Well it’s been a while since I´ve written a blog, not because I haven’t had anything to write about more because I was too busy doing them than writing about it! But as the end is approaching I feel, as head of communications committee (thanks Laura!) responsible to report on some of our latest adventures.
Our journey through South America has been the most diverse travelling I have ever done. From swings through green valleys in Ecuador, climbing mountains in Peru, walking over Salt Flats in Bolivia, watching the sky full lit up by stars in the desert in Chile, dancing Tango in Argentina, taking a boat under the Iguazu falls to standing in front of the Christ of Redeemer statue looking over the incredible city of Rio de Janeiro and reflecting on life while walking on Copacabana beach! Each country has had so much to offer and in such a different way to the last. The northern countries of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia were very rich in culture, had the most lovely helpful people and some breath taking landscape, different to anything I’ve ever seen. These countries were also noticeably ‘under developed’ or less westernised than the countries we visited next.
Chile, Argentina and Brazil were noticeably more expensive, more developed and more western. Arriving in Salt, Argentina we were in shock. It was like being in a well developed, popular European city. Fancy restaurants, Shopping malls, Ice cream parlours…. these were things we hadn’t seen yet on this trip in any of the 8 countries we had previously visited. It took a while to get used to this cosmopolitan environment which is funny as its the closest to home we have been but I felt a sense of sadness. I realised this would probably be the end of our experiences in countries that are completely different to our own. With developed cities I feel they can be quite generic which often means it is more difficult to get a sense of the country’s culture, which is one of my favourite aspects of travelling. Although the core of the culture, traditions or gerneral way of life may not be as obvious, it is not impossible to discover. The more we travelled through Argentina the more I learnt about the country. People had told us to bring us dollars to Argentina to exchange on their ´black market´. The local currency, Peso is very weak and it is impossible to get US dollars from any bank in Argintina, therefore they are highly sought after and so are going for a good rate. So we bought dollars in Chile before crossing the boarder and walked into the main square of Salta looking for some dodgy looking characters to buy Pesos from! We quickly seen it wasnt half as dodgy as we thought (I was actually looking forward to a bit of illegal excitement)! Lots of men standing around with calculators saying “cambiar, cambiar” (money exchange in Spanish!) They were in full view of the police who clearly didn’t care. The process was very easy; we haggled for the best rate then swapped our money on the street. It became clear that the weak Argentinian currency is a direct consequence of the country´s collapsed economoy. The country is in enormous international debit, resulting in huge inflation and a currency worth very little. Talking with a local I learnt this is something the government are not willing to admit as, in his opinion, they don’t want to increase wages to match the cost of living. This issue means a lot of Argentinans are living in poverty and with such a weak currency, travelling for better opportunities is often not an option. Quite a sad situation, and one we felt a bit guilty of taking advantage of. However everyone is at it, I heard lots of stories of locals taking the boat across to Uraguay or crossing the boarder to Paraguay to withdraw US dollars then exchanging them for almost double the offical rate. This all worked great for us until we left the country with too many pesos and exchanged them in Brazil for half the offical rate! It really is a currancy no one wants!
Another thing I learnt while there is that Argentinans are not afraid to have their voices heard. In all 5 destinations we visited in the country there were continuous protests for various issues. During our week in Beuons Aires we seen massive protests a few times a day! Asking locals about this activism was very interesting. Some were proud to have such a mobilised nation and believed street politics was making positive progress, others seen it as a waste of time because, in their opinion the government don’t listen and all it causes is a daily disturbance throughout the city. The office of presidency has permanent barriers to keep protesters back, they are never taken away because they are continually needed! This sparked an interest for me about people’s attitudes to the political system and revolutionaries such as Che Guevara, who was born and bread in Argentina. We visited his home town, Rosario. I was expecting museums, statues, murals etc and was surprised to see there was little to nothing in the town that would suggest the iconic revolutionary was from there. We found the house he was born in which had a little sign outside it and a mural around the corner. Talking to locals, I learnt there are mixed opinions on Che Guevara, his ideologies and his methods. Argentinans I have met in other countries have talked about him as their hero, saying they wish he had made it back to Argentina and implemented his ideologies there and maybe the country wouldn’t be in the state it’s in. When I asked people in Argentina some thought he was a terrorist and that Cuba is a failed state. The saying ´one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter´ really is true all around the world!
