The Good, the Bad and the UglyAugust 15, 2017 in New Zealand
That's a wrap.
What a journey! This last post is from the comfort of home and I cannot describe the joys of familiar faces, comfy beds, hot showers and all the other homely comforts we take for granted. I couldn't leave you all without a conclusion as I would have been heavily marked down by my critics so here it is, appropriately broken down into the good, the bad and the oh so ugly.
At a macro level, learning a new language has got to be one of the best parts of the trip. I think we were only a few countries short of visiting every Spanish speaking country in the Americas and filled in those gaps by conversing with actual lisping Spaniards and numerous second-language spanish speakers. A convenient run of unplanned lingual consistency facilitated and encouraged our education and it was highly rewarding to put the effort into learning a second language. Whether or not it will stick is a different story... It was, however, a two sided coin and our frustration at the slowness of our learning and frequent incomprehension was never far from the surface. Oh how we wished to forget the phrase "no entiendo".
Food, in general, was a mixed bag but we definitely had some memorable meals amongst the numerous ones we'd love to forget. Tacos in Tulum and lamb in Puerto Natales make the top two but there was plenty more to rave about. Fruit, juices and smoothies are amazing in variety and freshness, and also outrageously cheap. Wine in Chile and Argentina was a huge hit, beer in Canada was substantially diverse and, as you would imagine, the rum in the Caribbean was disgustingly cheap (if I recall correctly a bottle of Old Nick's bottomed out at $3.95 and Havana Club in Havana was about the same). My bond with Wholefoods in the States and Canada now rivals that with KFC which is saying a lot, trust me. The likes of llama and guinea pig certainly stretched the palate and strengthened our appreciation for homely flavours.
The liveliness of the streets was unforgettable. Stressful on foot but entertaining by car, the things we saw, heard, smelt or felt were, at times, baffling. From whole cow heads, to overflowing fruit stalls, dried llama fetuses to marriage powder, live lambs and dead dogs, and all kinds of dance, song and lectures. The street also housed workshops, families, six year old salespeople and the very, very drunk (especially on public holidays). For them, the street is far from a transport corridor and more often than not a rent and tax free plot for their entrepreneurial use. Their business relations are (almost) always candid and amicable and their smiling faces are nothing but contagious. Life without emails looks delightfully uncomplicated!
That brings me to the people. They are invariably happy, cheery and friendly and often a pleasure to be around. You will catch them on occasion with a resting grump face but it's not difficult to cheer them up with a simple "Holà", on the whole. Friendly faces in foreign countries are worth their weight in gold, provided of course that it's genuine and they're not just after your money!
Our time in the Caribbean really stressed to us just how good it is to travel by private boat. Having your bed, your kitchen, your garage, bathroom and car combined into one bobbing house-car is undoubtedly the best way to travel through an endless playground. We missed it on every bus we took.
Of course, 'the good' wouldn't be complete without praise for the very affordable cost of living. Obviously this is a two sided coin but there aren't many places you can travel for six months on less than $13k. Dollar beers, three dollar wines and on occasion, dinner for $1.50 make for some joyous moments in what can often be quite tiring days. Returning to $3.50 avocados is certainly a shock, but also makes me all the more glad I capitalised on them at twenty cents a pop!
Travelling for longer than a season can get tricky at times. You can't see all the countries at the right time of year and, as a result, we often found ourselves visiting in the off-season. Torres del Paine was exhibit A, crushing us with six days of rain and setting a precedent for Patagonia in which we were plagued by bad weather. Atacama and the Bolivian Altiplano also had heavy snowfall which prevented us seeing some of the highlights which we had expected to see. In a stroke of irony, the same season had too little rainfall to flood the salar preventing us from witnessing such wonder, albeit as incredible as it was. I really shouldn't complain, we hardly saw rain for three months in Central America.
Travelling by bus isn't horrible. In fact, it was often very interesting and sometimes even relaxing. Travelling by bus every third day for six months, however, is. The standard of road goes without saying and our skinny bums are now all the more appreciative of the black top and working suspension our great countries have to offer. You've heard the rants, enough said.
Unlike much of Europe and North America, our appearance was undiguisably touristic. It was impossible to blend in and given our blatant lack of Spanish we were condemned to the tourist stereotype all too often. This meant we were hustled, charged extra (the gringo tax) and offered taxis at an infinitely higher rate. It also meant we often felt like we were being ripped off (whether we were or not). Thankfully it was cheap enough not to make us fret too much.
