Stories from South America

By Sally Lanora Svenlén

I’m not saying school is crap, not at all. But there are certain things you can’t learn in a classroom; which is why I decided to travel to South America for four months on my own during my gap year.

Arriving in Argentina, I realised that much of the vocabulary that I would actually need to integrate in every day life in a Spanish speaking country; such as reading recipes, asking for something at the pharmacy, making jokes and general small talk, I was actually not very good at. At the end of those four months I became more fluent in Spanish than I had become during six years of studying it.

From the most southern part of Colombia, we made our way up to the northern, Caribbean area, where we stayed a couple of days with a local family in Ciénaga, as well as visiting the hometown of Colombia’s Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Marquez. One of the things I enjoyed most on the trip was befriending locals in the area, and through them being guided to different places. I think it gives you a more honest perspective on everything.

For instance, we started talking to one of the guys selling his artwork in front of the García Marquez museum, Rodolfo, and told him we wanted to visit one of the banana plantations in the area. We had tried in Ciénaga, but hadn’t been let in, because we needed confirmation from the landowner, who lived in another city. Rodolfo, however, knew about a cacao farm just 30 minutes away, so off we went on the back of his friend’s moped and got a tour of his farm, which had everything from cotton, to pineapple, to cacao. One of the boys on the farm wanted me to take a picture of him, one of my favourites from the trip.

Machu Picchu is one of South America’s most beloved jewels, in this picture rising up from the morning dew. Whilst it is quite an amazing place, coming there from a four day isolated walk in the Andes on the Inca Trail (the stone trail the Incas built through the mountains long ago), and being met by tonnes of tourists who have just arrived with a couple of hours bus ride, one does get a bit irritated.

I sometimes ask myself why we voluntarily choose to spend so much of our time indoors in front of a computer when there are so many naturally astonishing places on earth; and why some people don’t really care that they some day might be depleted.

What amazed me most about Argentina was how graffiti has evolved here as a respected art form, not seen as a crime. The country’s graffiti culture came about in the 80s and 90s, with the return of democracy and with people travelling abroad and seeing the graffiti culture in Europe and the US. Graffiti has become a way of expression not just for artists but also for normal people and politicians. A public building is really open for anyone to paint on, and people don’t want to infringe on that right since the memories from the oppressive dictatorship are still quite recent. After 2001, graffiti really started flourishing, as a reaction to the economic crisis in Argentina that year. It has become more and more widespread, but it has never been gang-related, as it is in many other countries. Buenos Aires is full of street art, but in Córdoba, where I spent a month at the National University, the institutional buildings were full of art made by students. It would be interesting to see that in Durham!

Travelling through Peru, where I met up with a friend, we made it all the way up to Iquitos, where we crossed the border to Colombia by boat on the Amazon river and stayed at an eco-lodge operated by a tribal community called the Ticunas. While there are many tribes still living quite isolated deeper in the jungle, most live in slightly larger communities, with houses and schools, and small local shops. I was amazed by how incredibly knowledgeable they are about the nature surrounding them, how they live working with it, rather than against it, and their will to preserve that.

I met so many interesting people on my trip, both locals and other travellers from all over the world. Travelling alone made a big difference. If you don’t socialise with people, it will get quite lonely. Travelling alone also makes you more approachable for other people, and opens up many more opportunities.

Growing up in one and the same country, going to the same schools, and being surrounded by friends who are normally very similar to yourself… when you travel for a long period of time with new people it forces you out of that bubble. Just interacting with people from entirely different backgrounds can teach you things you could never learn in a course book.

Getting away from the typical school-university-job-family route also makes you think a bit about what you really want out of life. We all want happiness, but that route may not always be for everyone, and there are so many other ways happiness can be found. Working on a coffee farm, which involves picking beans for hours every day, grinding and washing them, and doing all the other kinds of work that need to be done on a farm (like shovelling up the cow dung to use as fertiliser) may not seem like the most appealing job.

But frankly, the time I spent on an organic coffee farm in Colombia was one of the happiest times I’ve had. Me and a couple of other volunteers lived with Ingrid and Luca, the owners of the farm, and their cats and dogs, cooked food every day together, listened to music and enjoyed a beer under the wonderful night sky almost every evening around a fire. Those are times when you start questioning if there is anything else you need in life.

Travelling by bus further north, I eventually made it to northern Chile in the Atacama desert; one of the best places on earth to look at the stars. I realized that it not only harboured one of the most amazing night skies, but also the most compelling landscapes.

I think all schools should send their students into the world for a year of travel before they head off to university.

Photographs: Sally Lanora Svenlén 

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