We’re not in Kansas anymore Toto: My big South American adventure – December 1990 & January 1991
I’ll never forget her. She was called Dorothy, just like the girl in the Wizard of Oz. However, our Dorothy wasn’t a girl any more, and I met her, not in Oz, but deep in the Amazon jungle.
At the time we were travelling by boat down the mighty Amazon River. It was the start of the wet season, stinking hot and humid. On this particular day our guide had offered us the opportunity to swim. Although the danger of taking a dip with piranha was very real, it wasn’t the kind of adventure someone like me could turn down.
We docked alongside a pontoon – stunning in such a remote setting. Before I could have second thoughts, I quickly stripped down to my swimmers and dropped from a ladder into the murky depths. The water was lovely – cool and refreshing – and I found myself treading water alongside the platform, concentrating very hard on my toes for the slightest hint of a nibble. I held out as long as I could, then threw myself back on the deck with an explosion of breath that I hadn’t realised I’d been holding. I lay there for a while trying to still my hammering heart, while discreetly checking that all my extremities were still attached. Then I heard a big splash.
That was when I saw her – Dorothy – dog paddling off down the river. She was wearing a vivid red sundress and a wide-brimmed bright yellow plastic rain hat pulled down firmly over her ears. Open-mouthed we watched this crazy Englishwoman grow smaller and smaller as she disappeared into the distance.
There is a dark part of me that wishes I could say that was the last time we saw her, just for the sake of the story, you know. But it wasn’t. The boat eventually caught up with her, we pulled her back on board, and continued on our way.
The next day, using one of these fearsome piranhas for bait, I caught a catfish with a fishing pole made from a stick and twine, a creation worthy of Huck Finn. It was a proud moment, then I threw the little fish back in to fight another day.
As we puttered downstream, we visited remote villages and glared at floating sawmills (a curse on every one of them) gliding by on their way to as yet untouched rainforest. I also saw sloths, toucans, macaws, a pygmy marmoset entwined in a little girl’s braid, a huge tarantula, and had a much longed-for bottle of Coke stolen by a very grumpy monkey.
The boat ride down the Amazon was only one part of a two-month unescorted tour through a semi-lawless South America plagued by cholera and coups. Fourteen Aussies arrived on the continent via Tahiti and the mysterious Easter Island and, captivated by the Spanish language, we soon started calling ourselves ‘El Grupo’.
We started out in Chile, moving on to Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia and home through the Galapagos Islands. I was just 24-years-old when we set out, and a much-changed 25-year-old by the time I returned. Looking back it was, without a doubt, one of the most fascinating, exciting and profound journeys of my well-travelled life.
I spent Christmas Day at the incredible Hacienda Los Lingues in Chile, and almost made it down to Patagonia, but flood waters turned us back.
I learned to tango in the La Bocca district of Buenos Aires, where we also spent New Year’s Eve and visited Eva Peron’s grave. Out on the Argentine pampas we danced with handsome gauchos (cowboys), ate their barbecue and rode their beautiful horses.
We roamed through the mysterious lost Inca city of Machu Picchu in Peru, and in Cusco, on my 25th birthday, I got giddy from a heady cocktail of pina coladas, high altitude and pan pipes, crawling home as gunfire broke out in the street. We drank chilled coconut water on Copacabana Beach in Rio and pushed through massive spider webs in the dark, in a misguided attempt to watch the sun rise over Iguassu Falls.
In Ecuador we shopped for textiles at the famous Otavalo markets and stood astride the equator, one foot in the northern hemisphere and the other in the southern hemisphere. We spent time in a floating reed village on Lake Titicaca, nervously peered at dried lama foetuses and charms in the witches market of La Paz, and in Bogotá, Colombia, marvelled at the priceless golden relics, stolen by the Spanish, and housed in the gold museum there.
We took a train across the Bolivian altiplano. At 3,700 metres (or 12,300 feet) it felt like moving slowly across the roof of the world. It is truly one of the planet’s great train journeys. We played cards and ate bananas pushed through the window by vendors waiting on the platforms of the stations we passed through. Despite hiring a bodyguard for the luggage, we still had our suitcases cut open and plundered by modern day train robbers. Fortunately, I carried nothing of any value whatsoever.
We travelled also to the Nazca Desert where we flew over the Nazca Lines staring in wonder at the giant figures and geometrical shapes scratched in the dry earth by the ‘Chariots of the Gods’, and met Maria Reiche, the mathematician who made mapping them her life’s work.
The South American people were beautiful, the sightseeing breathtaking, the food delicious, and everywhere we went there was music and dancing. At the same time there was just enough danger to bring a certain richness to the experience. I had never felt more alive.
When I talk about my time in South America, I say it changed everything. Seeing such poverty for the first time in my young life had a lasting effect on me. Life was cheap there. I came home and walked away from a prospective career in journalism and politics and took up a position working with disadvantaged schools and students at risk. Several years later I would take a job at the local community health and mental health centre which provided free medical care.
After the things I had seen in South America I knew I could no longer live the life of privilege I had mapped out for myself. I took to heart the idea that to those whom much is given, much is expected. And I had been given so much.
As I travelled from country to country through South America I saw people killed when the cardboard boxes they were living in were washed down a hill in a mudslide. I watched as the faithful stepped over the homeless in order to enter churches filled with solid gold treasures. I saw children begging on the streets, and starving animals too weak to raise their heads. I saw a private security guard raise his pistol and aim it a little indigenous girl who had climbed up on a fence to look at the animals in a private zoo. We were briefly held hostage by the starving servants of a Colombian drug lord languishing in a Miami prison. I walked past people laying on stretchers dying from cholera, their skin grey and waxy, like it was melting from their bones.
How, after all that, could I go back to my own life as if nothing had changed?
I couldn’t – so I moved forward with a new sense of fairness, kindness, and a longing for social justice that I have carried with me all my life.
My travels through South America took place 26 years ago, but they are still a part of me. Those days were filled up with so many adventures, so much joy, friendship and laughter. I learned I was braver, more curious, more open, more resourceful, more compassionate than I ever could have imagined. What more do you need to live a good life.
(Many of the photographs in this blog were taken by Cleve Killiby)