For the last eight months, while the United States has been Drumpfing and Cruzing along into oblivion, I have had the privilege of exploring a large swath of South America. Six countries and countless Louis CK-filled overnight bus rides, hours of reggaeton, and empanadas later this trip is finally drawing to a close. What began as a job on a second cousin’s farm in rural Chile quickly morphed into an adventure of solid proportions, with lots of new friends and long nights to fuel the fun. From the dry heights of the Chilean altiplano to snowcapped peaks of Patagonia and from the buzzing insanity of La Paz to the refined cosmopolitanism of Buenos Aires the South America of today is an endless set of paradoxes. Straddling the Equator, it also balances modern pop culture with centuries’ old traditions, dynamic urbanism with raw, unspoiled natural beauty, and constant cycles of political optimism with predictable corruption and instability set against a background of colonialism and extractionism. It is a land of big mountains, big clouds, and big sunsets, and while there are plenty of gringo backpackers wearing alpaca sweaters from Peru and the inevitable guy at the hostel poorly playing a guitar there are also plenty of untouched cities, towns, and villages available for the small price of a little courage, a few bug bites, and some unsolicited up-down full-body stares. If nothing else South America is exciting and surprising, a place with hot sun and friendly smiles, and filled with a carefree approach that acknowledges yet looks past the difficulties in life. These energies are whirled into an addictive blur of beauty, sadness, dancing, and heartbreak, taxing the senses and filling the soul.
I began with a full backpack, a rough outline of a plan, and very few expectations of what was to come. The trip didn’t seem so much to me as running away from post-grad reality to find myself as much as an opportunity to learn, explore, and live. I quickly learned that every country has a version of a soup/rice/meat/potato set lunch, a version of an empanada, whether large or small and baked or deep-fried, a word for dude, and a version of aguardiente (firewater), with the exception of Argentina, because that’s just beneath them. Transportation is a never-ending adventure, and every country also has its version of a micro, or fixed-route vehicle, whether a taxi (Chile), a hatchback sedan (Bolivia), or a ski van (Colombia). You quickly learn to add a half hour to any journey due to busses not leaving until they are full, the driver pulling over for the occasional bathroom break or roadside chat, or traffic that never seems to move, even with or without road lanes that serve as suggestions at best.
Peru was a phenomenal introductory two weeks, with a visit to one of my primary inspirations in Lima, the old beauty of Cuzco, and a great trek amidst the Andes to Machu Picchu providing a perfect welcome. Next was the farm, where two months of hard work and mental stress left me with serious personal lessons of resilience, humility, and error. Working in a hostel in Santiago was a good cool-down and lent the chance to get to know a very underrated city. Northern Chile and then Patagonia were a spectacular two months filled with few problems, lots of sun, and glacial rivers pure enough to drink out of. A month in Bolivia was a punch in the mouth that will last years. Uruguay was expensive, relaxed and full of pirate cities and tranquil hippie beaches, and Buenos Aires was a passion-fest full of sensational soccer and dancing till dawn. Finally, Colombia wrapped all of the above into one, a microcosm of the entire continent and easily the most dynamic and fun place I’ve ever been.
In all these last eight months have been a serious flurry of color and sound. Above all I will remember the few truly “wow” moments of genuine revelation: the tangy burst of ceviche in Lima, the grandiose enormity of the high Andes in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru, cartoonish colors, patterns, and shapes in Patagonia and Torres del Paine, and the earth-shaking roar of the Iguazu Falls. Each destination had its own distinct feel, with Andean cumbia, Argentine tango, Chilean cueca, and Colombian salsa lending different identities accompanied by varying vibes and lively landscapes.
