Meaning: fertile lowlands of the Amazon region (Quechua word)
‘En Las Pampas todo es posible, y nada es seguro’. ‘In the pampas, everything is possible, and nothing is certain’, says our guide Victor with a grin. It becomes his catchphrase over the next few days in the Bolivian Amazon as we sail up and down a river lined by dozing Caymans, dorky Capybaras and Sereres; birds that bark. For an Australian the Amazon seems like one of those rare places where the animals are as dangerous as our own, but I soon change my mind. We swim in piranha infested waters, get up close to cheeky yellow monkeys and wake up to the ominous roar of the howler monkeys at dawn. During the day we cover up so much with white shirts and scarfs wrapped around our heads that we look like a group of nuns floating down the river. Another group even does a double take as they pass us by but its all worth it to avoid the bloodthirsty mosquitos. One night, we get into the boat and go up the river trying to spot the red eyes of the Cayman in the water hunting. Victor tells us to turn off our torches and he cuts the motor. We drift in the pitch black underneath galaxies of stars listening to the sounds of the Amazon at night. Nobody says a word. Sitting in the dark with the current pushing us onwards we feel like part of the jungle instead of mere spectators. The next morning we try in vain to swim with the Amazonian pink dolphins. We catch only a glimpse of a snout and a few tail flicks before we have to leave this incredible place. In the pampas, everything is possible, and nothing is certain.
In the middle of the night I am woken by Calli who is sitting next to me on an overnight bus in northern Bolivia. We have stopped in the middle of nowhere and she is sure we are about to die. Outside the window she points at the big coach coming towards us trying to pass and I realise that our clunky big ‘flota’ (coach) is slowly backing up, already at the edge of the cliff that lines one side of the road. The road is made of dirt which is softening at the edge in the torrential rain that outside. Flashes of fork lightning illuminate the tiny narrow road before us. Its not wide enough for two buses to pass. Our impending death is certain.
Only a few days earlier have we found ourselves faced with a tough decision. A quick flight from La Paz, Bolivia over the jungle to the town of Rurrenabaque or a treacherous sixteen hour bus ride at night along one of the most dangerous roads in the world. We are heading to visit the Amazon jungle in Bolivia, and while the road there isn’t technically the famous ‘Camino de la Muerte’ or ‘Death Road’ found in the same area, it is virtually the same. We are two months into our trip around South America and times are tight. Bus it is. The journey begins on a paved highway, the same one I have cycled a few days previously. Its a nice road that curves majestically around steep magnificent cliffs and green mountains. It even has double lines in the middle. But a few hours in the pavement ends and the real journey begins. We begin to traverse a dirt road just wide enough for us with a drop so steep on one side that we can’t see where it ends. We curve around cliffs and mountains heading into lower altitude where the plants become more and more tropical. Every time we see a sharp corner ahead everybody holds their breath as the wheels slowly find traction and bring us deeper into the jungle. Calli next to me in the window seat sees the bus wheels every time they brush the edge of the steep cliff, sending gravel falling over the edge. Even so, somehow little minibuses zip along this road, overtaking us in the slightly wider sections. Night falls and the storm picks up. Calli can’t take her eyes off the road which is fast becoming mud. I have been asleep for hours when she wakes me with the coach trying to pass. By now the wheels are almost falling off the side of the cliff. The rain continues to pour down, but still the coach advances. Inch by inch it moves forward and finally passes us. We breathe a sigh of relief and the bus continues on through the winding mountains until at last we reach flatter ground. Though we arrive at 4am at a tiny terminal surrounded by pitch black darkness and jungle sounds, we are so thrilled to get off that bus.
