We realise that these reflections are perhaps a touch belated, but they are supposed to be reflections and therefore some passage of time is required. As for the ‘South America’ component of the title it should be pointed out that we didn’t visit all the countries of South America, and even the countries we did visit we didn’t see all of those. So these reflections simply relate to a ragbag of recollections and the thoughts, sensations and feelings that they provoked.
It must be said from the outset that two features more than any other dominated our time in South America: soaring peaks and plummeting valleys. And they do not relate exclusively to the geography of the continent either. They are just as apt a description of our spirits during those two turbulent months.
Going on holiday to some strange and distant land can be disconcerting enough upon first arrival. But landing in Rio de Janiero and realising we had ahead of us 12 months of strangeness in strange lands was almost impossible to get our heads around. There were no precendents with which to compare. It was a truly original and overpowering sensation. Gradually, though, we became familiar with the unfamiliar, and the time it took to adjust to each new country, city or bed-for-the-night became less and less.
The shock and at times profound feeling of dislocation made us also realise that back home we had often lived life at 60 per cent. There is no shame in this. It is a natural consequence of the daily, weekly, monthly rhythmn of a regular and well-established life, a life of productive routine and reassuring cycles. But when that life is exchanged for one where new sights, sounds and sensations are presented on a near-daily basis, it can fade into monochrome and narrow to single-channel sound. Whether we were scaling Machu Picchu or laying prone in a lodge in Bolivia, everything seemed to come at us in needle-sharp high-definition, blinding technicolour and booming surround sound.
These were our overriding impressions. Now some facts.
A cast-iron constitution isn’t essential in South America but it certainly helps. Health, or rather lack of it, was another factor which dominated our experience. The main culprit was the Altiplano, the high altitude plain which dominates the border of Peru, Bolivia and Chile. Our some three weeks there – in Cusco, Puno, Bolivia’s Copacabana, La Paz, the Salt Flats and San Pedro de Atacama – took there toll, and we were able to count on one collective hand the number of days when we were both well. The causes were manifold – altitude sickness-induced headaches, stomach bugs, fevers, chills – but the effect was often the same: low immune systems and even lower spirits.
Crossing borders by plane is much easier than by land. For someone based in the UK – an island with a strange collection of countries within a country – this may come as a surprise. But believe us, if you’ve ever tried to cross the Chilean-Argentinian border by bus, and at the Andean pass, and on a public holiday, then you will know that it is not a straightforward matter.
A six-hour wait is not unusual. First you have to negotiate your way through the Chilean border control, then the Argentinian border control. There is much shrugging, screwing up of faces, monosyllabic grunts and aggressive passport stamping. Then comes the fun part of the bag search. Here a rogue banana seems to carry more censure than thirty grams of Bolvian marching powder. Some lucky souls manage to escape with little more than a salutary rummage from the official, while others have to suffer the humiliating ordeal of emptying out the entire contents of their luggage, and in full view of their fellow passangers. Suspicions seem to hang on little more than a certain shape of nose or cut of gib.
The Brazilians know how to put on a breakfast; the rest of South America does not. In Rio, Paraty and Iguazu we were treated to morning buffets that would have embarrassed a western head of state. Freshly-squeezed fruit juices, just-baked breads, several varities of cereal, cakes that were fit to grace afternoon tea at Claridges, recently-picked fruits so fresh it made us cry inexplicably, and freshly brewed teas and coffee – you name it, they put it on a table and let us have a number of runs at it.
In Peru or Bolivia, regardless of location or accommodation type, we invariably received two bread rolls with butter and jam. The bread had the same moisture content as sawdust (and roughly the same taste) and the jam hadn’t even heard of a strawberry far less been touched by one. And this was every morning. And it seemed to be the same two bread rolls. And the same butter and jam.
So to avoid disappointment don’t go to South America solely for the food. It is not a place where one finds culinary enlightenment. Granted, the steaks in Argentina are pretty damn good but that’s about it. In Peru their big boast is that they have around 40 different types of potatoes (you know the food is bland when the locals can differentiate between that many kinds of spuds). And as for Bolivia, each meal seemed to come with its own unique take on gastroenteritis. Don’t get us wrong, we had some nice meals in South America but invariably their success was due to an Italian twist or an Asian angle.
What South America may lack in food it makes up in alcohol. Chilean wine is cheap, plentiful and always eminently quaffable. Argentinian wine seemed to us to be of a remarkably high standard – and not limited exclusively to the red Malbec grape: the white Torrontes was a great discovery. And the South Americans know how to brew a fine beer. We can’t make any claim to have sampled them all, but Peru’s Cusquena comes out on top. Tesco, take note.
Architecture has a profound effect on mood. Travelling from city to city in South America brought home to us the influence architecture has on the soul. Whether at the top of a mountain, in a middle of a desert, or in the midst of a tropical rainforest nature rarely let us down. But once we stepped into a city our mood could lift or dip solely depending on how man had shaped his environment. Paraty, Cusco and Buenos Aires are just three examples where we immediately felt at home and at peace; while in Rio, Aguas Calientes and Puno we could feel our stomachs knotting at the sight of half-finished houses, corrugated iron shacks and graffiti-ridden shelters. It wasn’t the underdevelopment of these urban areas but rather the maldevelopment which so depressed us.
You may at this point be thinking that on balanace we had an awful time in South America, but you would be a long way from the truth. It was amazing. Even when it was horrendous it was amazing. Looking back, the whole seemed greater than the sum of its parts, which is impressive given that these parts included the likes of Machu Picchu, Iguazu Falls and the cosmopolitan boulevards of Buenos Aires. As an introduction to travelling, South America ticked all the boxes: it was challenging, it was dangerous (or at least we assumed it was), it was new, it was exciting, and it was memorable. Not bad for the first leg of our trip.