Yes it was all of the cliches, and I “found myself” somewhat, although in very unexpected ways. I experienced ample amounts of joy and sadness, love and loss, and discovery and humility. Above all else my most valuable takeaway will always be the brother I gained in my travel partner Jackson. In the last eight months the Broncos won the Super Bowl, I got into grad school, and the Broncos won the Super Bowl (in case you forgot). The ability to travel long-term is an enormous privilege, and the opportunity to live amongst different cultures, see incredible places, and meet new people is invaluable. Dealing with taking care of yourself on a daily basis while traveling is most difficult due to lack of continuity and constantly evolving circumstances, and this is the independence I think people talk about gaining through travel – the confidence to take risks, the inner knowledge of what you need to be happy and healthy on a daily basis, and the trust in yourself to be patient and that everything will work out. Life is easy to frame as a journey while you’re on one, and being engaged in a process makes it easy to be mindful of it. As always, investing in relationships is the key. Travel has left me feeling much more open to people and much more aware of my things. I am enormously grateful for such an opportunity.
Despite all these positives I would be remiss to paint an entirely sunny picture, because travel, just like life, is full of ups and downs. I often fall guilty to the millennial trap of only attributing highlights to my social media and public persona, something that is even easier to do when traveling because there are so many great things to share. This trip has included serious homesickness and actual sickness, with two GI-related trips to the hospital adding another wrinkle to my time on the farm. I’ve dealt with legitimate issues of career uncertainty, body image, and personal identity. Learning how to keep fit and active on the road was a constant challenge, as were sleepless hostel nights waking up in a mosquito-induced fiery burn. Easily the most painful lesson was to not underestimate the challenge of traveling and living with incompatible people, and this trip was not without difficult actions and circumstances. However, at the end of the day you pick up the pieces, count your blessings, and try again the next. Weathering the storm and putting your best foot forward are the name of the game.
My hope for this trip is that I will come home a more open and accepting person, both of myself and of others. Traveling during the heat of the U.S. primary season has given me a lot to think about in terms of humanity and the United States’ place in the world. I regret every time I see a shiny new Mercedes or Range Rover in South America and wonder if it was bought with dirty money, but then again what money in the First World West’s dealings with Latin America isn’t dirty these days. Foreign banks continuously fund the endless, crippling debt schemes of South American governments, foreign corporations exploit bountiful natural resources and cheap labor for a fraction of the deserved price, foreign governments deliver aid that is often just a closed-bidding contract for a lucrative project, and any changes to established moneyed interests are upended through a combination of political manipulation and reinforced international “liberalism”. There is no question that free market trade has exposed the region to modern luxuries and many facets of democratic government. However, overwhelming consequences include massive income inequality, environmental degradation, and serious lapses in education, women’s rights, and public health. While not all of these problems are attributable to the United States and friends, it is easy to see why many Central and South Americans rue their self-appointed guardian to the north, with CIA-backed military and political overthrows resulting in decades of authoritarian oppression and millions of lives lost.
My main takeaway is that education needs to be improved on all sides. People in Latin America must know that there is true power in civil organization and that they can dare to dream of a life filled with modern comforts and luxuries given the interconnected nature of today’s world. On the other side Americans, Europeans, and Chinese need to know the incredible power that public policy in their respective countries has on the rest of the world, especially in terms of corporate and environmental regulation. Specific to the U.S., I myself, a political science major, didn’t learn until my final years in college about covert CIA action in places like Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. To be clear, I’m not advocating an anti-American stance whatsoever, only to recognize the value in adequately informing yourself and challenging preconceived global constructs. I believe now more than ever that I have the enormous privilege to live in a country that prizes civil liberties, freedoms, and family to the utmost degree.
Perhaps the single most telling realization I’ve had over the past eight months was one of nomenclature and identification. Whereas someone from Chile is called a Chilean and someone from Colombia is called a Colombian, in English someone from the United States is not called estadounidense, as they are in Spanish (meaning from the United States) but rather “American”. This is deeply offensive to many Latin Americans because we all live in the Americas and are all Americans. Some back home may chalk this up as being inconsequential or ridiculous, but there is no denying that it is a powerful statement filled with insinuations of superiority through a manipulation of how we define ourselves at the most basic level of language. Only though empathy and awareness can we begin to understand the other and work towards common goals of peace and prosperity for all.
