I have just spent the best part of 12 months in Latin America. From Mexico down to Argentina, across to Chile and up again. I wouldn’t trade this time for anything, and given the time and resources would gladly do it again. I left regretting so much that I was leaving behind. The endless Argentine nights; Venezuela’s daily head-scratching anomalies; the amiable people of Chile; Mexico’s 24-hour tequila consumption and the unique ability to breakout into a party, parade, protest or riot at a moments notice, complete with music, dancing and fireworks. These are a few of the features I will miss.
But while always looking for a positive experience, one of the great benefits of travel is seeing the whole picture. Seeing the bad with the good and making you appreciate where you come from. Remembering the annoyances, the frustrations, the moments of mind-numbing stupidity are what make the journey complete and are often the most memorable.
Discussing the highlights is easy but would take far too long, hearing what went wrong, however, can be far more interesting. These are a few of the traits that – while glad to have experienced them – I will gladly leave behind to the colourful and chaotic land of Central and South America.
Pedestrians are treated like pigeons. If you don’t get out of the way you are going to get hit, and it will be your fault. There is no natural instinct in drivers to move their foot toward the break when a person appears within range. The closest they come to a precautionary measure is to beep their horn, which is why so many South American cities sound like an out of tune orchestra. The sound of car horns – honking at all other vehicles and animals as well as pedestrians – takes over many cities, particularly in Lima, where barely a moment passes when you can’t hear the cacophony of impatient drivers. Buses toot at taxis, taxis toot at pedestrians, motorbikes toot at donkeys, everyone toots at everyone. Many neighbourhoods in Lima display ‘no tooting’ signs with a picture of a horn with a cross over it. But this doesn’t stop them, as the moment a car slows to make a turn or wait for a gate to open or a pedestrian makes their way toward the gutter the drivers hand is drawn toward the horn so he can join the chorus. There seems to be a myth that tooting the car horn as long and hard as you can will change a red light to green and start the traffic flowing. It doesn’t work, but it doesn’t stop them from trying.
‘Salsa music sounds like it should be accompanying a clown’s act, or some kind of children’s show, that may or may not involve a shitty clown. It’s comedic, but the sad kind of, make you wince and feel embarrassed comedy. You couldn’t possibly enjoy it in any sense if you had any sort of a functioning brain. It’s only fit for children or idiots. No intelligent person could enjoy it. Not possibly.’
I completely agree with this quote. It was said by me, and sums up my opinion of the genre following month after month of hearing it blasted through speakers on long overnight bus rides and hearing the repetitive, soporific beat in every market, store or restaurant I ever went into. I may have been hearing the same song on repeat, or they may have all been different songs, it’s hard to know the difference. And Reggaeton is much, much worse.
In Peru my credit card was stolen. A new one was meant to get to me within 24-hours. Three days later it had not arrived. DHL Peru told me it was in a different city so I gave them the correct address. Another three days later it was still in the same wrong city and they asked me for the address again. After eleven days it still hadn’t arrived so I gave up.
This was not an isolated incident. Whether it’s DHL delivering an important package, buses arriving on time, ordering a cheeseburger at McDonald’s or checking out at a supermarket, everything seems to take a little longer than it should. It’s generally accepted as a way of life and isn’t usually too much of an inconvenience, but if you ever find yourself in an urgent situation or an emergency, i.e. having no source of funds other than an emergency credit card you’re waiting for, this lack of efficiency can end up costing you a lot more than it should and cause flights to be missed. It’s not clear what the reason is, maybe a combination of apathy, insolence and incompetence among public servants, but it’s clearly evident and something everyone will have to deal with when visiting the region.
The term ‘environmentally friendly’ seems to have skipped this part of the world, or maybe just hasn’t reached it yet. Many highways double as garbage tips and for miles are lined with bottles, wrappers, nappies and anything else that should be in a trash can or recycling bin. Passengers in any vehicle casually drop items out the window, and on city streets no second thought is given to throwing a package on the pavement when there is a bin within reach. For me the root of the problem is at supermarkets where they distribute plastic bags as if they have a surplus and have to get rid of them immediately. One packet of cigarettes does not need a grocery bag, especially when the lady buying said cigarettes has a handbag on her shoulder. I often had difficulty convincing the check-out staff that I did not need a bag for my bottle of water. Then I would walk outside and see them blowing around like tumbleweeds. For a region with such amazing scenery and nature there is little being done to keep it this way, I only hope they can reverse the trend before it all overflows from the cities and highways and into the national parks.
I assume at one point in Europe and North America dogs ran free through the streets, malnourished, flea ridden and neglected. Then I assume (no research has been done) they were removed from the streets, either domesticated or eradicated, and now are more or less absent from the public, and most that remain live a happy, cared for existence. From Mexico southwards, they still roam free. Scavenging, fighting, scratching, fucking, dying. All throughout Central America I never saw a dog that wasn’t limping, often so skinny that their ribs were all but bursting through their mangy skin. In Chile – somehow – they are well fed, healthy looking animals that wander the streets serenely or lie in the sun of Santiago without concern, but this is an aberration. For all the rest it is a doomed existence, particularly for the females who are resigned to a life of pregnancy, birth, child rearing and repeat. I never got used to this and found it hard to ignore.
It is my understanding that queuing is a particularly British characteristic, and Britain’s influence on much of the world meant queuing became an inherent part of many societies. Great Britain had very little hand in creating Latin American, so queuing and any acts involving a show of patience are often absent. This may seem like quite a generalization, but I experienced it many times first hand. One of the great contradictions is that while there is usually a lack of urgency, there is also no patience. There’s never a hurry to do something, but once it needs doing, it better be done quickly. I’ve waited in many lines and had people push past as if I was just standing in line at the bank for the scenery, any objection being met with a nonchalant flick of the hand in my general direction.
It’s why drivers are always frantically speeding through traffic and not stopping for pedestrians – because they are late, and they are late because they just spent two hours sitting around doing nothing with no urgency or thought to leave early. A typical conversation follows:
Me: We should go, we need to be there in an hour.
South American: It’s fine, no hurry.
(55 minutes later)
Me: It’s too late we won’t get there.
South American: Its okay, we can leave now.
A terrifying car ride would follow, dodging stray dogs and motorbikes and motorbikes and ignoring red lights as I clung to the dashboard. This happened a number of times in all modes of transport. I watched bus drivers chatting among themselves and chain smoking until half an hour after the scheduled departure time, then once on the road they would drive like maniacs, overtaking trucks on winding narrow roads on the edge of a cliff because they were running late. It was exciting at times, but most often just frustrating.
And while I’m on a roll; bread, beggars, pickpockets, shoe shine boys asking for my business even though I’m not wearing shoes, military checkpoints, lack of refrigeration, shower electrocutions and ‘can I drink the water here.’
Just want to make it clear that these are not complaints, but merely a few of the things that I won’t be sad to leave behind. I’d welcome any feedback, particularly from South Americans.