Me, A Backpack & South America

Last year, in 2017, I made the decision to see some more of the world. I had, for as long as I could remember, wished to travel to South America. I not only wanted to travel but I also wanted to do it myself. However, it seemed that travelling around South America, alone, as a girl, was not the norm and was deemed a pretty bad idea. Surprisingly, this didn’t really put me off. If anything, I wanted to prove to myself that I was still the independent, brave and adventurous girl, I used to be when I was six, albeit with a bit more self-discipline and common sense. I booked all my flights with STA and after reassuring everyone I would be absolutely fine, it was time to jet set.

The trip was going to last roughly 90 days, with countries including Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Panama, Costa Rica and finally Mexico. Being the organisation boff that I am, I made sure I set off prepared. Prepared and organised. So, how did I do that, with an excel spreadsheet of course. I’m sure some of you are going to think ‘fun sucker’, or ‘what about flying by the seat of your pants’, or ‘how do you know what you should do until you get there’, well, I wanted to see as much as possible in what felt like a short space of time. Also, and very importantly, I was travelling alone, so I needed people to know where I would be and when. Just in case. My spreadsheet was filled with almost every detail of my trip, from where I would stay, which bus I would catch, what activities I would do… I mean the list goes on, it was pretty extensive. However, with all the plans, organisation and detail in the world, I still had no idea what to expect. What the people would be like, who I would meet, what I would learn or how I would feel during the trip. What I did know for definite, was that this trip was going to be a whole new experience.
During my journey I had so many new experiences, many of which were positive, however, with those amazing experiences came some challenging ones. What I probably found the most difficult to witness in South America, was the contrast between the way different people lived. Some situations I experienced, although difficult, made a big impact. Making me have a more realistic perspective on how other people around the world are living. It has taken me some time to write this post and it isn’t massively long, however, I really wished to share it with you. The main reason being, I wished to convey some of what I saw and experienced, in the hope you may wish to help or go and make your own unqiue and meaningful experiences.
My first stop in South America was Rio De Janeiro. When I first arrived my bus drove past the outskirts of a favela (Brazilian Portuguese for slum) and I have to say I was taken aback and a little shocked. Something I learnt was that each favela is very different. They could almost be seen as different worlds, although still in South America; some are seen to be quieter and safe, others are still recognised as being dangerous, some have good services, such as running water and electricity, whereas others don’t have a decent sanitary system. Every favela also has its own culture, vibe and community, and have some different types of people living there. So, the first experience of my trip was a pretty big reality shock on how other people were living. I spent the rest of the day exploring the more touristy areas of Rio, including Sugar Loaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer. Which felt worlds apart from the favela I had seen earlier that morning. It showed me a world of money, tourism and what appeared to be a better quality of living. In one day I got a glimpse of the different ways people live in South America, and I have to admit, the contrast took me back a little. I continued to witness both ends of the spectrum, in terms of how people lived. There would be beautiful, polished mansions on one side of the street, and people living with no shelter on the other. I know this isn’t just specific to South America, however, it just felt so much more extreme. I spent some of the trip travelling through genuinely poor areas; where communities were built on very little and families fed themselves on what they could farm. I saw favelas, that was built up of shelters that had no protection from the weather, no windows, no furniture and rubbish in giant heaps in the roads. It was a little upsetting to see at times.
Brazil was the first country on my trip and I already felt as if I had discovered a whole new world. I continued my journey with an open mind. My wait at the Argentina border, in a very run down bus depot, made me witness children begging and being brutally moved on by security. I was later told by a hostel work, not to give them any money, because their parents force them out to work and stop them attending school. Apparently, the government were trying to stop this, and those seen to be giving the children money were not helping the cause.
On arrival to Buenos Aires, my coach pulled off down a small road, which was the bus depots access point. Looking out the window I saw the start of what I presumed to be a slum. The majority of the buildings had tin roofs, no windows and a number of bricks missing and there were piles and piles of rubbish built up everywhere. Although I was initially shocked by the first favela I saw in Brazil, however, this time I was genuinely upset by what I saw. Imagining having to live in those conditions made me feel slightly unwell, and a little ashamed that I didn’t realise how bad a slum could really be. Whilst in Argentina, I again saw the extreme differences in people’s lives. From those living in the slums to those who live in Recoleta and shop in Avenida Alvear. It’s hard to stomach as you enter a City that is renowned for its expensive tastes; polo, wines, foods and shopping.