I found Argentina a fascinating country, looking at it on face value it looks like a wealthy and prosperous country but in reality it’s a lot more complex than that. We had a lot of fun there, visiting winerarys, dancing tango, eating steak, went to the Opera (long story!), seen one of the most bizzarely brilliant shows ever; Fuerza Bruta, and had lots of fun times! Arginitina was a very beautiful country and one I would definitly like to come back to visit, it´s huge and like many countries on this trip, I feel we just scrathed the surface. A good excuse for more trips in the future!
After visitng the amazing Iguazu falls on both the Argintinan and Brazilian side (they really are as amazing as they look in photos!) we carried on our travels through Brazil. With time ticking rapidly and Brazil being another huge country we decided to stretch the budget and trade our main means of transport, a 25 hour bus ride, for two short flights to Rio de Janerio, it was definitly worth splashing out! So full of excitement we landed in the beautiful city of Rio where we had an action packed few days. We visited the Christ of Redeemer, sat on the famous Lapa steps, seen the incredible view from Sugarloaf mountain, got toasted on Copacabana beach, partyed with the locals at a street party where we were clearly the only tourists! Just when I think I have a bit of a tan going on and could maybe pass for a local I hear, ´Welcome to Brazil´all night, damnit, not quite there yet! We also visited Brazil´s largest Favela, Rocinha. The Favelas have interested me for a few years now. Shack like accomodation built on the hills, they are known as the slums of Brazil and house 20% of the country´s population. The way of life in a favela reminds me a lot of townships I have experienced in South Africa so I was very excited to do a tour of the country’s largest Favela. I often struggle with the position you are in being a tourist. I dont like the idea of paying money to be brought into a community and showed around, told about the people´s lives without their want or consent. However it was clear to us that doing a tour was the safest and most educational way to see what life in a favela is like. I also read the tour company we chose to go with has relationships in the local community and the price of the tour goes towards community projects in the Favela. So off we went, a group of tourists bused into Rocinha favela. We started the tour at the top of the favela, a steep hill 1km from the beach below, the view was beautiful. The houses were different colours, shapes and sizes. The backdrop of green forest and the view of the ocean below made for a picture perfect view. Our guide explained that the houses at the top of any favela belong to those more well off and, in Rocinha this was seen as the middle class area. This is due to a few reasons; most practically due to flooding or landslides, which Rio has expereinced in the past, it is more logical to have your house high on the hill. Also the amazing view! It was clear to see these houses were well built and maintained. Shops selling groceries, crafts, clothes, hairdressers etc lined the narrow alleyways we walked through making our way down the favela. As we desended it was clear to see a lower standard of living. The houses were not as well constructed, they were built very close together, rubbish in the narrow alleyways brought an unpleasant stench and a few dead rats! Cable wires were everywhere, intertwined and hanging very low. I kept thinking if there was a fire all these houses would go up in flames in no time, they are all so close together and built ontop of each other. Favela´s are notorious for being run by drug gangs; when I asked our guide if this was true for Rocinha he said the government had inforced harsher measures for drug dealing and trafficking in the run up to the World Cup, or guide said this reduced the issue a little in Rocinha. However as we were walking through one area a young man approched our guide who then told us not to take any photos through the next area and to keep walking as we would not be stopping. As we walked in a single file through this area the atmosphere changed immediately. We passed a few men who shouted something in Portugues. As I thought these were the local drug dealers. They sent the young man to warn the guide they were there. When I asked our guide do the drug gangs dislike the tours happening he said they don´t mind as long as they call the shots, it was clear to see they still hold a lot of power in within the community. Being a Youth Worker back home, I was very interested to get an idea of what life is like for the youth of Rocinha. We visited the favela during the afternoon of a weekday, we seen some kids in school uniforms from the local public school, which is free for them to attend. However we also seen a lot of children not in uniform hanging about the streets. It is not compulsory to send your child to school in Brazil, the guide explained for parents living in poverty, or living with a dependency on alcohol or drugs which is also common, sending their child to school is unfortunatly not a priority. At the bottom of the Favela there is a sports centre, which many youths attend however there is no structured provision dedicated to young people. In a community with 200,000 people, run by drug gangs, it saddens me that there is no alternative provisions in place for the young people. There is a pre school day centre for children up to the age of 5, in the hope that they will move onto school at 5 years old. I hoped to volunteer in this project for my last few days in Rio, however due to cost and time restrictions unfortunatly it isnt possible this time round. However the favela life has definitely gripped my interest and is somewhere I would love to return to; my imagination has already built a youth centre in the middle of Rocinha!
With 10 days left we decided to leave the crazy Rio life for a few days in paradise! We are currently en route to a beautiful coastal town called Paraty, then we head to a tropical island called Ilha Grande before we´re back to Rio for our final few days of funtimes!!