The best travel stories really are when everything goes wrong.
Looking out my office window as a dark, cold winter imminently approached a couple of months ago the grand idea of exploring South America seemed like a brilliant idea.
It will be summer in the southern hemisphere, I thought, and I imagined sitting on Brazil’s Ipanema Beach eating fresh tropical fruit and soaking in the sun rays while watching the colorful sea.
Better yet, I thought, I’ll boycott winter all together this year and travel by bus to see cosmopolitan cities like Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Santiago, Chile, to climb the Andes in Bolivia, explore Machu Picchu in Peru and return tan from Quito, Ecuador.
Shortly after booking my flights, Brazil experienced a public insurrection in their capitol city, not unlike the Washington D.C. one we experienced.
Peru, currently in a state of emergency, has had nationwide protests following the arrest of its president who stands accused of trying to dissolve congress. Hundreds of tourists were stranded at Machu Picchu when it was abruptly closed and some had to be airlifted out by helicopter.
If the COVID pandemic has taught me anything over these last three years, though, it’s that life is extremely fragile and at any given moment, everything can change instantly. International borders shut, currency and stock markets crash, employment opportunities cease, businesses shutter and inflation skyrockets.
Right now is all we have, so I decided to proceed with the plan.
I use the word plan loosely. The plan is really to have no plan; to explore and adventure and see what road opens next. The only reservation I have is a flight home to make sure I am back in my newspaper office desk ready to work the day after Easter, so I can keep my job.
My one-way ticket from Asheville, N.C. to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, cost $5.60.
Thank goodness that at a young age, I was introduced to the fantastic world of airline credit card rewards.
Throughout the years, I’ve accrued an uncanny amount of credit cards from numerous airlines and have traveled to many far away lands on a shoestring budget.
This particular flight is through American Airlines. Although this way of traveling is cost-effective, it is very unglamorous. I often have many long layovers, sit in the economy’s section next to the toilets and fly at “non-peak” times.
I’ve recommended this affordable flight method to many friends, but unfortunately, three (that I know of) went into debt because they didn’t realize it’s important to pay off the cards every month to avoid accrued interest and fees.
Now, I provide the following disclaimer: pay off your bills immediately otherwise it eats into your profit margins and always negotiate if there’s an annual fee.
On the road
I spent one week in Rio and worked hard to understand the beautiful place and people.
I average about 10 to 15 miles walking each day, and one day, I walked from the trendy Copacabana Beach into the Cantaglo flavela (Portuguese word for slum) and back down into ritzy and expensive Ipanema Beach.
I was in awe of the diverse African, indigenous American, European and other influences on today’s Brazilians together living in drastically different socio-economic backgrounds with vibrant overlapping cultures.
I enjoyed seeing the restored tram coast through the colorful old world mansions in Santa Teresa and the well-preserved city center’s colonial buildings.
In order to escape the scorching heat and humidity, I jumped into the impressive Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Candelária historical church one afternoon.
I tend to say “yes” whenever I don’t know the language and it turned out I committed to sitting through a very long Catholic mass.
It was meditative and interesting, and I found out the little Spanish I do know does not help me at all with Portuguese.
Speaking of traveling and knowing the language, I tend to jump in cold, don’t do any homework and pantomime a lot.
It usually works out, but I got caught this time taking a busy local bus up a mountain. I had bought the cheapest bottle of water I could find at the grocery store and when I opened it without reading “with gas” in Portuguese, it literally geysered half way across the bus.
I’ve found maintaining a sense of humor is really important to stay sane when traveling.
I decided next to go to Foz do Iguaçu by long distance bus. Twenty-eight hours later I felt like my body was a marionette which had been smashed against a wall and I really wasn’t sure my neck was still attached to my head.
One of the things I love about travel is I learn about things I’ve never heard of before, like Foz is next to the largest waterfall system in the world.
This city is at the crux of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. I stayed in the El Shaddai Pousada, which is a guesthouse or bed and breakfast. It’s the best to meet new people, both travelers and the locals working, by staying in family-run authentic places.
I also took a tour inside the Itaipu Dam, which generates more than 10 percent of the power for Brazil, 88 percent of power for Paraguay and is the largest clean, renewable energy generator on the planet, according to its website. I literally know nothing about physics, so I thought, it’s about time I learned.
The Bird Park offered an educational immersion into bird aviaries of threatened bird species like colorful parrots, toucans and owls.
The staggering statistic that our world has nearly 70 percent fewer animals than it did 50 years ago was shocking.
I wondered if there will be any birds left in this park or the Amazon rain forest 50 years from today if humans don’t change their destructive behaviors.
A few days later I boarded the bus that said “Argentina” on the corner two blocks from my pousada which felt surreal because another bus passed by with a “Paraguay” sign.
Another long bus ride, 20 hours this time, I traveled south through the rural countryside into cosmopolitan Buenos Aires.
The bus didn’t break until 10 p.m. that night and I was starving.
I jumped out when the conductor said I had two minutes to find food at the station.
I went to pay by card but the sandwich counter women said “cash only” and pointed me down a dark corridor with a lot of stray dogs to a cash machine.
Red danger sirens went off in my head and then I remembered I had some U.S. dollars.
I whipped them out and she gave me food and Argentinian peso change.
I calculated the exchange rate (185 pesos to $1) and realized I got back more money than I gave her. Other travelers had told me there’s a blue rate, or black market, that’s double the ratio for U.S. currency.
I looked at the stray dog scratching his fleas and said: “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
In Buenos Aires I watched elegant and talented Tango dancers performing for tips in the immigrant streets the dance originated in.
I ate delicious empanadas standing in historic cafeterias and I now appreciate the woman Evita after visiting her museum.
Argentina is excruciatingly complex with politics, history and culture but it is electric and full of life. I met an intelligent and hilarious British expat, Simon, who gave the best tour of the Ricoleta Cemetery: a city of the rich, the famous, the who’s who of the country all in above ground coffins visible through ornate mausoleums.
Tomorrow I will pop into Uruguay via ferry. The backpacker trail network has enlightened me to visit and I always try to heed advice of other travelers.
Besides it’s never too early to scope out future retirement locations. Then through the Argentinian wine country over the Andes, and on to Chile’s Pacific coast.