A Year in South America


Brian and Debbie don their back-packs and pretend they are young – a year in South America.

Intrepid travellers from way back, my husband and I, at 53 years old, found ourselves rattling around in our huge empty nest, encumbered by possessions, job security, and misguided ideas that our adult children still needed us. We were feeling a tiny bit ‘old and achy’.
It had been a long journey since we’d first bumped back-packs in Europe in 1980. Four children and 30 years later, we had lost our ‘Mojo’ so, we took a year off from our teaching jobs and armed with our freshly gleaned Lonely Planet Guide, fledgling Spanish, overly-heavy back-packs, and traveller’s medical kit (thanks Dr. Julie Bourke); we landed in Buenos Aires just after Christmas 2009.

And thus began the adventure of our mid-lifetime! We had scribbled a loop clockwise around the continent, including all 13 countries with side trips to Antarctica, Easter Island, Galapagos and Cuba allowing roughly a month in each of the big countries and highlighting a few “must-sees” like Macho Picchu and Iguaçu Falls.

For us all the fun of travelling has always been, getting down and dirty and mixing it with the locals in their everyday lives – catching local transport, sleeping in hostels and cheap hotels, and eating in the local food-stalls.
This kind of rough travelling is not for every ‘oldie’. It was tough and not without its dangers!

At first it was hard to sleep in public – in strange beds. I’m not sure if modern unisex dormitories and bathrooms represent progress?

Sleeping soon became a non-issue as we toughened up. Pounding the pavements for hours every day, trekking up and down mountains, cycling and horse-riding made us so tired, we could sleep on a stone!

Wherever possible we caught local transport, from the world-class buses of Argentina and Brazil with airline-like service – to the bone-rattlers of Bolivia and Ecuador, jam packed with people, produce and peddlers- selling everything from hot food to God (evangelists), as the drivers careened down the mountains, at break-neck speed with one hand on the wheel, the other on their mobile phones.

Dealing with endless dysfunctional and often dirty toilets, or simply trying to find one at all was a daily challenge!

We learned to eat all manner of meat/ chicken and potatoes. Apart from the excellent ‘barbeque bife’ in Argentina and the odd spicy local delicacy like empanadas the food is … well … boring. People are poor and eat basic fare.Probably the biggest disappointment in a continent that produces some of the world’s best coffee is that incredibly, they mostly drink instant Nescafe!Life at the rough end of the travel spectrum, involves hassles at border crossings, and inevitably being robbed. Not many people can survive a year in South America without being relieved of some of their goods! We both lost our mini back-packs on separate occasions, cried with outrage …  and got over it. No one can be vigilant 24/7.

But life at the rough end is where all the fun is! We work on the premise, that people are basically good and that a smile goes a long way.

The only regret I have about being Australian is how dumb we are with other languages. Listening to Europeans slip in and out of 5 lingos in a conversation has always filled me with shame and envy.Fumbling along in our basic Spanish, we decided to home-stay in Sucre, Bolivia and attend language school for 2 weeks. After that, we ‘upped the ante’ and persevered till our heads ached.

Then one magic day, we realized we had passed through a barrier and could understand a great deal of what was being said around us. I can not explain what a thrill that was! Speaking the lingo takes the ‘tourist’ stigma away and opens so many doors to experience the hospitality and kindness of the wonderful local people.
Although border crossings and late night bus travel can be scary, we were rarely frightened, except when we were caught in 2 natural disasters.
Firstly the earthquake in Chile, ‘shook us to the bone’. We were in a cheap and rickety old hotel in Valparaiso, asleep, when the whole building began to shake….. then rock….. and then belt the furniture from one side to the other! The plaster ceiling showered down on us and the walls cracked from top to bottom. We eventually made a run for it down the swaying cracking stair-cases to the square outside. The after-shocks went on for days. Towns went into lock-down and looters and armed guards controlled the streets. Brian had his day pack stolen. Scary stuff!

We now have a new understanding as we watch news coverage of those kinds of events.The 2nd time we thought our number was up was when we were trekking to ‘the lost city’ in the Columbian jungle. A huge mudslide engulfed the dodgy-built bunk-house, where we were resting after lunch. I swear I broke the world land- speed record as I leapt up over boulders and up the ridge as the whole mountain came down! I couldn’t find Brian! He had run the other way!The local guides frantically started digging in case someone was trapped underneath. Miraculously everyone had escaped! Many in our group lost everything. It was a long muddy 3-day trek back to civilization in shared clothes and various improvised footwear held on by gaffer tape! We still keep in contact with the 17 magnificent people on that trek (from 14 countries). We developed a wonderful camaraderie and respect through that shared hardship. Humour abounded as we hugged each other in the nightly soggy giant ‘spoon’ to keep warm.

As for illness, we picked up a couple of tummy bugs, suffered from mild altitude sickness several times and Brian had the horror of discovering a hook worm winding its way under the skin on his little toes! Teach him to walk around bare-footed!

South America has it all:- trekking in the awesome Andes; battling the wild winds of Patagonia; marching Incan trails to Machu Picchu; discovering Columbia’s lost city; sweating it out in the Amazonian jungles of 5 countries; catching and eating piranha (before they eat you!); chugging up the Mighty Amazon itself in Brazil on a supply boat; the seductive music and rhythm of the Latino Salsa and Tango; the enduring Catholicism, cathedrals and cobble stones of the great Spanish Conquistadores; the ingenuity of the Incas; the white wonderland that is Antarctica; the quirky culture of Cuba (a society cut off from the real world); the amazing animals of Galapagos; enigmatic Easter Island; the boisterous Bolivian markets; the surrealism of the high altitude salt plains of the Atacama Desert; the sexy culture of iconic Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janero … I could go on and on …

We left old and achy feeling like the best years of our lives were over and returned, a year later, feeling young and invincible! We can do anything!

Next stop – Africa!

… Prepared by Debbie Mann Yeppoon State High School, Queensland

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