9 months, 12 countries and 50,000 km later
It’s been a hell of a trip. I’ve seen, experienced and learned so much that I’d have to write a book to share all of it. Even if I had the time to do so, which I don’t, I’d never be able to tell the whole story. Most of what I’ve seen and learned cannot be put into words or reflected by pictures. But a few bits can. Here is my humble attempt of doing that.
18 hours is hardly enough time to explore a city, not to mention a whole country, especially if you’re supposed sleep for 10 out of those 18 hours. And yet I feel like I managed to soak up the essence of Madrid and the spirit of Spain in this little time.
I landed on a Saturday afternoon and, after dropping my bag off in my room, I went straight out for a run. I don’t think there is a better way to explore a city you just arrived in than going for a run. Within about 3 hours, I’d become acquainted with the city centre, seen the major landmarks and had been to the best parks. It was a glorious day. In the evening I went out to the bohemian quarter without knowing a single soul and soon found myself in a house party with a bunch of local girls, who taught me some Spanish phrases that no one would ever understand in South America.
Doing stuff on your own can be intimidating. Going out on a Saturday night in a city where you don’t know anybody is definitely scary (not quite as scary as doing the same in your home town of course), especially if you’re more of an introvert like me. I remember walking up and down the streets of Madrid that night trying to pretend I was having fun. It was awful.
Until something shifted and I actually was having fun. I guess it’s about letting go of expectations, shutting down the part of your brain that does nothing but tries to predict the future and makes you worried about what might happen. It’s about going with the flow and just being there for the experience regardless of what it might be like. And then, magic happens.
With that, the tone was set.
My best answer to why I started my trip in Ecuador is still “why not”. While it’s one of the least developed and smallest countries in South America, it has so much to offer that 3 months I spent there was not nearly enough to properly explore it.
I will definitely go back to Ecuador (excuse me if you catch me say the same thing about every country) to see more of it’s natural beauty. I’ve climbed Pichincha (4,784 m), but I want to climb Cotopaxi (5,897 m) and Chimborazo (6,268) as well.
Despite my utter admiration for all things natural in Ecuador (man made things are less impressive here), the one thing that really struck a chord with me was the Ecuadorian’s love for music. Music in Ecuador is everywhere. You literally can’t walk 10 seconds in Quito without hearing some distinct Latin tunes. Get in a taxi, and 9 out of 10 times, you’ll be listening to music radio and the driver singing and tapping the rhythm on the steering wheel with (only five of) his fingers (if you re lucky). Age and elevation are no obstacle either. I saw a man well into his eighties working in the garden at 3,500 meters with his grand children to the tunes of salsa music out of a Hi-fi system set up in the middle of the garden. They didn’t have running water, but wouldn’t go a day without their music. That’s what it’s like when someone had their priorities worked out properly (No irony intended!).
I also met Sandra, a professional musician, living proof that you can make a living out of your passion, in the face of all adversities, even in a poor country. I wish we appreciated music here in Europe as they do in Ecuador and made it such an integral part of our everyday lives. It just makes life so much better.
Economically way ahead of Ecuador, Colombia is a stunning country that will make you feel at home even if you want to stick to your European standards. Having spent more than one month in Medellin, I had little time to explore Bogota, the nation’s capital.
Up until Medellin, I had no plan. I spent three months in Ecuador, only because I couldn’t spend any more without a visa. But then I realized if I wanted to see most of South America within a reasonable amount of time, I had to speed things up.
That was actually preceded by a short period when I was seriously considering settling down in Colombia. Because of a girl, what else. But I was lucky enough to dissociate the stereotype from the individual early on and realized that passionate Colombian love wasn’t necessarily passionate enough for me.
Although Ecuador had a great variety of cheap food available, it was Colombia where I became more interested in food. I saw vegetarian travelers cook and realized that it was not nearly as difficult as I thought. And that it tasted much better than my previous vegetarian experiences. I also met the owner of one of the largest soy milk producer companies of Colombia, who taught me a thing or two. I saw this huge contrast between the healthy stuff that a minority of the people were eating and the gross street food that the masses lived on.
