What’s So Great About South America?

What’s So Great About South America?
It’s varied. Most people who haven’t yet visited think of South America as one big place split up into different rinky-dink countries with different names but when you get right down to it, they’re basically all the same place. That’s not the reality on the ground. To be sure, poverty looks pretty much the same wherever you find it in the world, muddy streets, stray dogs, roofs made of corrugated steel held down by old tires…but South America is more than poor people. Currently, the cost of living in Chile and Uruguay is higher than it is in the States. Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru are cheap. But again, it’s hard to say any one thing about a place this huge. You can fly on a jet for ten hours in one direction and still be in South America.
Brazil alone is as big as the continental United States. There they don’t speak Spanish, but Portuguese. In almost every other South American country they speak Spanish, except for tiny Suriname and French Guiana and a few remote places where they indigenous people still haven’t effectively been colonized and speak their own languages. Guarani, Quechua, and various nearly-extinct languages spoken by Amazonian tribes. So if you learn Spanish, you can visit many different countries, some tropical, some freezing cold most of the year.
To this traveler, the best part is that public transportation still exists in all of South America. Busses will take you from the smallest village to any part of the country. Bus fares are subsidized to make them affordable to the common person, so you can travel is luxury comfort, on a Super Pullman with a reclining bed, or you can sit on a converted American school bus where the person next to you has a chicken in a bag, with its head sticking out a hole. You can flag most busses down from anywhere on the highway. That means if you live in a shack in the woods, with no electricity and no lights, you can still go out to the highway and flag down a bus that will take you to the big city. It used to be like this in the States before World War II.
Much of South America reminds me of the United States when I was very young, in the early fifties. Little shops line the streets of every city and town, tailor shops, shoe repair, corner grocery stores, Mom and Pop businesses. Now in the States, Mom and Pop are divorced and living in gated retirement communities in Florida, but here, they’re still at work, selling penny candy to school kids. In Argentina and Uruguay, school kids wear white smocks, like lab coats, with a big black bow in front. I guess it’s a European thing. Most of the people who immigrated to Argentina and Europe back at the turn of the last century hailed from Italy, France, Germany and Spain.
I will venture here to say that the most beautiful country I’ve seen in South America is Colombia. It is lush, largely mountainous, almost on the equator so much of it enjoys tropical flowers but cool nights. The women tend to be exceptionally good-looking.



Contrary to popular belief, there is real advantage to having only a few entertainment and shopping options. Unless you’ve just inherited a bunch of money and are in a hurry to spend it all before you die, most of us would be better off shopping less, and spending fewer hours being “entertained,” whatever that means. The very fact that so much money and effort is spent to convince us otherwise should be a clue to who stands to benefit from the transaction.

Likewise, most dietary problems could be solved by following a simple rule: never eat anything that you see advertised. Products that have their own television commercials are bound to be vastly over-priced and lacking in substance. If you took the contents of a typical supermarket and distilled them down to their essences, you’d end up with a lake of corn sweeteners, various piles of chemical additives, a mound of wheat, soy and cornstarch, and an enormous pile of colorfully printed cardboard.

Just as good foods often lack glossy packaging, there are plenty of places on this planet that do not show up as tourist destinations, and yet offer a quality of life that exceeds most that do. The people who live in such places are happier than the norm. These content and reasonably satisfied people are not newsworthy enough to attract the attention of real estate speculators, developers, tourism agencies or Internet travel sites. In many of these places it’s possible to live on much less than it would take to live in the “developed” world.

How can you tell if a people are happy? They laugh a lot. They are affectionate with children. They enjoy each other’s company.

I spent twelve years living in San Francisco, a lovely though terribly expensive place. The Zodiac killer had just ended his reign of terror, though there was a guy named Charles Ng who was kidnapping, torturing and killing people in the nearby Sierras. Within a year or two another guy would be stalking and killing hikers on Mount Tamalpais. I took many hikes there at that time, and found I was the only person on the path.

One day, while reading the San Francisco Chronicle, as was my daily habit, I read of a man who like me had recently gotten divorced, and had custody of his thirteen year old son. The two of them lived in a grand house on a big spread somewhere in the exclusive hills of Marin County. What got my attention was the fact that the son had murdered his father. So even though he had alarms on the doors, and video cameras monitoring the front gate, what did him in was his own offspring. Crazy. That got my attention. I thought to myself “whatever this guy had, I don’t want it. In fact, get me outta here!”

