Originally, I had planned to spend several years in Latin America to take the time to explore every country from Argentina to Mexico. As an advocate for constant change, I have however scrapped this plan and I will return to Europe in May 2017 – after only one and a half years in South America.
There are a number of reasons behind this decision, but if I had to put them into two groups, they would be these: first, South America – with the notable exception of Bolivia – did not fascinate me as much as I had hoped. Second, I realized how diverse, beautiful, interesting and easy to travel Europe is by comparison.
Now to the particular reasons, roughly in order of importance:
In one and a half years in South America, I have easily sustained the same amount of accumulated decibels as in the previous 40 years taken together. Apart from the fact that it annoys the hell out of me, this can’t be good for my health either.
For Europeans, it is impossible to imagine the level of noise prevalent in Peru and Brazil, the two loudest countries. I sincerely believe that the battle at Stalingrad was less noisy than rush hour in Arequipa. But even in smaller towns, you won’t get to relax, let alone sleep.
- at every corner,
- when traffic isn’t moving fast enough,
- when they spot someone whom they know,
- when they spot a dog,
- when they drive past the house of someone they know,
- when waiting for someone,
- or in the case of taxis whenever they see a pedestrian whom they want to convince to use the taxi instead.
I like walking, which is something that cab drivers can’t understand, so I get honked at like crazy. A hundred times every day. And in my street, there live maybe 40 people, all of whom have 5 friends who stop by twice a day, announcing each of their visits with repeated extra-loud honking. And at the end of the street there is a corner, of course, where all passing cars have to honk. Including at night.
Each car has a stereo system as powerful as I never heard it at any club. The music – and it’s terrible music with lots of bass and little melody or quality – is played at maximum volume. When the car is parked – preferably right in front of my house – the sound system remains on (the engine too, sometimes) and the car windows are lowered so that the owner of the car can continue to listen to this shitty music while having dinner at his mama’s house. (In South America, men are culturally prohibited from cooking for themselves.) All the other boys in the street are doing the same. Simultaneously. And again at night.
Maybe you remember the car with the mega-megaphone on the roof in the Blues Brothers movie?
No joke: in South America, people are not even satisfied with one megaphone. They need five or six per car.
In Lencois in Brazil. there was a motorbike with a sidecar for delivering noise to the community.
The cars and motorbikes are cruising around town all day, blasting advertisements for fruits, furniture, restaurants or a new Christian church. When they don’t have paying customers, they are roaming the streets with loud music to advertise their own sound system. Because this is about business, the advertisement/music of course keeps playing while the respective car is parked in front of my house for an hour.
And there is more noise from houses, balconies, gardens and – loudest of them all – from shops and restaurants. Particularly in Peru ad Brazil, shop owners believe that they attract more customers the louder their store is. So they put up 2-meter high loudspeakers in front of their shop windows to disseminate advertisement and/or horrible music all day long. Because there is another shop every 20 meters, you don’t understand anything. Many restaurants apply the same method to make your visit as unpleasant as possible. On top of that, they have a TV in every corner, with all the waitresses huddling around to watch a noisy soap opera or a wrestling match instead of taking orders.
Whenever I was the only guest in a restaurant, I asked to turn down the volume of the TV. This was met with total incomprehension and in half of the cases, the waitress turned the TV louder, believing that I had misspoken.
In Cochabamba, I lived next to a Seventh Day Adventist church. Those Adventists celebrate mass on Friday night and then spend their whole Saturday at church. This goes hand in hand with music and singing, which of course has to be blasted out to the whole neighborhood with loudspeakers. What’s the point of a beautiful garden with flowers and hummingbirds and the best weather, when you have to keep the windows shut all Saturday and can’t leave the house? In Mollendo, I lived by the ocean, where I could have enjoyed a cooling breeze all the time, if only I could have opened the windows without danger. The only time to do that was between 5 and 7 on a Sunday morning. In Peru, the noise was so overbearing, that I went into a store for mining equipment to buy earmuffs, which I henceforth wore when I had to read, write, think and sleep. In my own house!
I used to like fireworks. But when you hear/see a few of them every day and night, the most ardent pyromaniac would become sick of them.