I’ve been much more conscious of what I eat and have been feeling better ever since.
Every city, I’ve been to, has their more and less attractive areas. But Lima was the only place I had to take a taxi from the airport, because a) I couldn’t figure out public transportation b) even if I could, getting on one of those buses didn’t seem like a clever idea at all. I remember expecting the cityscape to get prettier as I was approaching the centre, but it didn’t. When the taxi driver dropped me off in front of my hostel, I didn’t want to believe that I was at the right location. With it’s crumbling buildings and uncared for people, it felt like a place where two weeks may be too much.
That was until I’ve seen Miraflores and Barranco districts, which would easily beat many European cities in terms of aesthetics, public safety and prices too. As I later learned, the nice areas of the city made up a tiny proportion of its whole territory, because of the huge number of migrants that flooded the city in the eighties and doubled its population within 30 years. Today, the majority of its 10 million residents are farmers, and their descendants, who came down from the mountains hoping to find work and get an education, but didn’t.
Seeing this sort of artificial urbanization, driven not by force, but by economic compulsion and the hope (or illusion) of a better life, made me feel sorry for the millions, who gave up their modest, but existing livelihoods and their traditional ways of life with it to become bums in the slums of Lima.
I felt sorry for them, especially after getting a little taste of the incredibly rich cultural heritage of Peru. I was fortunate enough to sit through a rehearsal of a dance group at Pontificia Universidad Catolica (with the help of my friend, Vivi, who literally smuggled me in) and witness how age old traditions can flourish in modern times. I was stunned on more than one levels. The physical exertion these young boys and girls made in a course of 4 hours was beyond anything I expected from a dance rehearsal. And the beauty and lightness of the Marinera completely captivated my imagination. If I had an extraterrestrial friend who wanted to learn about human mating behaviour, I’d only tell them to watch a Marinera dance. It’s all in there.
I’m in trouble with Chile. I had a great two weeks in Santiago, and a fun weekend in Valparaiso at the coast, but didn’t see anything remarkable. Perhaps I feel that way because Chile doesn’t really belong with the rest of South America, as far as quality of life and welfare go at least. It is by far the least chaotic and the richest country of South America, which isn’t entirely explained by its apparently inexhaustible copper reserves.
The one thing I’ll never forget about Chile is the incredible generosity of its people. Or the guy whose sofa I was sleeping on for two weeks to be precise. We all like to find ways to give back, but his was not one of the easy ways. He’d let travelers stay in his living room for free, which would drive most people crazy, but he enjoyed it. Good man.
Argentina was the only country where I didn’t even leave the capital city. Not because there was nothing of interest outside Buenos Aires, but because there was so much inside it.
Argentinians’ passion for tango is overwhelming, needless to say. They definitely make good use of it as a tourist attraction – a couple dancing in front of restaurants to lure people in is a common sight -, but it’s also deeply embedded in the Argentinian soul. You’ll see people dancing tango in public spaces just for the hell of it.
My friends from the UK tell me how late we go out in Budapest. You haven’t seen late until you’ve been to Argentina. People here go for dinner at 10 pm, start drinking at midnight and go clubbing at 2-3 in the morning. Even on weekdays. It’s literally insane.
Argentina is one of the places that require you to have some nerves just to live there. With a state bankruptcy a little more than a decade ago and another one looming over their heads right now, stability and security are concepts out of a fairy tale for most Argentinians. Add to that 10%+ inflation rate (goes the official story, real numbers are suspected to be much higher), and you’ve got a recipe for depression, pessimism and passivity.
The reason why I admire Argentinians, is because they are everything but.
No day passes in Buenos Aires without a protest or a march. The effectiveness of these is more than dubious of course, as not much has changed in politics for more than a decade, but that’s beside the point. The government and banks may take people’s money, but they can’t take their spirit away.
The high inflation economy also creates a sense of urgency when it comes to spending your money, which lends the whole country a strangely elegant air of carpe diem.
