“So you don’t know when you’re coming back?”
I remember the face of my best friend, slightly astonished, as she took in what I was saying to her. Finally making that decision – to not buy a return ticket, to lay myself open to the possibilities of whatever the road had in store for me – was something difficult to understand.
But I always knew that was the right plan for South America. The entire continent beckoned to me, and I couldn’t do it the injustice of specifying when I was going to leave before I’d even arrived.
18 South American months in a nutshell
As I always knew they would, the first planned six months in Ecuador came to an end with no sign of me wanting to fly back home. I went from teaching in an Ecuadorian high school with a group of fellow volunteers to wending my way through Colombia alone, before inadvertently flying all the way down to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and joining my cousin to help build her community space in the mountains.
Nine months in, I was by myself and depressed, shivering in a hotel room in La Paz with no real idea of what I was doing. A string of difficult situations had begun to affect me, and I wasn’t sure if I was happy anymore.
But I pulled myself up, set out on another volunteer project and intensified my Spanish studies. I experienced one of the most bizarre coincidences of my life on an island in the middle of a lake, and a week later I spent all night dancing under a full moon.
And then I accidentally fell for a traveller in Bolivia and we began to travel north together.
Without intending to, I found myself treading old ground with a new person. Through Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, I took him to markets I’d visited months before, re-navigated problematic bus stations and threw impromptu tantrums because the week I’d spent in a city last year hadn’t been enough to remember the intricate layout of the narrow streets without a map. We lazed around on beaches (my choice) and went hiking, rock climbing, caving and more hiking (definitely his choice).
I celebrated a second birthday in South America (although weirdly they were both in Ecuador ) and soon after, I moved to Medellin, Colombia. I worked at a newspaper for three months, rented an apartment, felt averagely stable for the first time in years. So obviously I moved again: a month alone in Cuba, before I felt the pull of home – my real, English home – with such a strength that I knew my time was up. I needed to go back.
All in all, I was in South America for eighteen months. When I look back at it all now, I can’t believe what an impact the continent has had on me. Anyone who’s been following my journey since last February (and if you have, I’m forever grateful!) can hopefully see the changes better than I’m able to – but I know that these countries and experiences have absolutely done a number on me.
So here is a collection of the things I already miss the most about a continent that grabbed my attention from the outset, and still refuses to let go; a selection of the hundred aspects of South America that I unequivocally adore, for their positivity, their intrigue, and often their absurdity.
The latter is probably the most common.
The South American attitude.
South Americans often seem to be unwaveringly positive and need very little persuasion to get excited. Just take every single football commentator screaming, “GOAAAAAAAAL!!” for an unbroken minute without drawing breath. They also don’t really have a concept of personal space. They are unafraid of invading someone else’s, and being expressive and tactile the most normal thing in the world. Eventually, I found myself doing the same thing – and now I automatically go in to kiss the cheek of any stranger I meet. I still haven’t decided if I should stop doing it.
Waiting at a bus stop in London the other day, a small old man beside me pointed at a smaller child nearby and said, “gordito!” with such clear enjoyment that I asked him where he was from, in Spanish. Apart from being happy to label kids as ‘fat’, Arnando who hailed from Guayaquil in Ecuador, was a gem of a conversationist: nattering away in his native tongue so quickly that I only caught one word in ten. I’m pretty sure we were talking about his various girlfriends, none of whom were with him at Elephant and Castle station at the time.
We sat together on the bus, and he repeatedly grabbed my arm tightly to emphasise his points – something I’d be immediately alarmed about if a strange English man did the same thing – and when the bus reached his stop, repeated his offer that I pop round to his flat “on Saturday at 3pm” once he’d tidied up, so we could listen to some Latino music together.
The attitude in South America is incredibly welcoming. Just like Arnando, I’ve been invited into so many peoples’ homes simply because I was there, regardless of the circumstances – and ended up making some wonderful friendships as a result. And I’m sure I’m not alone in secretly loving it when I’m called “princesa”, “mi vida”, or “mi corazon” when I’m doing something as simple as buying some groceries from someone rather complimentary.
A great many bus journeys through the rural landscapes of South America afforded me with all manner of roadside sights; groups of children chasing dogs in the dust, and families gathered around barbecues. My absolute favorite, though, was when I passed a roadside pig. Even though it looked somewhat disgusting, I knew how delicious that meat was going to be (although there was often a potential for getting rather sick afterward).