Even worse was Salvador in Brazil. The first night, I couldn’t sleep because of loud drums beating all night. Not just a few, but hundreds of them. Until 3 or 4 in the morning. The landlady: “Today is the Festival of Drums.” Me: “Only today?” She: “Yes, yes, don’t worry.” The following night the same drums, but this time plus loud disco music. The landlady: “Oh, today is the International Day of Dance.” The next day was a samba competition (until 3 or 4 in the morning again, of course), then came the weekend where the noise goes on around the clock, on Monday was some religious festival, then some city anniversary, then a music competition (all participants were equally bad), and then it was already weekend again.
Not that anyone would need extra noise, but in Brazil, it’s a respected profession to push around a cart with a loudspeaker all day.
Particularly in Brazil and in Peru, I realized: the worse the music, the louder it is played. I don’t know why Brazil is known for dance and music. There is no talent. It’s always the same three beats, repeated a thousand times. For days on end. My neighbors in Mollendo played “Shaky Shaky“ by Daddy Yankee at least 30 times every day. That song is so horrible that I don’t even want to listen to it once.
You aren’t safe from noise when traveling, either. Buses are equipped with DVD players, showing – without exception – stupid and brutal action movies. At an inhuman volume. Still, many passengers play additional music from their phones. I could have seen much more of South America in one and a half years, but the buses were such a torture that I just couldn’t tolerate traveling on them anymore.
There will be other points, but to be honest, the noise was the primary and by itself sufficient reason to cut short my South American journey.
At the end of this section, I should mention two exceptions:
- Chile is relatively quiet and civilized.
- Bolivia is loud, too, but at least the music is better. If you are woken up every day without asking for it, then it should be with a funny marching band.
Missing cultural diversity
To begin with, I do find South America very interesting, colorful, curious, and I could spend years here without getting bored. But with a limited lifetime remaining, any decision for A is always a decision against B, C and D.
I like to keep learning new things. I prefer to know a little bit about many things instead of being an expert in one field. After more than one year in South America, I have the impression that I already know the continent better than I know Europe. This sounds absurd, but it is due to the relative cultural, architectural, linguistic, historical and religious homogeneity of South America (which was admittedly caused by Europeans).
From Guadalajara in Mexico
via Arequipa in Peru
to Santiago de Chile,
it’s 7000 km as the crow flies. But all cities essentially look the same: a cathedral, always Catholic, always baroque. A square in front of it, surrounded by arcaded sidewalks. A city plan like a chess board. A monastery around the corner.
Everywhere, I speak Spanish. All countries have a similar history: Spanish conquest, revolution by Spanish landowners, war, Simon Bolivar, independence, suppression of the indigenous population, more revolutions, military dictatorship, another revolution, democracy. All countries are plagued by brain-crushing Catholicism. The culture is relatively similar.
Of course, I could find differences everywhere, and what I wrote above is an extreme over-simplification. But when I leave my home in Germany and drive 7000 km, I am at the North Pole or in Siberia. And the point is: I don’t even have to go that far. In two hours, I am in another country with a different language, history, culture, architecture. I will be surprised instead of finding the expected. In the Balkans, you reach a new country every 200 km, with different religions and indecipherable alphabets even. In countries with strong regional identities, like Italy or Romania, each region is more distinct from the neighboring one than Argentina is from Mexico.
I miss the cultural diversity of Europe. To hop on a train and to get off after only two or three hours in a place where I don’t understand the language, to explore completely new architecture and to delve into an unknown history and culture, that’s a pleasure for me. The negativists who claim that the EU is making everything the same all over the continent should take a few months off and travel from Estonia to Malta. Or from Scotland to Greece. They will be surprised that our pretty little continent is more diverse than most round-the-world trips.
Europe is more exotic
In that apodictic way, that is of course not true because every continent has plenty of interesting places, people and stories. But I dare to say that for most travelers, Europe is more exotic.
When you spend a lot of time in one country (as I have done in Bolivia) and get in contact with regular folks instead of travel agencies, you can have adventurous experiences in South America, like when I spent three days with the Mojenos in the jungle.
But 99% of travelers from Europe, North America and Asia visit exactly the same places: Machu Picchu in Peru, Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, Iguazu waterfall in Brazil and then to Rio de Janeiro for carnival. Like items on a list, they check off all the places where they meet other groups of Europeans, North Americans and Asians, where they take photos of each other, hoping that they will be celebrated as great adventurers when they return to their student dorms or offices in New York, Berlin or Singapore. That’s package holidaying. I have nothing against that, but please don’t act as if you are Thor Heyerdahl.