Despite all of its quirkiness, Buenos Aires is probably the most “European” place in South America. While Argentina could benefit from learning a few more things from some European countries – how to organise a functional economy for instance -, we Europeans could learn just as much from them in terms of appreciating our present day and not letting our spirits and willingness to act be destroyed by anything that happens to us.
It’s the energy that gets you in Brazil. In Rio to be precise. I spent two weeks in Florianopolis and although I can totally see why it was voted to be the best place to live in in 2013, and despite that it’s the place where the most health conscious people of Brazil (if not South America) are concentrated, it feels like a quiet little town compared to Rio.
As soon as you set foot in Rio, you can’t help but feel that there is some unexplainable positive vibe in the air. Some energy that won’t let you sit on your bum, but will make you get up and dance, play football, do capoeira or chat up locals even if you’re exhausted. After a while you’ll become suspicious though, as you don’t see any old people and start wondering whether they’ve all been locked up in a cellar somewhere or died. It’s probably neither, but the population of Brazil is simply so young that, especially coming from Europe, it makes you wonder.
I was in Rio after the carnival and before the World Cup, which I didn’t mind as this way I got a picture of the real thing. I stayed in a pacified favela (a slum cleansed of guns and gangsters) in Santa Tereza, which is like a little town inside of Rio, nothing like the rest of the city. Right next to Santa Teresa, there was a street in the Lapa neighborhood that made me feel like it was carnival. In Europe and the US you get used to seeing long queues of people trying to get into clubs at night. Brazilians don’t bother with that, they just dance in the street. I didn’t want to believe that there was no special reason for all those people to be dancing in the street, but apparently that’s what happens pretty much every weekend in Lapa.
I felt sorry for the Brazilian football team for getting the living shit beaten out of them in front of all the fans who went there anticipating victory and celebration. But I’m not worried. Brazil is a strong, capable and resourceful nation and football is what they do for fun. They’ll come back.
I’ve written about my experience of Costa Rica in length earlier so I’ll only mention a few key words here.
- Incredibly friendly
- Super happy
- Very poor
- Stunningly beautiful
- Anything can happen
I’ve only got to North Mexico, which is very different from the South so I don’t really have the full picture. One thing I definitely learnt here in Chihuahua is that summer in Hungary is not nearly as hot as I thought it was. It’s actually pretty bearable compared to the desert climate of this part of Mexico.
I’ve seen the Grand Canyon of Mexico, the Copper Canyon, and had a little adventure there. My friend and I were going to do a 5-6 km hike and then take the cable car on the way back. Piece of cake. Only, by the time we got there, it was too late. We had to walk all the way back. The distance was not a big deal, but the 2000+ meters elevation, the blazing sun and 40+ Celsius degrees made it that. Luckily, we could refill our water bottles, but only had an apple to share for food. Utterly exhausted, dehydrated, sun burned and hungry as a pack of wolves, we made it back just as the sun was setting. Cable cars are boring :)
What amazed me is that not many, but some people actually lived in these remote places. They looked like farmers, although I’m not sure what they lived on as nothing much grew there apart from a few trees, bushes and cactuses.
One thing I really didn’t expect to happen in Mexico, and that never happened in any other country, was local people’s reaction to my running topless. I’ve done that pretty much all over South America and while I always got many admiring/disapproving looks, the only place people booed at me was Mexico. It wasn’t just an isolated incident either. People, literally one after another, whistled at me and shouted stuff I kind of guessed the meaning of. Not only that, but at one point, the police stopped me and told me to put my top on leaving no room for misunderstanding.
I guess the lesson here is that every culture has their own sensitivities that make them tick (Perhaps Mexicans once got slaughtered by an army of topless fighters, how knows?) and you’d better respect that.
I’ll be honest, if there was one country I had prejudices against, it was the US. Most of what’s wrong with the world comes from there (alongside with a lot of what’s good admittedly) and because most Americans I knew shouted instead of talking. And yet, I loved every minute of my stay in the states.
