Having devoted the last couple of years to the study of empathy and the need to stand in someone else’s shoes, I tried to imagine how our host felt as we appeared unannounced in her courtyard.
Jacinta lives with her husband and six children in San Juan, a tiny and remote hamlet in the mountains of northern Argentina. My sons, Adrian, and Alexander, our guide, Facundo, and I had just arrived, after a long day of hiking. Because San Juan is off the grid, Facundo had no way of informing the family of our arrival. He had established contact with them two years earlier but had had no communication with them since then.
We had left the small city of Iruya, the little-known jewel of the province of Salta that is built on terraces along a magnificent canyon. As we made our way along the remnants of Inca trails, we beheld a landscape of vermilion, salmon, teal, turquoise, and pistachio green, a meringue of variegated colors created by geological folds.
Although I had originally looked forward to spending a night in San Juan, I grew apprehensive. What would we talk about? Would the abrupt arrival of three Americans and a guide be an encumbrance? I had mentally created a list of topics to discuss with them: village life, possible feelings of isolation, their thoughts on their ancestors who had built the mountain trails.
The bridge that would allow me to connect my life to theirs was my own story: I had lived the first ten years of my life in a small village in northern Greece, also relatively cut off from capitalist production. My parents had harvested wheat with scythes. After they unloaded it on the threshing floor, they had the oxen trample on it. Then, with a winnowing fan in hand (a flat wooden oar), they would wait for a gust of wind, scoop up the grain and toss it in the air to separate the wheat from the chaff. This would be the empathic link between globetrotters and Andean villagers: I too had once been a peasant.
As we approached the guesthouse I spotted a sign propped on the wall, “Hospedaje San Juan.” Around the curve, we entered a stone-covered courtyard where two young girls were playing, the one jumping up and down on a pink, plastic cow. The mother, startled, greeted us and instructed the two teenage daughters to arrange the guest room. Immediately they brought out mattresses, sheets, and towels that they had purchased with a grant from the provincial government of Salta.
At this moment, all of us—guest and hosts—felt slightly bewildered, unsure of our roles. This was no ordinary guesthouse with clearly delineated lines between client and patron. With the older members of the family preparing for our stay, we played with the two small girls (Nicole and Lucia) who had no worries about encounters with strangers. At one point, the father, Hugo greeted us with his eleven-year old, son, Ismael. I thanked him for his hospitality and asked him how often they received guests. Very seldom, he answered, only two or three times a year. Then he excused himself to shoe his horses.
I sat for a moment on one of the four wooden chairs. With the sun setting, the yard got suddenly cool. The distant peaks were lacquered with the last rays of the day. From the vantage point I looked at the dizzying path we had ascended along the cliffs of the canyon below. On this narrow trail that had terrified me hours earlier, I could make out a line a cows sauntering home.
Seeing me put on a sweater and my jacket, Jacinta prepared mountain tea from herbs drying in a container by the wall. As I brought the cup to my nose, I was warmed by the wild sage and chamomile. Meanwhile little Nicole brought in kindling and Lucia collected dried cow dung for the cooking stove. The older girls began their homework, standing at the table as we, the guests, were using their chairs. I could hear them practicing English—which shows that they are not as cut off from the world as I had thought: “My name is James and I am going to the supermarket.”
Growing up in my village, we had no foreign languages in our school, nor a supermarket. Our teachers, a husband and wife, did their best with limited supplies. But they resented having to work in an isolated place. They felt superior and I assumed that they were better than us. Perhaps this is why I didn’t mind, or indeed felt privileged, when my teacher used my sweater to wipe the chalk off her fingers or that we had to line up each week and show her that we had changed our underwear.
When it got dark we were invited to move our chairs to the main room for dinner. Jacinta turned on a light through a rechargeable battery (I never found out how it was charged.) The teenagers served fingerling sweet potatoes that we had never tasted before, followed by a meat stew, and then a soup. Needless to say the portions were huge and everything was prepared at home, except for the bottle of water that had to be transported by mule from Iruya.
As the family had their meal in the kitchen, we talked to ourselves until Ismael appeared. When the light gave out, he lit candles. Ismael took his reader out of the drawer—which contained a preface by the President of Argentina, Christina Fernández de Kirchner—and began to read stories out loud. His younger sisters joined us, including a neighbor from across the ravine who had made his way in the darkness along the steep trail. I tried to explain to him that we too had had no electricity in our village but our conversation was lost in the reading. Not wanting to take up more of the family’s time, we went to our room. On the back wall I could see a sheet of notebook paper, listing the prices of the room and board.
In the morning after our breakfast, I thanked Jacinta for accepting us as her guests. She was grinding corn for the school’s meal. (Afterwards she no doubt had to wash by hand four sets of sheets and pillowcases.) At that moment one of the teenagers asked if there were eggs for the school breakfast. Jacinta answered that she had given the guests the only three eggs the hens had laid. “Were you comfortable?” she asked. “Was everything ok?” Yes, I assured her. The food was plentiful and delicious. “We will never forget this place,” I told her. Relieved that the visit had gone well, she broke into a smile.
I too had my own worries. “I am sorry that we arrived without warning. And I feel bad that you gave us the eggs intended for the school.” No, no she insisted, the family was pleased to have had us, and the children had enjoyed reading stories.
These were the only words we had exchanged. The lack of time, their need to work, a sense of awkwardness, and differences in class, culture, and experience all divided us like the canyon below the village. There was no opportunity to talk about scythes and winnowing fans. Yet in our farewell I realized that we were both linked by anxiety about the visit—Jacinta that we feel comfortable and I that we were a burden. This was a connection of sorts.