Continuing with the bad, rice was the silent killer which almost reduced us to tears. It was predominantly the repetition of rice that had us opting to go hungry in the end. The frequent lack of sauce to mix with it was the real killer and now, accordingly, I am on my first ever diet: rice free. Hopefully it's just a fad 'cause that stuff is cheap here too and I'm (still) on a budget.
The final 'bad' goes out to the showers, on Cat's behalf. Our last day in Cusco brought Cat to tears with her third cold-shower-that-was-meant-to-be-hot in a row. It was just over ten degrees outside and the final straw in a trip plagued by cold, dirty, or waterless showers. You have no idea how good it is to have reliably hot showers and we'll apologise here and now for Grant's impending water and gas bill. Sorry dad.
Tourists are ugly. As a very broad generalisation, we are. We offer next to nothing to improve the places we visit and knowingly or not we do nothing but contribute to their destruction in so many different ways. From litter to erosion, enormous carbon footprints to unsightly crowds and unfair distribution of wealth, we are a menace. Our precious dollar often ends up in the wrong hands and in countries throughout the Americas, the majority of these funds would be lucky to find a sustainable or selfless hand. It's a sad truth.
On the subject of unsightly tourists, nothing grinds my gears more than a hairbrush and a selfie stick. It was with disgusting frequency we witnessed the 'photo' becoming more valuable than the visit itself - people going to disgraceful efforts to get the perfect angle of their face with the wind blowing their hair the right way. In my opinion, they are a waste of space. Perhaps I am being hypocritical (as I sort through our many gigabytes of trip photos) but this is the reality of our world today. Hashtag no filter? Yeah right. We were fortunate enough to travel for long enough to realise that although it is a great opportunity to develop our photography skills, we don't need a photo of every meal, every sign, every mountain or every lake. The time is much better spent talking to the guide, conversing with the locals and using your visit to learn and understand.
In many countries in Central and South America, tourism is their leading industry. Cusco was by far the most obvious example of the value of the foriegn income. It's disappointing to realise just how far these people will go to get your money. They fluff up tours and sell you the world, promising far more than is actually delivered. Companies often won't pay their staff fairly or at all and the payment of tax is apparently optional. The people don't trust the government and do all that they can to distance themselves from their corrupt, pick pocketing fingers. Beneath the skin, many of these countries are the economic mess you would expect.
Stray dogs definitely fall into the ugly category and not always for their physical appearance. It's a continent-wide problem. Strays everywhere. Starving, ragged and probably rabid - it's sad to think of the lives they must lead and how many of them suffer an untimely demise.
Over the period of our trip I began to take an interest in sustainable living and global warming. I am by no means an advocate for either, nor do I think my footprint is small. But I'm making an effort to educate myself with the intention of being able to make better decisions, and realise their puny effect. To see these wonders disappearing before your eyes makes what was once "out of sight, out of mind", very much in your mind.
According to Chasing Coral, a Netflix documentary which I highly recommend, 50% of the world's coral reefs are dead. By 2050 that number is estimated to rise to 90% by which stage I assume they will fail to provide a significant role in the ocean's ecosystems. You probably won't notice. Not unless you frequent the warm oceans where these grow and dive the reefs that once were. In fact, the only thing you'll notice is that the price of fish in the supermarket has escalated, and that they're still giving it to you in three plastic bags. Meanwhile, across the ocean where families can't pay $7 for a fillet of snapper, thousands will starve. We don't see the problem because it's not here. Our waters are blue, our rubbish disappears and we recycle our bottles. Does that mean we've done our job? Perhaps. Maybe we're so small it doesn't matter either way. But perhaps there's more. Perhaps we can help with technology, with awareness or with opportunities.
Glacial retreat, too, is a hot topic and a problem that's rapidly disappearing. I don't see the problem myself, but I'm not going to look back in a decade or two and say 'oh woops, I had no idea'. My words might bore but feel free to replace your weekly read with a weekly doco. Chasing Coral, Chasing Ice, Pump, Blood on the Mountain, An Inconvenient Truth, An Inconvenient Sequel and Before the Flood are all quite alarming advocates' opinions on the state of our planet. Do watch.
On that grim note, this is over and out. I trust if you're reading this you'll have found some enjoyment in my recordings of our travels. Hopefully some of you will do the same for the rest of us and keep on agitating that itch in our feet. On behalf of all of us with no house and plenty of stories, it's money well spent. What are you waiting for?Read more