Posts Tagged With: Santiago

Mistakes, I Made A Few

Her backpack: Indigenous woman in Cotopaxi, Ecuador, several thousand feet above sea level where oxygen is hardly plentiful. And she manages to still smile

“Has it been a year?” a friend asked, as I stood in his dining room in Miami. “Yes, I’ve been gone exactly a year,” I replied, feeling somewhat uncertain myself.

It was hard to believe that a year ago last month ¬†I left the United States for Colombia, where I started this great global adventure. Hard to believe how much ground I covered by road and how many people I met along the way. How many lives I touched and how many lives touched mine. I am not the same person that left the United States last February. I am changed, for the better, I think. I know more about South America and South Americans. I’ve seen more. I’ve learned a thing or two about tolerance, and above all, patience. You have to be an extremely patient traveling for a year in the Third World. You must adjust to all sorts of situations and customs.

I bit my tongue – mostly – when someone tried to lecture me about the evils of the United States. I listened and nodded and sometimes even agreed with the disagreeable.

South America was great in so many ways. I am now back in the United States. In Miami, to be exact, nursing an injured knee, the result of a tumble in Chile.

My backpack: Compared to what she's carrying above, maybe I should quit whining... ūüôā

The knee seemed to bounced back to health, but as I started to make my way across Argentina and Uruguay, with a backpack that seemed to weigh more with every step, the pain returned. So after limping around Montevideo for a while, I hopped online onto the American Airlines website and booked a flight to Miami. The plan: see a doctor about the knee, take it easy and start anew in Europe. ¬†That was the plan. This month, my doctors have had a thing or two to say about that. After X-rays, physical therapy for up to three months has been ordered. I start April 9. Not exactly the way I had hoped things would turn out, but also not as bad as it could have been. No need for surgery, for instance. That’s good news. Bad news, I am in Miami instead of Brazil, which I had to skip to deal with the knee. No worries, new plan is Brazil has been appended to 2013, but more likely early 2014 given my detour.

Meanwhile in Miami, I’ve had time to reflect on the year that was. ¬†What I did, what I would do differently. And with this entry, I hope you, dear future traveler, will learn from my mistakes. I list a few:

1. The Backpack: Mistake number one. I bought the biggest one on the market – 91 liters – but nobody told me that amount of weight is nearly impossible to carry fully loaded, uphill, up stairs, for long periods, especially for a man who weighs 170 puny pounds. (My weight at the start of my trip was more than 190 pounds, at times closing in on 200 pounds).

But I carried two backpacks, so there! ūüôā
In Santiago, Chile.

Some might say I don’t have to fill the backpack with the kitchen sink, but another unforeseen problem with a pack that size is it has to have a certain amount of stuff in it, otherwise the fasteners won’t close properly. So then you are forced to load up with stuff you really shouldn’t be carrying. So my advice is buy a backpack built to carry the minimum you will need on the trip, not the maximum. You may find yourself wearing the same clothes more often, but your legs, spine and shoulders will thank you for it.

2. The Fights: So the stranger learns I’m American and I get one of two reactions – love or hate. The United States is not the most popular nation on Earth. That has been made very clear to me across South America, with one individual after another laying into me about Iraq, Guantanamo, American imperialism, 9-11, on and on. From Colombia all the way down to Argentina, I heard from individuals who really believe that the United States government blew up the World Trade Center and crashed planes into the Pentagon as a pretext to attack Iraq. ¬†Really? These conspiracy theorists were fed this story line by conspiracy theorists in the United States. So I can’t really fault their ignorance.

Sometimes I would allow people to go on and on and have their say. Sometimes I would challenge their assertions. And that more often than not was a mistake. People form their own opinions and they won’t change it no matter how much rational reasoning you try to impart. So my attempts to set the record straight often ended in disagreement. Henceforth, I will just shut up and smile.

3. Voices Inside My Head!: As most of you know, I’ve been couch surfing my way around the world. It’s been amazing, but not always smooth sailing. And it’s been those times when I didn’t listen to that voice in my head that said “go to a hostel or a hotel”. When traveling in a strange land, go with your gut! It’s nature’s way of alerting you that something is amiss, perhaps even dangerous. The times I ignored that little voice inside my head I ran smack into trouble and had a bad experience. Nothing major, just unpleasant. When the voice told me to find someplace else to stay, I should have listened. When it told me not to attempt to go down that canyon, I should have listened. When it told me….well, you get the idea.