Meaning: baby (Quecha word)
Just outside of Sucre, Bolivia’s ancient capital that stands proudly gleaming with beautiful white colonial architecture lies the small town of Tarabuco. Known for its Sunday market, keen shoppers take the hour long journey in a colectivo (minibus) to wander among the stalls selling everything from artisanal woven tapestries to toothpaste. We have lunch in the centre of the marketplace, eating some delicious oily pasta dish for about 30 cents each and then head back to Sucre. In the colectivo I get to sit up front with the smiley driver with gaps in his teeth that show when he laughs and a polite teenage boy. One of my favourite things about travelling is the random conversations you have with anyone and everyone. As the van winds along the road back to Sucre the teenage boy tells me about his studies in architecture, how he hopes to design big buildings one day. I tell him and the driver about Australia and they are full of questions, my favourite being “Is it possible to bring my donkey into Australia?” They ask me what I think of Sucre’s buildings, did I come to Bolivia from Australia by bus, where my family is, what language other than Spanish do they speak in my country, what’s it like to fly in an aeroplane. The driver roars with laughter whenever I make a joke and the two of them are so interested in everything I tell them about this far off land on the other side of the world. I ask them all about Bolivia- why are the houses unfinished? (To avoid paying tax on the house) What is the native language spoken here, do they speak it, where is the best place to visit in Bolivia, what food do they normally eat at home? The boy teaches me a few Quechua words, the most widely spoken Indigenous language in the region. Wawa is the word for ‘baby’, or wawita for ‘little baby’ is the cuter version. The Bolivian wawa is usually hoisted up onto its mother’s back In a colourful strong wool fabric tied around the shoulders like a little sack. Outside a cafe in town I watch a mother lift her baby up expertly from floor to back all by herself in one swift movement. The baby rests his little chubby cheeks on his mothers back, wide eyes taking in the world as she wanders about doing her daily business. In the colectivo we arrive back in the city and I farewell my new friends as we all wish each other well, sad that the little journey has come to an end.
Carlos, our Bolivian guide for the past two days through the incredible landscape of the Eduardo Avaroa national park wakes us in our beds at 4.30am. We have spent the night in a salt hotel, where everything from the beds to the tables and chairs are made of salt. Its still dark but we can hear the rain outside falling in heavy sheets off the sides of the roof. Carlos shakes his head when we ask if we are still going to see the sunrise. He has made an executive decision. The salt hotel stands on the edge of the largest salt flat in the world: the Salar de Uyuni and this morning we are supposed to be crossing from one side to the other. But the storm is worrying even him. We will wait until it gets light, he says. Two more hours of sleep and dawn has broken, so we pile into the trusty jeep and hope for the best. The rain is still bucketing down as we follow the other jeeps along a narrow path flanked on both sides by water where only a few days before it was dry. Suddenly the jeeps in front of us stop. The path has come to an end. In front stretches the flats like a newly formed ocean. Stoic Carlos who adores his car stuffs some thick plant he cut earlier into the front of the engine so that the salt water can’t enter. We all get out and look at each other under hooded raincoats and wonder how the hell we are going to cross this, already a foot deep in water. One by one each of the cars leave the path and form a convoy across the salar, driving into a great nothingness. Its impossible to see where the stormy sky ends and the watery flats begin. There is no horizon to remind us which way is up and which is down. And then, when we think we’ve had the worst luck with the weather and have settled for blasting one of Carlos’ favourite tunes, ‘I will always love you’ by Whitney Houston through the speakers, the sky opens. A patch of blue that looked like a mirage before grows and expands into a huge gap between the clouds. Rays of light shine through illuminating the salt flats and the water with blue and fluffy whites. The sky stretches out and leaks into all the corners of our vision, joining up to its reflection below until we don’t know whether we are standing in the sky or the ground. Whatever you’ve imagined heaven to look like, the Salar de Uyuni comes very close.
On a hot sticky day we bus along the coast from Valparaíso, Chile to the nearby town of Viña del Mar to get some sun sand and sea. At the beach its hard to even see a spare patch of sand between the crowds of umbrellas and people. After a dip in the sea we abandon the masses and walk up along the path. Suddenly, looking back towards Valpo a huge plume of smoke emerges and spirals upwards. Everyone on the beach below stops and points as the smoke rises and floats out over the sea, blocking the sun. Valpo is on fire! But the city is no stranger to enormous fires and it turns out this one is a relatively small forest fire atop one of the cerros (hills) even though at least one hundred homes end up being burnt. In 2014 a huge fire in Valpo killed 14 people and destroyed 2500 homes. The Valpo fire is just the beginning of a month long series of huge forest fires all throughout Southern Chile. One hundred fires raze landscapes and homes and at least 11 people have died. Days after the fire the smoke finally clears and Valparaíso natives see blue sky again.
Meaning: to party/ hang out/celebrate (slang)
It’s new years eve in Valparaíso- a place full of colourful street art, creativity and one of the biggest parties in South America. At midnight the beautiful city of topsy-turvy houses built on top of one another will be lit up by a huge display of fireworks exploding over the ocean. We climb one of the many cerros (hills) passing sweet old ladies selling alcoholic drinks illegally (one of them our landlady tía) and join the hordes of people awaiting the countdown to midnight. The fireworks finally erupt and everyone cheers and tries to avoid getting sprayed in the face with silly string and beer thrown in the air. After midnight the real party starts. Valpo natives really know how to carretear (party). In the square we drink tia’s homemade drinks and talk shit with our Chilean friends from our hostel and then dance between toilet breaks down dark alleys. The two portaloos are really not cutting it for the hundreds of people in the square. By dawn its time for us little Australians to head home, but for our Chilenos the party is just beginning. The next day is spent in a fog, learning the true meaning of caña (hungover) but the Chileans are still nowhere to be found. Only by evening time on the 2nd January do we see them again, having finally made it home from welcoming in the new year, true Valpo style.
