Night eruption of the volcano in Banos, Ecuador
This is finally the end. After traveling some 17,500 miles I have finally come full circle and reached the exact point where I started from some 8 months ago. Beginning in Panama I traversed every country in South America, except for Suriname and French Guyana, all via overland transportation. During the 983 hours that it took to cross these 24 borders I watched much of the landscapes and cities of the various countries roll by from the windows of buses, boats, trains, cars, trucks, motorcylces, and bicycles. I traveled nearly the entire stretch of the Andes from Colombia to Chile. I watched how the people had shaped the landscapes through irrigation and terraced farming, and I watched how the landscapes shaped the people in the harsh environments of the Atacama desert and the Altiplano of Bolivia.
Macho Picchu and the road up from Aguas Caliente, Peru
I´ve been in some of the more remote areas of the continent and seen the stunning majestic beauty of the uncivilized terrain but I´ve also seen traffic and garbage choked streets of Caracas and the smog hovering around Santiago.
Over the course of my trip I have met people from 45 different countries, 46 if you consider Greenland separately from Denmark. I have managed to learn Spanish, at least to the point where I can have conversations with people, but I have also heard dozens of other languages, including the indigenous languages such as quechua, ayamara, guarani, and pemon. The people that I have met over the course of my trip have been every bit as much of the attraction as the natural environment, and in some cases more. I have seen homeless people drink from puddles and eating from the trash, yet I´ve also seen people driving Ferraris and Lamborghinis, and everywhere in between.
Reflection of snow covered volcano in the highest lake in the world, Parque Nacional Lauca, Chile
Through talking with the people I´ve learned more about the countries than I could have ever learned from reading the papers or watching the news. Through them I grasped the general feeling inside the countries, the shifting of politics and attitudes, but most of all the fact that regardless of where they are from, people are people with the same goals, aspirations, and desires.
I did notice throughout my trip, and I don´t think it´s a secret, that, at least at the moment, the government of the United States is not well liked. But no matter where I was, I was surprised to find out how many people were following the events that were unfolding in the Democratic primary (obviously not the Republican one). Whether I was crossing remote borders like that between Paraguay and Bolivia or at the end of the Americas in Puerto Williams, Chile, I was asked countless times what I thought about the election and who I wanted to win.
The best sunset ever, Puente del Inca, Argentina
For the most part the people held no malice towards a government that they grossly disagreed with, and a government that has made it virtually impossible for all but a few of them to actually get visas to travel to the US. They were largely interested in a change and they too have a vested interest in closer bonds with the US and an improvement in the American economy as well. But as unpopular as the US may be politically, American culture is all the rave, infiltrating every aspect of modern society and creating a trend in and of itself. Ironically, among the countries this is the most prevalent in Venezuela, the country with the poorest relations with the US, oil sales aside.
As I finished my trip in Colombia I came back to yet another big topic in South America, drugs.
Sunrise at the Jesuit ruins at San Ignacio, Argentina
Between Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru the three countries supply some 80% of the world´s cocaine. My first time in Colombia I saw firsthand how cocaine is made and I met farmers who actually grow coca. I saw it for sale dirt cheap on the steets from Cartagena to Cusco to La Paz, at only a few dollars a gram. In the San Pedro prison in La Paz I met several people in prison for drug trafficking, and in fact they make cocaine inside the prison itself. In Bolivia, where the indigenous culture and harsh environment of the altiplano go hand in hand with continuous chewing of coca leaves, coca fields have again been legalized by Evo Morales. To combat the root of such a global problem the United States gave Colombia three quarters of a billion dollars in 2005, seemingly a good start.
A rainbow in front of the Devil´s Throat as seen from Foz do Iguacu, Brazil
But in remote areas plagued by guerrilla warfare it is easier said than done to get rid of the coca plantations. For being so committed to curbing this problem I was appalled at the lack of security at these borders that I have crossed which are known drug trafficking routes. Most of these borders are just open borders with no controls at all. In fact, on the Colombia-Ecuador border there simply a sign that says please don´t traffic drugs, and from Brazil to Guyana, a major stop on the transshipment of cocaine from South America to Europe, there isn´t even that!
