Saturday, November 16, 2013

One Year in South America


A year ago yesterday I arrived in South America—scared, pale, and clueless. And now, as a seasoned South American traveler—with worn-out boots, steady tan, and halting Spanish—I have less than one week left on this continent. It’s been quite the journey. I’ll take this morning to reflect, as I swig some coffee in a hostel in Bucaramanga and wait for my money transfer from Ecuador to come through (kinda stuck here until then).
Thinking back, I don’t know how I got along with only a week or two of Spanish classes under my belt and no sense of direction. When I meet foreigners now who don’t speak Spanish I feel like I have to lead them around by the arm and constantly explain things to them:
Yes, traffic in South America is simply like this—you have to learn to dodge it is all. Get used to it. Yes, yes, the fruit is very exciting! Everything is so cheap! The tap water isn’t always drinkable, but don’t be so paranoid about it. You will get parasites or some form of weird stomach problems regardless. And when you have the runs, for the love of Pete don’t flush that toilet paper. Kiss people, greet everyone, play with the kids. Just try to speak Spanish, even if it sucks and their English is good.
I feel like I’m totally adjusted to life here. Of course there are a few differences between Colombia and Ecuador and Peru, but not so many. I’ve gotten to the point where picking up local slang or just understanding different accents isn’t terribly difficult. I can adjust. I can almost always understand what people are saying and I can communicate what I need to—I make lots of mistakes and probably word things awkwardly, but I can get my point across, usually. Most importantly, I’ve lost that sort of uncomfortable feeling that I had for my first 1-6 months—that lack of confidence and hesitancy to speak—and I’m completely comfortable chatting with people, if that’s what I feel like doing.
More than that, I’ve adjusted to the pace of life here, the way of life. I walk slower now; I barter with people about most things; I eat a big lunch and skip dinner; I consider anything under 10 degrees C (50 degrees F?) to be freezing cold; I think people who don’t greet me (with a kiss) are seriously rude; I like reggaeton and salsa (can’t dance it though) and I’ve started putting picante or aji (hot sauce) on everything. I’m always unaware of the time, although I haven’t lost my Western sense of punctuality completely—I’m still usually only 10 minutes late.  
Going back to comparisons between Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, I’d say that Colombia seems like it’d be the nicest place to live in a city (still stuck on Medellin), but in small towns I think it’s a three-way tie. The people are more welcoming of foreigners and tourists in Colombia because for a long time no one came here (crime, war, drugs), whereas that’s only the case in small towns in Ecuador and Peru. In fact, I think Peru is the most touristy and has the most aggressive salespeople. Ecuador has the Galapagos and Peru has Machu Picchu and I guess they get a little jaded about all of the loud gringos. Although Colombia has a lot as well, with the Caribbean coast and the Ciudad Perdida (lost city) ruins, so I don’t know. I think it’s mostly an urban versus rural thing to be honest. People in the countryside are just more trusting and more giving in general. But so many people are eager to share their culture and learn about mine, even when they’ve seen how horribly a lot of Americans and Europeans behave here, how our governments and people have contributed to the drug problems, which bring so much violence and poverty.
Anyway, they are all beautiful countries with so much to see and do, but Ecuador has a permanent piece of my medium-sized, American heart (I stole that from a song by the National). I got excited when there were Ecuadorians in Bogota because I understood them and felt some weird connection. Peru and Colombia will never mean so much to me. I’ve had to struggle a lot with certain things about Ecuador—the crime in Quito, shady business deals, a certain inauthenticity and sometimes apathy that I found in people, and such ardent nationalism. But I’ve learned to love so many things as well and I’ve been reassured by the kindness of strangers everywhere. Ecuadorians giving me a free ride when the bus was full, inviting me into their homes without knowing anything about me. Cab drivers who were so concerned for my safety that they insisted on backing up down a one-way street just to be sure to deliver me directly to my doorstep. A Peruvian taxi driver who, upon realizing I’d left my backpack in his cab—with my passport, wallet, debit card, etc.—found my phone and called my friends to arrange a time and place to come and drop it off (nearly an hour away). A Colombian woman who, when I asked for help finding a certain address, spent over half an hour walking around with me and ended up calling my couchsurfing friend to find the correct apartment.
And now, to be leaving this continent for what may be a very long time, if not forever, feels very strange. Of course I’m excited to see my family and friends again, to eat copious amounts of peanut butter and drink microbrews everyday, but I’m scared about losing my Spanish, about finding a job and a phone and place to live; about readjusting to the speed of everyday life there, even in the dead of a north Idaho winter—which will be another shock.
Still, I’m sure I’ll be fine. I made it in Quito when I was down to my last $40 and had $20 stolen from me, when I was working 60 hours a week at the hostel and at a language institute that I hated, when I could barely understand Spanish. I made it—thanks to everyone who supported me financially, morally, physically, etc. This kid on the run could not have done it without all of you, so thanks. 
Here’s to another five days in South America and a jolly return to the States.
Also, here are a couple pictures from a rock overlooking Guatape--a small town near Medellin surrounded by a beautiful lake.
The view.
With my friend Jess from New Zealand.
Just stretching on top. 
And a pimped-out mototaxi along the colorful streets of Guatape. 





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