David Fegan plots a course of learning, observation, and experience through South America.
Over the past two months I have learnt the hard way that arriving in a foreign country with no understanding or sense of the language spoken is a guaranteed recipe for disaster and a sure fire way to bring the enthusiastic, open-eyed traveler quickly back down to earth.
Luckily, I immediately learnt from this mistake, by enthusiasm and sheer necessity, and have been able to experience the thrill of learning Spanish in the crazy, cosmopolitan, 24-7 rush of Buenos Aires. I am also now acutely aware of the sheer terror of attending salsa classes for the first time, as well as the fun you have upon learning some basic steps. I explored and tried to capture some of the tranquility and beauty of the Lower Paraná Delta of Tigre, learning about it’s historical, economic and environmental contexts. I also took mate (pronounced “ma-té”) with locals in Buenos Aires to learn about their famous custom, which to them is more specifically a habit. From Buenos Aires, I tried slacklining in Rosario for the first time. I have also learnt some valuable lessons and picked up some useful travel tips in my short time as a solo backpacker.
I have met some wonderful people on their own amazing adventures, such as a retired American janitor who, after 25 years working and exploring Alaska, has been travelling through South America for the past year and a half. We sat down for a chat in Salta, a city in the north-west of Argentina. I have also been able to take my Spanish “on the road”, swapping private lessons for real life experiences.
I had to jump ahead of my narrative chain upon arriving Bolivia to keep up with some current events that were unfolding, but rest assured, these stories will all be published in the following weeks. With a change of country seems to have come a shift in focus. Bolivia is a place of amazing natural beauty, as illustrated by ‘Crashing a Movie Set in the Bolivian Desert’, as well as the personal adventures I have had journeying through mountains, lakes, hot springs and volcanoes to Salar de Uyuni and fooling around in the cascades around Sucre.
Bolivia is also a hard place though. In the southern cities of Tupiza and Potosí, where the indigenous populations are far stronger than any of the cities I visited in Argentina, many people are poor and have to work in bad to dangerous conditions. The landscape is dry, the infrastructure and healthcare is lagging in these poorer cities, and it just a different, very real world. On the flipside, it is extremely cheap for the traveler.
In Potosí, once one of the biggest and most important cities in the world as the major supply of silver for Spain, I discovered that the mountain, the Cerro de Potosí, is sinking due to mining, but with 15,000 miners having to support themselves and their families, and the government not addressing the problem and creating new jobs (as I understand it), the miners choose the danger and higher wages of the mines to working a lower paying job in the city.
From here the road is uncertain, but open. I have contrasted the experience of staying in one place for a while before ripping up the roots with the constant upheaval and sometimes superficial experience of spending a few days in one place before leaving for the next. While I have changed plans many times in my head, I am currently in Bolivia’s constitutionally recognised capital city of Sucre to take advantage of cheap Spanish lessons. The differences with the cities of Uyuni, Tupiza, and Potosí are already obvious, as Sucre is larger, nicer, more cosmopolitan, and, according to a local on the bus, provides better healthcare. However, there are still many examples of poverty and disuse, and Sucre retains the haphazard, chaotic feel of the other Bolivian cities I have visited.
From Sucre, I consider it a good idea to explore the Amazon jungle from Rurrenabaque, Bolivia, where I believe the prices will be far cheaper than entering from the more touristy countries of Peru, Brazil, or Colombia. Otherwise, I will go in from Puerto Maldonado in Peru. I am also excited to experience the not-so-whispered beauty of Lake Titicaca, visiting the city of Copacabana, and the Isla del Sol before more trekking in Peru, with Machu Picchu demanding to be crossed off my bucket list. As has been the case thus far, I go with open eyes and ears to see what I can discover, learn, and report.
From Peru, my plans are uncertain. I can make a break north across a great expanse for Ecuador and Colombia, the later being recommended to visit before it gets too touristy. Alternatively, I can head south down the Chilean coast for Patagonia, stopping by the colourful coastal city of Valparaíso, roughly two hours north-west of the capital Santiago. I can try and execute both these plans, but with limited time and money I don’t think it is worthwhile to rush up and down this huge continent for the sake of it, as opposed to properly exploring a few places and the people that inhabit them.
With my plans having changed several times, and many more times in my head, they could change again at any moment. This uncertainty is both a joy and an annoyance. All I know is that I will learn all that I can about anything and everything. While the road is uncertain, it is truly open.
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