Knee Issues: Herein may have lay part of the stressed knee problem! Not enough leg room on some buses in South America for people more than five feet tall!
Two-plus hours on a bus - in this position - to Santa Marta, Colombia

4. Tentative РI bought a tent for this trip and it was one of the things I ended up shipping back to the United States because I was carrying way too much. I should have kept the tent! Housing is important and that tent would have come in handy throughout South America. I had used it only a couple of times and thought I would not use it again. Wrong! So many places that allow camping and it would have been great to have it and awake in some beautiful spots. The  tent stays with me on the rest of the journey.

5. Thanks For The Advice: When you travel you will run in to people who have advice as to where and where not to go. What to see and what to skip. Opinions, opinions, opinions. But it’s your trip and if you have your heart set on someplace, do not allow others to dissuade you. Do your own research and decided for yourself if it’s worth it. A couple of times, against my better judgment, I skipped a couple of places then heard from others that those places were phenomenal. For instance, I am hearing from some that the Egyptian Pyramids are a bore. No amount of criticism of the pyramids will keep me out of Egypt. I will draw my own conclusions about the pyramids.

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Santiago, Chile: Ignore The Naysayers

The Titanium: The tallest building in Santiago, Chile, currently under construction. When completed, it will be more than 60 floors of office and retail space.

I thought I was going to the worst city on Earth. To hear Chileans describe Santiago – as dirty, polluted, ugly, traffic-clogged and a lot of other negatives – is to imagine urban hell. Most of them said the city was not worth more than a couple of days. Some struggled to come up with things to do and places to visit in the city other than the Cathedral. And yet, I am loving Santiago.

I think it’s clearly an anti big city thing. People don’t like big cities. At least the people who don’t live in them. Big cities generally have big problems, such as traffic congestion and public transportation choked with people. Some people see city living as Hell on Earth. They prefer smaller towns with lots of green spaces and such. So a place like Santiago, to most Chileans who live in ideal outlying provinces, urban living is the worst thing imaginable.

When I was in Salta in northern Argentina, I had nothing but negatives about Buenos Aires – from Argentinians themselves. They basically described their country’s famed city in much the same way as Chileans described Santiago. I am glad I did not listen. I was determined to visit Santiago. And I am glad I did. It’s a vibrant place with lots going for it. Sure, it’s not Paris or Rome, but the city has great neighborhoods in which to hang out, sit and have a good breakfast or enjoy lunch. Based on what I had heard about Santiago, I had planned to stay only two days. ¬†I’ve extended my stay by two days.

Of course I wasn’t about to have Buenos Aires-bashing Argentinians keep me from visiting the city. I have long wanted to visit Buenos Aires. And I will stay as long as planned, perhaps longer. I guess I am a city person at heart. I love cities. And sure, I like spending time in the great outdoors, in small towns, but I don’t mind urban living and all the insanity that comes along with it.

I grew up hearing all the negatives from Americans about New York, the largest city in the United States. People in other parts of the United States love to hate New York. Even some who have never been there. They’re just not city folks.

So I say to you, dear reader, listen to the criticisms, but take them with a grain of salt and go see for yourself.


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The United States: My Country, Right And Wrong

Official presidential portrait of Barack Obama...

U.S. President Barack Obama

Late on Sunday – actually come to think of it, it was already Monday as it was well-passed 2 a.m. – I decided to watch a movie when perhaps a wiser decision would have been to close my eyes and go to sleep. I’ve been staying up late far too much lately, and it hasn’t been doing my rugged good looks any good. <—- humor.

I was already in bed and just about to shut down my laptop and indeed get some rest, but a web page caught my bleary¬†eyes. It was a web page that purports to offer free movies¬†streamed over¬†the Internet. That fact alone was not what really grabbed my attention. What grabbed me gently by the collar was one particular movie featured on the main page – “The Help“. ¬†A succinct description of “The Help” from Internet Movie Database [IMDb]:

An aspiring author during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s decides to write a book detailing the African-American maid’s point of view on the white families for which they work, and the hardships they go through on a daily basis.

I had heard so much about “The Help” and had been wanting to see it, but such a movie isn’t easy to find in uninitiated¬†Chile, especially in mining town¬†Calama¬†where I live. I thought if I’m lucky, I would be able to see it in larger, more cosmopolitan Santiago, Chile’s sprawling capital.¬†Or in some other more refined South American city. But here it was on this Internet site, and so I said to myself, okay, I’m game, let’s see if this “free movies” site is legitimate.

¬†After just a click to install an application to view the movie and another click to launch it, lo and behold, the movie started! Well, I wasn’t about to let this golden ¬†opportunity slip by. Sleepy or not, ¬†2 a.m. or 4 a.m., it was movie-watching time!