As I was beginning my eighth and final month on the road my aunt encouraged me to take note of all the little things that I love and will miss about traveling in South America. What stands out most for me are the small quirks people and cultures have. People who talk with whistles, winks, and with their hands waving about crack me up. I lose it at funny Spanish-English translations, even though the papas fritas we had in Buenos Aires were some of the best fried dads I’ve ever had and I was really glad for the sign in the Panama City airport telling me to “Watch Hands Pinching”. People wear shirts with random English phrases on them that they most likely have no idea what they mean, like “Ready For The Weekend” or “I’m Already Bored” or “Too Hot To Party” or my personal favorite “Polite As F***.” I will miss constant kisses on the cheek for any kind of introduction, salutation, or departure, as well as never failing to receive a warm buendía encountering someone on the street or a heartfelt buen provecho when sitting down to eat.
I love convenience stores that all sell the same things and where browsing is an anomaly: you are expected to know what you are looking for when you walk in the door. I love streets containing identical stores selling the same products for the same prices, all right next to each other. I love mothers walking on the street arm in arm with their daughters, and men standing on street corners always waiting, indefinitely, for someone or something to come along. I love horse-drawn carriages clopping their way down roads alongside cars, bikes, and motorcycles. I love markets filled with stands of fruits and vegetables both exotic and ordinary, with fluorescent mangos sitting next to knobby carrots, their blazes of color mixing with the omnipresent smell of some kind of fried goodness, most likely involving pork, coming from a woman wearing an apron and a hairnet and tending to an extremely large pot with an extremely large ladle. I love dogs of all sizes and personalities that roam the streets and dutifully accompany you for walks of a few blocks or a few miles, even without asking. I love small towns where you could run along the rooftops and that always emanate the same smell of burning woodsmoke, meat, and diesel. I love sights such as women holding babies with one hand while steering a bike handlebar with the other, or Andean men wearing ponchos and cowboy boots whizzing along on motorbikes wearing head-enveloping helmets, and I never tire of whatever digestive adventure comes next. Finally, for me nothing beats watching a soccer game on the street peering into a bar with a multi-aged crowd staring in rapt attention, or sharing a small room on a sweltering afternoon with a loud group of jersey-wearing locals holding liters of beer crowded around a small television featuring an announcer/auctioneer firing off a rapid-fire play by play culminated with a load roar for a goal that is heard all throughout the city.
In the end, the case for South America is that it is a large and varied continent with something for anyone. I trekked in the High Andes and Patagonia, worked as a farmhand in rural Chile, in a hostel in Santiago, and for the Fulbright Commission in Buenos Aires, and these experiences give an idea to the wide range of personal and professional opportunities available short or long term. You can live and travel in Andean culture that feels like people have been transported in a time machine from the past into the modern world, in pseudo-European cosmopolitan centers with pristine parks and sparkling skyscrapers, or bob along to humid Afro-Caribbean beats and palm trees. South America is a land with a fascinating mix of indigenous and colonial histories, philosophies, ethnicities, and languages, set amongst jaw-dropping natural beauty. It is easy to love, hard to understand, difficult to fix, and impossible to forget.
To end here are a few cheesy travel/life quotes that I wholeheartedly subscribe to:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views held by men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” -Mark Twain
“It seems that the creative impulse is sparked by the need to reconcile contrasting views of the world.” -John Cleese
“The search for lost things is hindered by routine habits and that is why it is so difficult to find them.” -Gabriel García Marquez
“We’re getting there. Getting where? There. Somewhere.” -Edward Abbey
“Mountains should be climbed with as little effort possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has a jagged edge. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer. These are things you should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.” -Robert Pirsig
The final word on this trip has to belong to a hero of mine, chef and personality Anthony Bourdain, a frequent traveler himself:
“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody. Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.”
With love and compassion, and go Broncos.