Five Things I learnt in South America

Today I was remembering a trip I took around South America in 2010. I went to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. It was a trip that I think really changed me, and I thought I would share some of the things this great continent taught me.

1. Slow down 

Anyone who has been to any South American country will attest to the slowness of its people. No one is in a hurry to go anywhere. The first overland trip I took in Colombia was by private taxi. This basically means it’s a guy with his car, with no special taxi license or anything of the sort… just a dude’s car. Anyway,so the way the private taxi system works is that you get to the little “terminal” which is a room, where you wait, and the driver asks you where you want to go, and you sit there until the taxi fills up with enough people going in the same direction… Naturally the first time I did it I wanted to know what time the taxi was going to leave, and what time we were going to arrive, and how long it was going to take. So when I asked the driver, he just shrugged and said, “There is no schedule, it just depends how long it takes people to come, and when the taxi is full we’ll go.” Having always been very British in my timekeeping, I felt quite uncomfortable with this answer, but saw that I had no choice in the matter, and I might as well calm down and wait without getting anxious, because no one was in aaany hurry to get going. It took me a while, but after a few months in South America I started to slow down. I now try to look at time like a fluid thing. Sure, I still don’t love being late, but I won’t allow myself to get (too) anxious about time keeping.

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This is a picture of the private taxi I got. Customised to the max.
2.You don’t need that much stuff 

When I went off on the South American leg of my trip I had just come from the USA, so was carrying a lot of stuff I really didn’t need. I saw how people lived with so little, and when I came back to Europe I saw how much stuff I lived with and felt completely excessive. I immediately went out and sold all my brand name stuff, and tried to downsize as much as possible. I would say that living in London I have probably accumulated just as much, but I am more aware when I go out and buy something and often try to go for quality rather than large quantities.

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My trusty backpack crammed full.
3. Be game 

When I was in Ecuador I went on a trip to the jungle. The guide took us to a pineapple farm where a father and son lived in a hut with their mangy dogs and a colony of guinea pigs in cages, which may or may not have been their pets… (you might want to google cuy al horno at this point, although not if you love your pet guinea pig.) So anyway, we went to see this pineapple farm where they also grew sugar cane and our hosts asked if we wanted some cane juice. It sounded good so we accepted. At this point I still thought they were going to bring some kind of chilled drink out of their fridge (ha!). The son went to chop some sugar cane and then walked over to this chopped tree trunk with a kind of press. They started vigorously squeezing the cane juice into a plastic bucket which didn’t look like it had been washed in the last few years… My friend and I looked on, quietly horrified while this cane juice dripped down a filthy plastic sheeting laid over the trunk. (She is Swiss, so if you have ever been to Switzerland you will understand how high cleanliness is on their list) When they finished pressing the cane juice for us they poured it into a smaller bucket, which they handed to us with great expectancy and smiles. Hm. I looked down at the black liquid. I really did not want to drink this, but these guys had spent so long pressing it that I took a deep breath, prayed that I wouldn’t get some kind of bug, and gulped it down. And it was delicious! Sometimes things that are outside of our comfort zone can be the best things ever, so be up for trying anything, going anywhere, and talking to anyone… you never know what great things might be round the corner.

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4. The Value of Education 

Since I was young I have known that it was important to study, and to do well, and I mostly enjoyed learning and studying. However, I completely took for granted how easy it is to get a good education in the west. When I was 19 I dropped out of university and started working, and after that I didn’t ever think I would go back. However, when I was in Colombia I met a kid who made me change my mind. I met him on the beach in a pretty terrible place called Riohacha. Although it has an airport, and a beach, this place is more of a place you go through than a destination. So I was there because I went to Cabo de la Vela, right on the border with Venezuela, and was waiting to fly back to Bogotá so I decided to go to the beach and hang out. This kid was about 15 and he was working selling lollies on the beach. When he found out I was from Barcelona he told me all about his dreams to study in Spain, and become a Doctor. As I was listening to this kid’s dream I thought, wow, he is selling lollies and unless his luck really changes he will probably never make it to university, and I just left because I didn’t like it. I realised I had the chance to study, and that everything was set up for me to be able to do it easily, so I went back to uni at the grand old age of 26. I am so glad I did. I wish there was something I could have done for that kid, and I hope some day his wish comes true, but for now, I’m glad I made the most of the chances offered to me.

5. Dance 

Despite the stereotype about Spanish people dancing flamenco all the time, you’ll be shocked to learn that we (although I am Catalan) don’t… Dancing was never really part of my life when I was little, so when I went to South America, in particular Colombia, I loved that people dance… all.the.time. I loved going into a salsa club and that impeccably dressed men that could probably be my grandad came up to me and just led me in the most incredible dances. One thing I dislike about a lot of western countries is that dance is associated with wanting to bed someone… What if I just want to dance with someone and then not speak to them, not have a drink with them… just dance for the pleasure of it? That is what Colombians taught me to do – I learnt to dance without being so self conscious and to go with the music.

So there you have it… five wonderful things I learnt in South America.

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