When I bump into such wannabe-hippies, which cannot always be avoided on long bus rides, I sometimes tell them about my travels in Europe. I am aghast that most of these Europeans treat their own continent in the same package-holiday way. They know London, Paris, Rome, Venice and Berlin. The same program as Japanese flash tourists. When I rhapsodize about Romania or Montenegro, they look at me skeptically as if they haven’t yet heard of the European Union’s eastern enlargement. When I talk about Transnistria or Guernsey, they don’t even know these European states. But they are already planning their next big trip: to Thailand, Vietnam and Burma, yet again on a safe trek of Western tourists.
It would be wrong to establish a rule that people should get to know their own continent before taking a look at others. Anyone can do what they want. But I personally see my task more in introducing my esteemed readers to the exotic corners of Europe than in writing the one-thousandth article about Rio de Janeiro. And if I feel the urge for distant travels again, then probably more towards the east. Mariupol, Minsk and Magnitogorsk sound more exotic and alluring to me than Machu Picchu, Maracaibo or Medellín.
Ratio of expenses and rewards
This is a very sober point, but traveling also requires planning, organization and financing.
I realized this on Easter Island. Despite economical planning, the whole trip had cost me around 800 euros for buses, flights and hotels. I read about Easter Island for years and once in a lifetime, I allowed myself the luxury of an expensive trip, for which I had worked for months. When I was there, I couldn’t help but think: “It’s a nice island, no doubt. But 800 euros for one week? In Eastern Europe, I could travel for two months for that.” And I love islands!
Then, I remembered how easy, fast, affordable and free of stress and visa requirements it had been to visit some European islands, which once again nobody will know, from Hiiumaa in Estonia
to the small island of Zvernec in Albania.
I bet you never heard of these islands, right? If you are anywhere in Europe, you can get to any of them for 50 euros. And that would make you the real explorers and adventurers among your friends who all have the same shot of Machu Picchu on their Facebook profile. Half of the islands mentioned are already in the EU, so you don’t even need to change any money or your SIM card.
I know, this is a prosaic issue, but I am fed up with all the travel blogs pretending that money is not an issue. More on that in a moment.
One more practical thing: if you ever had to stay on the border bridge between Brazil and Bolivia for 24 hours, like two German guys I met at the somewhat smoother Peruvian-Bolivian border, you will appreciate the EU and the Schengen zone even more.
South America is more expensive than Europe
“What?” I hear many of you exclaim because this runs counter to all preconceptions. Preconceptions which I had, too.
But the logical error lies in equating Norway or Switzerland with Europe. An error committed by South Americans too, by the way, who therefore believe that any European is a purchasing power millionaire. In reality, Chile for example is more expensive than half of Europe. Even Bolivia, the most affordable country in South America, has about the same price level as Romania. But when you fly to Romania from anywhere in Europe, the flight will cost you 20 euros instead of 600 euros. That’s 580 euros more to spend. Or an accordingly longer holiday.
Particularly flights are dirt-cheap in Europe. In Brazil and Bolivia, there are similarly cheap domestic flights, but any cross-border flight in South America costs hundreds of euros. Again, thank you very much to the EU internal market! (Even if I personally prefer trains.)
Another nasty issue that makes South America more expensive is that some people try to charge more to foreigners/whites/gringos. It happened relatively rarely to me, maybe because I always spoke Spanish and because I am quick to say “no thanks” in negotiations. But particularly in Peru, by far the worst country in this regard, almost everyone regarded me as a customer instead of as a human being. People constantly tried to sell or rent me stuff that I had neither asked for, nor needed, and at astronomical prices.
In Europe, I never experienced this problem, although I have been to many countries where I didn’t speak the language.
But now to something completely different:
I’ll admit it: I love seasons. By now, I even miss winter. A really hard, dark, cold winter like the one I survived in Lithuania.
I feel like the more educated among my readers are getting ready to explain that the southern hemisphere has seasons too, just the other way round.
That is true for the deep south, for Patagonia, but I didn’t get that far – mainly because it’s bloody expensive. I spent most of my time in the Andean countries Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador where there aren’t any real seasons. People do say “oh, oh, now comes the winter”, but that means that the temperature at noon is 30 degrees centigrade instead of 35.
In Cochabamba, at an altitude of 2500 m, it never snows. Close to the city is Mount Tunari, which is a bit higher than 5000 m, and the peaks see snow on some occasions.
