Where This Road Takes Us

by Madeline Ninno (United States of America)

I didn't expect to find Argentina


We almost did not climb into the dusty Fiat as it hummed expectantly at the curb. Jean and I just glanced at each other, the glance of bemused confusion we would share countless times throughout our weekend in Jujuy. We had no clue what we were doing there. Several weeks early, Jean approached as I left the University of Buenos Aires and showed me her notebook. She wanted to see the Salinas Grandes, the salt flats on its cover, and she wanted me to go with her. Unquestioningly, I said yes, not knowing what I’d find. “Madeline? This is the tour,” the driver’s broken English interrupted us. Another uneasy glance passed between us as we questioned entering the unmarked car. Upon returning my gaze to Manuel, I felt myself shrug and step toward the car. It was something about his demeanor, that of a man in his autumn years, but whose eyes shown with teenage vigor. Although his skin had been cracked by the dry Andean winds and his teeth stained by the near-constant presence of coca leaves, there was no doubt that he had been a handsome young man and a burglar of many hearts. Soon, the car began its rattling trek to the Salinas Grandes, Manuel narrating the ever-changing scenery in his laconic, lyrical Spanish. Jean, a toddler at heart, was fast asleep with her head nuzzled in the crook of my neck. This was unfortunate for her, as the vistas viewed form the winding Ruta 40 would prove more breathtaking than the salt flats we were traveling to see. We left the lush valley and were swallowed by a thick sheet of fog, unable to see more than a car’s length in front of us. As we rolled through this grey, almost lunar landscape, Manuel spoke to me of his life, the reflection of his youthful eyes glinting in the rearview mirror. “People here believe that the land is alive. And now I do too. I know because I fell in love with her, the way I fell in love with my wife”. He had visited Jujuy once, more than 30 years ago, on a weekend vacation from the city. He never left. Soon, we emerged from the cocoon of fog, snaking steadily out of the valley, climbing the steep road past crumbling hilltop cemeteries and striped walls of rock. I had never been this close to the sun’s burning rays, this far from the ground’s solid bracing. As the air thinned, I felt my breaths deflate, my eyelids droop, my body float downward to join Jean in her oblivion of sleep. Suddenly, we lurched to a stop and my door swung open, the cold wind slapping Jean and I awake. Manuel’s hand, bearing the appearance of petrified wood, lifted me out of the car. We had reached the peak of mountain. I shakily walked to the edge of the road as I gulped empty breaths, the sun burning my cheeks. A land beyond imagination stretched before me; lonesome villages, defiant rock spires, valley walls streaked with maroon, burnt orange, and rusty teal. Jujuy lay there, in repose, unabashed in her mystery and beauty. Manuel silently passed me a candy, meant to fight altitude sickness; his infatuation with Jujuy was palpable. Jean and I shared another glance; this time of wonder, of a memory that would forever exist between us. As the three of us stood there, I thought of the Ocloya people who had lived in Jujay for centuries and sensed their reverence for the immeasurable power below us. I imagined what it would have been like to know no other home, for this place to be the backdrop of every moment of a life. The land, enormous and ancient, yet constantly born anew, molded by the unceasing deluge of sun and wind and rain, unknowable even to those who live and die there. Although I filled my camera with countless photos that weekend of salt flats, llamas, cacti, and Jean, I took no photos of the view the three of us shared. I found a new love there, a home shared with countless others in its history, yet completely my own.