As with any post I write, this is completely subjective and based on the experiences I had personally; they are therefore not absolutes or definitions, but opinions that are my own. I don’t wish to offend anyone – South Americans specifically or those people and countries I make comparisons to – and I am extremely grateful to have been able to visit another continent and explore South America in the way I do. I will forever be thankful to those who were kind, welcoming, generous and helpful towards me and any “negative” comment I may have about my experience is not, and will never be, a poor reflection on that; I truly loved my time in South America. And here are my reflections.
The mountains, the mountains, the mountains. I didn’t realise South America was so mountainous (ignorant of me, most probably) and I never got bored of them. I could never quite comprehend how many nor how huge they were or how close they would be to cities, literally being a peaceful, gargantuan backdrop to the hustle and bustle. In Ecuador you would literally drive amongst the mountains; you feel at once part of them and completely intimidated by them. We do not get mountains close to anything like that in the U.K., and I will miss them dearly.
The language. Oh the language. The beautiful, intense, rapid-fire delectable language that is Latin American Spanish, spoken with the rolling of Rs as though one word flows into the next and without any pause for breath, rendering it inaudible to the inexperienced-language ear of a confused and ignorant Brit whom can only just about speak very (very) basic, broken Spanish. Asia was different as even if your bus driver didn’t speak English pretty much everyone else on your bus would and you would join forces to make sense of the situation, plus the booking of the bus would be done through a hostel (where most spoke good English) or a tour agency (where most spoke very good English) and all the locals – both adults and students – would be desperate to speak in English to you as it was the way to practise a language that would progress them in life, so you could always count on someone able and willing to converse with you in your language. Not in South America.
And it absolutely shouldn’t be; the problem is that I didn’t speak Spanish (not well enough, anyway) not that they didn’t speak English, and part of immersing yourself in a country and in their culture is to speak their language and it is ignorant and arrogant of us to expect for another country to cater for foreigners. I respect their language, I love their language, I want to be better at their language and converse with the locals, as it should be. But I found it really really hard, never having really had to learn a country’s language to travel to it as English is spoken as standard, plus not being taught another language at school until an age when it was more of a struggle to absorb. I just don’t have an ear nor a tongue for languages. And I therefore found it frustrating, not being able to communicate or navigate in the way I would have liked or to acknowledge and appreciate their language in the way I would have liked.
Plus, so many people who travel South America are from another country in South America, or Spanish foreigners whom speak the same language, or foreigners from other countries whom have learnt Spanish and/or are wanting to practice it as much as they can, so even those that can speak your language are conversing as much as possible in Spanish. It feels as though everyone around you is engaging in a conversation that you cannot be part of but desperately want to, which can feel quite isolating plus it limits your ability to immerse yourself in the local culture. It has certainly opened my eyes, and my soul, to the privilege I have had being British in a world where English is very often the predominant language and to the isolating experience of those who cannot speak the common language. I have been fortunate and for that I am grateful, but now it has hindered me and I have to question its benefits for me in the long run and in the big wide world. I feel strongly that in the U.K. we really need to make other languages loads of the curriculum at a much younger age and encourage bi-lingual learning in many facets. Otherwise we are limiting and depriving ourselves of something beautiful.
The bus systems – especially the local ones – are a bit of a nightmare, where you can wait forever for one to show up to then pass you by completely or not be going the whole route. The journeys also take longer than stated and take ages to board as more often than not the driver does not take your money but another employee situated further down the bus so you end up queuing twice; once to get on and once to pay. The particularly difficult thing about travelling across South America, compared to South East Asia for example, is how difficult it is to then get to the main bus terminals to take your long haul bus; in most countries you cannot book these tickets online if you are not a citizen, so you have to go all the way to the one bus terminal that is located far from the main part of the city or countryside to book your ticket, or arrive really early the day you are travelling and pray to whatever you believe in that there is space.
It is basically the opposite to Asia in terms of transport from one country to the next where there are travel agencies every 100m with various bus companies that depart from the centre (of a town or a city that is significantly smaller, it is so cheap and easy to book your bus whenever you choose and the departure point is usually relatively close, or if not then a pick-up from your hostel is included as standard. By comparison South America is more expensive, time consuming and long-winded. Now, I’m not saying it should be made easy for tourists – a huge part of the reason we travel to other countries is to experience their culture and their worlds, so to expect them to accommodate us is audacious and demanding, plus it kind of defeats the point of the experience of that country, untainted by tourism. It can just feel difficult and overwhelming and, when you are on a time limit or struggle to communicate yourself in their language, frustrating.
The long-distance buses. Having said all the above, the long haul buses are pretty incredible. In Chile I took a 22 hour direct bus from the north – San Pedro de Atacama – all the way to the city of Santiago; the capital in roughly the centre of Chile. The toilets on board were functioning, the bus driver safe and competent, the employee whom stowed your baggage and checked your tickets was friendly and helpful, and the stops regular. Plus the landscape you see on the journeys is absolutely incredible.
Chilean long-haul buses were some of the best – Turbus in particular – offering aircon, reclining seats and the use of their website to watch films. Bolivian buses were perhaps the worst, run-down and most basic whereas Argentinian ones provided a meal and Peruvian provided snacks, but the fact that you could get long-haul buses and night buses from one part of the country to another – or from one country to the next crossing borders along the way (Peru into Bolivia is even on the one bus, no change required) – was incredible.
