October 5th, 2011

My Second Family In Salta, Argentina (South of the Border Series)

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The beautiful downtown Plaza in Salta, Argentina
It was my first time in South America. Upon arrival in Argentina, I didn’t speak any Spanish. Starting in Buenos Aires, I made my way northwest to Cordoba, then Mendoza. I traveled alone and made lots of friends with locals and travelers along the way, afterwards heading north to Salta. By this time, I was getting tired of hostel life. Living in a dorm room with other travelers was great for social life, but there was no privacy or alone time. And meeting so many new people every day, interactions were starting to feel superficial. It also made practicing Spanish difficult as I was surrounded by English speakers and didn’t get full language immersion.

“Do you know of any Spanish teachers, and potentially a family to live with here in Salta?” I asked the hostel manager.

I was in luck. He had a friend who would give me one-on-one Spanish lessons. Also, his aunt had an empty room and might rent it to me.

Spanish Lessons and Homestay

My amazing homestay family in Salta
I started my Spanish lessons, and soon after, moved in with the hostel manager’s aunt. In my new home lived a mother, grandmother, and daughter. So I was going to be the man of the house. In a separate apartment above us, the mother’s sister lived with her husband and son. Both families shared a lot of time together, including lunch every day.

The first day I arrived, my house mom asked me for all my laundry and washed it for me. Either I really stink, or she is being really nice, I thought. Luckily, it ended up being the later. She ended up doing my laundry every day. I felt so spoiled, the last time that was my reality was when I was about 13 years old.

The language barrier was a constant source of amusement for us. None of the family members spoke English, which meant I was fully immersed in Spanish. The only problem was that my  Spanish level was that of a toddler. I couldn’t roll my R’s, so my house brother got a kick out of asking me to say “perro” (dog), as the way I said it sounded like “pecho” (breast). My house brother and sister seemed to understand my sloppy, limited Spanish a little better than the adults. When we still had trouble understanding, we continued our conversation with Google Translator. I helped my house brother with his English homework, and sometimes he wanted to learn more English. At first, my house sister said she didn’t want to learn English, as she didn’t like how it sounded. She preferred French. But later, she started practicing her English with me as well.

Fainting at Catholic Mass

Beautiful cathedral in downtown Salta
I am not religious but my family in the U.S. is Protestant. My family in Argentina was very religious (Catholic), and I was invited to many related activities. I had never attended a Catholic church back home. It was quite a new experience, both due to the new religion and my limited Spanish comprehension.

I went to several Catholic processions and two very different Catholic masses. The first mass I went to was with my house mom and sister, in a traditional Catholic church. This church was a lot larger and more beautiful than I was used to back home. While I didn’t understand most of it, it was a pleasant experience. The second mass was with my house aunt, uncle, and brother. It was at a more modern church with lots of singing and dancing. I liked it because there were hand motions that went along with the lyrics… It helped me understand the Spanish better.

After we sang, the priest took out a large monstrance which looked like a golden mirror, and represented Jesus. He spent the next several hours walking around the church, members reaching out to touch the monstrance with their hands or a photograph of a loved one. Six or seven churchgoers “fainted” as the priest walked by. Luckily, none of them bumped their head on their way down. They layed on the floor, possibly having been touched by something spiritual.

That weekend, I had my own chance to “faint” at the sacred Virgin Mary hill in Salta. After waiting for four hours in the cold, we were escorted to stand in the sacred area. Church volunteers stood behind us and we were allowed to fall back (they would catch us). I was too cold to lay on the ground like that, but my house mom and aunt did. I have never been the kind of person that has spiritual experiences within a church environment.

Home-Cooked Family Meals Every Day

Delicious traditional Locro soup made by Grandma. A hearty soup with corn, meat and vegetables.
Every Sunday is family day in Argentina, you are expected to eat and spend most of the day with your family. I was introduced to extended family and friends this first Sunday, and it was a little overwhelming. The food was delicious.

We ended up having delicious home-cooked lunches (with the immediate family) every day. They were so good, and again I felt so spoiled. Everything was homemade and took hours of preparation by my house mom, aunt, and grandma. Each of them seemed to have their own specialties. Large Italian dishes like homemade pasta and lasagna. Steak, eggs and french fries. Breaded steak (milanesa). Soup. Dessert. I probably gained five or ten pounds during my month there.

Sure, we do a good job with big family meals like this in the United States. But everyone is working or too busy to eat with the family… So we usually only have these kind of meals on special holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas. But I was getting these delicious meals every day in Argentina.

Steak, Eggs and French Fries. Unhealthy but delicious (=
My house mom and I shared a liking for drinking wine with our meals. I would buy a good bottle every now and then, and she bought some jugs. A few times, she would even sneak us a shot of Fernet (Argentina’s national spirit) from the cabinet. After eating these huge home-cooked lunches and drinking wine, I soon discovered the Argentine habit of taking a siesta. I would take 1-2 hour naps in the afternoon, and wake up feeling rejuvenated. This was the life.

At lunch time, my house sister would come home from school and play Lady Gaga’s “Judas” on repeat. I realized that teenagers around the world probably listen to a lot of the same pop music. I asked her to play something else, but she thought it was funny and would play “Judas” even more. The uncle’s niece and mom visited from Buenos Aires one week. The niece became my travel partner around Salta, and could speak English. She translated a lot of conversations between me and the family, which was great but made things more difficult after she left.

A Deeper Travel Experience

A typical breakfast in Argentina... Empanadas (cheese and meat inside), orange juice and coffee.
I continued my private Spanish lessons and became good friends with my Spanish teacher. Every few days, I also met with my British travel friend to have an “English breather”. He had been traveling for 10 years nonstop, and had many words of wisdom to share. My travel experience had become much deeper since I moved in with the family. I opened myself up to learn from them, and they opened up to me as well, treating me like one of their own. They became my second family.

It was tough to leave, but eventually I decided to continue my journey north to Bolivia. My house mom took me shopping and insisted on buying me a scarf, because of the cold weather in Bolivia. Everywhere we went, she would brag about me to strangers, calling me her “adopted nephew.” When we got home, my house aunt gave me her llama vest to stay warm as well. Yes, I was very spoiled.

Having left Salta, I can’t help but feel that a part of me is still there, living with my second family, taking Spanish lessons, eating delicious home-cooked lunches every day. Maybe in a parallel universe, this is true. And thinking of this makes me happy.

Part of the South of the Border Series

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2 Responses to “My Second Family In Salta, Argentina (South of the Border Series)”

Kate Royds

October 30th, 2011 - 5:59 am

Hi,

My dad and I are going to Salta in December to learn Spanish for 3 weeks. We read this post you left and it sounds amazing. We are preferably looking for an individual tutor and home stay like you as opposed to a spanish school. Can you help us? Maybe you know of someone you could recommend or put us in touch with?!

Thanks

Kate

Derek Ralston

October 30th, 2011 - 9:48 pm

Hi Kate,

Glad you enjoyed the post! Please follow the “contact” link on the top navigation and send me a message with your e-mail. I can put you in touch with my tutor and the hostel manager that setup my homestay. By going directly to a family and teacher (as opposed to through a Spanish school or website), you save a lot of money, and I have found it to be a better experience.

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