Many Brazilians come to Cochabamba to study medicine (because it is cheaper in Bolivia and because they are allowed to work on real corpses there). When there is snow on Tunari, the Brazilian students take a day off, rent minibuses and go to the summit to play around in the snow like little children. There are 25- or 30-year-olds who see snow for the first time. That’s a sad life.
The distinct change between four seasons, as we have it in Central and Northern Europe, as well as in the northern USA, is not only a beautiful spectacle of nature which I will henceforth appreciate more. It also provides a certain rhythm for the year, which is lacking in unseasoned latitudes.
Something else is lacking, too, and it should have been placed higher due to its importance. But I like to keep the hardest topic until the end.
Intellectualism vs. religion
First, let me qualify the following remarks by stating a few caveats:
- Intellectualism is something different than intelligence. With it, I mainly refer to the interest in intellectual pursuits, information, debates and education.
- This may be hard to quantify, but
- when I live in a country for a few months, walk around with open eyes and talk to people every day, my experience may be anecdotal, but
- then I dare to pass (preliminary) judgment on the intellectual life in a country. Just like after a few weeks in Mexico and in Lithuania, I could say without access to statistics that Mexicans are on average shorter and slightly fatter than Lithuanians, or like I can say after one week in Italy that Italians have a far better sense of style than me and my fellow Germans.
- Intellect isn’t everything, and it may not even be the most important thing. There are intellectual assholes and nonintellectual but very kind-hearted people.
I do not believe that Europe is generally more intellectual than South America. Instead, there are enormous national and regional differences on both continents. But, many parts of South America are not exactly hotbeds of intellectualism, to put it mildly. You may have already assumed so when you read my ranting about the noise. How is one supposed to study Kant’s Perpetual Peace, when your neighbors with their bam-bam-bam music don’t even leave you in fleeting peace?
Although I tried, I could hardly find anyone in Brazil or in Peru with whom I could converse about literature, history, politics or sociology. Most people are interested in beaches, alcohol, food, music, football and money. Generally, regions with beaches seem to be more dumbed-down than cities in the highlands. I could observe this phenomenon in all the countries I visited.
This is also noticeable from the level of political discourse (although that is rapidly dropping in Europe and the USA, too). I blame football, among other factors, for its simplistic we-against-them thinking which has been transferred to politics. Thus, people are either on the left and dismiss everything non-left as foreign (i.e. US)-financed imperialism (while the “left” is selling off natural resources to Chinese companies), or they are on the right and dismiss all non-right people as terrorists (looking away when the state itself sows terror) without recognizing that the economic and social exclusion of large parts of the population, particularly of the poor and indigenous, is morally and politically wrong.
In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez for example still has followers (despite his death), who blame an international conspiracy, of course orchestrated by the USA, for the lack of food, electricity, medicine and even toilet paper in the country with the world’s largest oil reserves. Evo Morales in Bolivia is another one of those who blames “imperialists” for anything that goes wrong.
This simple, illogical and non-factual way of thinking may have one root in the most illogical thing of all: religion. It is no coincidence that the continent which may be lacking a bit in intellectualism is also one of the most religious. And I am not talking about contemporary Christianity in the enlightened, northern European sense, where there are a few people left who, for the sake of tradition, cling to some vague concept of some “higher power”. No, in South America, Christianity is still the way we were indoctrinated in Catholic kindergarten: with a male, white, old god in heaven and a darker-skinned devil in hell. God is a person who makes specific decisions in the lives of each and everyone. Hence, it is imperative to pray a lot, go to church even more and donate as much as one can. Here, people take the Bible literally (which is funny for a book with so many contradictions), including stories about Adam and Eve, a great flood and similar hokum. Of course they deny that there were ever dinosaurs.
How can critical and scientific thought flourish on such manure? A few weeks ago, I met a girl from Venezuela, working in life sciences (!), who seriously wanted to convince me that one piece of evidence for the Bible’s truth is that it correctly predicts earthquakes. That’s the kind of bullshit I have to listen to. In 2017! It was the first time that I simply got up and walked away from a date.
If you don’t attend (the same) church, you are regarded as a bad person. In Mollendo, I had a neighbor who showed up every week to ask for money under made-up pretenses. Once, he asked for money for a religious procession. I declined and explained that I am an atheist. His mouth opened in shock, he took a few stumbling steps away from me, mumbled something incomprehensible, ran out of my apartment and never visited me again. The poor, who give 10% of their income so that the priest can buy a second car, don’t even bother to think about how rich the church already is.