I have just spent a few days in Mendoza, a medium-sized city in the foothills of the Andes. Mendoza doesn’t get a lot of press. You can’t find it mentioned much on TripAdvisor, or Lonely Planet, nor do the hucksters at International Living hype its charms. After hanging out in cafes and parks, and generally wandering around without purpose, I have come to conclusion that it would be a nice place to call home. My only concern is the stability of the government and economy.

Why isn’t Argentina one of the richest countries in the world? It certainly has the resources. For the last week I’ve been riding busses covering only about half the nation’s land area, and can vouch both for the quality of their highways and the existence of millions of acres of golden soybeans ready for harvest and plenty of tall corn. Compared to neighbors Bolivia and Paraguay, Argentina boasts a relatively educated populace. It’s certainly not over-crowded. You’d think they would enjoy security and liberty, but they seem to lack the ability to govern themselves.  They elect fools and scoundrels, lie to themselves and others and then believe those lies right up to the point that everything collapses and they have to pick up the pieces and start over again from scratch.

There’s a joke: Argentinians are people who speak Spanish, live in French houses, eat Italian food, and think they’re English.

A few days ago, I passed through the Plaza San Martin in Cordoba, the main square in the nation’s second largest city. The National Bank occupies one side of the square. There were lines of people stretching around the corner in both directions streaming from the front door, waiting patiently for hours for the chance to collect their pension or withdraw some portion of their savings. An armored vehicle was parked in front, and soldiers with weapons stood guarding the entrance. It looked like everyone’s idea of a fiscal emergency, but this economic nightmare was just business as usual here in Argentina, where people have little confidence in their economy or rulers, and plenty of historical justification for feeling that way. One night about ten years ago, the government decided to devalue the currency, and within a few weeks everyone had lost two-thirds of their wealth. Of course, the politicians knew in advance that this was coming, and had already squirreled their cash away to offshore banks.

At that time, the country defaulted on its loans and some creditors who declined to accept ten cents on the dollar are still demanding their money back.

Fortunately, Argentina has had good luck rebuilding their economy without outside help, but one gets the impression they learned nothing from their collapse, and that the next one will arise from the same mixture of arrogance and deceit that caused the first. In 2002, I saw a blonde, blue-eyed woman holding her infant child and begging in front of a Buenos Aires subway station. For most of this white boy’s experience, poor people were dark-skinned, but it was then that I realized when white people have the rug pulled out from under them, they get hungry, too. It gave me pause.

Here, in the southern part of South America, they’re still working at getting over the horrible abuse of power they suffered during the Military Dictatorships of the seventies. Then, Argentine military aircraft routinely dumped bodies into the delta region just north of the capital. Twenty to thirty thousand people simply disappeared. Even schoolchildren who had been protesting an increase in the price of their school lunch were rounded up, tortured and executed. As the Phillipines and even Thailand found out at roughly the same time Argentina and Chile did, once you let the military start killing communists, pretty soon everybody looks like a communist.

Hopefully that sort of thing is permanently behind Argentina, but as poor people all over the world know, when you’ve got nothing to lose, it’s not that big a leap to resort to drastic measures. The social fabric could tear again. And if the military ever takes power, it’s time to head to the airport.

OK, now I really am leaving the country. Tonight!

It’s been a long wait. I’ve been waiting exactly a week. It took that long to cancel my work visa and to get paid. I don’t know why it took that long, but it did, and for most of that time I was on pins and needles, thinking “Tomorrow it’s gonna happen. Tomorow I’ll be in Thailand.” Well, tomorrow I’m going to be in Chiang Mai. There, I’ll sell my piano, close my bank accounts and send the money back to Iowa. Then, after I’ve hung out long enough to get bored, I’ll challenge myself further by hopping on a plane to destination undecided at this pont.

I just got my passport back and leafing through it, discovered the visas of Thailand, Cambodia, Viet Nam, Myanmar, and the United Arab Emirates. That’s a lot of travel in one year. And what did I learn from all that expense and effort? Most people in most places speak a little bit of English, enough so you can make yourself understood. If they don’t speak any, you can still communicate with mime.

Countries we’re not generous with treat us the same way when it comes to visas. People are pretty nice and generous all over, if you take the time to communicate with them. In the entire year I’ve been adrift, I haven’t been robbed or even lost anything of signficance. Maybe somebody shortchanged me, but if so, I didn’t notice.

I’m sixty-two years old and in the best physical shape of my life. I don’t smoke or drink and I get regular exercise. As long as I don’t do anything stupid, social security should enable me to continue living in places with a standard of living about a third of what it is in the States. There are a lot of such places, and many of them are really great.

So life is good.