That doesn’t excuse the occasion when Josh and I were waiting beside one hefty side of roadside pig at a busy road junction in Ecuador. In the ten minutes we waited for our bus to drive past, we watched numerous dogs sniff at the limp trotters hanging off the table and looked away in horror when a man peeled a slab of fat from the body, slapped it on a paper plate and walked away, munching.
I still maintain it must have been cooked and just didn’t look like it. Do people really eat raw pig fat?
The menu del dia phenomenon.
When I first arrived in Cuenca and began living with my Ecuadorian host family, I found it hard to understand how much importance was given to lunch. It might sound simple, but I come from a culture where the midday meal is regarded by most as a ‘grab and go’ situation (hence why the Meal Deals at Boots are so renowned in England): it’s simply a need to refuel and get on with the day. But in Ecuador, each member of my host family left work, school, and friends in order to meet around the kitchen table at midday and be together for an hour.
Eventually, when I’d got used to combatting the immediate need for a nap after eating my biggest meal of the day, I realised the benefits. Instead of being weighed down with food when I went to bed at night, I could have just a light dinner and feel like I’d actively burned off what I’d eaten that day. I also really started appreciating the treatment of lunch as a time to catch up with friends and family.
After my volunteer placement in Ecuador ended, I spent a vast majority of the next year’s lunchtimes eating at local restaurants. Most countries united in serving up a ‘menu del dia’, usually consisting of rice, beans, fried plantain and a choice of meat, along with a bowl of soup, glass of juice and some kind of dessert. Although a lot of these meals weren’t the tastiest thing I’ve ever eaten, they were cheap and filling.
Plus I got to sample a lot of chicken feet in soup.
Let it never be said that Latin culture is melodramatic. A tool like a machete doesn’t need to just be used by young men striding through the jungle, or by old women harvesting their yucca plants.
No, it’s absolutely multipurpose – when you notice the grass needs cutting, why wouldn’t you use a machete to trim it? Even when that small patch of grass is on the sidewalk of a residential street in Medellin, Colombia?
Shopping in markets.
Shopping in local markets has fast become one of my most favourite habits. After years of aimlessly wandering through supermarket aisles, having no interaction with the food I’m planning on eating later, now I get to discuss the comparative merits between one bunch of carrots and the ones at the stall opposite.
Automatically deciding which toothlessly grinning stall lady I prefer doesn’t have any bearing on my decision, of course.
Although I know it’s impractical to give up on the supermarket style of shopping, particularly in London, I’m swayed towards finding local markets to buy at least some of my food from. The entire experience is so much more fun! I won’t miss having to hold my breath and watch my step whenever I walk through the meat section of a market, though. Too many cow heads.
Turning up the volume.
Every morning in my Medellin apartment, I had a selection of alarms to wake me up. Sometimes it was the chorus of three dogs on the balcony across the street; other days it was the piercing battle between two fruit and vegetable sellers who walked on parallel streets and cried out the prices for avocados, eggs, mangos and lettuce at a pitch and with a growl that I’m still not sure was quite human.
On other roads, in other cities, there are megaphones employed for the purpose of getting one’s point across. Some street sellers sing. Everybody shouts. Not always using words you can easily identify.
And then there’s the music. South America’s love of high volume, high tempo, probably quite grating music, played absolutely everywhere. Blaring from taxis and local buses, set up on street stalls, held tight in the hands of young men by way of their mobile phones.
A particular favourite was in the bus stations of Bolivia, where every man who sold tickets for Cochabamba let out a raucous, “CochaBAMba! Cocha-cocha-cocha-cocha-BAMba! CochaBAMba!” I wonder if they had a meeting some time about how best to shout it. And how close they should get to potential customers’ ears when they did so.
In South America, absolutely anything can be for sale. It depends on what the buyer is looking for – and what the seller can think of.
It’s why I wandered through the huge outdoor El Alto market in Bolivia and realised I could’ve bought every part of a car if I’d so desired (and probably paid someone to put the thing together afterward). It’s why women walk around with a selection of rentable mobile phones attached to their bodies by metal chainlinks. It’s why there’s always someone approaching you for a shoe shine or with a glass of juice.
Men: their shirts, their stomachs, and their mullets.
There is a habit that all Latino men seem to have, and it works on a sliding scale: when the weather is hot, roll up your shirt. Except the fatter your stomach, the higher your shirt goes. This way, you’re treated to the sight of prominent rotund bellies, thick bristling hair and taut brown skin, usually with a fat fingered hand resting upon it.