 
When I arrived I wasn’t expecting too many privileges when it came to cleanliness, mainly because I was heading to a few rural parts, including the Amazon. However, I was given a rude awakening when I realised how poor the sanitation was in many countries. It’s shocking to think that nearly 31% of the world’s freshwater resources are found in Latin America, yet across the continent, there is such inequality in water supply and sanitation. Almost 100 million Latin Americans across the continent don’t have access to sanitation, this being felt mostly within the rural areas, where this access is so underdeveloped. Peru and Bolivia are currently experiencing economic growth, however, there are still huge gaps in the quality of life that people in various regions are experiencing. It’s been reported that approximately 6000 locations in Peru and Bolivia lack water and proper sanitation. That’s shocking! It has been said that the reason for this is due to these locations being so difficult to access through conventional mechanisms. This, in turn, causes profitability issues for those who provide the services and equipment to manage these problems. In Peru, almost 62% of people in rural areas and 18% in more urban areas lack access to any improved sanitation. Bolivia is currently, still off track in the sanitation Millennium Development Goals and open defecation is still a common practice in rural areas. 3 countries in South America have less than 50% of rural sanitation coverage: Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru. Brazil has a population of 207 million people, and while access to safe, clean water and sanitation, since 2010, has increased, the inequalities across the country’s communities and households are still very deep. It was recently reported, that 5 million people across Brazil do not have access to safe water, with 25 million being without proper sanitation. Even more shocking, is the fact that for those who do have access to safe water, the disruption in services and the deficiencies in the water systems are still very challenging. Brazil has been identified as being a top priority in terms of safe water and sanitation. There are a number of charities that I believe are now doing their utmost to raise support and awareness around this, including water.org, who have so far done an incredible job at raising funds and reaching people who need their support. Other charities such as practicalaction.org are also fighting to help fix this crisis. They have already done some amazing work! They continue to develop and provide technologies and methodologies, regarding safe water and sanitation, in order to help improve access to those who live in more rural communities.
Throughout Latin America, I saw so many examples of people living in, what I would consider, terrible living conditions. Whether that was little access to sanitation or living with little to no shelter. I know that everyone has different ideas of what they deem to be acceptable. I mean, heck, the way some of my friends lived at University was testimony enough to that notion. Leftovers that had been left so long they had grown legs or a new coat of fur. Rats becoming new housemates because of how tempting all the empty pizza boxes were. But anyway, I digress, but you see my point. However, I personally cannot see how some of what I saw was deemed as being acceptable. Everyone deserves the right to clean water, somewhere safe and protected to live, but yet it felt as though if you were a certain person or lived in a certain area that right was taken away from you. And for what reason? Because it wouldn’t be profitable, or because it was too difficult or because other areas were seen as more important?
 
I saw first hand how little, the pockets of small villages, usually just on the outskirts of the major cities, would have. In the middle of large dusty roads would be small communities, made up of very flimsy looking shelters. My bus journey from Argentina to Chile, was possibly the most eye-opening, in terms of the poverty that was happening. The 23-hour long coach journey left me almost in tears. Every time my bus would pull over for a break, a number of people, including very small children, would climb on asking for food, crying and holding out their hands.
The stark contrast was sometimes, a little overwhelming, but it did give me a reality check on what I had back at home and how comfortable my life now was. With that realisation, I began to see things a little differently and decided to ask my family for something other than Christmas or birthday presents for myself. For example, last Christmas I asked my mum for a charitable donation. This donation gave one family a goat and a community the tools to build a toilet. My sense of reality and my perception of the world was never naïve. I have always been aware of other countries, their differences and the struggles they face. I’ve travelled to different parts of the world and I have met a variety of diverse and different people, from all walks of life. I have worked in a prison, I have volunteered with mental health and homeless charities, and I have seen the traumatic effects that a crisis can have on a community and families. I am also, by no stretch of the imagination, saying that South America is the only place that has struggles and poverty. Britain included. However, pushing myself to visit areas that I wasn’t always comfortable, I wasn’t always 100% sure about, really made me have a more realistic perspective. I almost felt as though I once had rose-tinted goggles on.
If you’re thinking about taking a similar trip, or even thinking you’ve lost a little bit of yourself, I cannot stress enough how much this experience helped me and how much I’m sure it could help you. Even if it’s a weekend volunteering with a charity down the road from you or taking a week off work and helping a community in need. Or do a me… go to the extreme and travel across the world. Whatever you decide, or whatever you take away from this post, I hope that I’ve given just a smidge of perspective from another side of the coin.
There are quite a few charities that now help different communities by providing them with tools to provide for themselves. I’ve listed a few that I know of and have supported below.
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