9 Months and 3 Countries – Golden Highlights of My South American Adventure

In the nine months that I was backpacking through South America (SA), I visited three countries: Chile, Peru, and Bolivia.

White roses, pink bougainvilleas, golden marigolds, and red hibiscuses bloom throughout the day in my parent’s garden, but then comes night, and the queen of the night takes over. These memories from SA waft through my being as the scent of the queen of the night drifts through my parent’s garden and settles in our wistful dreams.

Hope you enjoy these golden memories.

backpacking through south america

 

Climbing the steps to Machu Pichu and becoming a part of the wonder of nature and the intelligence of men — Machu Pichu is one of the seven wonders of the world. And why not? The palace of Incas is built upon imposing Andean peaks and is roofed by azure-blue sky and surrounded by lush, terraced mountains, and clouds float so nearby that you can make them your pillow as you go to sleep watching the star-studded sky.

But the best part of my day trip to Machu Pichu was that I imagined myself as an Inca who lived there, watched the sundials to assess the time, traced the clouds and the wind to understand the season and weather, and looked upon the world from such a height that the ones who abode in heaven, if it exists, would be jealous of that Inca that I was in those dreams.

Do visit Machu Pichu, take your own time, stay there for a while, walk away from the crowd, wander in its temples and terraces, enjoy the sunrise from its peaks, and imagine how living there would have been centuries ago. 

 

backpacking through south america

 

Riding the teleféricos or the air-trolleys over the beautiful city of La Paz — If there were one idea that I could give to Narendra Modi or the next prime minister, it would be to have air trolleys all over the big Indian metropolitans and ease the city dwellers life.

La Paz is extensively connected by these air trolleys that run on multiple lines. The schedule is like that of metros, one goes, and another comes. My cheeky Canadian friend Alison and I rode the teleféricos throughout our stay in La Paz, and yes, most of the times we rode just for fun. For Bolivians, the trolleys were their everyday commute; so we had to wait in long queues, especially as we had decided to travel at peak times. Don’t ask me why.

As you sit in these trolleys and watch over the rainbow-like mountains inhabited in part and otherwise wild and over the crowded city and its roads and the daily traffic, you feel that you are floating in the air, while regular life goes on below you. It might sound adventurous to us, but the people of La Paz travel via these teleféricos for mundane tasks such as to go to work or on a shopping spree.

As Alison and I giggled at the beauty and intelligence of these trolleys, while they descended and ascended from one mountain to another and released butterflies in our stomach, Bolivians breathed in the fresh air after their long work day and looked at us with happiness and pride. What a brilliant invention!

 

backpacking through south america

 

Meeting an eighty-year-old Dutchman whose hair was like snow and whose skin was like the moon — I never had the fortune of living with a grandparent and being fed aloo parathas or kheer by them. But then I have met several people on distant roads who were old enough to be called my granny and grandpa.

One such gentle soul was a Dutchman who stayed in Samaipata with his twin sons. The sons had married Bolivian women, and both ran hostels in the village.

We found the old man sitting at the plaza and having coffee and smoking Marlboros, while the sun shone on his white hair and the wrinkles on his pink hands flaunted his old age, but his carefree smile defied his struggle with it. As I caressed his head and played with his soft hair, and he smiled gently, I knew how it felt to have a grandfather.

I never care about the landscapes, about the temples, or about the forts, but I care about the people sitting outside the fort, having visited it, and resting their feet for a minute before they continue on their journey. I catch them in that minute, smile at them, hold their hand, and promise to see them in another life.

Because in this one, I have miles to go before I sleep and many more people to meet.

 

backpacking through south america

 

backpacking through south america

 

Living with a Chilean family for six months on the legendary island of Chiloé— I stayed with a Chilean lady Cecilia who gave boarding to the locals and the international volunteers of the English Open Doors program (more on the program in the next posts).

The pristine island, its carefree lifestyle, its warm and kind-hearted people, cars that stopped for every pedestrian, its lush greenery, and deep-blue waters could have been the highlight of my stay, but Cecilia stole the limelight.  Her free and go-getter spirit and her caring attitude won me over. She had had a complicated life and had lost a lot in the Chilean dictatorship, but rather than being pensive about those days, she was like a cheerful little girl who opened her heart and home for everyone.