After a long time I got used to the sight of these men, clearly unashamed of their bodies and happy to flaunt it. And why on earth not?
The mullets, though – they were something very hard to accept. I really wish I had a photo of the myriad of bad hair styles to grace South America. Apart from the infamous bowl cut that numerous Bolivian men seem to love, the mullet was probably the best of a bad bunch; countless young men strutting through the streets with a cascade of limp, slightly curling locks falling onto their shoulders.
Whether it’s apartment-building-sized graffiti pieces in downtown Bogota, the swathes of cloth wrapped around traditionally dressed Bolivians’ bodies, or entire villages covered with ceramic tiles, the colours in South America are vivid, constant and incomparable.
And don’t get me started on the natural colours of the landscapes. In eighteen months I haven’t got tired of blue-green mountains. I don’t think I ever will.
Living life in public.
Plazas are a central part of South American living. In every town, city, and village, the plazas heave with loud families, clusters of teens, curious tourists, food stalls, merchandise sellers, and excitable dogs. Sometimes the occasional llama.
Everyone gathers to chill out, chat, and watch everybody else. It’s a unique social space that’s integral to the very fabric of South America, and I absolutely love it.
From boisterous festivals in local cemeteries to daily religious processions complete with singing, dancing and fireworks, the attitude towards tradition in South America seems to be the bigger and louder the better.
I’ve lost count of the number of impromptu celebrations I came across while wandering through a new place. I still remember the ones I’ve joined in with, though.
Let’s just say that eighteen months without hammocks would have been a disaster. As it was, I managed to get a significant amount of hammock time – particularly the three nights I spent sleeping in this bad boy, high above the Colombian forest. No biggie.
It’s always time to eat.
I’ve often been quite wary of street food on previous travels (blame a recurring bout of Delhi Belly in India), but I still adore the fact that you can eat a full meal on the go in South America. My favourite snacks were arepas filled with cheese, and kebabs covered in hot sauce. So bad for you but so, so good.
Because how can you not love these guys?
Speaking, eating & breathing Spanish.
Last week, a friend asked me what the best part of South America was, and without really thinking about it I said Spanish. I know I’ve talked about my misadventures with the Spanish language in detail throughout my Spanish Challenge series, but there’s no doubt of its impact on my travels through South America.
When I left for Cuenca in February 2013, my Spanish was severely limited. I knew a handful of vocabulary, a couple of greetings and a sinking feeling that this wasn’t going to be enough. Eighteen months later and I’m actively missing the language so much that I now eavesdrop on Spanish phonecalls and wonder how weird it’d be to randomly strike up a conversation.
“Hey, you speak a language I can kind-of speak! Fancy being friends?!”
When I think back to my days in Cuenca, it seems unbelievable that I couldn’t communicate. I was surprised when my fellow teachers started calling me “Florita,” because changing a word into its diminutive version was still unfamiliar (and now I probably do it a bit too much). I hadn’t got the hang of gauging when to politely use the ‘usted’ conjugation, and when it made more sense to be friendlier and treat a stranger like a friend (hint: it depends on the country and the relationship you want to establish with whoever you’re talking to).
But after so many jokes with taxi drivers, haggling sessions with stern old ladies in the market, impromptu conversations on buses and in the street, moments spent uttering “buenos dias” or “buenas tardes” as a matter of course, because it’s second nature in South America to greet people you’ve never met and will likely never see again? Now I’m absolutely in love with Spanish, and I still haven’t got over the sense of wonder that I traveled through a continent of countries that all spoke the same language.
The only negative effect is that now I feel indebted to learn the language of every new country I go to from here on out, because I know just how much of a difference it can make.
Of course, there’s a lot of things I’m not going to miss about my time in South America. The large number of bathrooms that I’d rather not visit again; never being adequately convincing that I’m happier watching people salsa than doing it myself; feeling the thrill of panic whenever I approached a new ATM machine, praying it would let me withdraw money.
I never accepted the prevalence of machismo culture, and I’ll never say I like the taste of guinea pig. Even if Ecuadorians do consider it a delicacy.
But I still unconsciously speak in Spanish, even now I’m back in London. I still avoid dropping paper in the toilet. I still glance up when a figure passes the car, as if they’re going to try and sell me something through the window.
I don’t think South America is going to leave my mind for a long while yet.
Have you been to South America? What do you miss wildly about the continent that I haven’t included here?