, Guzman had only taken a few days off.

Finally, I asked about the need. Pepe mentioned the school needed a refrigerator to store food. Guzman agreed. He explained they had nothing to store (refrigerate) food in, save a small area to store dried meat. I told him we’d like to purchase a freezer for them. Vivero pulled out a catalog of a local electronic store and offered to give me a ride into town. Then explained the rest of my itinerary.

I would purchase the freezer, which would then be delivered to the school in San Antonio. Later that afternoon I would meet a taxi outside the office who would drive me the 4+ hours out to San Antonio Des Los Culbres, courtesy Mr. Guzman, I would meet someone else who would then take me to the school to meet the kids, then bring me back to San Antonio.

Max and Anaïs continued to offer their language skills and rode with me to the store where we bargain shopped the biggest, most efficient freezer our money could buy for the school. Not only did we find what seemed to be a smoking deal (compared to the other freezers for sale), the store threw in a case of Argentine Malbec for our purchase.

Max and Anaïs escorted me back to the train station. We had lunch, spending our afternoon as if we’d be friends for a lot longer than one day. When the time came, I gave them a few bottles of Malbec (2 for them, 1 for the friendly hostel staff). We parted ways, Max and Anaïs to continue their backpacking adventures, me to meet my cab.

Which unfortunately, never showed up…

May 11, 2009   No Comments