In the morning, the sun was shining brightly and Argentina cumbia was coming from the radio. I prepared my breakfast and went outside to sit and chat with the 87-year-old man, “Carlos viejo” who lived there. (His son was also Carlos so in jest he said he was “old Carlos” and the other was “young Carlos”.)
While the sun was strong and made you feel like you were being toasted and all the water sucked out of your body, under the shade it was quite cool and there was a nice breeze. We sat under a “natural roof” created by a vine-like tree that created a roof out of thick layer of foliage that wrapped itself along a wire matrix.
From the moment I met him, I realized that Carlos Viejo was a kind, friendly, and witty man, even if he moved slowly and was a little hard of hearing. He had lived in the town his whole life and had served in the town’s police force for 27 years. Now he had arthritis in his hip and knee and spent his days sitting on the front porch, reading the paper, greeting people who passed by and chatting with his son and the woman who comes to cook and help take care of the house – and today with me. There was probably an equal measure of conversation and comfortable silence – a slow, easy rhythm that seemed to be characteristic of this small town in Argentina. (I’m so glad I learned how to adapt to this slow rhythm, to practice the “art of sitting”, in my Peace Corps service – something that would have been impossible for me four years ago.)
The caretaker came back from running errands and said, “here’s your change,” placing five little candies on the table. She continued by saying that since the 5 mil peso bill doesn’t have value anymore, the store is giving candies instead of bills. At first I thought it was a joke referring to the inflation in Argentina, which has accelerated in the last year (not nearly as bad as Venezuela, but still a marked devaluation.) Later, when Carlos Viejo passed me the newspaper he had finished reading, I learned they were discontinuing circulation of the 5 mil peso bill, and since many people don’t have the 5 mil coin yet, the stores were offering candies as change instead.
Later, Carlos invited me to eat lunch with them – a delicious fish empanada, a second course of chicken soup, and fruits (peaches, grapes, apples) for dessert. In Peru, lunch is usually served with soup first and then a main dish (segundo), but here they served the main dish first and later the soup.
I looked over at the television and realized that the program airing was the Argentina version of “The Price is Right” – El Precio Justo. Given the inflation in Argentina, I thought it was a kind of ironic show to have, painfully reminding everyone how much prices have increased in such a short time. The show is really similar to the American Price is Right – I recognized the same games and rules, and even the big wheel to spin! The host is a trans woman with a sense of humor, and the show seemed to be quite inclusive given the diversity of the participants.
While this small town (Chumbicha) is not on the typical tourist route, it does receive visitors from Buenos Aires, Uruguay, and Brasil. Many passing through for work or traveling through Argentina on motorcycle to see the country. I had arrived in this small town last night, by pure chance. (And a unique sense of adventure I have developed in the last few weeks.)
I had been on a bus to Catamarca – a city that was a few hours out of the way to where I wanted to go (but it had been the best bus option available from the small town where I had been previously.)
Then the bus had suddenly stopped for a few minutes because the copilot was sick. I looked at the map and saw that we were at a small town, and we happened to be at a spot on the highway just before it headed off out of the way from where I wanted to go. The bus wasn’t going to arrive to Catamarca until around 10:30 or 11pm, and I was still going to have to look for a place to stay, so I decided it would be more convenient, safer, and cheaper to stay in this small town if it seemed safe.
I got off the bus and asked a local about the town and asked if there were hospedajes (inns). I got a really good vibe and she called a friend and said he had room in his inn and could even pick me up to take me there. So I said “chau” to the bus driver and headed off to explore a small town in the middle of Argentina, slightly off the beaten path – exactly what I really wanted to do during my journey.
And that’s how arrived in Chumbicha, home of the mandarin and the annual Mandarin Festival in May. The town that all the locals described as “tranquilo…too tranquilo”, or safe and quiet…to the point of being boring.
I arrived that first night at the inn, it was an older house with extra rooms that they rented out. It reminded me of the old country house where my great uncle had lived in south Texas. It had all that you needed, but basic, older models with a feel of about 40 years ago. And it was the same house that Carlos Viejo had grown up in – and was still living in now.
As soon as I arrived, I asked about the town and a friendly young man – working there (Gonzalo) pointed me to the center of town (3 blocks over) where I could find convenience stores and restaurants and the plaza. An older man sitting on the porch (Carlos Viejo) asked me if I wanted to sit and chat, and I promised I would when I returned (which I did), and I headed out to explore the little town and buy some food for dinner and breakfast.
A few blocks into town I heard what sounded like a sporting event and found women playing volleyball. I started chatting with a woman who was watching and she explained that it was a tournament and this was the championship game. She explained that she wasn’t playing because she played soccer. However, there weren’t many women around the area that played soccer so she trained with the men in the town and played on a regional travel team (someone I could relate to!)
It was 10:30pm, and the stores were just starting to close so I ran across the street to buy some fruits. Even in small towns like this, things stay open late, and it is not uncommon to stay up late into the night chatting. But during the day, from 1pm to 5pm everything closes for siesta, when people go home to eat lunch and often take a nap. It gets extremely hot during the day here, so it makes a lot of sense to have that break. The the work day continues from 5pm to 9pm usually.
In the evenings after 7-8pm when it finally cools off, you see families sitting on their porch drinking mate (loose leaf tea that is drunk through a metal straw), walking, biking, or rollerblading through the street, or hanging out in the park in the middle of town. When you greet them, they often respond “chau” or “adios” instead of the “hola” or “buenas tardes” that I’m used to.**
Later that night I was getting ready for bed, and Gonzalo* said that someone was outside asking for me. I went outside and there was the soccer woman I had met earlier and two other women on motorcycles. They had come to tell me about the times that they buses come through, and we ended up chatting for more than an hour out front. I had only been there for 3 hours and I already felt like I had friends!
The next night, my new friends invited me out for a drink. They were bummed that the one club (“boliche”) in town had just a fire a few days ago so they couldn’t take me there. Instead, they put a lot of effort into finding friends that could come out to hang out with us to show me a good time in Chumbicha. They were also trying to find out something about “the game” (I was clueless what was going on). We ended up at an ice cream shop and shared a drink (soda) while we played “the game” – a giant version of Jenga!
Later (at around 1:30pm), they gave me a tour of the city on their motorcycles, and I showed them some constellations in the night sky (after a few minutes of convincing them that it wasn’t scary to find a dark spot without lights so we could see the stars, and another few minutes trying to find a dark spot because the town is really well lit and every street has street lights.) Like we were 15 years old, they taught me all the bad words and taboo expressions in Argentina Spanish, and I felt a sense of innocence in them, even though they were my age. (Small town sheltered life?)
One thing everyone agreed on was that the town was full of good people, there was no crime (though there was drug use), everybody helped each other out, and everyone knew everyone else’s business. I definitely felt a great vibe, I felt like everyone I met was a good person that wanted to help out and there was a sense of trust among everyone. Even if it was “too tranquilo” to the point of being boring, I loved it! And it was just what I was looking for – a safe and quiet spot, with Giant Jenga and buena gente (good peeps).
*Chatting with Gonzalo later, I learned that he was from the capital (Buenos Aires) and had come to Chumbicha a few years ago. He said he had been kind of immature and “lost”, and working with the Carloses, they had taught him to do things like house maintenance and taking care of the old man, and they had also made him realize that he needed to be more responsible and be a better father for his little kid.
**In the small town in El Salvador where I worked they had used the same greetings of “chau” and “adios” when someone was passing by, which at first was strange to me since they are typically reserved for “good by”/”see you later” in most parts.