Southern Exposure: Final Chapter

As we were dragging ourselves off the plane at Dulles Airport, I had to bite my tongue to keep from asking Embry, “Is this our last big trip? You promised. Please?”

I will have to give Embry credit. She has been the motivating force behind all of our travels; and if it were left to me, I would probably spend my days in front of the TV watching Joe Scarborough on MSNBC bash Trump. Well, maybe not exactly, but I am grateful to her for her energy, determination and will power, all driven by an unquenchable wanderlust. 

We have had some extraordinary journeys. Before this trip, together we had visited India and much of Southeast Asia, Russia, most of Europe, Japan, Egypt, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Canada, Mexico, Honduras, Mongolia, China, Australia, and New Zealand. My contributions have been sailing in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the South  Pacific (Tahiti), and the Aegean. And, of course, there was our famous trip around the world without flying in 2015 and the Road Trip out West in 2016. All totaled they add up to more than 50 countries we have visited. As far as travel goes, we have had more than our share of opportunities. I am deeply grateful for this.

I suspect that the South American odyssey will in fact be out last big trip, and it was a good one to conclude with. My only question is why did it take us so long to get there. After all it is a lot closer than Asia or Australia, and the time zones are pretty close to ours reducing the jet lag. For some reason we from the U.S. (not “we Americans,” please) tend to downplay South America as a second rate part of the world. The image many have is that of a backwoods part of the world notable for failed governments, military juntas, crime cartels, street violence, poverty and ignorance. So why bother?

Well, if you have been following the blog, you know that the image is wrong. The vast continent is home to 14 countries and over 400 million people. It is among the most diverse areas in the world in terms of climate and terrain. It is the primary oxygen supplier to the planet Earth with the world’s largest rain forest. Its deserts are among the driest and its mountains among the tallest. It has the world’s biggest river, arguably the most beautiful waterfall, and stunning fiords that compare with those in Norway. It is rich in natural resources, a major world producer of gold and silver, along with agricultural products like bananas, coffee, and beef.  Though there are serious issues that affect the continent, it is by no means a “Third World” backwater.

It is also has a diverse population. Unlike what happened in the U.S., the invading European  conquistadors and adventures mixed with the indigenous population leaving behind a legacy of “mestizos,” a mixed race people with light tan skin, who comprise a large share of the population in many South American countries. Add to that mix the introduction of millions of slaves from Africa in the 18th and 19th Centuries and you have one of the most diverse populations in terms of race and skin color on the planet. Racism still exists in South America with a hierarchy that favors those of European descent, but it is different and seems more subtle than in the U.S. There is also a lot of difference between the countries. Indigenous peoples are more strongly represented in Peru and Ecuador and the West Coast, and those of African descent in Brazil. Argentina remains the lightest in skin color and feels the most European.

We found the people to be warm and friendly almost everywhere. Though there is plenty of poverty, we were never harassed at any time by a panhandler or someone trying to sell us something we did not want. In both Rio and Buenos Aires there were homeless people but fewer than you would see in DC. And unlike our trip around the world, I did not get pick pocketed or have my cellphone stolen.

If you were counting, we visited one country in the Caribbean (Aruba), one in Central America (Panama) and six in South America: Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil plus the Falkland Islands—a total of nine countries in all. They were all interesting in their own way. My favorite city was Buenos Aires, a world class city in every respect, comparing favorably to our best cities in the U.S. Rio is a close second for its extraordinary natural beauty. The in-your-face poverty and preponderance of favelas in Rio, however, is hard to ignore. The Chilean fiords win out as the most beautiful and dramatic part of the trip and should be on everyone’s bucket list  as should be Iguassu Falls. Uruguay  wins out as the most progressive, which may not be saying a whole lot but is impressive just the same.

There were several recurring themes that persisted during the trip. The first was what is now being called the great income disparity. While the equality issue is a world-wide phenomenon, it is even more apparent in the countries we visited than in the U.S. In Chile it was the focus of mass protests. The second theme was the fragility of the governments. Every country we visited in South America in its past has had brutal dictatorships, many multiple times. Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Peru have all had terrible, oppressive governments where the free press was curtailed and innocent people locked up or killed. Many people we talked to fear that this could happen again. It is happening now in Venezuela. It appears to be happening in Brazil and in  Chile and could happen in Argentina. Argentina also is staring financial collapse in the face.  Harder times could lie ahead.

At the same time you can’t help coming away with admiration and respect for the  people of South America, for their resilience, and their optimism despite staggering odds. You get the impression they will get through this.

So you may be thinking, all this travel you have taken over the years, what did you learn from it and did it make you any wiser. Did it make you a better person? Those, I have to say, are very good questions. If you are asking if I personally feel wise and smart because of the travels, the answer is no. I do not feel wise or smart. I also cannot say that his has made me a “better person.”

 On the other hand, I also have to admit that there is something to this travel. The result is not so much being wiser or smarter but rather the opposite—being more humble. When you travel you understand that there are a lot of different ways of doing things and that the way you do things is certainly not the only way and may not be the best way. You also not only realize but internalize that while we humans may speak different languages, have different skin colors and different customs, we are all basically cut from the same cloth. We are homo sapiens living life the best we can on the Planet Earth, playing the cards we have been dealt to the best of our ability. Sure, there are bad people in every culture and every country. Of course, we all mistakes and do dumb things, but what you come to realize when you think about the countries that you have been to and the people you have met is that, damn it, we basically are fundamentally the same. Coming to realize this in a personal way is the wisdom that comes from traveling a lot of places. 

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