She taught me that, no matter what, you got to fight and laugh and drink and eat and live as if there is no tomorrow. 

If you are looking for some motiavtion, read her full story here

 

backpacking through south america

 

backpacking through south america

 

backpacking through south america

 

backpacking through south america

 

backpacking through south america

 

Getting mugged when I was on my way to an interview in Santiago — When a boy snatched my phone out of my hands and ran out of the bus, I jumped down the bus and ran behind the thieves. After running for a while, I lost the boys, while I talked to a man running behind me who wanted to help.

I was shocked that in a big city like Santiago someone could rob you in daylight on a crowded bus and disappear. I also lost the interview in this mishap. But the highlight of the tragedy was that I was dropped home by two policemen in their jeep. They thought that their jeep wasn’t up to my standards, and while one of them put out his hand for me to hold and climbed down the vehicle, I had already jumped down. Talk about vanity.

You can read the full story here: My Worst Travel Experience – When Two Teenage Boys Snatched my Phone and Ran Away in the Delinquent Santiago

 

backpacking through south america

 

Climbing the active volcano Villarrica near Pucon, Chile — I wouldn’t have done this if my Canadian friend Alison did not coax me. So all the credit goes to her.

The hike was strenuous and long and steep and through the treacherous icy terrain. But more than the steepness and the difficulty of the walk and the weight of the bag that we carried which had the right tools and food and heavy shoes, it was the lack of confidence that slowed me down.

The hike to the volcán is one of the toughest climbs that I have ever done, but in hindsight, I don’t think it was that difficult that I made it look like.

As I panicked and complained about how I could not climb the volcano, Alison never left my side and kept shouting “you can do this Pri.” Though we climbed for hours, we never seemed to reach the top. After a few hours, the guide carried my bag, and I walked with a walking stick. But I made it to the summit.

At the top, we stopped just for a few minutes because the sulfate-infested air was poisonous and smelled horrible. When I gazed at the pristine surroundings and the world from the mouth of that active volcano, I was glad that I hadn’t given up.

Now I always remember that attitude matters, more than anything else. And I feel fortunate that I have friends who want to stay with me, no matter how idiotic I act or what tantrums I throw. Hail Alison.  

 

backpacking through south america

 

backpacking through south america

 

Also Read: How I was Mesmerized by Atacama, the Driest Desert of the World – And You Would Be Too

Cooking Indian food for my Chilean friends and family — I cooked for my Chilean host mother Cecilia, for Airbnb host families, for my seventy-year-old friend in Santiago, and for my international friends. Cooking is my passion, but when you do it for people who have never tasted any of the flavors you grew up delving into, it’s an experience.

The expressions on the faces of people, some of whom were eating Indian food for the first time, were blissful. Cecilia ate chickpea curry (chole) and thanked heaven and all her gods. My Airbnb hosts found the chicken curry so delicious that the host lady now cooks a similar preparation of chicken and calls it Pollo a la Priyanka (Priyanka’s chicken.) In hostels, French backpackers told me that they wanted to hire me as their chef. 

But more than awakening the taste buds, the food connected us like families as we chatted and laughed around those tables laid with chicken and fish curry, rice, Chilean wine, and MDH’s red chilly powder.

 

backpacking through south america

 

backpacking through south america

 

backpacking through south america

 

backpacking through south america

 

backpacking through south america

 

backpacking through south america

 

Living on the remote islands of Lago Titicaca at an altitude of 4000 meters with aboriginals and experiencing simplicity — I stayed on the Amantaní and Taquile islands on Lago Titicaca. Our guide friend and a local Peruvian lady was the one we asked for recommendations when we wanted to experience the remote parts of the lake. She sent us off to her home in Amantaní with her cousin sister and cousin brother. When the brother rowed to us, as we waited on the shore with his sister, we were surprised by the tininess of the boat and the faith of the people that the boat could bear the wrath of the rowdy lake and the windy weather with four of us inside.

When we were halfway through our three-hour-long boat ride from Puno to Amantaní, the rain started beating down on us. The wind grew monstrous, and the petite boat shook. We spread a big blue plastic sheet on ourselves to protect us from the rain and the cold wind that seemed to cut through our skin. But who can have their say when nature shows its powers. The sheet blew, and the wind and the rain found their way in, and we were soaked to our underpants.