The contrast coming from South America was striking. A few of my initial impressions upon arriving in San Francisco:
- Way more wealth, and yet way more homeless and mentally disturbed people in the streets than anywhere in South America.
- People walk around wearing a shield.
- Most people seem to be somewhat paranoid.
- Everything must be planned well in advance, there is little room for spontaneity.
- Chicken tastes like fat.
- Only bums smoke.
- People make huge efforts to look good, but often end up looking like clowns.
- Everyone radiates self confidence.
- Products and services are of superb quality.
- Groceries, clothing and transportation are ridiculously cheap. Everything else is expensive.
I won’t go into details of my 2000 mile motorbike trip from San Francisco, to Las Vegas, Grand Canyon, Lake Tahoe and back to SF, because it’d fill a small book. Let it suffice that riding alongside the coast, through the hills of California, the deserts of Nevada and Arizona and through Yosemite National Park was the trip of a life time and I’m in love with the American countryside and its diversity.
Diversity is the word that New York conjures up in my mind. Inside the same subway wagon, you’ll see people of so many different origins that you’d only see on a trip around the world otherwise. This diversity definitely seems to be improving the gene pool as far as I could tell. New Yorkers seemed to be the prettiest bunch I’ve seen, and that’s not just because their passion for make-up and fashion.
For a minute or two, I once felt that all this talent and creativity was going to waste as part of a never ending cycle of production and consumption. Work and shop, eat and shit and never stop. All this in a very efficient manner too. And the void inside just keeps growing, because people don’t realize that all the products they consume satisfy their fundamental needs, but don’t even touch their higher level needs for meaning, connection, purpose and fulfillment. But then I exited the shopping mall and my crazy thoughts dispersed in the blink of an eye.
Growing up in Central-Eastern Europe in a post communist society, the “sorry to be alive and taking up your space” attitude definitely infected me to some extent along with my entire generation. That’s why the self confident, can-do attitude, the “I know what I want, I deserve it, and I’m gonna get it” mentality of Americans was so refreshing to see. I and most Hungarians could easily benefit from a hint of that.
I’ve only been to the airport to catch a connection in Iceland, but the little I’ve seen makes me want to go back very soon.
I shouldn’t really include the UK here as it was not a place I’d never been to before unlike the rest of the countries. But I am, because I’ve gone to Bath, a place I hadn’t been to before, and because the UK makes an interesting final destination before coming home to compare with all the other places.
Bath is surprisingly nice. It is very similar to Las Vegas in a sense that it feels like a scene out of a cartoon. Only Vegas is like a phony cartoon, while Bath is like a classical. It’s a much smaller place than I thought. I couldn’t run in one direction for more than 15 minutes without crossing the town borders. For such a small place, the amount of green areas it has is exceptional. My friend showed me around town and told me the story of Walcot street, the artisan quarter. It was going to be demolished, along with hundreds of Georgian houses, and a highway leading to a tunnel was going to be built in its place. What eventually stopped the local council’s running amok was a book, The Sack of Bath, written by Adam Fergusson and the public uproar it generated. A great example for the Argentinean spirit at work in Europe.
That’s where the similarities between South America and the UK end though. My friend asked me whether I could imagine settling down in the UK, which was a sensible question knowing that I’d already lived there for two years in the past. The UK felt much like the US in many ways with some significant differences. The UK lacks the American daredevilry. And the space, and natural resources. It’s no surprise really. With so many people crammed in such a small space, there is no room for being bold and different. Everyone observes the rules or the system breaks down. I get this feeling pretty much everywhere in Western Europe, it’s not unique to the UK actually.
While South America is chaotic in many ways, western Europe is the other extreme. Hungary feels just about right. For now.
A few more things I realized on the way:
You can stay fit and healthy even while traveling.
I need a change of environment every now and then to stay sharp. Everyone does.
Life starts where your comfort zone ends.
By visiting foreign places, you get to appreciate your own culture and home land more.
Generosity has nothing to do with wealth.