To be sure, “The Help” is about a particularly troubling period in the history of the United States. It’s about racism and the ugliness of post-slavery segregation and its impact on a particular group of ¬†women – blacks who worked as maids and who took care of ¬†white children when their mothers were too busy playing bridge and gossiping at tea parties, and those white women who behaved as if they owned their maids. These maids, as were all blacks at the time, in which laws were enacted to keep them subservient to whites, were treated worst than dirt. And that’s putting it nicely.

In the United States, mostly in the southern part of the country, blacks were kept as slaves and treated as property. This was the legacy from which African-Americans had risen. This was the struggle they’ve had to endure, even to this day, though there’s no denying much has changed for the better. Heck, we even have an African-American president! Barack Obama’s election stands as a testament to that change, though again, it has also brought to the forefront¬†some pervasive racist attitudes.

In the 10 months I’ve been traveling, I have heard a lot of negative things about the United States. I have met dozens of individuals who have nothing good to say about the United States and its people. I even met some couchsurfers in Medellin, Colombia, who told me when they joined, they as a couple had decided they would not host any Americans. They opened their home to me on the recommendation of a mutual friend from Finland. In the end, they couldn’t have been happier with me, we shared lots of good times and we even became friends. In fact, they didn’t want me to leave!

In Latin America, specifically in South America, people have not exactly been shy about telling me how much they detest the United States. I am sure I will continue to hear anti-American sentiments as I continue my journey around the world. I’ve heard it time and time again. I last heard it two weeks ago in Salta, Argentina, from a woman who gave no reason for her hatred of the United States, but I’m sure if I had asked she would have gladly given me plenty of reasons. Just like her, most of these U.S.-haters have never been to the United States. What they know, they know from television and other media. I knew when I started this journey that I would encounter a fair share of U.S.-haters. But I had long decided that I would not play the role of defending my country or engaging in debate. That I would simply listen and generally that is exactly what I do. Of course, I don’t let obvious misinformation go unchallenged, but I’m by no means on some U.S ¬†cheerleading squad traveling the globe to debate every activist or leftist that comes along. Let people have their opinion. If they ask a question, glad to answer. If they want debate, I’m not their man.

And yet, sometimes a good fight is irresistible.

In Ecuador, I could not help but to take on a very pro-Hugo Chavez leftist Ecuadorian man who didn’t see the irony in the fact he was standing on a bridge built with aid money from the United States, and criticizing the United States as the most evil country in the world. He had nothing good to say about the United States as we stood on that bridge looking at roiling river waters below. The bridge had a plaque affixed to it. It praised the good graces of the United States Agency for International Development – USAID – but the money had obviously come from U.S. taxpayers, some of whom live in cities and towns with decaying bridges. I pointed out to him that his town had a very nice bridge while there are places in the United States with bridges with questionable safety. I first got a blank stare from him, as if puzzled why that is, and then this: “Oh, well, how much did this bridge cost the United States to build? A million? Two million? Maybe $3 million? Whatever amount it was, it’s nothing for the United States! Just a drop in the bucket considering the United States’ economic resources.”

It was at that point I decided there is absolutely no point in trying to convince people when their minds are made up. After all, did he know what that bridge meant to the people of his town? To Ecuador? Perhaps even to its economic growth? Did he stop to think what that “drop in the bucket” could do for a kid in a struggling school in the United States? Had he even considered that the United States sends millions in economic aid to Ecuador and billions more around the world? Can a person be so closed-minded and ungrateful?

After watching “The Help”, I stayed up a bit later thinking about all this. I thought I of all people have every right to denounce the United States, for the history of my people in the United States hasn’t exactly been a parade. At one time in her life, my mother was “the help”. But she managed to advance her education and get a better job in the medical field. That’s the beauty of the United States. I recognize that the United States is not all evil and no good. Sure, even Americans would admit there are some things we are not proud of, but point me to the nation with no scars in its past. We live and we hopefully learn.

Missteps and all, I love the United States. I, of course, don’t ¬†support everything my government does, only a non-thinking fool does that. But as I travel, I’ve also seen the goodness of the United States, such as in the faces of ¬†Peace Corps volunteers in Peru, placing on hold their own lives to help some struggling village far from home. I see it in the volunteers working with a myriad of volunteer organizations around the world. I see it each time there’s a natural disaster and the United States is the first to answer the call for help.

While I don’t intend to be a cheerleader for my country, I will sing its praises if asked. This, despite the history of blacks in the United States. I certainly have cause to be critical of the United States, just freshly having been reminded of the struggles of “the help”, but the United States is much more than a string of negatives. Then, on my journey, I intend to build bridges.

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