It was the coldest I had felt in a long time. And on top of this, I had to pee.

I had to pee. I had to pee. I had to pee.

When we finally reached the island, we ran to the house wading the swamps, crossing the potato fields, watching the cattle that grazed freely, and I rushed inside the house to pee. But only after I had discovered a pretty little girl, the youngest sister of the two siblings, who watched us with her betel-nut eyes and smiled. Who knew that she was the one I would miss the most from my trips.

We spent the next few days exploring the island and living an island life. By the way, that is the best kind of life.

 

backpacking through south america

 

backpacking through south america

 

backpacking through south america

 

backpacking through south america

Also Read: Peru – In the Golden Foliage of Poetry and Pictures.

Getting stuck at the Bolivia-Chile border — I was to be submitted into the border refugee center at Chilean-Bolivian border had it not been for the kind guy who drove me back to Uyuni, Bolivia, and I avoided a blunder of a lifetime or would you call it missing an opportunity? I guess that names only matter so much.

I left Bolivia, my passport was stamped with an exit stamp, and I was driven into Chile to the closest immigration center. When the immigration officer turned the pages of my passport to find a valid Chilean visa, he saw only the ones which were expired or used over their limits. Ouch. Even after several phone calls to the immigration office in Santiago, the officers couldn’t allow me in. There is a story to what I did when I wasn’t allowed in Chile, how I traced my way back to the Bolivian capital, and how I fought for a Chilean visa, but I didn’t stay in the border refugee center.

If you want to know why I didn’t have a valid visa, then let me just say that I miss certain information sometimes. Like in Thailand when I forgot that my visa was only valid for fifteen days and stayed over for five days and waited at the immigration and paid for every extra day.

And as for the rest of the refugee story, stay tuned.

 

backpacking through south america
I waited outside the Bolivian immigration center for a car to pass by. And in the distance, the snow-capped mountains of Chile teased me.

 

backpacking through south america
The green board held the sign, “Republica de Chile.” Those two tiny figures are French backpackers who were allowed to cross with just a stamp on their passport. But instead of brooding, I enjoyed the gorgeous landscape and clicked pictures. I was proud of myself that day.

Also Read: How to Score a Peru Visa on an Indian Passport – From India and South America

 

Preparing Chilean students for their first-ever English debate competition — I taught English on the island of Chiloé for five months. One of the highlights of this brief career and my journey as a teacher was that I prepared five students to participate in an English debate competition.

That was the first ever English debate that the school was participating in. Students were nervous and scared as they didn’t speak much English and had never debated. Imagine, you don’t play football, and suddenly you have to compete in front of an audience with other teams, some of whom were well-competent.

I helped them prepare their debates, practiced with them every week, corrected them, make them learn their speech and repeat it, and understand its meaning. But that was not all.

I had to stand by their side when they forgot the entire speech and pronounced words incorrectly. I had to be the one who smiled even when they couldn’t speak more than a few words of English correctly.

I participated in English and Hindi debates in my school days. But my legs used to shake while speaking even though I was well-versed in English. Then why wouldn’t they be nervous?

This experience made me feel like an older person, the one who understood fear and knew how to deal with it. I told the students to breathe, to do their best, and that they were taking their first steps.

I am not sure about them, but I learned a lot while teaching them.

 

backpacking through south america

 

backpacking through south america

 

Making friends with a seventy-year-old Chilean lady who opened her home and heart for me —  The first time I met Marina, the elder sister of a good friend, I was awed by her zeal for life. She was never married. Lived in her house in Santiago with her chickens, dogs, spiders, plants, wine, and memories.

If out of all the people I met in SA I had to call someone crazy, she would be it. But if I had to say who had the most generous heart and the liveliest spirit, she would be it.

She is seventy years old, but the declining strength in her bones hasn’t slowed her down. She showed me how to laugh and be ridiculous. How to drink wine and cycle on empty streets at night. She showed me how to be complete in myself. How to open hearts and homes for people you love, irrespective of where they came from or for how long they were with you. She showed me that age could never be a factor in choosing friends or having fun. 

She taught me how to be happy even when you have no one.