The safety. Ohhhhh, safety. Is it safe? Are you safe here? Are you sure doing that or going there is safe? Seguro, seguro, seguro. You spend a third of your time having the fear of God put you by other people questioning your safety, fretting over your safety, or regaining tales of their lack of safety, then you spend another third of your time feeling wary, anxious and unsafe yourself and trying to manage that, leaving you with only a third of your time where you can actually relax and absorb the experience. It’s tough, really tough, as South America is a fabulous continent with fabulous people and you want to be free to enjoy it as much as possible, but sadly there is a danger issue. And, yes, sure, anywhere has its elements of danger and its unsafe pockets, and your safety can be compromised anywhere in the world, whether that be mugging, accidents, groping, attacks or even death, and I have had experiences where I have felt unsafe in Asia, yet there is a heightened danger and safety issue in South America, and you can feel it. I’ve never heard so many stories from fellow travellers about their first-hand experience of muggings, gun-point robberies and attacks, plus horrifying tales of witnessing murders.
As a woman there is an added element of danger due to unprovoked sexual attacks from males; in Rio I was groped on the bum and had a Brazilian male literally grab my face and shove his tongue down my throats during carnival; men can be predatory and assume possession over women. It is such a shame as you have to censor, regulate and monitor in a way that can inhibit or restrict your exploration and sense of freedom: cameras or phones are often left behind in case they are nicked so you can’t take photos or rely on google maps; outfits are selected based on disguise of your money belt or bumbag with comfort taking a backseat and fashion (pah, fashion goes out the window with travelling anyway) is relegated to the boot; credit cards are kept at home while cash is distributed across bum bags, pockets and bras; solo night-time venturing becomes limited meaning you have to hope to join up with people in your hostel or perhaps miss out on evening activities; certain areas are off-limits for exploration on foot, purely because of safety, but you can so easily stumble across them by accident and many of which you may have to cross to reach your destination so a taxi becomes a necessity rather than a desire. And, of course, all of the above is rendered impossible when you are moving from one city to another where you have no choice but to bring all your belongings – deliciously and temptingly exposed on the outside of your body – and have no control over what time you arrive in your next location or even exactly where. Danger’s paradise.
The locals. So many locals were so kind and helpful when I (or we, when I travelled with Katie for a month) looked confused, lost or in need. In Foz do Iguacu, Brazil, a man went out of his way to get us off the bus at a safe place and onto another bus after we ended up going too far and almost crossing the border into Paraguay, communicating in Portuguese with the new bus driver to make sure we got off at the right stop; in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a cafe customer offered us money to take the local bus to the main bus terminal when it turned out we were miles away; in Bogota, Colombia, the uber driver insisted on putting my bags in the boot and seating me in the front beside him, looking the doors, as it was safer for me; in Valparaiso, Chile, a local cafe owner offered to drive us back to our hostel and taught us how to ask for help and insisted we came back if we felt unsafe after it transpired we would be walking back down a dangerous hill at 11pm; and, in every single country, I had locals come up to me and ask if I needed help when it was obvious I could speak little Spanish and was struggling to communicate my needs.
Once again I have been humbled by the generosity at willingness of others, making me question my own active approach to those whom are foreigners in my country and are, perhaps indirectly, looking for help. Despite the few that made me feel uncomfortable by leering, pouring and kissing their teeth or touching me without my permission, for the most part the locals are so warm and kind, wanting to engage in conversation with you and know more about you.
Their curiosity and interest in you as foreigners – as tourists – is starkly comparable to our part-dismissive part-irritation at tourists in England (at least, in London) and reminded me of the joy of being human. Of interacting with people and not expecting the worst. Of crossing cultural, gender, age or social barriers to offer yourself out to another. Being more open to human interaction and connection is something I will definitely take away with me. Humbled, humbled, humbled.
The courtesy. I know that us Brits can be overly polite – saying please and thank you at every possible opportunity, apologising profusely, queuing for hours on end – but our awareness and consideration of others is something I value and appreciate. I struggled with the apparent lack of this in South America, although this isn’t me passing judgement or disdain on South Americans as people as their culture is just different from ours. Yet being sat next to someone on a bus who insists on playing a Facebook video through their phones at full volume with no headphones, having a Brazilian brazenly cut in at the front of a 59-deep queue of people whom had waited over half an hour at the terminal, or not being thanked after letting someone past or picking up something they dropped for them was something I found frustrating and borderline rude. I did have to catch myself, though, as I am in their country and who am I to impose my culture on them? I just feel that this type of common courtesy it is something (out of perhaps only a handful of things!) we have got right in the UK, despite me not coming across it in Asia, either.
The colour. South America is so colourful. That might be my one word to define it. Colourful. And in so many facets, too. Firstly, the music; the colourful music that often has no words but speaks to your soul, gripping on to an electric emotion – whether that be love, hate, passion, desire, euphoria – and vibrating through your body so it has no choice but to respond in a way it hasn’t before, with edges and flows. The music and the dancing.
Secondly, the buildings; the colourful buildings, houses and favelas, scattered in a rainbow heap up the side of cerros softly juxtaposed against the dark green mountains, or lining narrow, cobbled streets.
Thirdly, the graffiti; the colourful street-art graffiti, fiercely and passionately popping up on the sides of buildings, on walls along the edge of a hill, down alleyways and on the entrance of hostels, angry letters pierced around government and patriarchal spots, the colour and creativity blaring out at you.
Fourthly, the landscape; the colourful yellow sand dunes, stark white waterfalls, rainbow city scapes, piercing blue seas, rich green jungles and mountains, browny-red streets, bright white salt flats, dirty orange canyons.
And finally, the people; the colourful, diverse, frightening, unique, intense, exciting, curious, aggressive, brave, strong, loving, warm people.
This is their culture. Colourful, colourful, colourful.
Thank you, wonderful, beautiful, dynamic South America; I have loved you.