Being developing countries there is the unrelenting impression of continuous development or lack of development, depending on the country. The countries of South America run the full range of the spectrum from mining wealth and modernity of Chile to the self-sufficient agriculture non-monetary lives of the people of rural Bolivia or Peru.
A lone flamingo in the red waters of Laguna Colorado, Bolivia
But the main thing that jumps out at you is how most buildings look like they are in some state of incompletion, whether that means they are still under construction, being repaired, or have been abandonded; in many cases it is genuinely hard to tell which, but depending on the country you can make an educated guess as to which is which. The interest is in the contrast between neighboring countries. Crossing the border between Peru and Chile was much the same as crossing from the US to Mexico, likewise between Bolivia and Brazil.
Just as my experiences traveling have been more than I could have hoped for, this very journal has expanded far beyond any implications I had for it at the beginning. So far it has been viewed over 16,000 times, no doubt half of those have been by my parents, but even still, I am nonetheless impressed.
Sunrise on the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
The scale of it has grown considerably as well, with some 73,000 words, I think it has maybe even surpassed the length of my PhD thesis, but believe me, this was certainly more interesting to write. I hope that for lack of a means to see the things that I have seen firsthand that this journal of my travel experiences will be a poor man´s substitute and allow others to get a taste of what I have seen, and maybe even inspire some to travel there on their own. When I set out on this trip I had the general idea of going around the continent but was never sure if I would actually make it, or what route I would even take. Eight months and a lifetime of experiences later I have the answers. As I outlined in my last entry, I have seen some truly amazing things, but just as much as I have seen, I have now realized how much more there is to see.
Me with a small anaconda in the Bolivian pampas
That is one of the downsides to traveling, it opens doors that you never even knew existed, that and the fact that when you are traveling you are always leaving something behind. But those negatives are certainly counteracted by what you gain by traveling. You learn about people and of the social aspects of living in a foreign environment, you learn languages and cultures, if traveling alone you learn to depend on yourself and yourself alone. In these last eight months I have learned just as much as I did during my years in graduate school, but it is a different type of knowledge, and in my opinion every bit as useful, and in some cases more so.
As I return home to country and a culture that I have grown up with, I am decidedly unsure as to what to expect.
Looking at the shear cliff of Mount Roraima, Venezuela
There are definitely things that I have missed and definitely some things that I will miss. Over the last eight months I have grown accustomed to the new foods, cultures, and customs of the countries down here in South America. While many things are similar enough, others are totally foreign. And while I have learned enough Spanish to get by and understand if not everything, at least the gist of things, perhaps what I am most looking forward to is to just going home, to a place and a culture that I know, to a familiar place where I don´t feel like a foreigner. Despite the parallels between American society and those of the South American countries, I feel that the differences are marked and as I return home jobless and begin to start a new life with a new job in a new location I´ll come face to face with those differences. From my time here in South America I feel that the cultures here are much more family oriented and the working environment much less cut-throat and competitive. But in many ways I have been gone so long and am now looking at things from a different perspective that it´s hard to tell if my impressions are truly accurate.
I have heard some people say that traveling for such extended periods of time changes you. I know that at least physically that´s true, having grown my hair for five months and then cut it, and having lost a good amount of weight from the absence of visits to the gym. But other than that it is hard to say since you can´t actually ascertain wheteher you´ve changed because you can´t look at yourself from an unbiased and independent point of view. For that answer I´ll have to wait for the judgement of others after I return home. But at least for me, it seems logical that you can´t live a completely different life with a completely different lifestyle in totally foreign countries without that changing you in some way or another. At the very least I have returned a more diverse persons with broadened horizons and a better understanding of a continent I had only previoulsy read about in books and magazines. And having seen what so many other people expect and get out of life, perhaps I have a better understanding of my own expectations for it and what I should be looking for; an invaluable lesson as I return home to contemplate a new life and career. But as I am on the verge of yet another new beginning, I can´t help but keep one eye on the future and think about where my next travels will take me, and when that will be.
Thanks for reading and until next time,