She deserves a great story, and I would pen down one soon.

 

backpacking through south america

 

backpacking through south america

 

backpacking through south america

 

backpacking through south america

 

Wandering into the dense Amazons and fulfilling my childhood dream — My dream of finding myself in the Amazons one day or instead losing myself in their dense foliage finally came true when I went to Cusco, and everyone told me that Cusco was the gateway to the Manu national park, one of the dense jungles of the Amazons.

I booked a trip with a tour company for four days and three nights. The National Geographic channel had sold the park to me completely, and I could not be more excited.

I went to the park with the guide, a cook, a German couple, and an Iranian guy. We stayed deep inside the jungle, night trekked to stumble into sinewy snakes and colorful poisonous frogs, climbed the peaks of the Amazon, watched as the curtain of rain spread itself on the top of the deep Amazon river, visited an animal rescue center and played with monkeys, admired macaws, and hugged sloths, visited papaya plantations, broke bunches of bananas and threw them into our boat, and looked at the owls and eagles and parrots and macaws from the highly technical binoculars of the guide.

We also fished with one of the guides, and the German girl didn’t like that the fish was suffering, so she broke her head with a stone, and I have a video to prove that. But more on that another day.

My dream came true. I went to Amazon. 

I wrote about it all on my friend’s blog. Read it here.

 

backpacking through south america

 

backpacking through south america

 

Living in a treehouse in the quaint village of Samaipata and slowing down life — Not the fake treehouses. But an actual treehouse that was hooked up on a tree, whose bathroom was at the bottom of the tree, and we climbed up a ladder to reach our abode every time. Every pee call during the cold nights meant opening the door of the treehouse, hooking it open with a log, climbing down the tree in the dark, and then climbing it up again, removing the log and closing the door. But I didn’t complain even one night. I could drink less water but not leave that tree house.

The treehouse had a beautiful mosquito net spread over the mattress that served as our bed; its windows opened in the wild, and the sun climbed the sky behind the mountains far away just to wake us up in our cozy corner atop a tree.  Some days we only got down to go to the bathroom, eat cheese empanadas, and play with Sheila, the cat. While the rest of the time, we watched the world go by from our dreamy window.

Yes, I have lived in a treehouse, and to know how it feels, you have to do it, too.

 

backpacking through south america

 

backpacking through south america

 

backpacking through south america

Also Read: San Pedro de Atacama – A Bustling–yet–Quaint Gateway to the Driest Desert

Dancing to Bollywood tunes with the locals — I might suck at dancing, but in foreign lands, I am no less than Madhuri Dixit as I move my body, use my curves, and express as if the world would end after that night. You should see me.

And why wouldn’t I? There are not many Indians in South America, and many of my friends and families I stayed with were meeting an Indian for the first time. So I had to live up to the Indian dance standards. Huddled around the fire with wine and beer in their hands and excitement in their eyes, everyone would mention Bollywood dancing, and then they would ask me to dance.

I didn’t refuse and laughed and danced to Madhuri’s, Bipasha’s, and Madhubala’s tunes. I even dragged strangers onto the dance floors of discotheques and bars and pubs as they were on the verge of getting drunk, and pushed them over their limits.

 

backpacking through south america

 

And you, do you recall the scent of the jasmine growing in the garden on one of your stays? Or was there someone who held your hand and helped you cross the street?

Tell me.

5 Comments

  1. Pingback: My Dream Came True, I Went to the Amazon! : A Memoir from Amazon Rain Forest Travel - Orange Wayfarer

  2. Madhu September 15, 2018 at 7:43 pm

    Wow looks like you had an amazing time ..loved the pics.. u inspire me to plan a trip to South America

    Reply
    1. Priyanka Gupta September 15, 2018 at 7:44 pm

      Yes, Madhu. I had an amazing time. Please go. I am glad that you liked the post 🙂

      Reply
  3. Jake Orpheus August 11, 2018 at 6:18 pm

    Enjoyed thoroughly reading it 🙂
    Personal stories are the best!!

    Reply
    1. Priyanka Gupta August 12, 2018 at 2:16 pm

      Thank you, Jake. I am glad you enjoyed. What is there without personal stories anyway? 🙂

      Reply

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