Cruising down the tree lined avenues in Mendoza’s wine region in a Citröen it feels more like the south of France circa 1950 than Argentina 2016. The trees along the winding roads reach out towards each other making a green tunnel that we chug along through, turning up the driveway into a beautiful vineyard. We drink champagne and ‘forget’ to pay for it and then do a tour of the winery. The tour guide tells us about the difficulties of the always-changing weather in Mendoza. Big hailstorms with chunks of ice the size of eggs sweep in from the Andes with barely any warning, destroying the precious grapes. Some wineries use nets to protect the grapes (somehow) but not this place. Though it looks like a classic old hacienda turned vineyard, its owners are firmly rooted in the future. Instead of nets they opt for the more expensive and science fictiony method of hiring a special plane to release chemicals (cartridges of silver iodide) directly into the storm to suppress the formation of the hailstones. At first I thought that I misunderstood the guide but no, this really happens! Apparently it reduces damage by about thirty percent. Mendoza’s love and devotion to its delicious crop sure is sky high.
It’s Christmas day in Bariloche, the pretty little town beside a big blue lake in the northern part of Patagonia, Argentina. We sit with other foreigners at the dining table in the hostel located on the 25th floor of a residential building- the penthouse level. The hostel looks out onto the beautiful lake with windows all along one side. People from all over can be heard talking on a poor wifi signal wishing family members at home Merry Christmas in different languages. Others discuss how different the day would be for them at home- what they would eat, who they would see. I am missing the usual routine of the beach and then a huge lunch full of fresh salads and stupid jokes found in christmas crackers. At the table I open the two presents I have brought with me from home and am glad I resisted the temptation to open them earlier. All of a sudden the building starts to sway and shake. The floor makes an awful creaking noise and I have the sensation of being quite dizzy, like when your stomach drops in an elevator. Everyone goes silent, looking around at each other, panicked faces. I look at the Dutch girl sitting near me and her eyes are wide. Some people grip the table and laugh nervously. We’re all thinking the same thing- 25th floor of an old building isn’t the best place to be. Reading our minds, the Swedish woman who works at reception tells us not to worry. “This building is actually reinforced for earthquakes, so it’s the best place to be right now.” We all smile, relieved. Only afterwards when the furniture has stopped shaking and everyone is gushing excitedly about what has just happened, do I think that the building probably isn’t that safe, but I’m glad of her reassuring words for a few moments of fear.
Meaning: humus – the dark organic material in soils, essential to the fertility of the earth.
“What is humus”? I ask the happy young woman selling helado artesanal (homemade icecream) at the dairy farm in El Bolsón. One of the flavours on the board is humus.
“It’s the top layer of the soil, the most fertile layer,” she tells me. I quickly push pureed chickpeas and tahini out of my mind. Outside on the farm the view is lined with raspberry, blueberry and cranberry vines. El Bolsón is famous for its natural produce- berries in particular. Before arriving at the dairy farm Calli and I had wandered down a driveway lined with cherry trees. We picked some and tasted them. They were the juiciest cherries I had ever tasted, popping in our mouths. They hung from the trees like bright red clusters of treasure. We wandered up to a building along the driveway and found local fruit pickers filling buckets of raspberries. When I asked one of them if we could buy some cherries he smiled and said we could just eat what we could pick. Later on at the dairy farm we decided on the humus flavour. It was chocolate with little bits of sour berries and nuts mixed in, like a little patch of fertile ground.
Meaning: a small berry found on a spiky bush in Patagonia
This little berry is sour but tasty and lends its name to the town closest to the Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia, Argentina. One day we cruise along the light blue mineral water surrounded on all sides by towering green mountains and whipped by the tireless wind. Eventually we arrive at the glacier. The towering wall of ice looks like something out of Game of Thrones and as we watch, huge chunks of ice fall off into the water with a booming cracking sound. Ice chunks pepper the water so its impossible to land the boat. Later on we hike through forests recovering from ancient glaciers and we try some of the sweet berries. It’s said that if you eat the calafate berry you will one day return to El Calafate. Surrounded by this incredible landscape that marks the gateway to the end of the earth, I hope this is true.