Religion is always stupid, but this kind of religious practice is downright dangerous. Parents don’t buy books for their children, but donate the money to the church to pray for good grades. When the child is indeed successful, the parents don’t reward the child, but take more money to the priest. When a team of doctors works all night to remove a brain tumor, the survivor’s family will sell all their livestock next day to commission a statue of some holy virgin. The hospital remains under-financed. I myself have experienced a dozen times that bus or taxi drivers cross themselves before engaging in a crazy passing maneuver on a curvy mountainside road. God will take care of it. The side of the road is lined with crosses for the dead. “It was god’s will,” say the bereaved, shrugging their shoulders and donating yet more money to the church, hoping to avoid a similar fate.
This taxi in Paita in Peru had a sticker that said “God is my pilot”. Yet, the young man didn’t find the hotel in his home town although I gave him the name of the hotel, the name of the street and a description of the way. This god-thing doesn’t seem to work very well.
Not only is the connection between religiosity and anti-intellectualism glaringly obvious (“Why do you need so many books? There is only one true book and that is the Bible,” I have heard more than once), it seems to me that it is even intended. Churches keep the people stupid, so that the flock keeps financing the mansions of the missionaries and priests (who themselves often come from North America or Europe). And nobody seems to care that the Catholic Church has a history of genocide, slavery, rape and exploitation in South America.
But of course there are also non-religious paradigms that kill off any debate before it can be developed. In particular in Peru, it’s the nationalism which does that. I have never seen such blind, chauvinistic national pride as in Peru.
Almost each time I dared to make a less than praising remark about their country, my Peruvian acquaintances freaked out, argued that as a foreigner I didn’t have the right to have an opinion (at the same time they like to quote other foreigners who say that everything in Peru is beautiful and superb), before proceeding to insult me and all surrounding countries. Because weirdly, many Peruvians base their national pride on how bad, poor and under-developed all neighboring countries allegedly are. When I ask if they have ever been to Bolivia, Chile or Ecuador, the Peruvians reply: “No, of course not. It’s terrible and ugly there. And everybody knows that Peru is the most beautiful country in the world. I don’t even need to go anywhere else.” When I dissent – based on the experience of having traveled in all these countries -, they often got aggressive. “What do you gringo actually want here? Why don’t you go back to Europe?”
Well, that’s exactly what I am doing now. There is a lot to be criticized there, too, but it seems that Enlightenment did leave a more discernible mark in Europe.
Before leaving, I should mention two positive outliers: in La Paz and even more in Cochabamba, there is an intellectual and cultural life with discussions, events, concerts, exhibitions, libraries and political manifestations that make one’s heart melt. Actually, nowhere did I meet as many educated, interested people who were keen on openly debating profound matters as in Bolivia. While my friends in Brazil invited me to the beach and my friends in Peru to have food, Bolivians asked me to join political or academic events, lectures at university, exhibitions or film screenings or simply a hike in the mountains. However, you will quickly find out that not everything in Bolivia is rosy when you travel to Santa Cruz, one of the most superficial, materialistic and non-intellectual cities I know.
Lastly, any decision also has some personal reasons.
- More than three years have passed since I obtained my last degree, and I already miss university. More on that in a separate article. Soon.
- For some time now, I have been intrigued by the idea of a very long hike. Theoretically, that would be possible in South America, too (in Cuenca in Ecuador, I met an approximately 65-year old Dutch gentleman who is crossing the whole continent on foot), but I simply don’t feel like walking 1200 km through the Atacama desert. And in the jungle, I am terribly afraid of snakes. In Europe, on the other hand, I am only plagued by the number of choices.
- Writing is becoming more important to me than traveling, and thus I am longing for a cozy apartment where I can establish a library and a writing studio again. Based on good experiences in Lithuania and Romania, in my mind this image is connected with a Soviet-era apartment somewhere in Eastern Europe.
- A few medical problems didn’t solve themselves, contrary to my naive hope, so I finally have to address them. Unfortunately, I have no medical insurance in South America. Maybe I should have prayed and donated more, and Mr Jesus would have cured me, too.
Mind you, South America offers spectacular and beautiful scenery, from Chapada Diamantina to Lake Titicaca, I have met hundreds of friendly people and I wouldn’t get bored here, either. I can imagine that I may return to South America one day. Actually, I am certain that I will miss many things as soon as the steamer will leave the port of Cartagena on 11 May 2017.
But every decision is a matter of priorities.