It’s hard to part with a place that has become my home away from home for more than three months, but since I have already left it and I won’t be going back for a while, I think that part of the world deserves a few more words to sum up the time I spent there.
My trip to Latin America has made me see how little I know about other places. Whether I have read something in a book about Peru or seen a TV documentary about Bolivia, nothing prepared me for the actual experience. When you get onto an overcrowded “chicken bus” full of old ladies dressed in semi-traditional, semi-modern clothes, with deeply wrinkled sun-burned faces, carrying huge loads of god-knows-what and snotty children who look at you as if you were an alien from outer space, you may realize that although you and them are both humans, and as such, prone to the same feelings and reasoning, subtle cultural differences have pushed your worlds apart in a way that you are just beginning to grasp. From food and language to the understanding of time and personal space, from family relationships to the outlook on life, from money to economy and democracy, everything is just different enough to get you, the western traveler, to ask yourself a simple question: why?
I asked myself this question many times and I can’t say I always found answers. But at least I hope I have not gone through this trip across so many countries without learning some things. To begin with, there’s that quality that everybody has to develop in order to enjoy backpacking in foreign lands: an open, alert eye to see and absorb the unusual life scenes that unfold all around and to notice both the big picture and the details. But beyond that ineffable personal characteristic, there’s a host of practical learning that I’d be happy to share…
- Learn the language – even if it’s just a few words to use at a restaurant in order to understand the menu or ask for the restrooms, speaking Spanish (or Portuguese if Brazil is your destination) will make a difference. It’s not that difficult. Since language is the first and most difficult cultural barrier between people, every little effort made in order to overcome a communication problem is like a friendly handshake. It’s a step toward a better, less frustrating trip for you and, why not, toward a better world.
- Patience is the key – some tourists from “clockwork countries”, where most things related to business and facilities work as generally expected, would think that just because they paid their share, everything has to go exactly as they expect. It's not a wrong wish, but it will not work very well in Latin America. Buses are late and some roads are bad. People are late. Things break down often. Some things just won’t work today; you have to try again tomorrow… Businesses close and open unpredictably during siesta hours. Clerks in various offices, state-owned or private will take an insanely long time to solve a trivial task. Or they may completely ignore you while they talk with their friend who isn’t there to request a service, and just wants to have a chat instead. Most times the phrase “get me the manager” will get you a blank stare and a lie. Demanding that things be done now “or else”, American style, will just be met by the same incoherent explanations, embarrassed smiles and will antagonize people with little success. The solution? Explain (difficult, without knowing the language), talk, ask, smile, explain again using a different approach, explore the alternatives, keep calm and somehow, most difficult situations almost magically resolve themselves.
- People will lie to you – they may do it on purpose or they may just withhold information they think is irrelevant to you. Asking many questions is the key. Again, it helps if you know the language, but English will work to some extent when dealing with hotels, restaurants and tour agencies. After a few interesting experiences we’ve come to mistrust any hostel when it came to the availability of hot water. We even used to turn the tap on and wait for the hot water to flow before getting the room. And sometimes it helps asking if there's any water at all.
- It’s usually a safe place – although muggings and thefts will always happen in places where foreign travelers go, Latin America seems to take tourist protection seriously. In areas popular with the gringos there were policemen everywhere and most countries' police forces now have units that are dedicated to the protection of tourists. To us they were very helpful in Peru when $200 out of our money got stolen from the safe deposit box. Nowhere during my trip did I have the feeling that walking around with a huge SLR camera around my neck made me a target – although I didn’t provoke fate by walking around in shady areas or at night. I had my Leatherman and a pair of old sunglasses stolen from my backpack somewhere in Guatemala and I went through a theft attempt in Buenos Aires, but beyond this we were more afraid of germs and contaminated water than of thieves.
- Get used with the other tourists – if you’re like me, there’s nothing more annoying than sight of a crowd of boisterous 21-year-olds Nordic-European-looking Americans on the streets of “my” South-American town... But they chose to visit that place the same way I did, so I don’t have more of a right to be there than they do. You have to either get used to the thought that you’re a gringo among many or get off the beaten trail and explore some remote corners. I know for sure that if I ever go back to Peru – which I’d love to do – I’ll surely try to stay away from Cuzco.
- There’s a high chance that you will get sick – the longer you travel, the higher the chance. A healthy dose of paranoia is always needed when dealing with water-borne parasites, so don’t let your guard down and always purify the water or buy it at the store. Be especially wary of tea and coffee served in high-altitude places – the water needs to boil longer to kill all the germs and many times that doesn’t happen. But often you won’t have much of a choice, especially if you go on a hiking tour like the Inca trail. Then who gets sick is mostly a lottery, but nothing that Flagyl won’t fix…
- Everything is negotiable – well, almost. Give it a try and in many cases prices will go down as you’re about to leave, or discounts not mentioned previously will suddenly become available. You shouldn’t try to squeeze the last penny from them, but you equally shouldn’t feel that you must pay what they ask just because the initial price was lower than what you would have paid back home anyway.
- Learn some history – even if it’s just the condensed facts from the first chapter of your Lonely Planet guide, it will give you some context before you land in a place where great men unknown to you have given their names to streets and town squares.
- Don’t be more local than the locals – that’s my ranting against “Andean pants” – a type of llama-wool pants with vertical stripes of all colors that can be bought in many markets in South America. They may be the traditional men’s garb in the Andean regions, but I have never seen a local wearing them in Ecuador, Peru or Bolivia. The tourists however… all the time. They really don’t look good with your Columbia Sportswear gore-tex jacket…
- Money matters – although the dollar is still king in Latin America, we have used US cash in very few places (except for Ecuador which runs its economy in US dollars). Nowadays you can hardly find a town that’s worth visiting, without an ATM. And if you still have local money when crossing a border, there’s no problem exchanging the currency of the previous country with that of the next one. You can forget about traveler’s checks, they are a dying breed, and will usually get you a rate worse than cash or ATMs. We still have most of ours with us, and the ones we exchanged we did so only because we wanted to see if anyone takes them.
- You can’t control the strikes – if the miners decide to block the roads you can’t do anything about it. Wait where you are or risk the bus or train trip and see what happens. If you are flexible, don’t mind staying in a place more than you planned, and can deal with taking the occasional 8-hour detour, the trip will still be a success. You’ll be able to say back home that you got stuck on the Altiplano because the miners didn't allow you to leave…
- You can’t control the weather – everybody knows that, but in most Latin America you are in a weather conundrum: from tropic to tropic there are mostly two seasons: the wet one and the dry one. The wet season is not wet all the time but it may make for a really difficult experience if you plan to visit remote areas or do some hiking. And the mosquitoes are merciless. The dry season on the other hand is much better, but at high altitudes in Central America or the Andes, where most tourists go, it makes for very, very cold nights.
- Everything is going to be ready in 10 minutes – seriously!