Unlike their homogenous neighbors to the north, the countries of South America have vastly different cultures, languages, and histories from both their indigenous and colonial pasts. To visit a few countries and come back making generalizations about South American culture would be both disrespectful and inaccurate. But I wouldn’t be an American (ha, ha) if I didn’t do exactly that, now would I? I’ll stick to a broad, unifying theme — nothing too offensive and appropriately vague.
That theme is a Spanish phrase that I first heard from a hostel owner in Ecuador: “todo es posible, nada es seguro.” It means, more or less: “Everything is possible, nothing is certain.”
I’ve been to Ecuador three times. It’s painless — they use the US dollar, speak easy-to-understand Spanish, and conveniently enough, there’s a whole rolodex of cab drivers with pickup trucks who know exactly where all the whitewater rivers are. As far as international kayaking destinations go, Ecuador “es seguro” to be a good time
Other things about Ecuador are a little less certain.
For example. If you spent New Year’s Eve in Baeza, Ecuador, es posible that you might end up in drag on a street corner with a bunch of other gringos. It’s also possible that the locals who dosed you with “tequila” and convinced you this was tradition will be there laughing at you. In fact, it’s entirely possible that one of them might be the mayor of town. And that being forced to drink tequila by the mayor is not limited to New Year’s, but happens every time you run into said civil authority.
Unfortunately for you, it’s also possible that what the mayor calls “tequila” comes in a giant bottle (like, early teenager-sized) filled with floating seahorses. And because the mayor is gregarious and his wife runs the restaurant where you eat all your meals, you might encounter his tequila bottle with headache-inducing frequency. To make matters worse, the English-speaking hostel owner across the street might have his own brand of “tequila” — yes, with a few seahorses — that leaves your throat too hoarse to talk.
Let’s hypothesize, for fun, that it’s your birthday. The very same hooch-hocking kayak-renting hostel owner might throw you a party. If that happened, it’s quite likely that he would bring you to his farm to slaughter a calf for said party. Todo es posible en Baeza.
Peru. Peru is a magical place. From the ceviche and the surf to the high mountains of the Cordillera Blanca to the jungles of the Amazon, its possibilities are endless. And you can generally expect things to work out pretty smoothly. Just not on schedule, necessarily, and not the way you expect them to.
Say, for argument’s sake, that you’re in Peru participating in a two-part 30-day expedition down a major tributary of the Amazon. You might see an illegal gold mine on the side of the river. If you happen to be filming a documentary, you might beach the rafts and head over for some footage. Getting the shot, and so on. Well, if you did that, you might introduce yourself to a couple of armed guards in front of the mine. They — rightfully, given the circumstances — might be pretty skeptical of you. But this is Peru. It’s possible that if you explain who you are and why you’re there, they’ll turn their frowns upside-down and offer you a tour of the mine, explaining the inner workings of their operation. They might tell you about how they send loads of gold out to the nearest city on random days, and use three different routes each time — only one of them actually carrying gold — to avoid hijackers getting the stash. Of course, if that happened to you, they’d probably ask you not to tell anyone…
It’s also possible that in the middle of the same river trip, you’ll take a break to resupply and find yourself in a coastal town called Huanchaco. Huanchaco might be the kind of place where your favorite restaurant is called “Menuland” and the off-season surf lessons are very cheap…but it might also be the kind of place where your off-season surf lesson involves a Peruvian man yelling, “Más fuerte en sus brazos!” (“more strength in your arms”) when you can’t catch the wave…
Say you’re back on the river trip after your relaxing trip to Menuland, judgmental surf instructor a thing of the past. You might find yourself in a village three days walk from the nearest road giving a presentation about the negative impacts of large-scale hydro development and how “los sedimentos” (and related issues) will affect the subsistence lifestyle of those living in the river corridor. Normal river trip stuff. Well, it’s possible that the locals — many of whom walked hours to see this presentation — might suspect (unfortunately with good reason based on their past experiences) that you’re secretly employees of the hydropower company and you’re there to trick them into signing away their land. If they suspected that, they would be pretty unhappy, and it’s possible that there would be a discussion amongst the elders about holding your whole group hostage. Lucky for you, it’s also possible that the level-headed school teacher of the community will talk down the more antagonistic elements and allow your party to finish its presentation and move on down the river.
If you were to try other forms of travel within Peru, you’d definitely get where you’re going…but it might be harder to get back. For example. You might book a flight from Cusco back to Lima after visiting Machu Picchu. Your flight might be delayed a few hours. Not really out of the ordinary these days (“back in my day,” grumble grumble). But then you might find yourself “boarded” onto the jetway, thinking — along with the rest of the passengers — “Oh good, we’ll get to Lima tonight and make our connection back to North America tomorrow.” Unfortunately, one of your fellow passengers might look out the window and notice that they’re putting covers on the engines…and then the pilot himself might enter the jetway going the other direction and say, “No, of course we’re not flying tonight.” Impressively enough, it’s even possible that the airline would put you up in a hotel that night and request that you be back at the airport no later than 5AM…only to have no airline staff arrive until 6:30AM. Nada es seguro.
Of the South American countries I’ve visited, Chile is the most similar to the United States. Nicely paved highways, rest stops, gas stations that serve hot dogs.
But about those gas station hot dogs… They might actually be “completos” –, a hot dog with a few toppings that’s been slathered in “mayonesa” — and I don’t mean “slathered” like one might put a bit of mustard or ketchup on their dog. Slathered to the point that there’s more mayo than anything else. And, it’s possible that the alternative gas station food options are empanadas — a baked pastry with a variety of fillings that usually include an egg and a whole olive, complete with pit — teeth beware. In fact, it’s possible that empanadas are so prevalent that a group of kayakers might produce an homage to an old movie — Dashboard Burrito — called Dashboard Empanada. I think Dashboard Completo would be a bit more unpredictable.
It’s possible that you might find yourself driving along on Chile’s nicely paved roads, winding your way through the mountains en route to Argentina. And that a there’s a 25 kilometer “no-man’s land” where you’re neither in Chile, nor Argentina. And that no-man’s land might be completely covered in ash from a recent volcanic eruption. And it might be pouring rain. Say all those conditions were met. You might find a group of dirtbag kayakers (is there another word for a “group” of that kind?) walking the 25 kilometers to Argentina for the night so they could renew their Chilean visas before walking all the way back.
If you did find yourself in that situation — as the ones with the vehicle, not the ones in the pouring rain trying to walk to Argentina — then, at some point in your trip, your car may have needed an oil change. No problem, plenty of lube shops and mechanics in Chile. You might try a particularly large one, in a good-sized city, that advertised oil changes with a big billboard. But…it’s possible they’d tell you no. Despite it being business hours, and them in the business of oil changes, they might tell you to go elsewhere. And you might go to place after place, eventually ending up at an auto parts store. They might offer to change your oil, and they might even have oil. But they might — apparently — not have an oil pan, so they might ask you to go down the street to their other mechanic friend to borrow an oil pan.
So, what can I say? South America. Todo es posible. Nada es seguro.